In his Inaugural Address of January 20, Joe Biden called for boldness. Like most of what he said on that hopeful day, he was right to do so. Unfortunately, in the days since, he has not told us what boldness means.
Alas, for a long time, neither ideological faction in American politics has offered bold ideas for promoting American material or sociopolitical progress. With only a few exceptions, neither side has a theory of what’s wrong with the country—except to blame the other side for whatever it is.
The sources of this elite failure are a topic for another day, but the good news is that bold ideas for President Biden and his associates do exist. I have at hand a list of four specific proposals: two programmatic; one institutional; and one, with a few subsidiary parts, that concerns the overarching management structure of U.S. governance. The four parts, each occupying a potential wellspring of reform, are mutually reinforcing, such that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. I call it the Quadrivium Fix.
Though disparate in form, all four parts are mutually reinforcing because they have something essential in common: They all promote the replenishment of our society’s depleted reservoirs of trust. Without this reknitting of our stressed-out communities, and without reminding ourselves that the vast majority of Americans share a common destiny and values, no reforms will avail.
Additionally, all four proposals described here would bolster at least one of the three qualities that define success in our era: prowess in human capital; social trust, of a kind both bonding and bridging, to use Robert Putnam’s well known terms; and coherence within institutions as well as concordance among them. We used to be high on the international pecking order in all three of these qualities. We can be so again, but it won’t happen by serendipity alone.
The Four-Piece Puzzle
For the first programmatic fix, we need a New Pioneer Act (NPA): a renewal in tandem of the 1862 Homestead and Morrill acts that will stimulate the spatial redistribution of the American population throughout our continental-scale territory and reintegrate our state universities with our communities. There have been reasons enough for such a proposal for years now: to reinvigorate American agriculture for the long term; to address a range of environmental issues (not least biodiversity); to create a huge number of new jobs; to break the spiral of inner-city hopelessness; and more. And now, in light of covid-19 and potential pandemics to come, it makes more sense than ever to reduce the density of the American living space.
For the second programmatic fix, we need a scaled-up voluntary national service/baby bond program, devised by the federal government but ultimately financed and operated by state and local governments. This bold stroke would help spread equity among younger people, thus tempering the growing inequality characteristic of all periods when wealth accrues unevenly to capital because of technological innovation. (Yes, there are other, plutocratic reasons for growing inequality, but never mind that for now.) It would also spread touch skills and benignly mix our gloriously diverse population the way the draft used to do, expanding everyone’s theory of mind and reservoir of empathy.
The institutional fix is this: We need to void the 1911 limits on the size of the U.S. House of Representatives, but not site this larger House mainly in Washington, DC. Congressmen should spend only eight to ten weeks per year in Washington, another five to eight weeks liaising with their respective state Houses, and the rest living in their districts among their constituents. They can still do their quotidian business by remote technical means, just as most net-centric, distributed-system businesses and organizations in the 21st century do. We must once again be able to feel the pulse of We the People, and we can’t do that with the reps-to-voters ratios we have now.
As to the general reorientation of governance, we must implement a decade-long program of maximally feasible subsidiarity, returning decision authority and resources from the federal center to state and local governments. That’s where most of America’s residual social trust assets are located, so that is where a reformed political order can most readily draw from the natural, organic community that is the sine qua non of genuine self-government. That is the only way to tame America’s unaccountable, large-but-weak administrative state, and the only way—save economic collapse—that we will ever get a grip on our increasingly out-of-control national debt.
Subsidiarity is no panacea, however. We have already witnessed “red” states enacting similar legislation, many “blue” states too, and that could both increase polarization in the nation as a whole and exacerbate the critical rural-urban divide within states. Subsidiarity also poses challenges to controlling nativism and bigotry, which, without excessive exaggeration, could ultimately come to challenge the integrity of the Union itself if the current state of overcentralization is not carefully devolved. Certainly, there is no golden age of “states’ rights” we could or should wish to return to; it is a new kind of subsidiarity that can serve today’s purposes that awaits us if we design it well.
The Rebalancing Act
Now let’s add some detail to these four corners. A New Pioneer Act would renew the Homestead Act and the Morrill Act of 1862, but with a mind to applying the most modern and ecologically sound agricultural science available. The NPA would require the government to turn over areas of federal land to the control of state and county federal governments; there should be at least one NPA zone in each of the fifty states to start. Under strict but commonsensical environmental monitoring from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Forest Service, new pioneer communities would be built.
