The Network Commonwealth Begins At Home

2006-04-30

More and more, it seems that Americans disagree -- over the war in Iraq, immigration, gun control, and a thousand other topics of public interest. Each national election feels more momentous, or a least more vitriolic. Politics has been become personal in a nasty sort of way that does no one any good.

As far as I can see, one of the root causes of the American predicament is the ever-increasing centralization of power and decision-making. When most signficant policies are set in the District of Columbia, national elections take on ever-greater importance.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When America consisted of thirteen colonies, most powers were local or state, not central. That used to be called federalism. Now federalism is practically synonymous with centralism. The results have not been salutary.

What is the way out? Arnold Kling has advocated 250 states. But the logic of power relations (eludicated by French scholar Jean Baechler) might mean that a USA of 250 states would be even more centralized, since the most stable arrangement for any power structure is to have around 5 major powers and several smaller ones (as evidenced by the traditional balance of power in Europe and, not coincidentally, by the early United States with its thirteen former colonies, only four or five of which were signficant in size and power).

A more workable arrangement might be what in The Anglosphere Challenge Jim Bennett defines as a "network commonwealth" -- a loose network of civic states, wherein decisions are localized and only a few powers (e.g., common defense) are delegated up to the commonwealth level. (We could see this structure as a kind of updated Hanseatic League.) One key here is that a network commonwealth would consist of civic states -- that is, states that are (according to Jim Bennett) "dependent on essentially voluntary forms for cohesion", likely with small populations since "consensus and coherence are easier to achieve among a limited number of people" (anywhere from tens of thousands to ten or twenty million, as in Kenichi Ohmae's region-states). A vibrant civic state also tends to have "a core population sharing strong ethnic or religious bonds" (and, I would add, cultural assumptions, legal structures, and often economic interests). (Quotes are from chapter 1 of TAC -- and yes, I need to clean up the HTML for that page.)

While the United States has traditionally had a strong narrative of shared culture and history, at 300 million people it is perhaps reaching the breaking point given the strong centralizing tendencies witnessed over the last 150 years. Rather than trying to decide everything in the District of Columbia, it makes more sense to form policy at the state or local level. Indeed, it may make sense to devolve many powers also to the regional level, along the lines of Joel Garreau's book The Nine Nations of North America -- out of those nine (or dozen or whatever) regions, four or five would probably dominate in size and power and thus set most of the (strictly limited) commonwealth agenda. In a sort of fractal design, it makes sense for those regions themselves to be commonwealths or confederations wherein regional power is again delegated up by the civic states making up the region. With around 325 million people in North America, the result would be perhaps 10-15 regions of 25-30 million people, where each region would consist of 10-15 civic states, each with 1-3 million people. At each level, there would be 4-6 main actors (leading to regional and continental stability) and several smaller actors (allied with the main actors on various issues).

Because only about 20 American states have populations less than 3 million people (see statistics), any kind of political devolution would likely result in a much larger number of civic states in North America, driven especially by division of high-population states such as California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, and New Jersey -- see the CommonCensus map for some possible fault lines (downstate vs. upstate New York, Chicagoland vs. central and southern Illinois, north vs. south Jersey, Philly-centric vs. Pittsburgh-centric Pennsylvania, the many varieties of California and Florida and Texas).

Will such a system come to pass? Probably not. But the current system is increasingly unstable (it goes well beyond the Red State vs. Blue State divide), and in a true crisis radical change might become palatable. Only time will tell.

(Cross-posted at Albion's Seedlings.)


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