Thursday, July 21, 2016

States' Rights

I agree with Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tx) on something.

The issue I agree with him on is the issue of states' rights. This is the idea that certain policies should be decided on a state level rather than a federal level.

Take, for example, the minimum wage.

Minimum wages should be determined by the state - not by the federal government.

One of the reasons for this is because there are disputes, even among academic economists, regarding the effects of legislated minimum wages. This dispute not only concerns the effect on overall employment, but the effect of who has jobs.

For example, one possible effect of raising the minimum wage is that more highly-qualified native English-speaking workers seek these jobs - as a way of supplementing their household income to acquire more luxuries - and crowd out less-skilled, non-English speaking, minority job seekers. There may be more jobs, but those jobs help the middle class at the expense of those who truly need the money.

The purpose of this post is not to argue whether or not this is the case. It is to argue that one of the ways we can find out whether and to what degree this is the case is to allow states to determine their own minimum wage laws.

Much of most fruitful research done on minimum wage laws recently has involved comparing the effects on two demographically similar states - one of which changed its minimum wage while the other kept its minimum wage the same. This gives us a "study state" where the independent variable has been altered, and a "control state" where the independent variable has been held constant. This allows us to then better determine the effect on the dependent variables.

We can obtain these benefits on a number of policies where there is reason to dispute the effects of the policies - on health care, on education, on drug legalization or prohibition, on capital punishment, on the regulation of pornography or gambling or prostitution, and the like. By allowing states to adopt different policies we gain a way of gaining insight into the effects of those policies.

Furthermore, we can offer a moral argument for allowing people with different beliefs to create a political and social climate consistent with those beliefs.

There is a great deal of arrogance behind the idea that one's own attitudes and values are so perfect - are so certainly the one and only right way to live and organize a society - that one may legitimately impose those attitudes on all people, many of whom have different opinions.

A less arrogant person would say, "You live the way you want to live, and let us live the way we want to live." Allowing states to set up different laws according to different cultural norms is consistent with this more tolerant - less arrogant - attitude.

Of course, there has to be limits.

The paradigm case of states rights in American history was the state's right to slavery. There are certain things that are clearly wrong and that ought not to be allowed in any state. States' rights should not be so broadly interpreted that it grants states a legal permission to institute racial segregation and other forms of discrimination.

We can expect that there will continue to be disputes - not on whether states should have the legal permission to establish their own rules, but on where to draw the line between what states should be permitted to choose and what shall be prohibited.

One of the things that states should not be permitted to regulate, for example, is migration into or out of the state. The morality of "states rights" in part depends on a person's freedom to move to a different state if they do not like the political or cultural environment being created. This entails also prohibiting a state from passing restrictions on who may migrate into their state from another state.

Having a variety of states with a variety of cultural norms, and a liberty to move to the state of one's choosing, is one way in which we can give people the freedom to find and join a community that corresponds to their interests. This grants a type of freedom that is not available in a "one size fits all" establishment.

Similarly, there are reasons to have federal controls regarding air and water pollution and water use. For example, California cannot give a "states' rights" argument for air pollution that drifts into Nevada or for causing acid rain that kills fish and forests in Virginia. Greenhouse gas emissions legitimately demands not just a federal but a global solution.

Still, there is a realm within which "states rights" makes a good deal of sense. We could, perhaps, use a presumption in favor of state determination unless evidence is provided - beyond a reasonable doubt - that a broader solution imposed on all states is required.

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