Abolish the states

Seemingly every day brings us another example of Republican state legislators and governors trampling on the rights of their citizens. Today especially, with passage of a despicable anti-trans law in North Carolina, I am seeing a lot of liberals speaking out. As usual, their solutions are completely inadequate: we should make fun of those politicians for being backward and dumb (and bonus points if you can construe it as somehow hypocritical, because yes, the problem with conservatives is that they’re inconsistent in the application of their destructive ideology) and we should moralize about how “this is what happens when you don’t vote in local elections.”

I might be able to take the latter point more seriously if the possibility of actually campaigning or even running in local elections was ever broached — because realistically, not all of these races are contested. But still, it’s a typical liberal half-measure. The only real solution is to abolish state autonomy altogether.

There is no real benefit to having such quasi-sovereign units of government. We often hear that they’re the “laboratories of democracy,” but they could more aptly be considered the “chemistry sets of democracy” — very unlikely to teach us anything we don’t already know, with a non-trivial chance of blowing up in our face and setting things on fire. If we want small-scale policy experiments, there’s nothing to stop federal agencies from carrying them out in whatever administrative units prove convenient — nor indeed from doing so based on recommendations from local activists.

The existence of quasi-sovereign states also perpetuates the original sins of our nation. State-level autonomy is part of a centuries-old compromise to keep slaveholders in the union — a compromise that, when push came to shove, didn’t even keep slaveholders in the Union! Hence the model is a failure even in terms of its shockingly amoral original purpose, one that bakes the ideology of settler colonialism into our constitutional order. The practical effect of state autonomy has been to enable corruption and racial oppression.

The states also lead directly to a distortion of federal-level democracy in the form of the Senate, where Wyoming gets the same number of votes as California. Meanwhile, back at home, giving such power to state-level officers, who are often selected in low-turnout off-year elections and who receive only a trivial amount of scrutiny, directly cuts against democratic representation and accountability. More elections does not equal more democracy — in our current system, a superabundance of elections undercuts principles of accountability and meaningful choice. “Local control” effectively disempowers and silences most local constituencies.

10 thoughts on “Abolish the states

  1. This reminds me of a professor in college telling us that when there is a federal crackback on something a state is doing, the state is always in the wrong. Not sure if that’s accurate, but he had quite a few examples.

  2. isn’t the real issue here not the states’ distortion of federal-level democracy (which it seems to me to be completely beyond capturing by design) but states’ brake on city and municipality level authority? Those are political units that people can be engaged with and care about, and while they aren’t always the greatest, North Carolina is moving in this way specifically in response to a local authority (the city of Charlotte, to be precise) advancing transgender accommodation. The federal-state binary is overplayed here, I think.

  3. Also, cities (which tend to be more coherent political units) are often stopped from doing reasonable local-level stuff by lousy state governments, whether it’s preventing municipalities from having higher minimum wages, as is happening concurrently in NC, or all the ways in which NYC is screwed over by New York State.

  4. What about cases where state autonomy cuts the other way? For instance, if the several states are reduced to mere administrative units, it is unlikely that experiments in drug legalization/harm reduction or sanctuary cities would persist long (keeping present national political mood constant). Teachers unions rely on their ability to bring pressure against local and state policymakers. More federal centralization of education policy would attenuate their power significantly. More to the point, I worry that when folks talk this way they implicitly assume a Whiggish view of history. The other side can move the ball too. And I wouldn’t want my home state under the ultimate authority of Donald Trump.

  5. I don’t think abolishing the states is a panacea, nor do I deny that there would be some losses. On net, though, the states have been a hugely destructive force and are only becoming moreso. I’m more open to city-level autonomy, though perhaps only for large cities.

  6. Even living in Illinois, one of the most solidly Democratic states in the union, I would jump at the chance to abandon statehood and revert to a federally-administered territory.

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