BRIGHT ENOUGH

Posted in Rants on April 15th, 2013 by Ed

You've heard the silly cliche about states as "laboratories of democracy" in the American federal system, and there is some truth to it. When a policy implemented in one state produces a positive result, other states imitate it. This assumes that state legislatures are innovative and more willing to try new things than Congress, which sounds pretty neat. Unfortunately, it turns out it's much easier to get elected to most state legislatures compared to Congress, which means a lot of state legislators are crazy people.

Legislative professionalism is a key concept in the study of state politics (see Squire 2007, "Measuring State Legislative Professionalism" SPPQ 7(2): 211-227 – warning: political science content) referring to the resources available to legislators. In some states, being in the legislature barely qualifies as a part time job and pays almost nothing (ex: Kansas) while others like California resemble the U.S. Congress in terms of salary, days in session, staff, and financial resources available. In low professionalism states, the people who serve are not necessarily the sharpest knives in the drawer.

Consider New Hampshire. The small, lightly populated state elects 400 members to its lower house and pays them $100 per year. If you move there, the odds are half-decent that you can serve in the legislature at some point. You might not know squat about government or politics, but don't worry. You'll find yourself in good company.

This is a partial explanation of why we see so many stories passed around the internet of some Republican state legislator saying something borderline insane and why we see so many truly idiotic things passed through state houses (recent favorites include the Alaska nullification bill and North Carolina's proposal to establish Christianity as the state religion). It is possible that these legislatures propose such bills to attract attention or to make an ideological statement. It is equally possible that they do it because they are composed of people who are dumber than a sack of doorknobs and/or mentally ill.

Not being an optimist by nature, it's hard for me to argue that this scenario produces a net positive in terms of "innovation". In South Dakota, the state house recently killed in committee a bill to criminalize texting while driving. Such bills have been passed with little opposition in other states, and experiments have shown that TWD is at least as dangerous, if not moreso, than intoxicated driving. Furthermore, the bans are a rare example of legislation that enjoys near-unanimous support among voters. You'd have better luck finding people who support legalizing drunk driving.

If such a bill died in committee in Congress, we would follow the trail of money to discover the cause. It would turn out that, in this example, big phone and internet companies hired armies of lobbyists and spent millions to turn members of Congress against it. But that doesn't explain what's happening in South Dakota. The bill died because the lower chamber (it passed in the state senate) is full of people who are too stupid to live, yet somehow judged bright enough to craft legislation. Why bribe or lobby people to support a repugnant issue position when you can simply sit back and let some yahoos convince themselves to support it for no reason other than their own bizarre worldviews.

States certainly are laboratories, but they're ones available to untrained, amateur, and potentially unstable scientists who usually produce the legislative equivalent of an exploding beaker.