Laboratories for Democracy: the Experiments Continue

by Marti Harris

The Progressive Movement has an interesting, and fairly ironic, history: it was started in the late 19th century by Wisconsin Republican Governor Robert LaFollette as a proposed academia-based remedy for the corruption embodied in Chicago ward-heeler politics, then spreading across a still-majority-rural country as urban growth mushroomed in the post-Civil-War decades. It began with a set of academics and theorists proclaiming themselves the “best and brightest” –later, during the early 20th century eugenics fad, defined by admirers as the genetically-superior 10%– with the obligation to govern, with technocratic, apolitical management skill, all of us in the dumber 90%. English Progressive (and summer-in-Vermont visitor) Rudyard Kipling called that duty “the white man’s burden”. The most interesting (Humble Scribe opinion) 20th century Progressive was SCOTUS Justice (1916-1939) Louis Brandeis, who is remembered for (by today’s Progressive/Chicago-politics standards) two very non-Progressive opinions. One is his concept of an important gap between, and limitation on, bureaucratic oversight and the individual American. The “right to be left alone” by government was his label. The second is his concept of the several States –48 then, 57 now, according to Prez 44– each as an independent governance with officials empowered by voters to solve problems with solutions different from, say, the next State over. “Laboratories for democracy” was his label. But today’s Progressives have embraced ever-more intrusive surveillance of their subjects (except their contraceptive-privacy aberration) and have sought an ever-stronger Federal government (think Hamilton, who merely theorized thus, and Lincoln, who greatly accelerated the enlargement process) with ever-more-subordinate roles for States. To their dismay, there are now lots more laboratories (more precisely, two-State comparisons) than at any time in recent history: and not just the 27 or so States which have recently rebelled against the Patient Protection and Affordable (?) Care Act and the 32 or so which have rejected the Federal order to set up a State Health Exchange.

Examples: VA, which has cut taxes and increased economic growth, vs. neighbor Maryland which has raised taxes and experienced Upper-Income-Quintile out-migration; or Michigan, which has just ended closed-shop labor laws, vs. neighbor Illinois, which hasn’t. Or California, which is raising taxes and thereby (like IL) exporting businesses, vs. Texas, which is doing the opposite. There are the Dakotas and Pennsylvania, which have embraced gas-well-drilling and now enjoy low unemployment and State finance surpluses or (PA) improvement, vs. New York and Vermont, which haven’t. NY needs the economic growth: VT, per “the Vermont Anomaly” eschews it, but both import via pipeline the energy they disdain drilling for. Within States, there’s IL’s Chicago, with the strongest gun-control laws in the nation and the highest murder rate; vs. VT’s Burlington, about to adopt similar laws even as everywhere else in the Green Mountain State, long-gun ownership rates are at national highs while murder rates are at national lows. There’s Tennessee, which adopted TennCare a decade ago and has been repairing the damage ever since (the fiasco led to the end of 150-year Democratic dominance and the ascendancy of Republican governance) vs. Vermont which is about to adopt ShumlinCare, with perhaps (but unlikely) parallel political outcome. And there’s Humble-Scribe favorite, the class-size vs. student-achievement and education-cost experiment embodied in Utah vs. Vermont, wherein UT’s schools operate with a class size averaging 20 while VT’s schools average 10. That experiment has been running for a while, and so far it has shown that UT gets a lot more Proficiency per pound ( a little UK-finance lingo, there) than VT.

Utah is involved in another experiment as well: school staff doubling as unidentifiable armed marshals (think the aircraft sky-marshal model), in contrast to Connecticut and all other States except Kansas. Humble Scribe prediction: blue States, led by CA, will opt for gun denial or registration/licensure now (and confiscation later) as a supposed cure for school shootings, while red States, led by TN, will follow the UT/KS marshal model. We’ll see which works better.

The above list of Brandeis-type actual experiments under way excludes experiments which might-have-been or which might-yet-be. In the former category are the many instances wherein dissatisfied residents have wanted to divorce from the rest of the State or local governance. Not uncommon: some years back, even NYC’s Staten Island Borough, not quite a rural–right enclave now that all the Dutch farmers are gone, sought a separation from the other four. And periodically, up-State New Yorkers want a governance divorce from their NYC down-State neighbors. It’s not likely: States which are now heavy-majority blue (like NY, or VT) are unlikely to let their best taxpayers out without substantial exit fees. New Jersey already has one. In the latter category are both intra-State movements which might become full-fledged experiments (think the Free State Project in central New Hampshire, seeking “Liberty in Our Lifetime”) or the so-far-nascent secession movements: northern CA seeking escape from southern CA dominance, and eastern Washington and Oregon, each with movements seeking separation from the governing Coastal Gentry.

And, of course, there’s the most interesting (HS opinion, again) experiment of all, the Vermont Anomaly, not underway in any of the other 56 (a little Prez 44 civics-math for State-count, there) but bearing some comparisons to county-level emphasis on passive-income economics such as the one in Henderson County, NC, and in various within-county communities across the SunBelt. Vermont’s recent metamorphosis to Gentry-Left governance, rural gentrification, and passive-income economic importance can be seen in Stella Dallas terms: Can this once-rural and -frugal little New England State find happiness married to wealthy and credentialed Patrician Socialists? Apparently yes: there are no longer enough of the old Vermonters –“nobody’s gonna tell me what I can’t do with my land, sonny”– still around to make any representational-governance difference. Here, the vehicles-of-choice have Progressed from old Ford pick-up trucks to new GM station wagons to first old, then new, Volvo sedans (which brought the original G-L in-migration) and now various marques of suitably massive in weight and cost sport-utility vehicles. It would need a new renaissance in old pick-up registrations to indicate any reversal of political direction in the offing. As with all the other experiments, we shall see.