The Pandemic Has Produced a Radical Experiment in Federalism 

Varying state responses will provide the thing we need most right now: information. 


A little more than two weeks ago, President Donald Trump earned broad condemnation by declaring he has the "total" authority to determine when states reopen their economies. In fact, precisely the opposite is true: The states, not the president, get to make those calls. And that's how it should be. 

Yet concerns about Trump's assertion of unlimited executive control have sometimes been paired with an opposing concern: that there is not enough centralization, that the federal government is refusing to take charge, that Trump should step up and do more. As the White House waffled on closure guidelines in March, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley called the federal response a "Darwinian approach to federalism." New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has complained that the president "has to put forth a model." Critics have pointed to more centralized measures in other countries and wondered why America can't do the same. The state of Georgia has come in for criticism for moving faster to reopen than other states. Anthony Fauci, the point person for the federal response to the pandemic, said this week that although state governors, mayors, and other local officials know their own areas best, "you want to give them a little wiggle room"—but added, "my recommendation is, you know, don't wiggle too much." 

But states are making their own decisions. A handful are reopening segments of their economies, with the details varying from state to state, and others are preparing to do so in the coming weeks. The result is what The New York Times calls a "patchwork" approach, in which different states make different choices about how to proceed. That's good. A patchwork approach is almost certainly what we need. 

The outbreak has produced a reminder of federalism's essential value: In a country as large as the United States, different localities are going to have different needs. And we may all benefit from seeing the results of a variety of approaches to balancing economic and public health goals. 

Many of those differences are medical. In terms of infections and deaths, the difference between New York City and nearly everywhere else is stark. Even among dense, coastal blue states, there are large differences in outcomes. By the middle of April, New York had 14 times as many deaths as California. That disparity probably has something to do with when social distancing began in each place, but it also reflects New York City's unique structural attributes. It is not just highly populated but dense, and it relies on public transit more than any other U.S. city. 

I say probably, because one of the problems facing policy makers right now is that there's still much we don't know about the virus, how it spreads, and how it eventually kills. There are ongoing questions about how the virus is passed from person to person, with some speculation that it might be exacerbated by air conditioning. The effect of temperature on the virus continues to be debated as well. Even the list of symptoms seems to be growing. (Have you heard of "COVID toe"?) In the face of such persistent uncertainty about the basic mechanisms for transmission and infection, we're best off with a multiplicity of responses, one that assumes there's no single right answer, or at least no obvious one, because too many essential facts remain unknown.

And then there are political considerations: Even beyond the unfortunate way that the pandemic has been subsumed into the left-right culture wars, there are meaningful differences in what different parts of the country want, and will accept, in terms of economic restrictions. More rural, less populous states are likely to have less tolerance for extended lockdowns. (Indeed, a few states never imposed stay-at-home orders at all.) Denser urban areas may be willing to accept more control. 

State leaders might gripe about the lack of direction from the White House, but there are political opportunities for them as well. Several states have formed explicit compacts, essentially working groups to coordinate their own responses. And several governors, including the Ohio Republican Mike DeWine and the New York Democrat Andrew Cuomo, have risen in popularity and profile, in part by bucking Trump. 

It's true, of course, that the national response under Trump has often been lacking: The president has failed to set priorities within his own administration, and he has failed to deliver a clear and consistent message to the nation about the response and what to expect. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made catastrophic early decisions, and at times federal authorities have even blocked state-level efforts, such as when the FDA initially refused to expand a cap on facemask decontamination in Ohio. 

These federal failures—of leadership, of planning, of execution, of communication—are another reason to be glad that the most important locus of control is at the state level. A single point of control is also a single point of failure. The federalist approach means the country is not completely hamstrung by bumbling federal bureaucracy and a hapless president.

The varying responses should also provide something we desperately need: information. In particular, information about what happens when differing levels of economic restriction are applied. 

"It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system," Justice Louis D. Brandeis famously wrote in 1932, "that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." The same applies today, perhaps more than ever.

The information from these state-based experiments will necessarily be imperfect and subject to broad interpretation, because each state is different. But it will give us tools to keep improving our ability to make better, smarter, more tailored decisions. That's decisions—plural, not singular. Those sorts of decisions are what federalism enables, and arguably more than anything else, they are what we need right now. 

NEXT: As Pandemic Spending Rises, Pentagon Spending Needs Cuts

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  1. This quest for information is a fools errand. It’s going to take years of study to map out the relevant information about this thing to a reasonable level. We know enough right now that we must open up with targeted testing at nursing homes and hospitals. Lets get this thing moving again why there’s still an economy to come back to. We go another month like this for the majority of the country and you’re looking at total dark ages type economic results. There won’t even be any money left to buy a fucking test.

    1. Unfortunately We aren’t going to see a recovery like after the spanish flu because of the size and scope of the regulatory and bureaucracy class.

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    3. Idle hands…You know, I wonder about that = It’s going to take years of study to map out the relevant information about this thing to a reasonable level. I don’t think you’re accounting for how digital technologies will transform and drive decision-making, the regulatory process, governance in the future. This pandemic upended a lot of old assumptions.

      That is why I like the essence of Suderman’s argument: The states are laboratories and will find solutions to solve their specific problems.

  2. I’m thankful for the turn the last few weeks, but why did it take Reason so long to start taking the Federalist slant on the issues?

    1. Because federalism means you can’t blame Trump for everything that went wrong. And now that people, including some Democrat governors, are starting to praise Trump for the federal government’s assistance … it’s federalism all the way, because that way Reason can avoid giving Trump credit.

