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Against Devolution

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Some 2004 nostalgia for you today.
Some 2004 nostalgia for you today.

One of the earliest blog posts I ever wrote was a response to (not entirely serious) calls from the left that the blue states should secede and join Canada after the 2004 election when George W. Bush was (narrowly) re-elected. You may or may not remember the then-ubiquitous maps of the “United States of Health Care and Education” vs. “Jesusland,” but at the time they represented a real fear that the blue states were permanently in the minority, out of touch with “real America,” and just as “un-American” as right-wing culture warriors have always claimed. The idea was that, by removing the Blue States from a permanently Republican America, we’d now be able to pass universal health care and all the other liberal reforms supposedly impossible in the nation as a whole. Then 2006 and 2008 happened, and this theme dropped out of American political discourse for the most part.

It’s come up again in the wake of the Scottish referendum, where I was puzzled by more than a few in the left in both the U.S and the U.K being in favor of devolution, not only for Scotland, but also for the North of England and other English regions (notably Jon Cruddas, head of Labour’s policy review, is incredibly bullish on devolution to cities and regions). At the same time, the New Scientist recently came out with an article cheerfully proclaiming the death of the nation-state and an escalation of devolution to local “neo-feudalism” complemented with some form of international “networks.” Supposedly this is good for the left, because nationalism = racism.

In this post, I intend to make the case that devolution is a terrible idea for the left.

The obvious appeal of devolution is the promise of independent political power in the new sub-units where progressive majorities exist, whether we’re talking about 2014 Scotland or 2004 blue states. Devolution holds forth the promise of social democratic utopias in miniature, and freedom from dominance by right-wing national governments.

The first, and perhaps most important, strike against devolution is geographic inequality of wealth and its implications for inequality, the welfare state, and redistribution. The basic problem is that there is not only an extreme concentration of wealth and poverty across the whole of society, but also clustering of rich and poor people geographically. The political ramifications of these spatial divides have been widely studied in the U.S, given our long history of federalism on the macro scale and local funding of public education on the micro, and the more recent phenomenon of white flight from the central cities, suburbanization, and the incorporation of suburbs into political sub-units independent of the city proper.

The result of devolution on both scales is that wealthy regions and localities, already segregated from the poor through the mechanism of soaring real estate prices, enjoy abundant resources to fund excellent social services for themselves (while experiencing less demand for public services for the poor), which in turn intensifies the movement of the affluent to those areas as they seek the best advantages for their children. Poor areas, in turn, may be politically liberated (as with the case of the huge wave of black mayors elected in major cities in the 1970s and 1980s), but are starved of any of the resources needed to realize the political aspirations of their residents. To paraphrase Michael Harrington, you can’t end poverty by nationalizing poverty.

A recent example from California, where billionaire venture capitalist Tim Draper attempted (and thank god failed) to place an initiative on the ballot splitting California into six states, shows the implications quite clearly:

sixCalifornias Dividing the state would have instantly polarized the regions between wealthy and poor, with North California, Silicon Valley, and West California enjoying median household incomes far above those of Jefferson and Central California. More importantly for Tim Draper, it would have meant that the wealthy of Silicon Valley would not have to pay taxes to support services for the poor, who would now be the problem of someone else’s government. The redistributive nature of California’s existing state government, where statewide Democratic majorities vote to increase taxes on the wealthy and increase social spending for the poor, would have ended.

The same is true in the UK. Devolution to the regional and local level would work out just fine for London and the counties of the southeast, while ensuring that the new socialist regimes of Northern England, Wales, and the West would be facing concentrated demand for public goods without the tax base to support it – let alone any expansion of the welfare state in a social democratic direction. And for those with a long memory in British politics, this shouldn’t come as a surprise – Maggie Thatcher went to war with Scotland over the poll tax, but she also went to war with Labour-controlled local authorities in England, freezing their revenues, demanding cuts in services, abolishing them whenever possible, and generally providing a grim example of what happens when national-level fiscal transfer is shut down.