Among the benefits of the NPA would be new affordable housing. Recent data shows that the average American family cannot afford to buy a home in 71 percent of the United States; one way to change this is to build new housing in new areas. Another not inconsequential side effect is the varied job creation this would stimulate. As with Field of Dreams, so too with this: If we build it, they will come.
We also need to revivify the American heartland. That entails shifting population from the coasts toward the center, as well as encouraging experienced federal workers to return to the states from which they came, in order to bolster the professionalism of state and local governments, many of which sorely need the help. The NPA would create incentives for both transfers, as well as presenting a golden opportunity to build state-of-the-art, national-scale infrastructure in the areas of transportation, communications, health care, and education.
We need to democratize entrepreneurial opportunity so we can level the playing field and stave off the dangerous division of Americans by class (which for historical reasons overlaps with ethnic/racial categories). A New Pioneer Act would go a long way toward leveling the playing field, but it is not enough on its own. Obviously, only some people would be drawn to new pioneer zones. To enlarge a genuine democracy of opportunity, we need a program of scaled-up National Voluntary Service (NVS), connected to the baby bond concept.
Reknitting the Citizenry Together
This second fix, the NVS, would basically work as follows. At birth, every natural-born citizen of the United States would receive not just a Social Security number, but also a bank account containing some legislatively agreed-upon amount of seed equity, which the child’s family and friends would be free to augment with tax-exempt contributions. Thanks to the miracle of compound interest, this would amount to a tidy sum upon that individual’s reaching maturity at age eighteen. Upon volunteering for one of eight categories of national service between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four years, the account’s owner would be able access two-thirds of that amount for purposes of educational or occupational advancement.
The program would be entirely voluntary, so by definition truancy and any of its associated costs would not be a problem. If a citizen declines to perform national service, the money is forfeited and returns to the Treasury for use in defraying program costs and helping others. In that event, the individual loses nothing, for none of that money came out of his or her own pocket. Tax-exempt money contributed by family and friends could be forfeited, as well, a provision that would encourage participation in service; or the rules could be written so that such money would be returned to its contributors after appropriate taxation.
State governments, not the federal government, would run the programs. They would therefore differ from one another in ways appropriate to the different conditions and governing philosophies in each state.
The various options for national service would not only teach important skills to young people; they would also teach them that people from different social classes and ethnic groups can work together for a common purpose. Here the model from U.S. history is the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal era. Such social intermingling connected to a public purpose would also replicate, to some degree, the benefits of the draft and the G.I. Bill in building social trust nationwide.
For those who accept service, the final third of their baby bond would continue to earn interest over the course of their lives and could be augmented with further tax-exempt contributions. This remaining portion of the account could be collected upon a second phase of public service, performed during retirement or in later life. In addition to spreading equity among the young, we also need to make better use of the growing cohorts of healthy, elderly people and their invaluable knowledge and experience.
The final third of the NVS bond would constitute, in essence, a personal IRA. If for some reason an individual cannot perform service in their later years, the money would not be forfeited: It could be spent, if necessary, on medical needs and would be at least partly heritable, with the state tax being prorated according to the income levels of the prospective recipients.
The upfront and ongoing program costs of a scaled-up national service program would not be small, but as with the G.I. Bill, which returned three dollars to the Treasury for every dollar invested, so too would the national service/baby bond program provide a massive economic benefit to the nation. And again, since it would be the states and not the federal government running these programs, the accrual of economic benefits would align with local merit and performance. That would constitute a healthy competition among the states—a results-based race to the top.
A House Expanded
The third, institutional fix involves making the House of Representatives more representative. Beginning with the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, the House grew in size with each decadal census. That stopped in 1911. As a result, the ratio of Representatives to constituents has skyrocketed from the Founders’ ideal of about one Representative per 30,000 residents to one per 700,000 or more. No wonder the average American citizen feels lost in a sea of anonymity.
Over the years since 1911, many proposals have been advanced to expand the House, but all have failed for fear of further enlarging the federal government. Today, however, there is a way to square this particular circle: We can enlarge the House significantly without siting it in Washington.
Given the communications technology at our disposal, it is now possible (and eminently desirable) for a larger Congress to spend only eight to ten weeks a year in Washington, five to eight weeks liaising with state Houses in their respective state capitals, and living and interacting with voters amid their own home constituency the rest of the time. (A lot of Representatives do this anyway—especially those from east of the Mississippi River.) They could conduct business, attend committee meetings, and vote using remote technologies the same way that top personnel in all advanced organizations already do.
The idea of expanding the House isn’t perfect. Spending more time in Washington allows legislators to get to know one another better and to develop deeper face-to-face working relationships. And, for all the flak they catch, some DC-based lobbyists do provide genuinely helpful analyses of complex public policy issues.
