Attention Conservation Notice: Notes on making U.S. state and political politics legible to international-relations scholars.
Enough about the passing political scene. Let’s talk about something both less, and more, urgent: how do governments arrange their relations with sub- and super-ordinate authority?
Some quick background. There are many reasons to suspect that different arrangements of governance hierarchies offer different advantages and disadvantages. Centralized governments, for instance, can mobilize resources behind a single goal; consider that the North Korean government has been able to develop a nuclear weapons program despite having an economy on par with Kenya’s (by per-capita GDP) or Bosnia (by overall GDP). On the other hand, decentralized governments can pursue a wider variety of goals more efficiently. Splitting a unitary government into many can allow for different communities to have different policy outcomes or credibly commit that one community will not dominate another. Accordingly, real-world governance hierarchies appear in many different forms, from empires (which treat different peripheries differently, allow centers to act autonomously, and hold that centers can ‘invest’ subordinate authorities) to confederacies (in which centers are bound and invested by their subordinates).
These patterns combine and re-combine at many different “levels of analysis”, from internal office organizations (and re-organizations) to different accounts of how American primacy shapes global and regional orders. The rhetorics around such orders often obscure this; witness how many people still believe that ‘anarchy’ distinguishes international politics from domestic political orders, for instance. (What is more anarchic: intra-EU relations or intra-Somalia relations?) Similarly, contestations of hierarchy can obscure (or reveal) true hierarchical rankings, while great powers often have reason to behave as if they were just ordinary states. Accordingly, even though these considerations are a part of ‘international’ life, they remain obscured.
Yet the dynamics of center-periphery relations also remain occluded in the fora in which we should observe them readily. That includes not just relations we normally consider ‘domestic’, as between the federal government and the constituent members of the American Union, but also those we call ‘municipal’, as between a state government and the various local governments within its remit. The arguments for having a state government sponsor (typically many) local governments are manifold, but usually rest on some notion of popular sovereignty, the normative desire to allow distinct communities distinctive policies, a crassly reactionary desire to prevent redistributive or progressive politics, plain rent-seeking, and stealth arguments against democracy (surely one reason to divide school boards from ‘normal’ politics is to prevent Those People from winning elections, whoever Those People may be).
Yet a puzzling phenomenon recurs. Authorities delegated downward, from center to periphery, within U.S. states seems much more contingent than standard static analyses suggests. Why do states grant prerogatives they don’t want local governments to enjoy?
The (Democratic) mayor of Phoenix, Arizona, discusses this phenomenon of state “pre-emption” in a Slate interview. One example:
Climate change is affecting Phoenix, Arizona, as much as any other big city in the United States of America right now. Not in the future. Energy benchmarking is a very simple public policy that said for buildings, office buildings above a certain size, you have to disclose information as it relates to energy consumption, water usage, solar, whatever it may be, so that tenants can vote with their feet as to what building they want to be in. At the beginning of the conversation, the state Legislature passed a law banning the city—all cities including the city of Phoenix—from even a market-based policy like energy benchmarking.
Another Slate article dealt with the pre-emption phenomenon, this time pegged to a Scott Walker decision to pre-empt a local ordinance requiring sick leave:
Milwaukee’s ordinance, approved in a 2008 referendum by 69 percent of voters, would have required large businesses to offer full-time workers nine paid sick days a year and businesses with fewer than 10 employees to offer five sick days a year. Ensnared by legal challenges, the law had never taken effect but had been ruled constitutional by the state’s 4th District Court of Appeals in March 2011. Two months later, Bill 23 arrived on Walker’s desk, and paid sick leave in Wisconsin was dead.
In their defense, pro-business conservatives argue that pre-emption has kept at bay an incomprehensibly complex patchwork of local regulations. “In terms of the local control issues, when you’re dealing with market-related issues, such as the ban on the use of plastic or Styrofoam or minimum wage issues, you create conflict within the marketplace,” explained Andre Cushing III, the assistant majority leader of the Maine Senate and a member of ALEC’s board of lawmakers. “It creates an ability for people to violate laws unintentionally, because there’s no clear picture.”