Monday, April 20, 2009

The Importance of Federalism

From today's New York Times: Ill From Food? Investigations May Vary By State. The article details the how Minnesota's public health officials are far more efficient at pinpointing food related illnesses than their colleagues in other states and at the federal level.

Congress and the Obama administration have said that more inspections and new food production rules are needed to prevent food-related diseases, but far less attention has been paid to fixing the fractured system by which officials detect and stop ongoing outbreaks. Right now, uncovering which foods have been contaminated is left to a patchwork of more than 3,000 federal, state and local health departments that are, for the most part, poorly financed, poorly trained and disconnected, officials said.

The importance of a few epidemiologists in Minnesota demonstrates the problem. If not for the Minnesota Department of Health, the Peanut Corporation of America might still be selling salmonella-laced peanuts, Dole might still be selling contaminated lettuce, and Congress might still be selling dangerous Banquet brand pot pies — sickening hundreds or thousands more people.

The optimist and libertarian in me sees this not as a problem, but as a triumph of multi-layered government and a triumph of the "states as laboratories" theories of federalism. What that theory says (in brief) is that political power in the hands of the states as opposed to the national government allows for more policy experimentation and ultimately, better policies throughout the various states. Or in other words, when states are allowed to function as laboratories of democracy, the likelihood of the emergence of better policies increases.

This isn't really about the theme of local government I've stressed so often in this blog, but it's related. The only way you get government policy through trial and error is if you actually have various levels of government that are allowed to create different policies in the first place. The Times piece takes the tone that we need a unified, national system for food safety, but what's to say that the creation of one such monolithic system would be as ideal as what's described in Minnesota?

Good government liberals always assume that there's one ideal way to regulate and legislate and by golly if we just work hard enough we can come up with the perfect system to regulate anything, but that sort of thought process misses the point that people are imperfect and government is imperfect. The best we can do in the public policy realm (along with everywhere else) is allow for innovation and experimentation. Take that away, put something like food safety solely in the hands of one giant federal agency, and maybe you lost exactly the sort of thinking that led Minnesota to improving their system in the first place.


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