Nevertheless, the benefits of re-localizing the House of Representatives are potentially enormous. If members of House committees were more geographically dispersed for much of the time, it would be at least marginally more difficult for the brown-paper-bag type of lobbyists to do one-stop shopping for Representatives in Washington. Moreover, the density of face-to-face interactions between Congressmen and their constituents would act as a constant reminder of the people for whom they are really supposed to be working.
This is important for another reason. Dispersing a larger House nationwide has a significant potential to augment civic participation in the United States, and that is a likely means of taming extremism. Ample research shows that, contrary to the mainly well heeled activists right and left who dominate primary politics, most Americans are sensible, moderate, and centrist. The more We the People participate in political as well as civic life, the better for American democracy.
Finally, expanding the House would help counterbalance the rural-population bias of the Senate. The Founders never imagined the existence of so many lightly populated states west of the Mississippi River, each with two Senators. Expanding the House would shift the balance back toward more urban states, and it could do so without any need to take the drastic and difficult step of amending the Constitution to alter or eliminate the Electoral College, or engaging in such obviously partisan antics like according statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. (There are other, far simpler ways to enfranchise residents of these places.)
Leviathan Be Tamed
The fourth fix is subsidiarity. The need to rebalance the federal system away from excessive centralization has been on conservative wish lists for decades, but nothing much ever happens: The federal center’s forward creep (or gallop, depending on one’s perspective) continues mostly unabated. Why?
One reason is fairly simple: When victorious conservative politicians first arrive in Washington, most are wowed by the capital’s atmosphere and sucked into fundraising routines that transcend their local roots. All too soon, they forget about their promises to fight for subsidiarity. Another reason is that the party that ends up on top, or thinks it will next election, lacks any incentive to do away with powers they already or will soon enjoy.
But an even more daunting reason is that the structures of federal excess have over the years become baked into the federal code. Overcentralization, networked by its own internal legal logic, has become prodigious, complex, and very hard to untangle.
Yet unless the excessive centralization of American government is halted and reversed, governance in the United States will remain dysfunctional—and probably even grow worse, as the mismatch between our industrial-age legacy habits diverge ever further from the net-centric reality of the contemporary world.
The costs of not reforming excessive federal centralization are many. We will never get a grip on our crippling national debt unless we address this problem in a structural way. Institutional dysfunction will grow, harming economic efficiency and political coherence alike. Most damaging of all, this dysfunction will breed progressive alienation and cynicism among We the People, vitiating the essence of the social contract that defines American civic virtue. The very future of the Republic is at stake. I wish that were an exaggeration, but I don’t believe it is. After January 6, a lot of dark prognostication that people waved away as exaggerated proved all too real.
We have delayed so long doing anything significant about overcentralization that we now stand in need of very bold measures. Such is the tight webbing of the legal structures of overcentralized federalism that incremental reform has paradoxically become harder than bold strokes. Confucianism speaks wisely of the need for “a rectification of names,” recognizing that the obfuscation of language is both warning of, and a contributor to, the distortion of political institutions. Opportunities for rectification are greatest when new dynasties—in effect new leaders—begin their rule. That is where we are now. We mustn’t let the opportunity pass.
Happily, there are now prospects for bipartisan support for bold reform. Conservatives and constitutional originalists can readily be persuaded that the nation has wandered too far from the Founders’ design. But liberals can also be persuaded of the need for subsidiarity-accented reform, because excessive centralization has abetted plutocracy and corruption to an intolerable degree. We stand at a rare moment when the acute partisan polarization of our political culture might be healed through a collective effort at advancing intelligent, prudent subsidiarity. All we really need is leadership with courage enough to tell unpleasant truths, and the vision to point out a better way forward.
Plenty of Opportunities
Beyond the NPA and the VNS, what bold reforms should we consider to advance subsidiarity? First, we can create in all fifty states a form of new micro-industrial policy that connects state government, universities, and private enterprise. Several models of such triangulation already exist: the University of Texas at Austin-Dell Technologies nexus; the Carnegie Mellon-robotics-Pittsburgh synergy; the Caltech-Silicon Valley relationship; and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Research Triangle. We must scale up and disseminate this model throughout the country.
