Mises Wire

Splitting California into 3 Pieces Is Long Overdue

It now looks like California voters will have the chance to vote on whether or not the state ought to be split up into three pieces. The Los AngelesTimes reports :

If a majority of voters who cast ballots agree, a long and contentious process would begin for three separate states to take the place of California, with one primarily centered around Los Angeles and the other two divvying up the counties to the north and south.

This latest move is just one of many efforts over many decades to split California up, and make its constituent parts more responsive to the people who live there. This effort, however, is more successful than past ones — for example, the 2016 proposed ballot measure breaking up California into six states. That one failed to qualify for the ballot.

To say the least, breaking up California into smaller pieces is something that is long overdue. The population of California is a massive 39 million, making it larger than either Canada or Peru. And the GDP produced by that state is enormous as well. If California were an independent country, it would have an economy larger than that of the United Kingdom.

This means the California government — which can (and does) skim off substantial portions of that wealth — is among the richest governments in the world.

Moreover, the government holds a monopoly of power over a vast area which includes some of the best real estate in the world. Much of North America's best coastlines, mountains, natural harbors, forests, and mountains are contained within California.

And, here's one of the best things about being a huge state (from the government's perspective): the government can make it extremely inconvenient to escape it: "You don't like our policies? Well, then, feel free to move hundreds of miles away to Phoenix or Reno."

It's no wonder then, that the government of California has been able to abuse its taxpayers so freely. California has one of the highest tax burdens in the nation, and many leave the state because of it. More and more, the state is become a playground for the wealthy who have enough of a surplus to endure what ordinary people cannot. Thanks to endless regulations on development via environmental regulations and other measures, housing supply has been artificially limited, and thus the cost of housing in California has skyrocketed. This has led to a situation in which, as the Sacramento Bee put it "California exports its poor to Texas... while wealthier people move in." But California apparently isn't exporting all its poor — the state has the worst poverty rate in the nation when the cost of living is taken into account.

And yet, the opponents of the new "Three Californias" ballot measure will surely be telling us that the status quo is perfectly fine. We'll be told that the political establishment in Sacramento ought not be punished for decades of mismanagement, and that it would be too "extreme" to separate hard-left northern California from the more politically moderate areas of the south and east.

A State Divided

Indeed, the state isn't nearly as united in its love of the dominant political agenda as we're supposed to believe. As recently, as 2008, the vote on the same-sex marriage measure Proposition 8 illustrated some meaningful divisions in the state. Opposition to the measure (i.e., support for gay marriage) enjoyed a majority only in the northern parts of the state and along the central coast. A majority of voters in the south supported the measure, and even a majority in Los Angeles County voted for the measure. Whatever one's opinion on the subject of marriage, the vote reiterated what has long been known: what we regard as "progressive California" has long been pushed primarily by Californians centered around the Bay Area and Silicon valley. While it would be silly to call Southern California a bastion of right-wing thinking, that fact is that Southern California is less about Hollywood than it is about miles upon endless miles of suburban neighborhoods filled with middle class people who have better things to do than push for Dianne Feinstein's latest political hobbyhorse. A middle-class insurance worker in an unglamorous LA suburb with three kids has precious little in common with a pair of Princeton-educated Silicon Valley workers who live a dual-income-no-kids lifestyle, and who bring to the state the "enlightened" views we've come to expect from upper-middle-class suburbanites with expensive designer college degrees.

Moreover, this latter group has been increasingly growing as the influential majority both in terms of population, and in the wealth and resources it can bring to the political game.

So, it's hard to not be sympathetic to Californians who might be happy to break free of the current political stranglehold and perhaps embrace a smaller, more flexible political community that might be slightly more responsive to local taxpayers and citizens.

California is the Poster Child for Un-Responsive Government

And it's easy to see why many Californians might regard their political system as un-responsive to their particular personal and regional needs: California has, by far, the most unrepresentative state government in the United States.

For every state legislator, there are more than 310,000 California residents. Second-place Texas, with 139,000 residents per legislator, doesn't come close. These numbers aren't even in the same league, though, with quite a few other states — including especially safe, wealthy, and healthy ones — like Minnesota, Utah, and Massachusetts. Those states have 1 legislator for every 23,600; 23,500; and 33,000 residents, respectively.


This is what passes for political representation in California's government.

