Don’t blame the Founding Fathers for California having 66 times the population of Wyoming

November 26, 2013

This morning, I noticed traffic spiking to an August Wonkblog post on Urban planner/artist Neil Freeman's effort to redraw the United States as 50 states with equal population. It's a fun, beautiful thought experiment:

equal_pop_maps

I posted the map on Twitter again. No reason people who weren't reading Wonkblog on Aug. 21 should be deprived. The Washington Examiner's Byron York, however, was not amused:

pesky constitution

Poor Constitution. It gets blamed for everything.

But it doesn't deserve all, or even most, of the blame for population patterns in the United States in 2013. When the Constitution was drafted, there were 13 states serving as home to about 4 million people. The difference between the most populous state and the least populous was 11:1. Today, there are 50 states with more than 300 million people. The difference between the most populous and the least populous is about 66:1.

That's not the Constitution's fault. Article III of the Constitution does not say "these United States shall annex Texas in 1845 and proceed to war with Mexico in 1846. That war shall not end until control of the Land known as Alta California is won. Subsequently, one out of eight Americans shall settle in part of California, because its climate is much more pleasant than that of Vermont or Wyoming. Oh, and speaking of "Wyoming," we think that's what you should name another land mass you'll annex sometime in the future."

The Framers were wise. But they weren't precognitive. They knew nothing of America's 19th century expansions or its 20th century migration patterns. They did the best with the information they had.

By the same token, we are not time-traveling telepaths. We don't know whether the founders would have struck the precise same deal if Virginia had been 66 times more populous than Rhode Island. The deal they did strike was precarious enough: It took five tries before the plan to give each state equal representation in the Senate passed, and even then, it squeaked through by only a single vote.

If the big states had been six times more disadvantaged, it seems unlikely they would've agreed to the same terms. But who knows? Certainly not anyone using Twitter.

The map above is a good way to think of the country as it exists today. It shouldn't be dismissed because it doesn't fit the population patterns of 1787.

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Timothy B. Lee · November 26, 2013