This triangular dynamic is critical to improving the quality of state government, generating new good jobs, and revitalizing community at the state and local levels. To work it cannot be—it must not be—a federal-heavy initiative. The federal government can supply ideas and encouragement, and even establish themes like electric vehicle surge production. It can and certainly should increase funding for basic science back to the healthier levels of the post-World War II era. But states and local communities must do most of the heavy lifting. We do not need a national industrial policy, which an inherently weak American administrative state will screw up as surely as weeds follow spring rains. Instead we need federally encouraged and possibly coordinated state industrial policies. The difference may seem subtle at first blush, but it is important.
Similarly, it is worth noting in light of the pandemic that, yes, as many have argued, we need more government when it comes to investing in and building adequate public health infrastructure. We have in recent decades foolishly underinvested in this area (among many others). But crucially, we don’t need a lot more government at the federal level; we need more government for public health at state and local levels.
Second, and related to the first reform, we must find a way to keep capital within state and local zones. The trend now is for nearly all money, whether from pension funds or corporate profits, to go to New York and from there to banks and investment fund managers around the world. This trend needs to be modulated because it contributes to the corrosive urban/rural divides that are plaguing not just regions of the United States, but advanced countries all over the world. We must re-create local business cycles so that a crash of the great wave of the single business cycle we have foolishly allowed to come into existence does not once again drown us all in financial mayhem.
Moreover, in order to revivify social trust at the community level, money has to support new and creative relationships. It can’t do that if it’s many thousands of miles away. What we need, as quaint as it may sound, is a new sort of savings and loan system. We might lose a percentage point or two of interest profit on the capital, but that’s nothing compared to what we would stand to gain in terms of democratic vitality and social coherence.
Equally quaint sounding, perhaps, but no less a barometer of community health, is the need to reverse the death throes of local media, from print media to other forms. The rate at which local papers—their business models shot to hell thanks to internet disintermediation and hyperconnectivity—are being cannibalized by hedge-fund predators is both shocking and telling. This begs reversal and restabilization.
A successful movement toward subsidiarity obviously depends on the viability of local economies, but an innovative micro-industrial policy cannot accomplish this on its own. After all, not everyone has the aptitude or the educational opportunity necessary to work on the edges of technological innovation. It is therefore essential for the health of our communities that we also decentralize and re-rationalize American agriculture—and that’s where the New Pioneer Act can play a key role as a model and accelerant of reform.
It is part myth and part deception that American agriculture is healthy and efficient. It is only efficient if one looks at short-term numbers. The gigantism of agro-corporate monoculture is more capital intensive than the steel industry ever was. It is also destroying our soil, polluting our water, and creating, thanks to the use of chemical fertilizers, an insect holocaust that is killing pollinators far and wide. In the long term, our present practices are both unsustainable and ruinous for both the environment and local communities. The NPA could be expanded over time, but even if it is not, its model can inspire states and counties to regulate agriculture in ways that will make the latter environmentally harmonious for generations to come.
Herein, too, lies a vision that can challenge and inspire the nation: Turn America into the largest, most beautiful, sustainable, and multigenerational participatory garden in the history of the world. Once we do that, we might consider applying the same concept to the entirety of the New World, from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego.
It will be difficult, even now in this time of incipient crisis and rethinking, to do any one of these things, much less cover all four bases. The only way to imagine it working is to start with what is most easily achievable and push forward on the basis of initial success. This can be done with sufficiently wise and energetic leadership.
Even the full implementation of the Quadrivium Fix may not be the end of the matter. If these four baskets of reform could be implemented, possibly as a result of a fourth major historical realignment of American party politics, we might then be in a position to consider repealing the 17th Amendment to further empower state government, and both revivify and augment the logic of the Electoral College. We might even be in a position eventually to consider repealing the 16th Amendment, so that revenue to operate the federal government would no longer come from income taxes but from block “grants” from the states, augmented by excise taxes, a national VAT tax on selected kinds of consumption, and other sources.
Obviously, there are critical functions only the federal government can perform, or the Constitution would not have enumerated them in the course of repairing the fatal flaws of the Articles of Confederation era. They range from national defense to administering federal law (not least civil rights law) to protecting the nation’s environmental commons. These and other functions certainly must be properly financed, but why assume that the only way to finance them is the way we have financed them since the Wilson Administration? Why is that method chiseled in stone, when so many other aspects of governance are deemed not to be?
Repealing the Progressive Era amendments to the Constitution is clearly a bridge too far at present. But we must be ready with real answers to our problems when opportunity arises. That opportunity may be closer than ever, and a successor party to the now essentially Trump-destroyed GOP may be the vehicle for it. In that light let us recall Louis Pasteur’s remark that, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” So let’s prepare.
Adam Garfinkle is a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, the founding editor of The American Interest, and a distinguished fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.
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