Friday, January 29, 2016

Dank Federalism

With the winter chill pestering my Old Virginia home, family swimming excursions are enjoyed at the local rec center. Obliged by my aversion for idle conversation with strangers, I look to heavy tomes to deter the other parents (if not as a signal, then as a melee weapon as a matter of final resort). One of the more imposing volumes in my library is a hardcover translation of Tocqueville, so I've been revisiting Democracy in America while my 4 year old practices the ancient art of annoying other adults.

Something struck me in DiA's dissection of American culture. Federalism, separated hierarchical government, seemed to him to be more than a mere political choice, selected from a suite of otherwise-mostly-equal options. In a rather Humean fashion, he claimed that the town-state-nation organization of politics arose from the very sentiments of the typical Yankee ploughman. Think of it as Tiebout-plus. Rather than residents moving to new towns that better suit their peccadilloes, American residents use American little-d democracy to move town policies to suit them. He didn't say so, but there's pretty good English countryside precedent for this predilection. Peasants settled their own disputes in common law courts rather than petitioning the crown or some local lord. The American colonialists were basically just peasants with a little more self-determination.

The point is, the heuristics of the people determined the form of the organizational structures that were later codified in the national, state, and local constitutions, laws, and codes. Sentiments preceded rules. If this is true, I must wonder what sentiments preceded the slow abolition of local self-determination. What moral intuition explains the gradual loss of town and state sovereignty?

I'm in the habit of thinking of politics as being simply another form of exchange (albeit with a bit more coercion). If I am to cling to this habit, perhaps I should consider taking more seriously the sources of political tastes and how malleable they might be. Sometimes, the bargaining set is null, no matter how well you haggle. What happens when a nation develops irreconcilable differences?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?