This commentary was originally featured in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 29, 2017.
Conservatives may bristle at the Golden State’s newfound vigor in standing against governmental action that it views as insufficiently progressive — but they shouldn’t. In fact, they should encourage California to continue in its resistance and persistence.
While California’s opposition to the federal government is probably rooted in opposition to President Trump, that shouldn’t stop conservatives from cheering them on. Yes, if a Democrat sat in the Oval Office, California would probably be much less inclined to oppose increases in federal power, as it was during the Obama administration.
But for the purposes of our system of shared governance, federalism, the motivation matters less than the effect.
America’s governing structure allows individual state governments to control all matters of health, safety and welfare policy that address their citizens. Under the tenets of federalism, the federal government should legislate only according to the limited grants of power provided to it under the U.S. Constitution. By protecting its policy goals against encroachment from both the federal government and its sister states, California is operating exactly as federalism intended.
There’s precedent for its approach as well: Texas adopted a similar approach during the Obama years, suing the federal government 48 times.
Agreeing that California may use its state power to forward its legitimate policy aims does not entail agreement with those aims. The wonderful thing about federalism is its allowance for states to serve as true laboratories of democracy, pursuing progressive and conservative policies that the national government would not stoop to favor.
Federalism dictates that if California bankrupts its state with astronomically high taxes, strict environmental regulation and $15 minimum wages, then California will rightly bear all responsibility for its debt. As harsh as that may sound, in such an instance California would serve as an oracle of caution for other states that might wish to adopt progressive policies.
The only way that the country will finally learn whether progressive policies lead to cultural ruin or advancement is to see them work in our own backyard. Perhaps California’s approach will work. We will never know until we allow California to try, without interference by other federal or state governments.
The same principle applies to the efforts of other, redder states. Last month a federal appeals court upheld a Mississippi law allowing business owners to refuse service to customers based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.” And despite strife in the state Capitol, Texas lawmakers are committed to lowering taxes, attracting jobs, reforming property taxes, and increasing family choice in education. Conservative policies can improve the lives of American citizens, and Texas can show other states how.
Conservative onlookers should, of course, try to persuade liberals that federalism’s benefits extend beyond state-level opposition to Republicans in Washington and other states. Even if their arguments don’t succeed, federalism is a net good regardless of the reasoning behind our left-wing friends’ pursuit of it.
States should govern themselves on matters of public welfare. They know their citizens better than the Washington monolith.