In a globalized world, competition between countries seems to be the prime concern for people interested in seeing which political system works best. To answer these questions, we need not look past our borders. These same concerns can be answered by the varying possibilities for state-level legislation within the United States. Furthermore, competition between states is the best possible solution to fostering individual liberties.
Since the Founding Fathers could not think up every situation or problem that the future would hold, they left it to the states to figure out the best way to respond to the changing world. The state that responds with the best policies will have the most success and might even attract the largest percentage of United States citizens, as a result of the natural inclination to live in the most prosperous place possible. This all speaks to the competitive innovation amongst states that is encouraged by the Tenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
The role of the federal government is outlined in the Constitution. The federal government is limited in order to allow states the freedom to compete; its main responsibilities are in place to defend states’ ability to compete. This competition ensures that states can explore issues which the federal government would be hesitant to engage because of compromise and the need for nation-wide voter approval.
Additionally, this inter-state competition serves a higher moral purpose: it breeds individual liberty where individual liberty might not otherwise be bred.
The case of legalized marijuana is living proof that states’ rights can be a valuable tool for advancing individual freedom. Starting with California in 1996, several states across the country allowed individuals to legally obtain and possess a certain amount of marijuana for medical reasons. No detrimental effects were seen in the “California marijuana experiment,” so several other states across the country (i.e., Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, and Vermont), followed suit in legalizing the growth, sale, and use of the plant. With major fears still surrounding the drug, the legalization of marijuana at the federal level would be impossible today. Thus, one state’s willingness to get ahead of the ideological curve garnered individual liberty that would not have existed otherwise.
Another instance of inter-state competition providing individual liberties is the issue of gay rights. While some may insist that the right for gay couples to marry is so fundamental that it needs to be legislated on the federal level, for their dream to become a reality, they need a considerable amount of people to show support for their side. Only then will a majority of federal legislators be willing to risk their political careers to innovate with a new level of social liberalism. The most effective and expedient way to show this support is through letting some states show that they have an internal majority that supports it. Once gay rights’ legislation is passed in multiple states, the issue will have a definitive level of support and the federal government will be more inclined to address it.
Some may point to examples such as the Jim Crow laws as a case study for why states’ rights can be counter-productive and actually inhibit individual liberties. Segregating certain groups and creating something like a “separate but equal” clause today, though, is in direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which ensures that the Bill of Rights and its protection of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” cannot be violated by any state legislation. Indeed, I would argue that the Jim Crow laws represent failures by the federal government to defend the individual liberties that it aimed to defend in the Bill of Rights, and if the federal government was so slow to act on an issue such as slavery, how can we rely on it to expediently act on new issues that arise in a modern context? Giving states the opportunity to compete will always be the lesser of two evils between a slow, compromise-heavy federal government and quicker, less compromise-heavy, more localized state governments.
States’ rights are still an extremely important issue to keep in mind because this historic concept still has relevance as long as individual rights does. Additionally, it breeds competitive innovation amongst states, which is something we cannot undervalue. Even if the United States divides ideologically for a short amount of time, the fruits of competition will be more delicious than ever.