Federal Laboratories of Democracy
53 Pages Posted: 27 Nov 2017 Last revised: 11 Jan 2018
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
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