How Many States?

Here’s a question I asked in a comment at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

Imagine you’ve been appointed to a commission to redraw state boundaries in the U.S. Ignore the improbability of that happening, ignore the political battles over how state lines would be redrawn, and ignore the almost-certain impossibility of ever getting Congress and all the states to agree on such a revision.

What number of states would you ideally aim for, and why?

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
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23 Responses to How Many States?

  1. Ryan says:

    One. State and local governments are awful. They should be done away with.

    The second-best alternative would be something like 1,000. Let people really vote with their feet if they want.

  2. James Hanley says:

    One. State and local governments are awful. They should be done away with.

    Dagger in my heart, Ryan. Dagger in my heart.

  3. Troublesome Frog says:

    Interesting question. I’ve never really thought about this before, so I’m having a hard time figuring out what variables to maximize. The only obvious thing is that the residents of a state should have something important in common that binds them together such that their interests are aligned. Or should they? Would we end up with a bunch of monoculture states with extremist governments that act like separate countries? Wow.

    I guess I’m trying to figure out what a “state” does / is supposed to do.

  4. trumwill says:

    I’ll reiterate my answers:

    1) Probably between 40 and 50.

    2) States larger than one day’s drive should be avoided. You can’t help Alaska, but otherwise, probably no larger than Montana. Smaller if there are more people. State capitals should go in the middle of the state, so a drive to the state capital is half a day. A day’s drive is defined by 10-12 or less.

    3) With #2 in mind, and with an avoidance of city-states, some effort should be made not to allow populations to be more disparate than they need to be.

    4) My plan would probably involve merging a lot of eastern states, though I’d be carving up Texas and California into two or three states a piece. I’d probably try to make California state-addition neutral by cutting up a couple existing states (including solving the Idaho Problem and the Wyoming Problem.

    Some of this, though, is going to depend on what you think states for for. I view them as distinct, governable sub-units of the whole (as I view the USA as a whole to be ungovernable). Local control, but very loosely defined. Large enough that they can be laboratories of democracy, though small enough to avoid ignoring substantial parts of the state.

  5. James Hanley says:

    Harrumph. There will be no new state capitals. You’ll just have to take that into account in drawing up your proposal for the committee.Otherwise, good guidelines

  6. trumwill says:

    Unfair requirement! Remember, I’m the guy who thinks we need a new federal capital.

    I assume that if I’m merging states I can pick which capital, though, right?

    Are the capitals of both of all three Californias required to be Sacramento? That could be awkward.

  7. Jeremy Sell says:

    I would shoot for reducing the disparity in size, resources, and populations in order for states to be at least a little more equal.

    States like California and Texas have vast resources and populations and could be their own countries. Each could be broken in two, with more populous areas absorbing less populous areas of neighboring states. Split California along a latitude just south of San Francisco. Dissolve Oregon, give the northern half to Washington, give the southern half to North California. Leave South California as-is. This would break up the population centers and agricultural areas across two states. Split Texas along a latitude just south of Dallas/Fort Worth, leave the southern part (Austin/San Antonio/Houston) as its own state, combine the northern part (Dallas/Fort Worth) with Oklahoma. This would break up the population centers and oil reserves across two states.

    Tiny states like Rhode Island and Delaware generally lack resources and population, and could easily be parts of other states. Combine Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Combine New Jersey with Pennsylvania. Combine Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia (and maybe West Virginia…reuniting that state once again).

    Other large western states like Alaska, Wyoming, and Montana have vast resources but very few people. Those are the most difficult ones for me to wrap my head around. Increasing area to increase population would also increase resources, which they already have plenty of. I’d perhaps leave them alone for now.

    I’d also consider combining Louisiana with Mississippi and Arkansas, Georgia with Alabama, Kentucky with Tennessee, Kansas with Nebraska,.Minnesota with Iowa, the Dakotas, and the Carolinas. The remaining relatively “small” Great Lakes states (Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin) could be shifted from five to four, but they generally stand on their own.

    With this approach we might be looking at perhaps 30 more balanced states.

  8. Jeremy Sell says:

    Gerrymanderers probably love this question.

  9. lumbercartel says:

    Definitely one. Which doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be a hierarchy of administrative districts for efficiency and to account for the differing needs of, say, urban vs. rural conditions just as States do now. Just get rid of this “sovereignty” nonsense.

  10. James Hanley says:

    D.C. goes on my list with Ryan.

  11. James Hanley says:


    The choice of capital cities will be left to the states. What kind of hater of local control are you, anyway?

  12. Ryan says:

    Well, on the upside for you, you didn’t give us the power to rearrange the Constitution, so there would be two senators. I have to imagine that would make the country even less governable than the current Senate already does, so maybe that would result in a great libertarian paradise or something.

  13. ppnl says:

    I’m with Ryan in that I think state governments are far worse than the federal government. But I’m less sure about his solution. Do away with state and local government and the federal government will just have to step in and do the local job. I don’t see them doing better and worse people will be less willing to accept governance from officials appointed from afar.

    I’m not sure the number of states is relevant at all. The key is to prevent the states from Gerrymandering themselves. Voting districts must go. The president should be elected on a one man one vote system. Congressmen should be elected by their entire state. Do that and much of the drive to Gerrymander is gone.

  14. AMW says:

    Dissolve Oregon, give the northern half to Washington, give the southern half to North California.

    I’ll see you in hell first.

  15. Jeremy Sell says:

    We could call North California “South Oregon” and Washington “North Oregon” if it makes you feel better.

  16. Jeremy Sell says:

    Plus it has the side benefit of eliminating the state-name “Washington,” avoiding any confusion with DC.

  17. trumwill says:

    I like the way that Jeremy Sell thinks. I would change a few things, though. Instead of cutting up Oregon, you have to cut up Idaho. Take southwestern Idaho and put that with Oregon (northern Idaho with Washington). You can take southeastern Idaho and put it with Utah (for the cultural fit) or Wyoming. Personally, I’d be looking to dissect Wyoming and split it up between Utah/SEIdaho, Montana, and mostly Colorado.

    Combining Louisiana and Mississippi is sacrilege, but you could probably take Mississippi and Alabama and put those together. Arkansas you can put with Oklahoma.

  18. Matty says:

    I’d take a step back and clarify what states are for. I accept in principle that different government function should be handled at different levels, i.e you don’t want a continent wide authority deciding how often the bins are emptied or a two streets village trying to regulate air pollution but exactly what the levels should be is harder.

    So to start with we need to work out what functions of government are best handled at a level larger than a county but smaller than the whole US, then we need to look at the optimum size of unit for handling those things both in population and geography. Only then would it be possible to divide the actual nation up into units of that size and see how many came out.

    Alternative answer 49 – give Texas back to Mexico, just because I think the reaction would be funny.

  19. Dr X says:

    Is Rhode Island really necessary? But there is that 2 senators each problem with eliminating and adding states.

  20. Profclaus says:

    64 states. Every four years the states compete in a series of political events (debate, ability to balance a budget, etc.) in which states compete NCAA bracket style. The winning state must take on the responsibility of the federal government, with the other 63 state sending congressional representatives to the state capital of the 64th (winning) state. Alternately we could use basketball to decide, but any process where Indiana has an advantage is not a great idea.

  21. James Hanley says:

    So would you prefer hockey or wrestling?

  22. Profclaus says:

    Clearly wrestling would put Jesse “the body” in position to become influential in politics again. If we choose hockey then Canada may opt to become part of the USA…

  23. lumbercartel says:

    I would suggest football, with Hildebrand rules:

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