Collective Action Federalism

Like Eugene Volokh, I too look forward to the upcoming guest-blogging stints by Kurt Lash and Neil Siegel. It so happens that I recently reviewed Robert Cooter and Neigl Siegel’s outstanding article “Collective Action Federalism” on Jotwell, a website where legal scholars review important new scholarship. Here’s an excerpt from what I said:

Robert Cooter and Neil Siegel’s Collective Action Federalism is probably the most important academic article on constitutional federalism in several years…..

In Collective Action Federalism, Cooter and Siegel argue that the congressional powers enumerated in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution should be interpreted in light of the goal of giving Congress the authority it needs to address collective action problems among the states. A collective action problem arises when members of a group want a good, but have little or no incentive to contribute to its production, because they can instead try to free ride on the efforts of others…..

The authors argue that Article I, Section 8 should be treated as a “unified whole” rather than as a discrete set of unconnected individual powers. And they propose collective action theory as a unifying framework for interpreting that whole. Where there is an interstate collective action problem, they would give Congress the power to address it. Where no such problem exists, state power should be allowed to prevail….

The greatest strength of Cooter and Siegel’s analysis is that it accounts for the interconnections between the various congressional powers and expresses their underlying unity. As they point out, this has advantages under both originalist and nonoriginalist theories of interpretation….

Cooter and Siegel’s analysis also has a few problems. It is far from clear that Article I really gives Congress unfettered authority to solve any and all collective action problems among the states. If that were the case, why would the Founders have bothered to carefully enumerate seventeen separate powers plus the Necessary and Proper Clause, instead of a single catch-all “Collective Action Clause?” To their credit, Cooter and Siegel foresaw this issue and tried to address it by arguing that the enumerated powers are not meant to be an exhaustive list, but an illustrative one. Yet it seems unlikely that a merely illustrative list would be so long and precisely detailed. Moreover, treating the list as illustrative renders the Necessary and Proper Clause superfluous. Under that approach, Congress would already have had the power to enact any measures “necessary” to solve any collective action problem, even if they were not specifically listed.

Second, Cooter and Siegel’s framework might actually negate certain specifically enumerated powers if it turns out that they are not needed to solve any collective action problems. Consider Congress’ power to “establish post offices.” It is now clear that private firms such as Federal Express can deliver the mail just as effectively as the federal government, if not more so. And they can easily exclude would-be free riders who try to get away with not paying for postage. Does that render the US Postal Service unconstitutional?

Most importantly, Cooter and Siegel do not consider the possibility that the Constitution should be interpreted to curtail federal government policies that create “public bads,” as well as facilitate those that provide public goods. Just as Congress can solve collective action problems, it can also create them. To take one common case, it can enact special interest legislation that benefits small, well-organized groups at the expense of the general public. The repeal of such laws then becomes a nationwide collective action problem, one that the public often fails to solve because individual citizens and states have strong incentives to free ride on such matters. Curtailing such interest group legislation is one possible rationale for interpreting Congress’ enumerated powers relatively narrowly. Obviously, state governments often enact harmful special interest legislation of their own. But only Congress can impose such a law on the entire nation at one fell swoop….

Cooter and Siegel rightly argue that “[a] federal constitution ideally gives the central and state governments the power to do what each does best.” But a federal constitution must also protect against the dangers posed by both state and federal power. A powerful central government is often “best” at solving national collective action problems. But it is also often the “best” at creating them…. A more comprehensive collective action approach to constitutional federalism must consider both sides of this dilemma.

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