It’s the latest meme. The U.S. is ungovernable, because of
a) Senate procedures
b) Republican obstructionism
c) polarization
d) special interests

I’ve seen it from Marc Ambinder, Steven Pearlstein, and others. I’m too lazy to copy links, but my guess is that you have seen it, too.

I want to offer my own theory of why the U.S. has become ungovernable. It basically comes from the second chapter of my latest book, Unchecked and Unbalanced, which as I write this is number 247,076 on the Amazon best-seller list.

The theory is that there is a discrepancy between trends in knowledge and power. Power in the United States is remarkably concentrated. We are creating increasingly specialized knowledge, which means that the information needed to make good decisions is located outside of Washington, D.C. And yet we have a central government attempting to do for 300 million people what governments in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, Denmark, and Switzerland do for many fewer people.

I do not wish to contend that government is better in those countries than in the U.S. But if there were scale efficiencies in government services beyond the level of 10 million people, then we would expect governments in small countries to be much, much worse than in the U.S. The fact that Singapore, Hong Kong, Denmark, and Switzerland function at all is proof that a 300-million scale polity is not necessary to run an effective social insurance system, an effective education system, etc.

There are two reasons that I would like to see government functions devolved to state and local levels. First, I would like to see more experiments and more variety. Instead of having a big national contest over what health care system, why not try single-payer in one part of the country and radical deregulation in another? Switzerland, which is about the size of Maryland, has different health care systems in each of its 20-odd cantons, which are about the size of Maryland counties. Surely it must be possible to try different health care approaches in Texas and Massachusetts.

The second reason is to bring about greater equality in political power. Power at the national level creates extreme inequality between the few who hold office and the rest of us who do not. Basically, we can vote in elections, and that is it. With power more localized, we have a greater chance of holding office or having influence as voters. More important, we could “vote with our feet” by moving to jurisdictions that suit our preferences.

In fact, I think that we could make competition in government even easier. For many purposes we could replace physical jurisdictions with virtual ones. That way, my neighbors could belong to a jurisdiction that has single-payer health care, while I belong to a jurisdiction with a more libertarian approach.

These days, most of the people who complain that the U.S. is ungovernable are looking for solutions that would allow progressive technocrats to be even more powerful. I believe that the solution is to decentralize government, so that the U.S. becomes a federation of hundreds of Swiss-style cantons, each of which can be governed differently, but reasonably effectively.