2012-04-23

Federalism: An Unsung Check-and-Balance

Although it may not quite be accurate to refer to federalism as "unsung," in these days of power centralization and a massive, growing central government, the many wonderful benefits of federalism seem to fly under the radar.

Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal published op-ed coverage of the mass exodus out of the State of California. The article paints an interesting - and, in my opinion, accurate - view of California in general as compared to other states.
A worker in Wichita might not consider those earning $250,000 a year middle class, but "if you're a guy working for a Silicon Valley company and you're married and you're thinking about having your first kid, and your family makes 250-k a year, you can't buy a closet in the Bay Area," Mr. Kotkin says. "But for 250-k a year, you can live pretty damn well in Salt Lake City. And you might be able to send your kids to public schools and own a three-bedroom, four-bath house."
The thrust of the article is essentially this: California's population consists of three classes of people. The largest is the welfare class, followed by public sector employees, and then the ruling class of elites who have inherited wealth. Those elites are politically far to the left, and govern accordingly. The result is a statewide political climate that is good for people who draw welfare, draw a public pension, or are already millionares, but not so good for everyone else. Consequently, everyone else is leaving the state in droves.

The twist is that these California emigrants are fleeing to US states with not just low taxes and low costs of living, but where the ambitious and the studious can actually make something of themselves, raise a family, grab a piece of idyllic American life. The moral of this story is that people in California can have absolutely everything they ever wanted out of life - they just can't have it in California. Instead, they can have it in Utah, Nevada, Texas, and so on.

Which brings me back to federalism. Those of you who insist on viewing all political commentary from the lens of right versus left will have a hard time admitting this, but political regimes matter, and human beings have a tendency to vote with their feet.

In Utah, I knew many people who felt stifled by the state's entrenched theocratic right-wing political regime, so they fled to nearby states that demonstrated more social tolerance. I have also known many a Canadian who migrated out of the prairies and into the left-wing beacons of Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto for pretty much the same reason. People don't like living under the boot heels of oppressive regimes, even if that "oppression" is decidedly mild.

It stands to reason that California's middle class of political moderates and - dare I say it? - right-leaning citizens will flee an entrenched leftist regime.

To leftists, this is almost utterly incomprehensible. How could anyone but an unenlightened ignoramus want to live somewhere without an ever-growing list of government agencies assigned the task of looking after everyone? Such leftists typically respond rather venomously, as if "they don't want people like that in their socialist utopia, anyway!" The problem with that reasoning is that leftist regimes require everyone's participation. Why else do you suppose the communist bloc outlawed emigration? (Not immigration!)

What fun is it standing there with your leg raised, if your boot heel isn't stomping on somebody's neck?

Enter: federalism. Federalism is the principle that not everyone who lives within a 3,000-mile radius of everyone else should be forced to conform to the same political regime. Some pockets of people may wish to live their lives according to principles A, B, and C. Others may wish to live their lives according to principles X, Y, and Z. There is no reason that both groups of people cannot be part of the same country, should they so desire. All that is required is that both groups of people ascribe to principles D, E, and F.

Beyond that, the people will migrate to the location that feels best to them. I don't need to tell you that places like Texas and New Hampshire feel better to me than places like California and New York. The beauty of federalism is that people will tend to sort this out by simply moving to avoid the regimes they find least tolerable.

The interesting thing about this is that, at the end of a long period of time, it becomes obvious that people would rather relocate to socially moderate, economically free locations rather than to socially moderate, economically restrictive areas.

For all that we hear in the media and the political sphere about how much "people" want regimes to be "fair" (as opposed to free), when you look at how people vote with their feet, the real preferences of human beings become obvious.

But you don't have to take my word for it.