From how I understand it, the idea of "laboratories of democracy" in the US is that state and local governments can better experiment with policies than the entire country can. So we can see what works on local and state levels first before broadening the policies to a national level.

That is the theory, how well does this work in practice? What are some good examples of policies that worked extremely well at the local and state levels that were then put into practice nationally and saw similar success?

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    This may be hard to answer objectively since different political persuasions would disagree one what "success" is (Ex: Romneycare and Obamacare)
    – user4012
    Dec 5 '12 at 18:34
  • @DVK, very true, although I'd even be interested in examples where "success" is debated as long as there is a long enough track record to where at least the record can at least be looked at objectively.
    – mikeazo
    Dec 5 '12 at 18:42
  • A lot of disagreement and subjectivity is in defining the metrics/goals, not the facts. For example, is welfare system a success or not? We don't even agree on some of the statuses ("keeps generations of people on government dole trapping them in a cycle of cultural dependency on daddy government" vs "provides a safety net to vulnerable members of society").
    – user4012
    Dec 5 '12 at 18:44
  • @dvk that's actually an interesting question in and of itself. How to governments measure success? What are the pros/cons of those methods? Hmm....
    – user1530
    Mar 21 '13 at 21:31

Without speaking to the merits of a particular law, one way that we can judge the success of a state sponsored initiative as a model for the country is the degree to which it is independently adopted (i.e. copied) by other states. Presumably, if a state seeks to copy and bring in another state's law to govern it's own citizens, then a majority of the elected representatives in that state see the law as having been a success.

To that end, I think you have to say that the "laboratories of democracy" concept that Justice Brandeis spoke of is in itself a successful model for the country based on the sheer volume of examples that exist. Just in the 2012 elections we saw several states (Maryland, Washington and Maine) vote to adopt same sex marriage laws, presumably based on what their electorate saw as successes in other states around the country. Similarly, the last several election cycles have seen the pioneers of medical marijuana (California notably) spreading similar laws across the country. Washington and Colorado even taking it a step further and exploring recreational marijuana use in their states. Perhaps other states will see success in these laws in the future and adopt them for themselves, or potentially they will fizzle and be repealed or at least spread no further.

Without going into a laundry list of all the different examples, I also found a smattering of articles speaking to this same point on issues ranging from education, to immigration and union rights which you can look at below.

Wisconsin Collective Bargaining Limits

Arizona Immigration Reform

Florida Education Reform

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    I like your idea of how to prove the laboratory thing, but I'm afraid that NONE of your examples are valid, as you have not proven that any of the other-state adoptions were in any way predicated on "success" of the policy in the original state. IOW, same sex marriage would have been adopted by more liberal states whether it had "succeeded" or "failed" in whoever the first state to adopt it was. Same with Immigration reform to make it balanced. Arizona law wasn't even on the books long enough to have any meaningful effect, never mind to analyze its success.
    – user4012
    Dec 22 '12 at 4:05
  • Actually, it's not merely your examples - your whole concept is destroyed by just one word: "independently". The whole point of states serving as laboratories is that they try out an idea, and other states/feds adopt the idea depending on how the results turn out after implementation. If the other states adopt it independently - as in all your examples - this has nothing to do with the concept of laboratory.
    – user4012
    Dec 22 '12 at 4:13
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    BTW, I still like "adoption by other states" as a metrics, that's a very good idea. It's just that not any odd adoption would qualify.
    – user4012
    Dec 22 '12 at 4:15
  • @dvk I'm confused by being hung up on 'independently'. States look at what other states have implemented, but would still be implementing it 'independently' of them. I actually think this answer is a great example of the broad concept...state laws are looked at by other states--meaning that one state may be a laboratory for another.
    – user1530
    Mar 21 '13 at 21:34
  • That said...I think this is more of a horizontal relationship (state-to-state) rather than vertical (local-state-federal). The latter might be harder to find examples of since, to a degree, those particular 3 levels of democracy handle 3 different 'chunks' of governance.
    – user1530
    Mar 21 '13 at 21:35

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