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Volokh Conspiracy

Federalism and the Coronavirus Crisis

States have so far taken the lead in battling the coronavirus, and there is some merit to this decentralized approach, which fits the original meaning of the Constitution. But it also has flaws, and there is still a good chance the crisis will ultimately lead to an expansion of federal power.



Historically, major crises have led to expansions of federal government power. As Robert Higgs documents in his classic book Crisis and Leviathan, this tends to happen even if the crisis was partly caused by misguided federal policies, and even if the federal response to the crisis has serious flaws of its own. So far, however, the coronavirus crisis seems like it might be an exception. There is some value to the decentralized nature of the response to the crisis, but also some risks. And it is far from clear that the crisis won't ultimately result in a major expansion of federal power.

As Walter Olson documents in a Wall Street Journal op ed, so far it is state governments that have taken the lead in combating the virus. The "shut down" and "stay at home" orders that have affected millions of Americans are almost entirely issued by state and local authorities. These have also—so far—taken the lead in trying to boost the capacity of the health care system to handle the surge in coronavirus cases.

The federal government's coronavirus "social distancing" guidelines, by contrast, are largely advisory. With the important exception of draconian new restrictions on international travel and migration, the lion's share of coronavirus-related regulations affecting ordinary citizens are the work of state and local authorities. Donald Trump may have high TV ratings, but the actions of governors like Gavin Newsom (California), Andrew Cuomo (New York), and Mike DeWine (Ohio) are having a much bigger on-the-ground impact.

There is some value to this relatively decentralized approach to combating the virus. The US is a large and diverse nation, and it is unlikely that a single "one-size-fits-all" set of social distancing rules can work equally well everywhere. In addition, state-by-state experimentation with different approaches can increase our still dangerously limited knowledge of which policies are the most effective.

Moreover, if one policymaker screws up, his or her errors are less likely to have a catastrophic effect on the whole nation.  Here, there is a tension in the views of those who both advocate a much more centralized policy but also (correctly in my view) believe that Donald Trump is often malicious or incompetent. The worse he is, the less we should want to see even more power concentrated in his hands.

As Olson points out, giving the states the lead role on public health issues is not a new idea, but one  embedded in the original meaning of the Constitution. The Founding generation regarded most public health issues as primarily a state responsibility beyond the scope of the federal government's enumerated powers. In his landmark 1824 opinion  in Gibbons v. Ogden, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall—who generally advocated a broad conception of federal power by the standards of the time—listed "Inspection laws, quarantine laws, [and] health laws of every description" as part of "that immense mass of legislation which embraces everything within the territory of a State not surrendered to the General Government."

There is, in fact, a long history of state and local governments taking the lead in battling the spread of contagious disease. During the 1918-19 flu pandemic, state and local restrictions were the primary means of inhibiting the spread of the virus, while the federal government did very little.

While there is much to be said for state-led efforts, they also have at least two serious limitations in the current crisis. First, the coronavirus is—apparently—highly contagious and can spread quickly from one area to another. This means that a state or locality with overly lax policies can potentially "infect" its neighbors.

I lack the epidemiological expertise to assess the extent of this risk; it may vary from place to place. It is also possible that it can be mitigated by coordination between neighboring jurisdictions. Still, the possibility of "externality" effects—in which one state's policies harm its neighbors—is a standard critique of decentralization. And the spread of a deadly disease is a particularly severe example of this problem, one that may be more difficult to address than many other types of  externalities.

Second, one of the major checks on bad state and local policies is the ability of people to "vote with their feet" against them by moving elsewhere. Foot voting enables some people to escape harmful or oppressive government policies, and also gives jurisdictions incentives to avoid  them in the first place, for fear of losing key parts of their tax base. In most situations, foot voting is one of the biggest advantages of political decentralization.

But its effectiveness is greatly reduced in our current  situation. Though some states have enacted  quarantine requirements on people arriving from other states, interstate migration has not—so far—actually been banned. But even aside from legal restrictions, interstate movement in the midst of a pandemic will be extremely difficult, at best. Where it remains feasible, it could potentially risk spreading the disease further—at least until we have enough testing capacity to effectively screen would-be movers (and others).

Hopefully,  foot voting will become safer more feasible again, as testing improves, and parts of the economy begin to recover. At the moment, however, it is nowhere near as effective as it would need to be to provide a meaningful constraint on ill-advised state and local policies. That includes both policies that are overly lax—and thereby allow the virus to spread—and those that are overly restrictive, and thereby cause more harm to liberty, the economy, and social welfare than can be justified by their health benefits.

Externalities and other similar problems might yet lead to a greater centralization of power during the crisis. Centralization could occur even in some areas where it isn't really needed, because public opinion might prefer a seemingly strong federal hand on the tiller in the midst of a crisis. Political ignorance is widespread, and many voters may be unwilling or unable to  objectively evaluate the effectiveness of either federal or state policies. For many, the default response to a terribly dangerous situation might be to clamor for large-scale intervention of the largest and most powerful government available.

It is also worth remembering that the massive $2 trillion "stimulus" bill passed by Congress has already caused a huge increase in federal spending, and made many more people, industries, and subnational governments more dependent on federal largesse. Much of what is in the bill may be a justified emergency measure. But that spigot—like other expansions of government power in the midst of crisis—may not be easy to cut off even after the emergency ends.

In sum, the coronavirus crisis has so far featured states taking the lead in crafting the US response. This federalist approach has some real value. But it has downsides, as well. It is too early to tell how severe those flaws are. Despite the current starring role of state governments, it is also too early to rule out the possibility that the coronavirus crisis will ultimately result in a major expansion of federal government power.

UPDATE: I have updated the link above describing states that have imposed quarantine requirements on people arriving from other states.