Recent federalism scholarship has taken a “collective action” turn. Commentators endorse or criticize the Court’s doctrinal tools for allocating regulatory authority between the states and the federal government by invoking an economic model of collective action. The ensuing corpus of “collective action arguments” has been invoked by both pro-federal and pro-state scholars to underwrite either judicial acquiescence in broad national authority or robust judicial intervention to protect states’ interests. Both strands of argument have also found echoes in recent Supreme Court jurisprudence.
This Article reconsiders the relevance of collective action arguments for federalism doctrine. Without questioning the role of collective action dynamics in descriptive accounts of American federalism, it challenges their normative significance for the purpose of fashioning structural constitutional doctrine. At the Article’s core is a simple claim with plural ramifications: there is no unique logic of collective action that can well explain American federalism. Instead, hetero-geneous collections of states will, under different circumstances, follow distinct trajectories that end in divergent end states. Collective action dynamics among the several states can hence produce not only optimal but also highly undesirable equilibria depending on how initial parameters are set. Moreover, the various collective action dynamics animating American federalism are too heterogeneous and empirically contingent to point univocally in one direction toward any simple and stable judicial approach. Absent a single model that works as a reliable rule of thumb, the plural logics of collective action do not provide a stable analytic lodestar to guide judicial intervention. Nor do they provide an accurate proxy for the Framers’ original understanding of federalism. Accordingly, the Article concludes that judicially enforced federalism cannot be vindicated in terms of collective action arguments. Instead, it suggests that to the extent the case for judicially enforced federalism rests principally on the availability and soundness of collective action explanations, there may be sound reasons for courts to abandon the field.