Federal Laboratories of Democracy

53 Pages Posted: 27 Nov 2017 Last revised: 11 Jan 2018

See all articles by Hannah Jacobs Wiseman

Hannah Jacobs Wiseman

Florida State University - College of Law

Dave Owen

University of California - Hastings College of the Law

Date Written: November 22, 2017


Facilitating state policy experimentation is an oft-cited justification for the U.S. federalism system. Despite growing recognition of risk aversion, free riding, and other disincentives to state-led experimentation, the mythology of state laboratories still dominates these accounts. We propose a framework that counters this entrenched assumption and enables more productive analysis of policy experimentation. The Article explores a continuum of experimental approaches that differ in terms of the degree of experimental rigor that they incorporate — such as the extent to which they control for confounding variables — and the governance levels at which they are designed and implemented. We apply this new analytical framework to case studies from divergent policy areas, including agricultural, natural resources, and education law. These examples highlight rigorous experiments designed and largely administered by federal agencies.

Our framework and case studies turn the concept of the “laboratories of the states” on its head, showing that experimentation can and often does occur at multiple levels, including the federal level. In countering and adding nuance to traditional experimentation accounts, the Article also reveals the benefits of federal involvement in policy experiments, and thus the perils of weakening federal authority in an effort to enhance core federalism values like experimentation. Federal expertise and resources — and even the simple availability of experimental platforms, such as federally-owned and managed lands — often give the federal government a comparative advantage in the policy experimentation field. This is not to say that the federal government should consistently lead and implement experiments, but it calls attention to the importance of understanding experimentation as a multi-level endeavor that extends well beyond the states.

Keywords: federalism, laboratory of the states, education, agriculture, natural resources, policy experimentation, diffusion, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Education

Suggested Citation

Wiseman, Hannah Jacobs and Owen, Dave, Federal Laboratories of Democracy (November 22, 2017). FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 867; UC Hastings Research Paper No. 259. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3076066 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3076066

Hannah Jacobs Wiseman (Contact Author)

Florida State University - College of Law ( email )

425 W. Jefferson Street
Tallahassee, FL 32306
United States

Dave Owen

University of California - Hastings College of the Law ( email )

200 McAllister Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
United States

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