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InsiderOnline Blog: January 2013

Federalism Just Means States’ Rights, Right?

Nope. That and more in The Insider, Winter 2013, available now.

Editor’s Note: Assembly Lines, James Madison, and Federalism

In “One Piece at a Time,” Johnny Cash tells the story of an assembly line worker who takes home one automobile part at a time in his lunch box. After a number of years, the worker starts putting together his new car that didn’t cost him a dime. He finds, however, that getting the car to run requires some retrofitting of the parts. When he applies for a title, he must declare: “Well, it’s a ’49, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’54, ’55, ’56, ’57, ’58, ’59 automobile/ It’s a ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’67, ’68, ’69, ’70 automobile.”

Cash’s man, by necessity, focused on the components of his project and forgot to think about how those components would be arranged. Something similar happens when we talk about federalism. We tend to glorify states, emphasize their rights, and think in terms of balancing federal and state power. But just as a pile of automobile parts won’t run unless put together in the right way, merely having some distribution of powers among the states and the federal government will not yield a regime that knows its limits and respects the rights of citizens.

The kind of federalism you get depends on how the powers are arranged. As Michael Greve explains in our cover story, the federalism we have today is too often a cooperative cartel between the states and the federal government. That set-up drives government growth, blurs accountability, and leaves citizens no escape from bad policy regimes. What we need, says Greve, is to recover James Madison’s idea of federalism as a system of competition between the states.

Of course, states do still compete in a number of policy areas. We see that competition in Michigan’s recent right-to-work reforms. Simply put, the state where the assembly line was invented got tired of losing jobs and people to right-to-work states. No amount of union history could forever prevent the learning of the lessons that competition was teaching. We talk with Joe Lehman of the Mackinac Center about Michigan’s historic switch.

In other articles, Rob Gordon shows how conservatives have a better set of ideas for conservation, Salim Furth identifies the reasons for our slow recovery, and Mark Harris provides some everyday tips for think tank cyber security.

Posted on 01/31/13 04:39 PM by Alex Adrianson

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