A reader writes:
Yes, I have heard the whole "laboratories of democracy" spiel, but can you please explain why you and (other?) conservatives in this country are so enamoured with states' rights? Why is the "state" the political subdivision you think should be able to decide such things as gay marriage, abortion, segregation, etc., etc., etc.? Frankly, I have never understood why states rights have anything to do with complex political issues - particularly when it comes to issues, like civil rights, where there is a clear wrong answer and a clear right answer).
To my mind, either you believe same-sex-marriage is a basic human right, or you don't. Either you believe abortion is profoundly immoral or you don't. I fail to see why so many are focused on whether it's a state or the country that allows or forbids either issue. We all vote in local, state and federal elections, so is it simply because one's vote in a state election counts for more than one's vote in a federal election? And, if this is really your preference, why aren't conservatives lobbying for cities' and counties' rights as well? Similarly, given the vast differences in state populations, the whole "let the individual states decide" argument inherently accepts that the vote of a pro-life Californian is worth less than that of a pro-life voter in Montana. Why do you prefer such an inequitable system? Yes,
states are clearly defined political entities and, as such, are easy to talk about, but so are nations. And, in federal elections, the vote of any one American is worth the same as that of any other American.As to the whole "laboratories" concept, I certainly understand how that makes sense with respect to things like "small d" democracy issues. Allowing the individual states to test 50 different ways of registering voters makes sense - eventually, a "better" or even a "best" way of registering voters should rise to the top. However, when it comes to questions to which one can only respond yes/no, true/false or right/wrong, that same "good, better, best" scale isn't really appropriate. Incubation in the states simply results in an incoherent patchwork of opposing rules - and not a distillation of 50 different ways to accomplish a goal. Either gays can get married or they can't. Either women can have abortions or they can't. Yes, there are gray areas like civil unions, but for the most part, these are binary issues where repeated experimentation will not produce an outcome other than 0 or 1.
I think it's wrong to prevent any gay couple from getting married. I also think it's wrong to prevent any woman from making her own reproductive decisions. Obviously, many disagree with me and neither side will rest until our side is universally victorious. So, I ask again, why are you so convinced that debating these issues in 50 state capitals is so much better than doing so in one?
Because these are areas of deep and principled disagreement and this is a vast and diverse country. Getting Massachusetts and Alabama to agree on a deep moral issue is almost impossible. And I remain a conservative who wants to see necessary change occur as far as possible with as broad a consensus as possible and who believes that decisions made closest to the ground are the least worst ways of avoiding massive errors or hideous unintended consequences. This means that injustice will remain longer than it should in an ideal world. But we live in a real world. And that distinction between theory and practice matters to an Oakeshottian like myself. But it also means that justice when it arrives is real, more durable and can more easily become part of the fabric of a society.