The amount of power held by the federal government, versus the power of the individual states, has been a rigorous debate since the dawn of our nation. From the Federalist Papers to the dilemma of slave states to the devolution and block grants of the 1980s and 1990s, the appropriate level of state power has been hotly contested. Conservatives frequently rail about top-down policies from Washington burdening the states and quashing local freedom, while liberals often decry the ability of individual states to trample the rights of the minority and operate like corrupt, nepotistic fiefdoms.
Despite the rousing debate, the federal government has triumphed in the federalism debate more times than not. Aside from the supremacy clause, commerce clause, and necessary and proper clause in the U.S. Constitution that heavily favor federal power over state power, the advantage tends to swing toward Washington due to the power of the purse. Simply put, the federal government has lots of money, and states will behave if they want a piece of it. We see the president’s power when it comes to withholding federal funds from states and municipalities that defy his wishes.
But what if a state was so large that it could fund its own public policy wish list? In the contentious era of President Donald Trump, could liberal states actually make a conscious effort to insulate themselves from his executive branch by going it alone? The state of New York has completed a groundbreaking move in this direction by making undergraduate public higher education tuition-free for families making less than $125,000 per year.
Meanwhile, some California lawmakers are proposing single-payer healthcare for their state, hoping to achieve the vision of 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and free themselves from continual agony over whether or not Republicans in Congress will eliminate Obamacare. Although the California bill is unlikely to come to fruition, with California Governor Jerry Brown being more fiscally conservative than New York’s Andrew Cuomo, a growing body of evidence suggests that most voters are ready for a sea change on healthcare. Even a majority of voters who cast ballots for Donald Trump support single-payer, and the U.S. stands alone among industrialized nations when it comes to clinging to privatized medicine.
Alongside California, New York, Washington, and Oregon are mulling single-payer healthcare bills as well. Although recent single-payer attempts in Colorado and Vermont did not succeed, a quick Internet search reveals that editorialists in those states are itching for another try. In the aftermath of the spectacular failure of the Republicans’ American Health Care Act (AHCA), the proposed conservative replacement for Obamacare, liberals are going on the offensive with renewed calls for single-payer. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), despite not clinching the Democratic presidential nomination last summer, has come out swinging with another national proposal for single-payer.
While Sanders’ bill is unlikely to get much traction in the GOP-controlled Senate, his continued willingness to fight may inspire liberals in states that have healthcare reform bills on the docket. If progressive Californians and New Yorkers can push through single-payer healthcare in those states, the new laws would have nationwide impact. States are in constant competition for talent and investment, and no state will want to lose out on skilled workers to states that offer tuition-free public higher education and single-payer health care. Other Democratic states will quickly implement single-payer healthcare to avoid losing invaluable workers to New York and California.
Over time, even moderate states will consider implementing “socialist” medicine and public higher education.
The reason for this inevitability is simple demographics. Young people tend to favor liberal policies, and are also the most able to move from state to state. How many young, highly-skilled, hardworking citizens will move to California or New York to take advantage of policies that have been so popular in Europe? These young folks will be taxpayers for the next forty years or more, adding lots of money to liberal states’ coffers.
And, as an added bonus, young people will not tax the healthcare system as much due to their decreased need for medical care. Ironically, the young people who prefer single-payer are the ones who will stress it the least, giving states that implement it first plenty of time to build up financial reserves. The 25-year-old who moves to Syracuse or Los Angeles will likely pay more into the state healthcare system than he or she receives from it for some thirty years or more.
When it comes to higher education, the benefits are similar. With students and parents across the nation looking to reap free college tuition, competition to land jobs and college admission slots in New York will be intense. Due to limited supply, only the top contenders will make the cut. For better or worse, this tends to mean parents and students who are wealthier, better educated, and more highly skilled. These citizens will generate more business, and pay more taxes, in New York state. They will be more productive workers and, over time, boost the reputation of the states’ business and institutions of public higher education.
Not to be outdone, California also has a tuition-free public higher education bill in the works.
However, the benefits of becoming a liberal utopia in the age of Trump may be limited to a handful of states: Aside from New York and California, few Democratic states have enough of a tax base to support bold initiatives like tuition-free college and single-payer healthcare. And these state initiatives may only be successful by drawing in outside talent from other states – what happens when a fourth or fifth state passes single-payer and does not receive an influx in young, healthy Millenials?
Progressives nationwide should not focus solely on moving to New York and California in the coming years: Only nationwide single-payer and free higher education systems can be guaranteed to be sustainable over the long run.