Gov. Jerry Brown’s spokesman has raised questions about the feasibility of the Six States proposal, arguing that “the proposal has serious practical challenges.” But does this position harmonize with Brown’s own articulated preferences?
Venture capitalist Tim Draper believes his initiative to carve California into six separate states has now received the requisite number of signatures necessary to qualify for a November 2016 ballot. If it does, since the vote itself is not imminent, voters in California will have a substantial amount of time to consider separation and subsidiarity.
Public reaction to the initiative has been mostly critical. A poll in February placed opposition to the Six States plan at 59 percent. Among pundits and the Internet crowd, there is even less enthusiasm. In rare spasms of political conservatism, Ezra Klein of Vox believes that it is “an incredibly dumb idea”; the San Francisco Chronicle maintains that such a move will create a “state of confusion”; and Reddit’s response has been the comically apoplectic: “F*** everything about this.” Perhaps the difficulty Vladimir Putin faces in reassembling the former Soviet Union is informing their opinions.
Nonetheless, the obstacles to the Six States effort truly are daunting. First, the initiative would necessitate a majority vote of California’s electorate. Second, approval of the split by the California Legislature, as it is currently composed, would likely be required. Third, the plan would need a green light from Congress. Each step appears a degree of magnitude more difficult to achieve than the last.
Still, the Six States plan deserves serious consideration if for no other reason than the existing precedent for such a conversation.
While California is today the most populous state in the nation, with 38 million people currently living within its borders, extreme geographical and cultural variations have always been a hallmark of the state. In 1859, California’s legislature recognized the problem associated with such dissimilarities and passed legislation that would have broken California into two states, Northern and Southern. When the question was put to voters, they agreed. Three out of four voters cast a ballot in favor of devolution (Congress never acted on the question, preoccupied as it was by the events leading to the Civil War).
Today, there are any number of angles from which to evaluate the Six States proposal, including representational, economic and cultural.
The subsidiarity angle, though, is well-known as a favorite of California’s current governor, Jerry Brown. Gov. Brown is a former Jesuit novice fond of Catholic social philosophy. During both the 2013 and 2014 State of the State addresses he referenced the notion of “subsidiarity.” The idea behind subsidiarity is that matters should be handled by the least centralized and smallest competent authority possible.
Through the lens of subsidiarity, California’s government is something of a failure. Can it really be said that 38 million Californians are represented in Sacramento by the smallest competent authority possible? Consider that a California state senator represents 931,000 people, compared to a California member of Congress who represents 704,000 people. This ratio of population-to-legislator is by far the highest in the United States.
Perhaps the issue could be addressed by something short of dividing the state since adding legislators is not unheard of, but other problems defy straightforward resolution.
Not unexpectedly, even though the U.S. Constitution grants the states plenary power over matters not explicitly reserved to the federal government, the State of California maintains state functions that are unable to respond flexibly to regional concerns. This is particularly true with regard to the state’s regulatory environment on business, natural resources and transportation issues.
For example, those areas of California that are dependent upon cultivation of agricultural development, and those that are dependent upon the use of natural resources, chafe under the political weight of parts of the state capable of supporting themselves through other means. By use of the governor’s subsidiarity concept and dividing California, new states would be able to establish regulatory environments reflective of not only their own political will, but also the economic assets of their region. Doing so, residents of the new states would have their will better reflected by a state government in closer proximity to their concerns – a total win for subsidiarity.
Clearly, the practical uncertainty associated with splitting up California demands at least as much attention as the theoretical justifications for a split. No doubt, much time and effort will be expended in that very endeavor. Still, an advocate of free markets and the plain benefits of federalism would be hard-pressed to ignore the virtues of reassessing California’s present situation.
Authored by Ian Adams, an Associate Policy Analyst at the R Street Institute. A version of this post originally appeared on the R Street Institute blog.