Politics & Policy

The Joys of Heterogeneity

American Airlines aircraft at Miami International Airport in 2011. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Let Alaska be Alaska and Southern California be Southern California.

The temporary shutdown of parts of the federal government is a good argument for the permanent shutdown of parts of the federal government.

When one of his colleagues voiced frustration with the slow pace of conservative reform in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich replied, “Rome wasn’t burned in a day.” That’s a good line, and it says something that is true, but conservatives dread disorder. We aren’t vandals. In this, conservatives are a breed apart from the Jacobins of the Right who have their unsteady hands on the tiller of the SS GOP just now, steering it in the direction of every iceberg they can identify. Yes, many of us would like to see the Small Business Administration eliminated, along with agricultural subsidies and much more, but we want to see that done through the regular legislative process, not through kamikaze-style procedural maximalism.

There are many good arguments for federalism: that it helps to keep the peace between Oklahoma and New Jersey by declining to force their citizens to live under a single unitary regime; that it provides opportunity for policy experimentation in the “laboratories of democracy”; that state governments, being closer to the people, can be held to more immediate account, etc.

If I were making a list of U.S. places I’d most enjoyed visiting in recent years, it would include Miami, Manhattan, Big Sur, Aspen, Las Vegas, and Kansas City, among others. These are very different places: different kinds of people, different kinds of government, different local cultures. If I had to pick one . . . . but I don’t: We’re Americans. We’re not or people — we’re and people. This republic can walk and chew gum at the same time. Example: I am not much of an admirer of casino gambling, but I am glad that Las Vegas is Las Vegas; but I do not want the entire country to be Las Vegas, or Miami, or Manhattan. Federalism is another way of saying that we’re going to let Alaska be Alaska and Southern California be Southern California.

The drive for coast-to-coast conformity and homogeneity in political matters — particularly in cultural matters — is one of the most important drivers of the polarization of our politics. A devout Mormon and an evangelical atheist living next door to each other can be perfectly contented neighbors and friends — unless it is decided that one of their creeds and mode of life must prevail over the other’s and become mandatory. Then, they are enemies.

The value of heterogeneity and authentic diversity is partly moral — freedom is good, and the domination of one man by another is no less evil for being a sometimes necessary evil — but it also touches on a practical argument for federalism that gets less attention than it deserves: risk mitigation.

The temporary shutdown of a relatively small part of the federal government has caused genuine chaos in some places. On Friday afternoon, it was announced that Miami is closing one of its airport terminals because there is not a full cast of TSA agents there to perform all three acts of security theater. That is a real problem for Miami, which has a large tourism economy and a substantial itinerant population.

Surely, the people of Miami would be better off — at least in this particular instance — if the responsibility for providing security at Miami’s airport fell to another, non-federal party: the state government of Florida, the municipal government of Miami, the airport authority, the airlines themselves, etc. Imagine that the states ran airport security themselves: It is entirely possible that a similar political standoff in a state government could result in the expiration of funding for that state’s airport security and an interruption in that service. That is a problem that could be contained, and it is unlikely that all 50 states, or some large share of them, would experience the same problem at the same time. If DFW airport in Texas were left without security because of a problem in the Texas state government, the governments of the neighboring states would have some incentive to step in and provide temporary help in the interests of their residents who use that airport.

A network of 50 airport-security providers might be more complex than a system with a single provider, but it also would be more resilient.

If you’ve ever seen a building with a large stucco or concrete wall, you probably noticed lines running through it, little gaps where sections of stucco or concrete come together. These are called “control joints.” When the material of the wall moves for one reason or another (for example, in response to changes in temperature) the resulting tension will cause the wall to crack. A control joint relieves that tension — it is in effect a crack in the wall that is put there by design. In a perfect world, where foundations would never shift and building materials would be immune to environmental stress, these would not be necessary. In this world, they are. Outside of political rhetoric, failure is always an option — it is far better to fail on one’s own terms.

This is why you have backup batteries for emergencies, why cars have seatbelts and spare tires, why we have smoke alarms in our houses. Having the alarm go off in the middle of the night is not Plan A. Plan A is never having a fire. But if Plan A does not pan out, a smoke alarm is a better Plan B than is hoping you wake up in time.

There are all sorts of reasons other than a budgetary impasse that the federal government could temporarily fail. We don’t have strikes in the federal government (federal employees are legally prohibited from striking), but that TSA flu is awfully contagious. It is not impossible to imagine a scenario in which the employees of some critical federal agency undertook an illegal strike. It is not impossible to imagine a computer-system failure (resulting from incompetence or malice) shutting down this or that agency, or a dozen of them. There are even worse things to think on that need not be dwelt upon here but that would have the same effect to a more disruptive degree.

Aren’t you happy, today, that the policemen who patrol your streets — and the firemen, and the teachers, and the utility operators, and the doctors — are not federal employees?

One of the things the nation at large learned in 2018 is that the people who run Broward County, Fla., are not especially good at what they do. But if there were a complete and comprehensive failure of public order localized to Broward County, what would happen? A bunch of people would go to Palm Beach County or Dade County; in fact, the existence of these Plan Bs helps to bolster Plan A in subtle ways — by relieving certain kinds of pressure, providing an alternative to panic, providing adjacent emergency resources, etc.

There are things that are naturally the business of the federal government; the states created a federal government to begin with because they felt the need for a joint protocol to handle interstate and international issues. (One of those is immigration and the security of the borders.) But there are a great many things that the federal government does that not only could be done at the state or local level but that almost certainly would be done better — and with less risk — at those levels.

The Republican agenda for many years has been a lopsidedly negative one: Eliminate this agency, shut down that federal department, defund this program, etc. There is a great deal of value in shutting down ineffective or destructive federal programs. But there also is a positive agenda in there, waiting to be spoken for, if only Republicans had the wit to see it.

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