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About the Talk

Federalism as a Collective Problem-Solving Mechanism: How States Improve National Policymaking

This paper revives a neglected benefit of federalism: states improve the quality of national policies.  One key factor in a democracy’s performance is its ability to locate good policy solutions.  Democracies set policy through broad input, channeled through institutions; those institutions shape the scope of the information that is generated by the population.  When federalism is robust, states have sufficient independence to express their diverse perspectives, knowledge, and expertise on policymaking, contributing to the richness of the information space.  States contribute to national policymaking in three ways: they explore the policy space; they tinker incrementally when they partner with the national government to implement national standard policies; and they defy the national government, serving as alarms, causing the public to look more closely at national policy.  The ability of states to serve as laboratories depends upon the robustness of the system of safeguards.  I’ll describe the current dispute over auto emissions regulation in the United States as a test case. In making this argument, I use information theory and systems theory.

About the Speaker:

Jenna Bednar is the Edie N Goldenberg Endowed Director for the University of Michigan in Washington Program; Professor of Political Science, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; Research Professor, Center for Political Studies and the Institute for Social Research at Michigan.

Professor Bednar’s research is on the analysis of institutions, focusing on the theoretical underpinnings of the stability of federal states.  Her most recent book,The Robust Federation demonstrates how complementary institutions maintain and adjust the distribution of authority between national and state governments. This book makes two theoretical contributions to the study of federalism’s design.  First, it shows that distributions suggested by a constitution mean nothing if the governments have no incentive to abide by them, and intergovernmental retaliation tends to be inefficient.  The book’s second contribution is that while no institutional safeguard is sufficient to improve the union’s prosperity, institutions work together to improve compliance with the distribution of authority, thereby boosting the union’s performance.

Generally, her work seeks to answer questions such as:

  • Why does the federal government take advantage of state governments?
  • Why are some federations stable, despite frequent episodes of intergovernmental tension?
  • Can the court effectively referee federalism disputes if it makes mistakes or is biased in favor of one government?

Professor Bednar is also interested in constitutions: specifically, the potential that constitutional design has to affect the behavior of heterogeneous populations with decentralized governmental structures.