      Classic TDS Catch

      1. 22

        1. there is only one catch.

      2. I agree. I can’t believe Reason goes on about the tyranny under federal government and then praises federalism: tyrannical governance on the state level. My state has lost 800 people but keeps 7.6 million locked down. Yes you got that right. Comrade Inslee couldn’t win a presidential nomination so he’ll take King where he can. Oh did I mention I’m a nurse? I can tell you how we count cases and what the state is doing to fudge its numbers just as the others are. When you die of chronic disease we never count a viral infection as the cause of illness. False flag. Libertarians don’t advocate lockdowns. But hell your current Presidential candidate isn’t actually a libertarian either.

    2. 1) It is absolutely, painfully obvious that COVID is bigger than Trump. It took shutting down the entire world for that to finally sink in. It is hard to say Trump is uniquely at fault when there are scores of other countries doing about the same if not worse.

      2) The entire new cycle is changing, and Reason is a part of that. You are seeing sites all around the country doing takes that fall down on either side of the spectrum here. Experts were dreadfully wrong, but also those experts were being supported by both sides. And both sides at one time or another were taking similar positions. It has become nearly impossible for the Red v Blue battle lines to develop because the situation is so fluid.

      3) Deep down, most authors on this site are libertarian…ish. And it has taken a crisis that transcends the red v blue line-drawing to get them to return to their bonafides.

      1. The number of libertarians and other people cheerleading these lockdowns was annoying. Reason shows time and time again while they might venture out of the box on some issues they still have a huge amount of there writership that still gives a ton of credence and benefit of the doubt to the expert class of robber barons, thieves and con artists which make up many of our bureaucratic bullshit crony capitalist state institutions that have no skin in the game.

        1. Not trying to be combative, but which Libertarians were cheerleading the lockdowns?

          I watched a lot of Instapundit, who probably personifies the Right-Libertarian. He didn’t seem to cheer lead it, so much as constantly play up the threat. But here on Reason, I didn’t read any calls for lock downs- in some cases, grudging endorsements. But most of the time it was telling the story of how government wasn’t helping.

          1. Did you not listen to the podcast? Do you not read Russ Roberts or Tyler Cowen? Those are all as mainstream libertarian as it gets. Accepting the lockdowns as the only path and disregarding criticism with a appeals to authority to FDA and NIH heads is as unlibertarian as it gets. There wasn’t much skepticism at all with regards to this course of action. At best it was tepid agreement about how this was necessary and acceptance that civil liberty would have to suffer for the greater good.

            1. Which Podcast? The Cowen articles I read seem exactly as I said- “grudging endorsement”, not cheer leading. Not familiar with Russ Roberts, shrug.

        2. The problem stems from the fact that most Reason writers live and are most likely born in heavily blue states.

  3. Well I know that MI governor is gonna be real popular come election time. And probably drove a bunch more of her constituents into voting for Trump.

    1. But according to politico she’s the most loved and popular gov in the land.

  4. >>Ohio Republican Mike DeWine and the New York Democrat Andrew Cuomo, have risen in popularity and profile

    profile, maybe … neither is likely truly more popular

  5. In a country as large as the United States, different localities are going to have different needs.

    Suderman just wants people to die.

  6. Here is another take. It isn’t that rural areas are more resistant to lockdowns it is that we simply can’t lockdown. We don’t have free meal delivery or food delivery. We are far more spread out and generally have jobs that simply can’t be done at home. Planting crops and caring for livestock requires us to venture out. Cutting timber, mining, petroleum extraction, etc can’t be done remotely. When the nearest grocery store may be 50 miles away, you don’t have the luxury of staying home. When you only have a 100 day growing season you don’t have the luxury of staying home. And you have to buy seed, fertilizer, pesticides,get your tractors and trucks repaired etc. When you are on the southern plains and winter wheat and other crops are ready to be harvested, you don’t have the luxury of staying home. And you have to deliver that grain somewhere.

  7. Federalism sucks, if you live in NJ.

    1. Oh, is that the truth! Because we have an incompetent and dysfunctional state government.

  8. What has not been reported nor observed – the New York City Tri State area has 1/3 of national deaths and cases – the NYC Tri State area is unlike any other area in the country. It is not only public transportation which requires intimate contact with 10 to 100 people per commute, it is not only trains, busses, stairs, turnstiles, escalators, elevators, sidewalks, coffee shops, offices, which require being within inches of others, it is something more significant. The culture and makeup of New York City is different. Proximity is ingrained, 99% of the long time residents could not understand the concept of social distancing whatever language you chose to use. Add to this fact, a 1% ++++, say 100,00 disturbed, addicted, and criminal types, roaming the street and common areas who care nothing about fellow citizens.
    Better to view this area as foreign in every way and react accordingly.
    Expect virus to continue there for our lifetime.

    Maybe, just maybe, CA voters will grow a spine:

    “More than 500 protesters gather on beach to protest California’s stay-at-home order”
    “Police officers mounted on horses were present to control the crowd as protestors walked, biked, and skateboarded down the road; most, if not all, were reportedly violating social distancing guidelines of six feet of separation.
    “As long as people are social distancing and doing what they’re expected to do, the sheriff does not have interest in criminalizing people enjoying the beach,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said.
    Newsom said last weekend that politics or protests would not sway his decision to reopen the state, adding that the resolution would be determined “by science.”…”

    Up yours, greaseball!

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  11. Well I realize that MI senator is going to be genuine mainstream come political decision time. Also, most likely drove a bundle a greater amount of her constituents into deciding in favor of Trump.

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