The Myth of the Laboratories of Democracy
54 Pages Posted: 11 Aug 2021 Last revised: 21 Mar 2023
Date Written: December 12, 2022
A classic constitutional parable teaches that our federal system of government allows States to function as “laboratories of democracy.” This tale has been passed down from generation to generation, often to justify constitutional protections for state autonomy from the federal government. But scholars have failed to explain how state governments manage to overcome numerous impediments to experimentation, including resource scarcity, free-rider problems, and misaligned incentives.
This Article maintains that the laboratories account is missing a proper appreciation for the coordinated networks of third-party organizations (such as interest groups, activists, and funders) that often fuel policy innovation. These groups are the real laboratories of democracy today. They perform the lion’s share of tasks necessary to enact new policies; they create incentives that motivate elected officials to support their preferred policies; and they mobilize the power of the federal government to change the landscape against which state experimentation occurs. If our federal system of government seeks to encourage policy experimentation, then courts should endeavor to create ground rules for regulating competition between political networks, rather than continuing futile efforts to protect state autonomy. The Article concludes by sketching some implications for several areas of legal doctrine, including federal preemption of state law, conditional spending, and the anticommandeering principle.
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