Daniel J.H. Greenwood

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Why The States?

New York Newsday, Jan 3, 1991

The time has come to finish the work of the Federalists and abolish the states, which have long since outlived any useful function they may once have served.

Two hundred years ago, the authors of the Federalist Papers urged that the Constitution be approved precisely because it strengthened the central government. Their opponents - like defenders of the states today - claimed that powerful states were necessary because a centralized government would never work in the vast expanses of the United States.

Today, the population of many of our cities exceeds that of the entire union in 1789. Odd as it may seem, however, the 50 states are far smaller than the 13 colonies. Modern transportation and job mobility mean that many of us have lived in or visited distant parts of the country. In the densely populated Northeast, many commuters even live in one state and work in another. Even for stay-at-homes, modern communication results in a national homogenization; we all watch the same movies, see the same TV, read the same bestsellers.

The result is that national politics commands far more attention than local politics. Paradoxically, though, abortion, crime and education - the issues that dominated the last national elections - are largely left to the arcana of the statehouses.

It needn't be that way. Abortion is a concern nationwide. Yet the elective branches of the federal government (unlike the Supreme Court) have ducked the issue. We have no federal statute protecting, banning or regulating abortions.

Education, too, is a national issue. But unlike the European democracies - where the national department of education runs and finances all public schools - our federal Department of Education just makes pronouncements about the need to improve quality. Each locality must rely on its own financial resources and local skills to run its schools. Wouldn't it make more sense to have a single school administration that could attract the best teachers and administrators in the nation?

Crime prevention presents the same sad story. The European democracies have national police agencies involved in fighting local crime. Our national police, the FBI, is restricted to fighting a few narrow types of crime. Nonetheless, local police departments look to it for guidance in the latest technologies and skills. The FBI attracts extraordinarily high-quality recruits. Its public image is superior to that of virtually any urban police department you can name. Why, then, do we not use the resources of a national police force to combat the street crime that affects our lives the most?

It is time to bring our most important national concerns out of the shadows of the state capitols and into the light of the national forum.

Much as Americans love to hate Washington, it is time to recognize that it does a far better job of governing us than the 50 legislatures and the thousands of local governments, with their underfunded bureaucracies, overworked courts and virtual lack of press scrutiny. (The national government is more thoroughly covered by the national media than are state governments by local media.) Bad as our experience with presidents has sometimes been, we have not yet had a president re-elected from jail, as more than one American mayor has been.

The quality of candidates is not all that would improve in a strictly national system. Bureaucracies would serve the public better. Anyone who has dealt with the Social Security Administration knows what a nightmare it can be. But Social Security is a constituent's dream by comparison with the average state welfare agency. Similarly, the Federal Housing Administration and post World-War II veterans' housing programs came far closer to assuring that young people could buy homes than any state has in the years since the national government decided housing was a purely local responsibility. It is no accident that even after the depredations of the Reagan era, the federal interstate highway system is still in better shape than local roads, bridges and subways.

The federal government has an advantage over the states in that the problems it is responsible for are often smaller. The caseload of the entire federal judiciary is about the same as that of a single New York city housing court judge. But, as the Social Security example shows, the national government does a better job even when it must create larger bureaucracies.

The federal government is more competent precisely because it is a national government. It need only learn how to set up a functional administration once, not thousands of times. A federal administration need computerize only once, and it is big enough to justify spending enough to do it right. The single national government eliminates the waste of fifty or thousands of duplications.

A single government would have access to a national pool of job candidates. The best crime-fighters, drug busters, builders and educators could serve all of us, not just the lucky residents of one locality. The resulting increased prestige of federal jobs would enable the government to better compete with the private sector in attracting talent.

All in all, however, the biggest problem of having 50 state governments is that the most important problems never get addressed. Because the national government denies responsibility for housing, education, crime, transportation, parks, libraries, museums and schools, it is freer to spend absurd sums on irrelevant projects like the MX missile. Individual states are left to solve the critical problems, which are usually too large for them to fight on their own.

Even if they had sufficient resources, they could not solve all of these problems. No state has control over its borders. If New York provides an adequate level of social services, with what was once among the finest public school, university, library, park, public housing and hospital systems in the country, it becomes the welfare capital of the nation and goes bankrupt. But there is no reason why New Yorkers should have to bear the burden of supporting the mobile poor of the nation.

Competition forces each locality to try to attract the most lucrative industries, drive away the needy and force someone else to pay for public services.

The result is that, nationally, fewer services are provided than almost anyone wants. Then we all suffer: from the crime and waste that results from uneducated youth. From the lost economic opportunities of an obsolete infrastructure. From the pollution that a single state can attempt to remedy only if, like California, it is so big that it need not worry about sending its industrial base next door.

It is only our decentralized system that forces us to live with crime, illiteracy, homelessness, crumbling roads and decaying parks. It is time to abandon an experiment that has outlived its usefulness and to create a government that has a chance to work.


Daniel J.H. Greenwood is an attorney in New York City.