The Downside of Devolution

Greg Abbott, the new governor of Texas, is not happy with municipal government. Shortly before taking office, he complained about city restrictions on plastic bags, tree-cutting and fracking. “We’re forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model,” he told a free-market think tank in January. “My vision is one where individual liberties are not bound by city limit signs.”

Abbott’s objection to patchwork laws may seem incongruous in a state that has refused to implement the federal Affordable Care Act and has banned the use of Common Core educational standards, and where elected officials have mused aloud about leaving the United States. But from Abbott’s pro-business point of view, the government of Texas—where the Democratic Party has much less power than in Washington, D.C., or in the biggest cities of the Lone Star State—is the ideal final adjudicator of what should be the law.

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Those concerned with social welfare and criminal justice reform may not agree. But gridlock in Washington, and the unlikelihood of a smashing victory for either party in 2016, is shifting attention to state governments. As a result of last year’s elections, the Republicans control both the governorship and both houses of the legislature in 23 states, with the Democrats in complete control in another seven states. For most Americans, policy changes are more likely to come from their state capitals than from Congress.

States can be laboratories for innovative ideas, but there is no guarantee that they’ll catch on nationally. The Affordable Care Act, fashioned from a Massachusetts program, is still meeting fierce resistance in many states, and it could still be gutted by the Supreme Court or by a Republican president. The Obama administration’s proposal for free tuition at community colleges (contingent on academic progress) is borrowed from a Tennessee program, but it has almost no chance of passing Congress.

State and regional efforts to fight global warming, like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast, have not focused Washington’s attention on the problem. Criminal-justice reform in states like Texas, which now emphasizes treatment rather than prison for drug addicts, will not necessarily go national when presidential candidates still quake with fear that they will be labeled “soft on crime.”

There is a temptation to give up on national policy and settle for progress at the state level. One can also take the cynical attitude that people in certain states are just too wrongheaded to worry about. Last December, the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky suggested that the Democratic Party should just give up on the South: “Forget about the whole fetid place…. Let the GOP have it and run it and turn it into Free-Market Jesus Paradise.”

But there are moral implications to the decentralization of policy. If your state moves toward a more humane criminal-justice system, do you forget about how prisoners are treated in other states? If your state guarantees a livable wage or time off for new parents, do you stop caring what presidential candidates and congressional leaders say about such policies? What about abortion, fair taxation and the right to vote? Do they no longer matter when you cross a state border?

As Governor Abbott acknowledged in Texas, citizens frustrated with the national government are also turning to cities and towns for solutions. Besides environmental regulations, municipalities like Chicago and San Jose are now enacting their own minimum-wage laws, which may help the residents of those powerful cities but do not do much for the working poor who are increasingly found in the suburbs.

In our biggest cities, questions of social justice can be downscaled further, as neighborhood associations fight off homeless shelters, halfway houses—even public buses and affordable housing developments. The thinking is that a neighborhood bears no responsibility for the welfare of residents elsewhere in a city, a kind of “charity begins at home” philosophy at its most narrowminded.

This is the downside of decentralized government, and it is no less troubling than isolationism or ignorance about human rights in other nations. When Washington fails to respond to a problem, it is logical to seek remedies from states or cities. Success at the local level, however, does not mean that social justice has been achieved.

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