About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Yet another argument against "states' rights"

As a new US citizen of European origins I have always been struck by the strange idea that Americans have of "states' rights," something that has brought us -- for example -- one of the least democratic forms of election, where US Senators are sent to Washington two per state regardless of that state's population size, thereby putting micro-entities such as Delaware on the same level as giants like California and New York. A recent article by Sam Dillon in the New York Times highlights another unfortunate outcome of the doctrine of states' rights, especially when combined with the sheer idiocy of the Bush administration's so-called "no child left behind" law.

The law mandates that, by 2014, all American children (i.e., 100% of the population) should score at proficiency on a set of standardized high school tests. As nice as that may sound, how are the various states doing so far? Very well, according to the states; horribly, according to the federal government. Take Tennessee, to pick on a specific case: according to the state's test, a whopping 87% of its eight-grade kids are doing at or better than proficiency, something that – having actually lived in Tennessee for nine years -- I tell you smells of pure educational fiction. Sure enough, when the same kids were tested using the federal system, only 21% were proficient! And the same goes for many (though not all) other states.

What's going on? Simple, the Bush administration, bowing to its ultra-conservative wing, had to compromise on states' rights, and allowed states to set their own standards of achievement, while telling them that they would be financially penalized if their percentages didn't increase every year. Well, even the officials of Tennessee could figure out the obvious solution: lower your own standards and you'll do better. This is an idea similar to having corporate officers policing themselves (which resulted in the Enron-like scandals of the last few years). Perhaps we should have drunk drivers perform their own alcohol tests?

Educators, of course, are calling for national standards, but they are being opposed by the testing industry, which makes a lot more money by selling 50 different customized sets of tests than it would by selling just one (this is the same reason why the health care industry opposes a single payer system, of course). As a result, kids in Tennessee will feel good about themselves for no particularly good reason, and kids in Kansas will not know anything about one of the most important scientific theories of all times (evolution). Hurray for states' rights!


  1. In terms of the Senate: It is designed the way it is because when this country was founded, the 13 colonies were, essentially, independent entities. They were, for lack of a better term, their own countries with differing cultures. The Articles of Confederation were similar to, say, the UN or the EU today. There was much debate and protest over how Federalism would effect the autonomy of the respective states. Hence, the Senate was formed to protect the interests of the individual states.

    The problem is, we no longer live in the late 1700's. Any significant differences in the states in terms of culture and politics are long gone. A conservative Republican in rural Pennsylvania is not significantly different from a conservative Republican in rural Indiana, and the same can be said for urban progressives. (I don’t mean to stereotype, just making a point.)

    That is why some have suggested dissolving the Senate in favor of a small Parliament. We would still have the House of Representatives representing the public in terms of geography, but a parliament would do better (I think) to represent our political and cultural differences.

    Of course, the current system favors those already in power, so I wouldn’t hold my breath.


  2. "Of course, the current system favors those already in power, so I wouldn’t hold my breath." - noah

    And that POWER is why the two main political parties spend billions of dollars either trying to retain it or capture it. What a waste! Those are billions of dollars that some local economy could use towards local infrastructure or social projects. A strong federal government will just continue to suck us dry and misuse our resources. I'm not even convinced that the state level is "local" enough.

  3. "I'm not even convinced that the state level is "local" enough."

    So you really think that individual counties should be making decisions about whether to teach evolution?

    That's what I find a bit strange in the libertarian position. It doesn't make much sense to say that government is all bad (or all good, like some liberals would have it). It depends. We need different levels of involvement depending on what is being discussed, and there have to be checks and balances, both within branches of the government and on behalf of the people.

    But to say that all needs to be reduced to the minimum level of government involvement possible comes pretty close to an anarchist society, which is no society at all. We risk sliding towards Thomas Hobbes' description of the state of nature for humanity: "continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

  4. >"... nasty, brutish, and short."

    As well it should be. ;-)

    >"So you really think that individual counties should be making decisions about whether to teach evolution?"

    Heavens NO! The parents should be making the decision. The government should not be in the business of education at all. Government, even very local government, manages to make a botch of pretty much everything they try to do. Education is way too important to leave in the hands of bureacrats and politicians. But you probably know all of the libertarian arguments (if not, you should read up on them before so summarily dismissing them). Admittedly a paradigm shift and admittedly some problems for some people but the current system has more problems for more people.

  5. I do know the standard libertarian arguments (in fact, some of my best friends are libertarian!), and you may not be surprised to find that I don't buy them... :) (though some aspects of the libertarian position are better than others)

    As both a parent and a professional educator, I think parents should stay away from children's education as much as possible, but we have already covered this ground in a previous post on home schooling and the many responses it generated.

  6. Personally, I don't understand getting behind any philosophy, wether it be political, social or economic, in such fundamentalist ways. What's wrong with taking things issue by issue?

    I agree that government is generally bad at it's job (if for no other reason that who's in charge today will not be in charge tomorrow) But dividing our selves into independent contractors (aside from being most likely impossible) would probobly be even less effective. For one, those with the most money and power will undoubtedly use it to limit competition as much as possible, which will make those without power band together to force the hand of the rich putting us back where we started with big government.(Condensed version.)

    Human nature pretty much precludes a strict libertarian society.

    That being said, I also think that running to Uncle Scam everytime we are faced with a problem is probobly a bad idea as well. We have to realize that the Liberal Utopia is never coming. For one, every programme we put in place will eventually be cut or eradicated once the pendulum swings back to the right. Any headway made will be lost. Second, liberals sometimes have a problem seeing the forrest for the trees. It is possible that a new social programme can hurt more folks than it helps.

    This is why I would like to see more voices in politics, more choices to choose from and a more robust debate.

    "Every theory has it's holes when real life steps in" -
    Dead Kennedys "Where Do You Draw the Line"


  7. I think that the problem falls neatly into the box of "treating the desease is much more profitable than curing your ills".

    Capitalism is wonderful once you understand it's inherent limitation ( non-ethical reward system ) and have the government step in to regulate buisnesses when profits trump basic ethics. Our govenment best not forget that they need to ( too often it seems ) regulate buisness and industry when profits and ethics collide since capitalism will always favor profits.

  8. Here in America, we have the idea that a strong, centeralized government will almost always destroy liberty, through it's actions, it's taxing, and it's spending. I don't use the term "states rights," i do, however, think the federal government should only be allowed to do what is specifically mentioned in the Constitution, and have everything else left to the states.

    Simply put, the children in tennessee are just going to have to suffer, for the principal of small federal government and individual liberty.

    Also, about Enron, everyone should be innocent until proven guilty, including corporations. this means NOT regulating, only punishing when a law is broken or force is used against others. You don't regulate everyone because they have the potential to commit crimes. That contradicts the principal of liberty.

    And as for the single payer system, i also oppose that, because it puts more wealth, power, and control into the hands of the federal government, which is certainly always scary, even when intentions are good.