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From the Archive — From the November 2018 issue

Jet-Age Federalism

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Most of the time, Americans seem to thrive on change. The meadow converted to a real-estate development is regarded less as a sacrifice to progress than a symbol of it. From Connecticut to California, Americans change schools, jobs, and houses almost as casually as they change television channels. They accept mobility as the American way of life, like the right to boo the Dodgers. But when it comes to government, most Americans muster amazing resistance to change, even to modest change, and even when it may be a matter of life and death for their country.

The myth dies hard, for example, that the Founding Fathers intended government to function on three rigid levels—federal, state, and local—with limited communication among them, and no fraternization.

The myth that government power must be centered at the local level where it is most responsive to the people has put down deep roots. Special interests, led these days by the mystics of the howling right, keep those roots well fertilized because it is precisely at the local level that they are most successful in preventing government from responding to needs. These notions are not only dated, but dangerous.

Across the nation, we breed slums faster than we can tear them down. We pour millions of dollars into air- pollution control, not to clean the air we breathe, just to keep it from getting dirtier. Many hundreds of millions of federal dollars have gone into highway construction every year, but—until the signing in July of the transit-aid bill—not one federal cent had gone into rapid transit. Last winter, Boston had a grim look at what this policy is buying. Traffic in the city stopped dead for five hours when one car too many crept into the streets and locked the whole mess into place like a big jigsaw puzzle. The traffic commissioner, summoned from home, was forced to abandon his car and take the subway.

The danger of the don’t-ever-change philosophy is that it insists on classifying these and other problems as the province of the city or state just because they occur in the city or the state. But these problems are national in scope, and they cannot be solved until they are recognized as such.

After five years of struggling in California with the toughest growth problems any state faces, I am convinced that two modest revisions in present federal–state relationships will start us toward more realistic thinking and more effective action:

First, we need a council of governors. It would provide a sort of domestic hotline over which governors could share suggestions and criticisms on a wide range of subjects—before, rather than after, federal executive policy had been established.

Second, we need federal legislation creating formal regional structures within which states may take joint action on air and water pollution, park development, and other projects which are less than national but more than local in range.

I want to make clear that while I believe in the rights of states, I am no states’ righter. Our Constitution doesn’t mention the rights of states, only the rights of people. The weak central government which states’ righters pretend they want met the needs of Virginia planters and New York merchants early in our history, when the population of the state of New York was about that of Oakland, California, today. The Founding Fathers conceived of a nation where, as Jefferson wrote, states “were left to do whatever acts they can do as well as the national government.”

Which of the forces that dominate our daily lives today could be dealt with by a single state? The company that made the clothes you are wearing? The airline serving your city? The corporation you work for?

Even Macy’s isn’t local anymore, and neither are the problems with which government in this decade must deal. We need a central government powerful enough to perform the legitimate and necessary tasks of government on a national scale—to protect civil rights in every form and in every place and to regulate big industry and big labor—and possessing the financial resources for medical care for the elderly, abolition of poverty, and increased help for schools.

This is jet-age federalism and it is here to stay, no matter how fervently its detractors invoke the Founding Fathers.

From “How to Put the States Back in Business,” which appeared in the September 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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