If American Federalism Were Like Swiss Federalism, There Would Be 1,300 States



Authored by Ryan McMaken via The Mises Institute


In a recent interview Claudio Grass examined some of the advantages of the Swiss political system, and how highly decentralized politics can bring with it great economic prosperity, more political stability, and a greater respect for property rights.

(The) Swiss political system of federalism is itself partially inspired by 19th-century American federalism. . . (what) Americans tend to miss, however, is that the scale of political units in Switzerland is much smaller than that found in the United States. . .

If the United States were composed of states approximating the median population size of Swiss cantons, the US would have over 1,300 states total. Each would have a population of around one-quarter of a million inhabitants. Given the small size of these political subdivisions, the potential for taxpayers “voting with their feet” is even greater than it is in the US, where it is already likely that migration patterns often show preferences for states with lower tax and regulatory burdens.

Size and Political Representation

. . .(T)he United States has an exceptionally high politician-to-citizen ratio. . . huge by the standards of the 18th-century Americans who wrote the US Constitution and the various state constitutions of the time.

Specifically, in the United States, there are 535 Members of Congress who allegedly represent 320,000,000 people. This means there are 598,000 US residents per member of Congress. . . (The size of the House of Representatives remains small today because Congress arbitrarily capped the total number of Representatives in the early twentieth century.)  . . . (E)ven a state legislator often represents a small city, in terms of his or her constituency size. . .


(T)he Swiss political system is far more decentralized than is the American. . . what an American would recognize as the local level in politics. . . Given the smallness of electoral districts, voters have a completely different relationship with government institutions.

For example. . . small cantonal size means taxpayer-funded amenities are funded by others living nearby with whom one is likely to interact peacefully on a daily basis. . . When important political institutions are close to home, and at a human scale, one might feel more inclined to take an attitude of stewardship toward one’s community rather than an attitude of “take the money and run.” . . .

As shown in research by Mark Thornton, George S. Ford, and Marc Ulrich et al. conclude:


“[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.”

Other factors mentioned include:

o Large constituencies increase the cost of running campaigns, and thus require greater reliance on large wealth interests for media buys and access to mass media.
o Elected officials, unable to engage a sizable portion of their constituencies rely on large interest groups claiming to be representative of constituents.
o Voters disengage because they realize their vote is worth less in larger constituent groups.
o Voters disengage because they are not able to meet the candidate personally.
o 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.
o The ability to schedule a personal meeting with an elected official is far more difficult in a large constituency than a small one.
o 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.
o 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.
o 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.

. . . When looking at the super-sized institutions of the United States, it’s hard to conclude that these vast differences in the constitutional landscape can be ignored.





I have wanted smaller districts and more personal representation at the state and national levels for a long time. How can a representative truly represent someone they’ve never even met? How can they know the desires of their constituents?

I recognize that further fragmentation might make the legislatures less manageable. But isn’t the other side of that coin that only matters of broad agreement would be enacted, and more fractious policies would be set aside? That sounds like political wisdom to me!

The community we lived in until recently was 33,000 in population. We knew the Mayor and individuals who were on the City Council personally, though single member districts made voting even more fragmented. But those Council members have to consider the whole community, not just their own, in order to get the City to enact their proposed policies. The same should be true statewide and nationally.

I’d think 25,000 constituents for state Legislature districts, and 50,000 for congressional ones is about right. The state Senate structure does not relate to subsidiary political subdivisions like the US Senate does, and I’d prefer that the State reform to a model based on cities and rural counties. A city would need to have a minimum size to earn a State Senate seat, but only one, while every County would have one automatically. Urban areas would have tremendous power in the Legislature, but much more limited in the Senate as a counterbalance. 

This is a first blush proposition, but seems a good place to start. We need to stop the national government from meddling in State and local matters that don’t suit their parochial desires. Likewise, issues of national import would still receive the proper attention. If a State wanted to be overly generous, they could, or they could be hyper thrifty. Only broad national policy would be actually national.


Categories: Political

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5 replies

  1. I like the concept of bringing accountability closer to the constituents but it’s a pipedream. I’d love to be closer to my representative, but the idea of 1,300 “states” is totally unworkable. I think that the best we can hope for is to finally be able to exert some pressure on our individual reps (and Senators) and to have them be truly accountable. Term limits is a good start in that direction and campaign finance reform would be helpful too.


  2. There are some pros and cons with this. While we’d have better representation we would possibly have more Dems in the House and they’re already a huge problem as it is. The House Speaker can’t even get the Rs to agree on things, so adding more opinions with varying priorities would create enormous havoc.

    We’re already broke, so salaries would have to decrease if we add on more reps to pay, thereby more staff, expenses, etc. and what happens with all the lobbyists?

    I understand your concept but I’d have to disagree, because if we really want smaller government, this is going the wrong way.


    • Kathy,

      The idea is that having a larger, more unwieldy House would make it much harder for legislation to pass. If it doesn’t pass, there will be fewer programs continued and funded, and fewer meddling ingresses into the matters of the States and the People.

      I also favor Sunset Laws and Term Limits for the same reasons. I fully support lowering the pay of our elected Representatives and ending ALL pensions for elected officials. They all ran to be a “public servant” anyway, didn’t they?? A lifetime pension after one day served disproves that falsehood!

      We should eliminate all Departments and programs that not explicitly authorized in the Constitution, and eliminate & consolidate redundant programs for those that are. The bureaucracy could be slashed by well over half. If the government can’t hand out contracts like party favors, lobbyists would no longer be justified and cost beneficial.

      BTW, after we shutter the Department of Education, we could have the building remodeled to serve as a dormitory for our Representatives, thus lowering their cost of living and financial needs! I’m only half kidding! LOL!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve had the same thoughts, though, I think they originated from a post here on Pesky Truth!

    One good way to accomplish this might be @COS. The whole goal of Convention of the States is to take back rule to the states and localities.

    But I agree, a smaller constituency would cause more attentiveness to the people represented. Might be less use of big money from lobbyists which fatten politician coffers and use it to make constituents feel hopeless in making any changes.

    Liked by 1 person

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