On borders, status quo bias doesn’t count

Randomly poll American citizens if there are any U.S. states that they believe should combine. You aren’t going to field many offers. Next ask them if there are any states they’d prefer to see broken up. Suggestions are, again, likely to be few and far between. How about states that should see their borders re-drawn? I predict crickets.

The implication is that things are not just O.K., but best the way they are. Not only is fifty the right number of states, but the current layout of those fifty is also the right layout. We are supposed to believe that there can be no materially better outcome from any form of action whatsoever.

Think about that for a second. What is the likelihood that this view is actually correct, that today’s state borders have it just about perfect. I would offer that it’s pretty pretty pretty low.

The biggest driver of your lackluster hypothetical poll responses probably won’t be reason or logic either, but inertia, or more specifically, status quo bias. Not to be confused with a formulated argument that favors the current state of affairs in the end, this bias manifests itself in the form of no particular argument at all.  Change is inherently bad according to this preference.  You ask somebody “why?” and they respond “just because.” There is some incomplete information here to be sure, as people might respond more (or less) favorably if they were properly informed. Yet the point stands.

For whatever reason, talk of changing borders in any capacity seems to be an uber-trigger for status quo bias in mainstream American politics. It springs forth with staggering speed and force.   Set against an increasingly polarized political landscape, the bipartisan nature of the condemnation is especially impressive, indeed, few issues match it.

Nevertheless, the colonies cut loose their British shackles a mere 240 years or so ago and continued to draw (and re-draw) more borders than a cartographer over the next century and a half. If it strikes you as strange that such unanimous agreement on current borders grew up against this historical backdrop, then I think you might be on to something.

As an example, the state of California happens to be really big. Clocking in at just under forty million inhabitants makes it the most populous U.S. state by a healthy margin. It has over ½ the population of Turkey, is on par with Poland, and eclipses Canada. You can’t drive its north-south length without blocking out at least twelve hours from your schedule.

Pristine governance however, doesn’t seem to be its strong suit. The Golden State came in at 30th in the most recent 24/7 Wall Street survey of the best and worst-run states, up from 2013’s last place finish. Cali sports a solid 7.0% unemployment rate as of December according to BLS, which is good for 49th in the country. It ranks 35th in terms of poverty rates and dead-last when geographically adjusted. This is hardly a bulletproof case for carving up California like a piece of meat, but it seems like a damn good start.  Centralization’s downsides become more apparent when viewed through the lens of scale.

Yet there are assuredly reasonable arguments to the contrary.  Perhaps even winning arguments.  So let’s hear them.   Philosophical, economic, cultural, what have you: bring them all out. But whatever you do, ye lover of border inertia, do not write off those with arguments while bringing none of your own. Do not marginalize the issue by invoking terms like “radical” and “dangerous” while falling back on an unconscious cognitive error. In reality, there is perhaps nothing more dangerous than the view that if X exists then X is the best we can do, supported by no critical thought at all. So leave the status quo bias at the door; otherwise, it’s always open.

(Image source)

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