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Richard Florida’s Case for Devolution

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For several decades, some policy analysts on the center/right have advocated a more-robust 21st century version of federalism, under which there would be something of a return to the founding fathers’ vision in which the federal government focused on a relatively limited number of functions (defense and foreign policy, macroeconomic policy, ensuring interstate commerce against state interference, etc.) with states and local/regional governments resuming their historic roles of being responsible for nearly all the civil and criminal law, education, urban policies, and infrastructure. The legal aspects of this perspective are reflected in the work of the Federalist Society, and policy ideas along these lines have emanated from some conservative and libertarian think tanks and other organizations.

So it was a revelation when I discovered a long article by new urbanist Richard Florida in the July/August 2017 issue of Politico Magazine. Headlined “A Declaration of Urban Independence,” its subhead read, “Cities are under assault in the age of Donald Trump. It would be better for the country if they ran themselves instead.” As I read the article last month, I kept underlining, while marveling that this piece had received so little attention. I commend it to your attention, but would also like to summarize and quote a few key points.
After reviewing the increasing cultural and political divide that many commentators have discussed in recent years, Florida opines that “the stark reality is that our geographic and partisan divides are too deep and too wide to allow for any sort of national consensus to emerge on urban issues.” This leads to the following paragraph:

“It’s time to confront a simple but stunning fact: When it comes to urban policy and much else, the federal government is the wrong vehicle for getting things done and getting them done right. Whether it is controlled by the left or the right, no single top-down, one-size-fits-all strategy can address the desires and needs of a country as geographically and culturally divided as America. Big cities and metropolitan regions, far-flung exurbs, suburbs, and rural areas are very different kinds of places, with vastly different desires and needs.”

Florida goes on to cite various political analysts on the differences between Red America and Blue America, and cites social psychologist Jonathan Haidt on the extent of anger and hostility that have been spiking upward in recent years, and saying “It just seems fairly hopeless that we are going to somehow come to understand each other and work together.” Florida’s answer is that “The only way to do that is to pare back the power of our increasingly dysfunctional nation-state and give it to cities and localities.”
Among those Florida cites as having reached similar conclusions from the right are Yuval Levin and Sen. Mike Lee (R, UT). In his book The Fractured Republic, Levin called for devolution of power to the local level, and Lee noted in The Atlantic that the Constitution was designed for this kind of division of responsibilities between federal, state, and local levels of government: “When you respect federalism more consistently and faithfully, you allow more of the people in America to get more of the government they want and less of the government they don’t want.”

I was also pleased to note that Florida reports having reached out to his “chief critic and sparring partner” Joel Kotkin—whose writings I often cite—to co-author a piece for the Daily Beast on devolution. (“To Reunite America, Liberate Cities to Govern Themselves,” April 11, 2017) And he adds, “The fact that erstwhile enemies like Kotkin and I were able to come together on this issue and become genuine colleagues, collaborators, and friends signals that this is an area where real bipartisan consensus is possible.”

As we discuss and debate the need to renew much of America’s aging infrastructure, these thoughts on rethinking the respective roles of federal, state, and local/regional governments are worth serious consideration.

A version of this commentary first appeared in the February 2019 edition of Surface Transportation Innovations.
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