Could a US state become a "utopian country"?
Like the Nordic countries.
One of the things you might have noticed about the world’s most utopian countries is that they are all small. As of 2021, Sweden has 10.4 million people, Switzerland has 8.7 million, Singapore has 5.9 million, Denmark has 5.8 million, Finland has 5.5 million, Norway has 5.4 million, New Zealand has 5.1 million, and Iceland has only 370,000.
By comparison, every one of the US states is larger than Iceland. Half of our states are larger than Norway. Our 10 most populated states are all larger than Sweden. California is our most populous state with 39.6 million people—if it were a country, it would have the fifth largest economy in the world. As Austin James points out in his essay “What if democracy has just gotten too big?,” maybe the challenge with democracy is that it’s too hard to scale?
I can’t help but think he’s right. After all, there were only 13 states when we wrote the Constitution. As of the 1790 census, there were only 3.9 million people in the country—about the size of those utopian countries today. And yet that same Constitution now governs 331.9 million. Is it any wonder we find it complicated to agree? To define what life should look like for all of us when we all have so many differing ideas about that?
Maybe we’d be better off if states governed themselves.
That’s technically how the United States works today, or at least that was the ideal. In the US, the federal government decides whether we go to war (and keeps war from happening between the states), establishes a military, and regulates currency, but the states are supposed to self-govern. The first Ten Amendments were even designed to limit the powers of the federal government and give the bulk of them to the states.
“The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State,” James Madison once said.
State governments do have their own (much longer) constitutions, they have their own legislatures (governing bodies that can make laws), and they manage their own budgets and police forces. And this was kind of what the Supreme Court was going for with the whole repeal of Roe v. Wade thing—that the federal government shouldn’t be making all of our decisions and instead that more power should go to the states, to our smaller local communities.
That’s also how it works in Europe. The European Union (EU) was created to unite the European countries so that together they can compete with larger countries (like the US) economically and politically, as well as in matters of defense (with NATO). This “larger government” has been a benefit to Europe on the global stage where it makes much more sense for Europe to negotiate with the US or China than for Italy to do so, and where Europe might provide military aid to Ukraine more readily than Portugal.
But EU countries are quite a bit more autonomous than US states—they set their own federal tax policies, develop their own childcare and school systems, and are responsible for managing their national healthcare systems (all managed at the federal level in the US)—often with quite utopian results. If Europe has benefitted from becoming a larger entity like the US, I can’t help but wonder if the US could benefit from giving more power to our smaller entities, like the EU.
Could a US state become a “utopian country,” just like the Nordic countries did? My state of Utah has a population of 3.3 million, not too far off from the population of Norway. Could we implement the same social democracy that has worked so well there? Could we adopt universal childcare, education, and healthcare at the state level? Without waiting around for the federal government to do so?
Technically yes, yes we can.