Books by John D. Donahue

HISTORY
Released: June 18, 1997

Rather than reflexively praising state government and reviling federal government, Donahue, of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, actually considers their relative merits. Current dogma in the longstanding American drama of national authority versus states' rights favors the latter. Donahue's unfashionable response is that reality rather than ideology should shape policy: Tremendous advantages will probably not accrue from devolution of governmental responsibilities, and divided authority has its own problems. Studies of administrative efficiency reveal that state governments sometimes do slightly outperform the federal government—a finding worth noting, but hardly a ringing endorsement of state superiority. A more important point requires recognizing that the biggest task other than national defense undertaken by the federal government is writing checks. Since it is unlikely that Social Security checks, for example, can be written more efficiently in state capitals than in Washington, there are real limits to the benefits of decentralizing administrative operations. State governments could offer greater responsiveness to citizens, but polls reveal that state bureaucracies are held in only slightly less disdain than their federal counterpart. It is in the policy arena where significant differences can be found, including the contrast between Washington's relatively laissez-faire approach to economic markets and the active efforts of state governments to steal industries away from each other. Unfortunately, such efforts rarely produce good policy, and in the one area where responsibility lies at the state and local level- -education—the results have not received universal acclaim. Donahue's sensible argument is that policy sometimes benefits from the unity of federal-state action, and at other times from the diversity of actions taken by state governments. Only in the context of recent political rhetoric emanating from both parties could such a solid and balanced work be potentially controversial. Read full book review >