Closing the Laboratories Just as They Are Most Needed

In 1932, progressive U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis popularized a phrase regarding the importance of the U.S. system of federalism. As he wrote, “…a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” What does that mean?

Given that the states can act with a great deal of autonomy within our larger federal system, they can experiment within the laboratory of governance. States have the power, via the people, to explore new ways to govern, test new public policies and pursue new theories to serve its citizens. If any particular policy is effective, it can be expanded to other states through adoption of those policies by state legislators or can even become the policy of the federal government. The Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides this grounding providing, “all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Somewhere along the way the Brandeis way of thinking was lost amongst progressives. Now, his described scientific method of sorts, the experimentation in the labs of the states, is frowned upon or outright demeaned in a number of ways. Some no longer cheer those laboratories; they want them shuttered.

Without a doubt there is a political dimension to the opposition to creativity and discovery but those selfish politics are rending the fabric of America. The result is a loss for all Americans. New policies have increasingly limited ways to be tried and refined so that ultimately all Americans can gain from new insights and successes, and be spared negative consequences.

One method for squelching such policy invention is by one state passing laws with which other states must comply. For example, California enacted auto emissions rules that were more strict than federal standards.  Another California example, network neutrality, where pro-regulatory advocates moved to force companies doing business with the state government to follow restrictive regulations regardless of where they are located in the country.  This is their effort to push the rules they prefer for us to live under onto the entire country. At a national level, enacting one size fits no one policies without evaluation of actual, already enacted policies is fraught with risk.

Such actions deny a fundamental part of the great American experiment and that is experimentation itself. Voices from across the country are left out. Any hope of a national discussion is dismissed.

Experimentation is perhaps now more important than ever. The pandemic accelerated some trends to the point where public policy desperately needs to catch up and make sure old rules and biases are not impeding progress. Rethinking education in a world where remote learning can succeed or making sure that distance medicine is enabled are two such areas. The recent hack on the fuel pipeline has heighted the need for better cybersecurity thinking.

Social discord and discontent highlights that some do not feel well served by current policies so new considerations about solving old challenges is crucial, even while staying on the solid footing of principle. As America further embraces its differences in people more diversity of thought and policy is needed.

America has always been about becoming a more perfect union, never about being a perfect one. Experimentation is how we continue to become more perfect. This is the heart and soul of the American dream and is the essence of American exceptionalism. Those who would deny this opportunity for improvement are the impediment to greater liberty and justice for all Americans.

In Depth: Innovation

Whether improving processes, creating products or developing new ideas, the application of technology can enable real changes in how state government works, both in quality of services delivered to constituents, cost savings and quality of life. States have the opportunity in our national balance of government power, to address policy…

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