A Little Unhappiness Goes a Long Way

July 30, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared on TCS​dai​ly​.com on July 30, 2006.

Most debates about government policy concern whether government should intervene. A different but important question is whether intervention belongs at the state or federal level, if intervention occurs. In fact, many current federal policies should be left to the states.


The standard view is that policies like welfare must be federal; states will avoid redistribution for fear of becoming welfare magnets. This concern is understandable, but a different mechanism suggests redistribution is often excessive. Redistribution to the poor creates a demand for redistribution from the near poor, and then from the sort‐​of poor, and then from the working poor, and so on. The end‐​result is massive redistribution, mostly from the middle class to the middle class. This generates huge distortions.

Nothing guarantees, of course, that leaving redistribution to the states gets the balance just right. But the chances are better since competition between states nudges against the tendency for excess redistribution. And many states have unemployment benefits, welfare programs, and minimum wages that are well above anything required by federal law. So, rightly or wrongly, states do not race to the bottom.

Environmental Policies

Most environmental issues are local. Air and water pollution affect residents who live near the pollution source. The demand for a clean environment is likely to differ between rural and urban areas, high and low income areas, agricultural versus manufacturing areas, and so on. Likewise, the costs of alleviating pollution differ substantially across areas.

Federal policies do not readily address this heterogeneity. As with redistribution, moreover, the potential for excess regulation is clear, so leaving things to the states promises a better balance. And a race to the bottom is again not obvious; many states, sensibly or not, adopt more stringent regulation than anything required by the federal government.


Education has historically been the province of state and local government, but No Child Left Behind and other federal policies are overturning that situation. This is an especially egregious overreach by federal government. To begin, nothing about education suggests under provision if left to the states. And federal intervention generates bureaucracy while suppressing variety and innovation. Remember that states experimented with charters, vouchers, and accountability long before NCLB.

More importantly, federal control over the production and dissemination of ideas is the road to thought control. All totalitarian governments have monopolized the educational system. Keeping intervention in education at the state level provides a counter‐​weight to this danger.


The issue for abortion policy is defining what constitutes murder. And states have done this historically. Roe v. Wade upset the situation by reading privacy rights into the Constitution where none plausibly exist. And whether or not Roe was right constitutionally, a federal ban on laws restricting abortion is ill‐​advised as a matter of public policy.

The reason is that deciding when life begins is impossible. Passions will always run high on abortion, and most people will favor neither unlimited access nor severe restrictions.

Leaving abortion to the states accepts this heterogeneity. Absent Roe, most states will retain legal abortion while a few will restrict or ban it. Most women will still have access to legal abortion, and most people will feel they have some control over abortion policy. Of course, leaving abortion to the states also rules out federal legislation about abortion, such as bans on partial birth procedures.

Gay Marriage

As with murder, defining marriage has always been the province of states. The legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts, however, spurred a call for federal regulation. As with abortion, however, there will always be strong opinions on both sides. Leaving the issue to the states avoids the polarization that comes from pushing one view on everyone. The possible downside is confusion arising from different laws in different states, but this concern seems overblown. Marriage, divorce, and guardianship laws have always differed somewhat across states. And the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts has not generated significant problems.

The United States lucked into what has been, and could continue to be, one of the most effective governmental structures available: federalism. Yet the U.S. has moved strongly away from this approach over the past century. Few people favor every implication of the federal approach, but most also appreciate it on certain issues. And that is the point: by making many people somewhat unhappy, federalism avoids making some people become truly alienated. That is essential to a free society.

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