If Californians want to make their government the monopoly payer of all medical bills, why should North Carolinians be able to tell them they can’t?
In a federal republic populated by 330 million people spread across some 3.5 million square miles of sprawling territory, we should be asking precisely this kind of fundamental question — rather than the screaming at each other across partisan and geographical divides about such public-policy issues as education, health care, public assistance, and pandemic response.
I know that’s not the way most of us are primed to think about politics any more. We see restaurants in our communities decimated by the COVID-19 crisis and ask what Congress should do about it. We run over potholes or experience spotty Internet coverage and wonder if the Biden administration’s new “infrastructure” bill will fix the problem. We worry about chronic poverty and debate various federal tax and spending policies to combat it.
This impulse to nationalize politics is inconsistent with America’s traditions. It’s unwieldy and fosters social division. I also think it’s just plain weird.
I’m not arguing for “states’ rights” or some such rot. Only individuals have rights. Governments have powers. In our federal system, the national government had certain powers listed and authorized by the Constitution, powers that only a national government can effectively perform. National defense is a familiar example. Another example is, in fact, protecting us against state and local infringements of our individual rights to life, liberty, and property (which was one reason segregationists invoking “states’ rights” back in the 1950s and 1960s was so ridiculous).
Still, the United States Constitution was never meant to guarantee all Americans the right to drive smooth roads, or to access the Internet at high speeds, or even to have one’s medical bills paid for by someone else. Perhaps those services ought to be provided by government. Perhaps not. But that’s the kind of call that should be made closer to home.
After all, all people who reside in the United States also reside in states and localities. The “federal government” is not, in reality, some separate entity that can pay for things we’d otherwise have to finance ourselves. All federal dollars are either taxed away from us in real time or borrowed from bondholders who will have to be paid by taxing away our money sometime in the future.
Yes, I know that nationalizing public policy can make the money flows more complicated. The residents of some states ending up subsidizing the residents of other states. I see this as a bug, not a feature. If Floridians want to build expensive homes, condos, or tourist attractions in the path of hurricanes, it should be up to them to cover the cost if they bet wrong, by collecting revenues from their residents and visitors. If New Yorkers or New Mexicans or, God forbid, even North Carolinians want to build commuter rail lines, why should there be any “federal funds” involved? Oregonians won’t be filling those seats. (No one will, actually, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
Once we recognize federal money isn’t “free” — that North Carolina doesn’t really gain more resources to spend on infrastructure or other programs just because we send our money up to Washington and back, or borrow money now from federal bondholders and pay it back later with interest — one argument for our oversized federal government falls. I recognize there are others, however. Some people just can’t stand the idea that their values and preferences are not universally shared. And some businesses would rather comply with one set of regulations rather than 50, just as some activists would rather “win” their issue once rather than having to fight it out across state capitals.
By nationalizing policy issues to such an extreme degree, we’ve ruined our political discourse. We’ve turned every federal election into a potential catastrophe in someone’s mind. We’ve made the stakes too high. Let’s devolve, decentralize, and deescalate — before it’s too late.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the forthcoming novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.