Can “Devolution” Save American Politics?

Conservatives have long argued that the federal government should do less, and instead “devolve” (i.e., hand back) power and money to states. Liberals tend to dismiss this idea.  They view it as rote, right-wing ideology, rather than a serious plan for how government should operate.

But Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, implores people to keep an open mind. Especially liberals.  He argues that giving more power to states might be the best way to actually make some progress in America again.

“Washington is paralyzed in gridlock.  We’re still stuck on things like healthcare, welfare, transportation, and education.  If voters in Vermont want to do single-payer insurance or raise education standards higher than everywhere else, why should they worry that Ted Cruz will stand in the way?”

Listen to the full conversation here:

 This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Matt Robison: What is devolution?

Brian Riedl: The idea is that if Washington can’t solve problems, have state and local governments do it.  They can get more local consensus.  Did Vermont voters elect Bernie Sanders to the Senate so that he could impose his vision on Texas? Did Texas voters send Ted Cruz to the Senate so that he could bring conservative policies to Vermont?  No.  So let states decide more on their own, as long as they adhere to minimum standards set by the federal government.

Matt Robison:  Surely we couldn’t do this in all policy areas though, right? Where does the federal government need to be setting the ground rules or taking a strong hand?

Brian Riedl:  Absolutely. The federal government needs to lead in areas like defense, international relations, health and safety, the federal reserve, broad economic stabilization, disaster relief, and NASA.  We need federal government action on issues of broad national public good like that. And we need the federal government to always enforce constitutional and civil rights. In the past, more leeway for states has been associated with letting states block civil rights.  We can never allow that.

Matt Robison: So you’re saying that – especially with the filibuster – a handful of US Senators exercise an enormous amount of power over the rest of the country.  We’re not going to change that anytime soon. So if we make sure to enforce civil rights and minimum standards, we can actually get more done and have more progressive policy if we route more decisions through the states?

Brian Riedl: Right! 80% of all counties right now are “landslide” counties.  That means in presidential elections they deliver at least a 20 point win for Republicans or at least a 20 point win for Democrats. The parties in Washington are further apart, but States and localities are becoming more politically homogeneous.  So why try to force the same policy for every state? Wouldn’t we get farther by having more variety, instead of having the parties fight to the death in Washington over how to impose their vision on each other?

Again, we don’t want a race to the bottom. This can’t be a free-for-all.  For example, Mississippi was caught rejecting 99% of all welfare applicants. We absolutely need federal standards to prevent things like that.  But are we better off if Washington has to micromanage and finance everything, when they can’t agree on anything?

I’ve worked in Washington for 20 years. I worked in the Senate. And one of the most frustrating things is these perennial wars on issues where no progress is ever made. Washington has been at war on healthcare for 30 years. The parties keep hoping to get to the point where one day they can completely crush the other side. I don’t want to spend 30 more years watching that fight happen.

Matt Robison: You outlined four key areas where you think this could work: transportation, K-12 education, welfare, and healthcare. So you’re not saying everywhere.  So what would that look like?

We share edited excerpts from the Great Ideas podcast every week that explain how policies work and present innovative solutions for problems. Please subscribe, and to hear how this would work in specific policy areas, check out the full episode on Apple, Spotify, Google, Anchor, Breaker, Pocket, RadioPublic, or Stitcher


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