As Gerard Casey has pointed out, the very concept of political representation is built on a pretty shaky foundation as is. It's implausible enough to claim that one person can truly represent the interests of 50 or 100 other people. But 20,000 people spread out over numerous communities, geographies and ethnic groups?

In some circumstances involving fairly uniform populations, even that might be something many people could swallow. But 100,000 people? 3000,000? That mere suggestion of such a thing should be regarded as laughable. And yet that is the foundation on which California's "democracy" is based. Its government, politically speaking, relies on the acceptance of the idea that the state's legislature of 120 people can "represent" 39 million people spread across 163,000 square miles. 

In practice, however, this idea is totally implausible, and the practical downsides are numerous as well.1 With such an unrepresentative scheme:

  • Large constituencies increase the cost of running campaigns, and thus require greater reliance on large wealthy interests for media buys and access to mass media. The cost of running a statewide campaign in California, for example, is considerably larger than the cost of running a statewide campaign in Vermont. Constituencies spread across several media markets are especially costly.
  • Elected officials, unable to engage a sizable portion of their constituencies rely on large interest groups claiming to be representative of constituents.
  • Voters disengage because they realize their vote is worth less in larger constituent groups.
  • Voters disengage because they are not able to meet the candidate personally.
  • Voters disengage because elections in larger constituencies are less likely to focus on issues that are of personal, local interest to many of the voters.
  • The ability to schedule a personal meeting with an elected official is far more difficult in a large constituency than a small one.
  • Elected officials recognize that a single voter is of minimal importance in a large constituency, so candidates prefer to rely on mass media rather than personal interaction with voters.
  • Larger constituent groups are more religiously, ethnically, culturally, ideologically, and economically diverse. This means elected officials from that constituent group are less likely to share social class, ethnic group, and other characteristics with a sizable number of their constituents.
  • Larger constituencies often mean the candidate is more physically remote, even when the candidate is at "home" and not at a distant parliament or congress. This further reduces access.

California epitomizes all of this. And it's even worse when we consider the California's Congressional delegation. For each US Senator in California, there are 19 million Californians. How much do you suppose a Californian's single vote is worth to each senator? Approximately zero. (In California, each Congressional district, by the way, contains more than 600,000 residents for each member.)

So, when we consider California's enormous size, coupled with its tiny political class, it's easy to see that political decision making occurs within a tiny, distant, and remote minority well insulated from the lives of ordinary people.

This is true most places, of course, but California takes this reality to an extreme.

The Benefits of Splitting up the State

While it certainly not a panacea, splitting up California into smaller pieces would be a step in the right direction for many reasons.

First of all, it would provide more options and choice to people living in California right now. Most Californians no doubt consider themselves to be "pro-choice" people. So why not embrace more "choice" among political regimes along the West Coast. With three Californias, current residents would more easily be able to relocate to a state that better fits their personal needs, without having to relocated hundreds of miles away. As its currently proposed, a resident of Los Angeles County who seeks to change the state government he lives under may relocate to Orange County. This isn't totally convenient, of course, but it's certainly more convenient and less disruptive than having to move to Tucson or Dallas or Denver.

Decentralization has also often been shown to increase efforts to attract wealth and capital to each jurisdiction. This in turn limits the extent to which governments are willing to raise taxes and crush business with burdensome regulations. This, after all, is the model that has been working moderately well in Switzerland for centuries.

And finally, splitting up the state would help put a dent in California's utterly unrepresentative and unaccountable political class.

Even after the split-up, the three Californias would still each be among the largest states in the US — and that would still come with all the problems with noted above. But, it's a place to start.

Moreover, there's no reason each new California would have to adopt the model of a tiny 120-member legislature as "Old California" does now. Those who are unreasonably attached to the status quo would no doubt object to a 400-person House of Representatives as tiny New Hampshire has now. But even with a 200-person House, as Pennsylvania has , for each of the new Californias — each with approximately 13 million people — the state's power would become a little less centralized, a little less insulated, a little less lofty.

For More:

  • 1Research by Mark Thornton, George S. Ford, and Marc Ulrich (see here and here) concludes:
    "[T]he evidence is very suggestive that constituency size provides an explanation for much of the trend, or upward drift in government spending, because of the fixed-sized nature of most legislatures. Potentially, constituency size could be adjusted to control the growth of government."
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