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“Federalism & Infrastructure: Have the Feds Worn Out Their Welcome in the States?”

A bridge collapses in Minnesota, with tragic and deadly consequences. A report shows hundreds of bridges across Massachusetts are in similar need of repair. Each year, education think tanks decry the chronic underfunding of many public schools. Meanwhile, In a desperate bid to refill depleted town coffers, the residents of a quiet little town vote 2-1 to allow casino gambling – a decision that will change the face of the town forever and bring in its wake a whole new world of social and other problems.

            What links all of these seemingly disparate headlines together? Well, it could very well be federalism, a concept that, given the economic disparities facing our country, may be due for a renaissance. Federalists, who believe in reallocating funds and authority from the federal level to the states, have spent decades lamenting the feds’ steady expansion into areas of American life previously left to the states, cities, and towns, such as education and local transportation. By and large, liberals have been skeptical. It may be time for that attitude to change.

This expansion has been enabled by a positive feedback loop, in which more federal government spending requires increased federal taxes, and increased tax revenue enables more federal government spending. Indeed, adjusted for inflation, federal tax revenue has grown by two hundred and thirty percent since 1965, according to conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation. Remarkably, federal spending increased by two hundred and fifty percent over the same period. Besides the damage to taxpayers’ paychecks, this cycle has spawned an additional and quite pernicious side effect: whatever funds the feds cannot collect, they borrow – saddling our children and grandchildren with frightening budget deficits.

           Faced with all this, some liberals who extol the virtues of the social welfare state have to ask themselves whether the expansive federal government approach has backfired, and whether the Federalists have a point. (Of course, it is perfectly consistent for liberals to favor both a welfare state and a small federal government. This “blue federalism” would suggest that, when faced with an incompetent and illiberal federal government committed to obstructing progressive values, liberals should instead embrace state and local government as vanguards of those values. At the very least, citizens of a city or state have a better chance of influencing the actions of local and state government than they have of causing even a ripple in Washington.)

But if one takes the federalist logic seriously, it suggests the question: Are the American people getting a solid return on their investment? Consider the following:

            In a case of perfect accidental timing, the Pioneer Institute finished a review of our Commonwealth’s public bridges the same week as the collapse in Minneapolis and designated 558 of them “deficient." This shameful neglect can be witnessed first-hand by anyone who has visited virtually any state, county or municipal courthouse in the state, except for the recently refurbished Adams Courthouse in Boston that is home to the state’s highest court. The deplorable state of those buildings—for example, it is hard to find a working toilet in many of them—undermines public respect for one of our state’s great institutions.

            And while federal buildings are well-funded and generally well-maintained, for the most part our tax revenues sent to Uncle Sam appear to be poured down a massive sinkhole. Consider the recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that the Iraq War has already put the American taxpayer on the hook for a trillion dollars, with no end in sight and without, it is generally agreed, a strategy worthy of the name. The catastrophic failure of the Department of Homeland Security to deal with the devastating flood that destroyed New Orleans and environs when Hurricane Katrina hit is now well-documented. And the recurring reports of outrageous pork-barrel projects inserted into federal budgets by powerful congressmen, for little purpose other than assuring their re-election—does anyone remember the Alaskan “bridge-to-nowhere” supported by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who is now under corruption investigation?—make one skeptical that the federal government could run a typical household budget.

            The bottom line is that as the federal government becomes more profligate and seemingly less competent—past the level of merely dysfunctional, and possibly attaining the level of pathological—our states and cities and towns become more and more starved for the cash siphoned off and then recklessly wasted by Washington. It would be one thing if Washington took the money and returned a sane and sensible foreign policy, an efficient military establishment devoted to truly defensive missions essential for the national security, a functioning health-care system, a better educational system, and public safety in the face of natural and man-made disasters.

Strict federalists would still object to some of these areas falling under federal government jurisdiction – health care and education among them – but at least the taxpayers would get their money’s worth and these functions would not require as much state financial support. But the federal government appears incapable of these tasks, perhaps because many of these functions are, or should be, inherently local undertakings. So maybe the federalists have it right, and this is where “blue federalism” slips in: Washington should get out of trying to micro-manage the states, cities and towns. While federal tax rates could be radically cut, instead states could tax their citizens sufficiently to perform the essential tasks that people have a right to expect from government: a functioning health care system, schools that educate children, bridges and roads with structural integrity, and public buildings that are a source of pride, not embarrassment.

* ** * * *

             It is reasonable for readers to ask why it is that this subject occupies space under the rubric of “TheFreeForAll” blog. What does shifting the balance of power and authority back from Washington to Beacon Hill have to do with liberty? The answer is simple. Just as Massachusetts citizens have more ability to monitor and influence how state and local governments spend their money on providing essential services than they do when the feds are involved, so they are able to have a say when police misconduct arises, when local citizens’ free speech rights are infringed, or when government in any way crosses the line and infringes our liberties. It is much easier to deal with incompetence and misconduct in a local prosecutor’s office or a town police department, than to contain the excesses of the Department of Justice or the FBI. If the libertarians perhaps overstate the case when they say that “small government is beautiful,” it does seem true that local government is at least controllable. And given the out-of-control and incompetent band of fools and worse in the executive branch in Washington, the increasingly dysfunctional Congress, and a Supreme Court that seems more and more out of touch with the realities of modern life, maybe it’s time that we citizens re-assert some control over those who govern us. If, as Tip O’Neill was fond of saying, “all politics is local,” then it logically follows that effective control over politicians is likewise local. Reducing the size of federal government, and increasing the funding of state and local government, would appear to be a move toward not only sanity, but also increased liberty.

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