The second strike is the problem of democracy and transparency. One of the things that that surprised me about the U.K discussion of devolution is the widespread acceptance on the left of the maxim that local governments are more democratic, more responsive, and more representative than national governments, especially because that’s usually a right-wing meme in American politics. To begin with, this is a rather shaky proposition on recent empirical grounds – local elections often involve much lower turnout rates in the U.K and in the U.S (especially among socioeconomic groups that tend to turn out only for national elections), local politics are less well covered by the media, and overall rank-and-file voters have much less awareness of who their local elected officials are and what they’re doing than they do about national leaders.

America’s history with federalism puts an even finer point on this – almost the whole of the history of the American South, from the domination of plantation elites of antebellum Southern politics, to the use of state governments to repress black freedmen during Presidential Reconstruction and then again during Southern “Redemption,” to the long history of Jim Crow, all show that devolved governments can be ferociously anti-democratic, especially toward minority groups (hence the discovery by the American left of the need for a national state to enforce civil rights). But you don’t even have to go to that extent to see how local government can lead to dominance by local elites, whether it’s the Southern Pacific Railroad in California or the Big Three in Michigan or the mining companies in West Virginia. Hell, until Reynolds v. Sims (1964), rural voters held disproportional power in state governments throughout the country.

The larger point is this: devolution prevents local minorities from reaching and forging political alliances with like-minded people who might be numerically superior in other regions that constitute a national majority that can pass legislation they need.

 comparison map

As the map on the left from the 2008 presidential election points out, there’s a hell of a lot of poor voters living in the red states who vote Democractic, because they know their local governments are hostile and that an alliance to middle-class voters in the blue states is necessary to give them some kind of protection. Witness the passage of the Affordable Care Act, where the national Democratic party extended Medicaid to the poor and near-poor in response to their constituents’ (frustrated at the state level) needs, and witness the impact of the Supreme Court’s devolution of Medicaid expansion, which has predictably led to red state Republican governments denying health insurance to millions of poor Americans, predominantly of color.

Now take a look at the map on the right, and compare that to the map I linked earlier on the distribution of income in the U.K. There’s an awful lot of poor and working class voters who would be living in Toryland, especially in Devon and Cornwall, the Midlands, and significant parts of the North, who could no longer turn to a national government for the services they need. Just as in the same way that the blue states of the “United States of Liberty and Education” would enjoy political independence only at the expense of poor Americans left languishing in “Jesusland,” devolution in the U.K would create socialist utopias for some, at the expense of others.

The third strike is the issue of corporate power. If you look at the intersection of “runaway factories” and American federalism, you see that devolution makes it easier for corporations to play smaller, weaker governments’ against each other, using the promise of jobs and investment as leverage against any attempt to tax or regulate them. (As Erik Loomis’ new book on outsourcing and pollution shows, the same phenomenon is true on the global scale) While national governments often do not exercise the powers they have, it remains the case that national governments do have more capacity to regulate against corporate interests when they have the will to (see the U.S forcing Swiss banks to reveal the accounts of tax cheats, for example).

Devolution for some holds the promises of progressive localities standing up to corporate giants, but it’s yet to be seen what happens when local governments in the U.K are put under the same pressure as U.S state governments to pursue devolved economic development policy and achieve economic and job growth, especially when corporations can shift production down the road to a more corporate-friendly local government. Unfortunately, the air we breathe and the water we drink doesn’t stop at regional borders. For some, the solution is to look to “networks of cities, regions and even non-governmental organisations,” as a solution, but I fail to see how “networks” would not fall prey to the same kinds of shortcomings that we see at work in the U.S’ own system of “networked” governments.

In the final analysis, the complexities of the nation-state mean that progress is often limited and infrequent, requiring enormous efforts of activism to keep pushing that rock up the mountain. However, the change that does come is often profound and lasting.

And devolution simply is not a solution.

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