Alex Massie

What’s the Matter with North Dakota?

Text settings

Photo: Germain Moyon/AFP/Getty Images

Plenty, according to Matt Yglesias. Not least the fact that, like its southern brother, it exists at all. The Roughrider State celebrated the 120th anniversary of its accession to the United States yesterday. Congratulations. Matt, however, sees the Dakotas, and their brethren on the plains, as a problem obstructing the Greater Progressiveness of the United States of America:

Given that more people live in Memphis, TN than North Dakota it might seem unfair that this large and essentially empty patch of land gets two senators. When you consider that even mighty South Dakota has fewer people than Jacksonville, Florida and that the two states combined contain considerably fewer people than live in Queens or the Virginia Beach / Norfolk / Newport News metro area then it starts to seem even stranger that there are actually two Dakotas.

Well, sure. But, you know, before there was a United States there were, well, the States. This may be an unfortunately old-fashioned view but your opinion on these matters will probably inform your view of whether power should flow up from the states or down from Washington. You may not be surprised that I'm of the former opinion.

Nonetheless, there's growing liberal disenchantment with the United States constitution. Matt's been waging war on the "undemocratic" Senate for some time and is, from time to time, assisted by the likes of Ezra Klein and Hendrik Hertzberg who, just today, is praying for the elimination of the Senate. How dare small states exercise such power! How dare the Senate make it difficult to get stuff done!

Since it's unlikely that the Senate (as it is currently constituted) is possible and since eliminating the filibuster as its currently (and eccentrically) defined seems equally unlikely, and since Washington is, indeed, broken in many ways then the obvious answer, I'd have thought, is for Washington to do less and the states to do more.

As a general rule I'm sceptical that anyone can legislate effectively for a country - nay, a continent - of 300 million people. Even when a bill does emerge from the Congressional sausage factory it's likely to be so shot through with compromises and trade-offs and favours and handouts as to cause almost as many, if not more, problems than it solves. At a certain point, Too Big to Fail becomes Too Big to Succeed. Doesn't the decades-long struggle to enact "national" health care reform suggest that it could have been wiser* to act on a state-by-state basis?  How, for that matter, do you pass an education bill that meets the demands and needs of Rhode Island and Texas? Equally, instead of a federal Farm Bill it might be preferable to make the states responsible for agricultural policy (ie subsidies).

This isn't just an American question these days. The European Union increasingly faces many of these same issues. Brussels would like to be more like Washington; I tend to think Washington should be more like Brussels. This simplifies things somewhat, obviously, but muscle-bound Washington should be a warning to Europe, not something to aspire to. Conversely, a weaker Washington might also help, in theory at least, foster more flexible, accountable (and hence fundamentally democratic) governance in the United States.

Matt's a great admirer of the European Union and, I think, believes that establishing a proper, honest-to-goodness european super-state would be a good thing for europe and, in the end, the United States too. But, pace his complaints about sparsely-populated Prairie States, does he think it wrong that, say, a sparsely-populated country such as Ireland should be able to insist upon having its own European Commissioner? Should Little Ireland be able to frustrate the whole continent? (Even if only temporarily). Or does he think that the Irish should recognise the "greater good" and accept that this means the Big Battalions will dominate even more than might otherwise be the case? 

Fundamentally, the problem is that when you're dealing with continent-sized entities, government is bound to feel distant and, often, unaccountable. You can react to this in two ways: by strengthening the centre or by strengthening the periphery. I suspect that doing the former will help you get more stuff done but do little to assuage voters' concerns that their voices are, generally speaking, irrelevent. The latter course might cost you in terms of efficiency and consistency but prove more useful in terms of letting people feel they have a stake in, and influence over, their politics.

Both the United States and the European Union suffer from a democratic deficit that is both perceived and real. In each case size actually proves an impediment to action. That's probably as it should be since, as we all know, it's not easy to turn a policy tanker around. The solution - or, at least one potentially alleviating option - is to do less and make subsidiarity the dominant principle. If Washington (or Brussels) does less it's less important that it can be held hostage by the likes of tiny North Dakota (or Ireland). Rather than wishing the little platoons away, it might be wiser to celebrate them and given them more power to solve their own problems.

*I understand that there are certain practical difficulties with this but they might have proven easier to overcome than trying to do everything on a national level. Perhaps.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleInternationaleurope