Downsizing America?

Almost 20 years ago, outlining his personal and political philosophy in Around the Cragged Hill, renowned American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan had limited foresight into the immense political, cultural and financial pressures that would eventually be exerted on the American political system over the next generation.

He worried a lot about bureaucracy – its boundless capacity for growth and its natural tendency to draw in ever-increasing numbers of people with vested interests its perpetuation.  As these numbers grow and bureaucracies garner more electoral influence, aspiring reformers eventually perceive that “treatment becomes more painful than the disease” and move on to some less intractable problem.

To put it bluntly, they throw in the towel.

Thinking about all this prompted Kennan to offer a radical solution: a drastic reordering of the federal system — downsizing it by entrusting the biggest share of domestic policies to new political entities he described as constituent republics.

Kennan obviously had determined that states were no longer large enough to absorb most of these powers. As an alternative, he advocated the merging of various states sharing strong cultural and historical affinities into constituent republics, though he also singled out a few major U.S. cities.

I could conceived of something like nine of these republics — let say, New England; the Middle Atlantic states; the Middle West; the Northwest (from Wisconsin to the Northwest, and down the Pacific coast to central California); the Southwest (including southern California and Hawaii); Texas (by itself); the Old South; Florida (perhaps including Puerto Rico); and Alaska; plus three great self-governing urban regions, those of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — a total of twelve constituent entities.

To these twelve entities, Kennan advocated entrusting “a larger part of the federal power than one might suspect — large enough, in fact, to make most people gasp.”

Kennan readily conceded what a daunting and complex undertaking this would be.  Even so, he contended that the advantages of such reform would offer tremendous opportunities for experimentation and innovation.

He also stressed that his suggestion implied no attempt to create a patchwork of racial or ethnic enclaves throughout the United States.

Several of these proposed individual republics — New England, the Old South, the Middle West, and the great urban regions — would embrace within their borders a good cross section of the diversity of cultures, traditions, and ethnic and racial colorations now borne by the country as a whole; yet each of them would be marked by certain peculiar cultural and social qualities that would set it off from the others.

The persistent and seemingly intractable problems associated with bureaucratic growth and influence were the motivating factors behind Kennan’s radical plan.  Even so, the immense fiscal, political and cultural pressures at work in the United States today leads one to wonder: Is current federal system sustainable over the long term?

Conservatives of strong decentralizing bents — and I confess here and now I used to be one of them — contend that it isn’t.

This raises the question: If, as most decentralizers would contend, the federal government is an agent of the states and at some point fails to deliver the goods, what will happen, especially considering that many, if not most, states are ill-equipped to fill this breach?

At least one prominent U.S. political leader already has raised the “S” word — secession. But barring this radical solution, what can be done?

I believe Kennan ultimately may be credited by future historians for anticipating these looming challenges and offering a viable and, compared with secession, painless solution almost two decades in advance.

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