Policy experimentation in the “laboratory of the states” is a frequently cited benefit of our federalist system, but a necessary condition of thoughtful experimentation is often missing. To conduct useful policy experiments, states and other subfederal actors need baseline information: In order to learn from the successes and failures of their neighbors, state actors must understand the laws and regulations that other jurisdictions have enacted. And, despite the seemingly ready availability of legal and regulatory materials in the information age, subfederal officials often lack this understanding. The literature has recognized that states often fail to share policy results, particularly failures, but few legal scholars have explored the lack of information about the substance of policy—an essential foundation for thoughtful experimentation. This information deficit tends to pervade technical policy areas in particular—those that do not follow uniform codes and require expertise to understand, like hydraulic fracturing and health care. In these areas and others, the states may still be laboratories, but in some cases they are laboratories on islands, with no comprehensive, uniform information exchanged among them. This limits the experimental upside of laboratories—informed, efficient, and innovative regulatory approaches. It also expands laboratories’ known downside—the costs to private entities of complying with different standards.
This Article explores the problem of regulatory islands and the public choice, political economy, and resource-based dynamics that create them. It also explores areas in which states have effectively shared regulatory content—often with federal help—and argues that the federal government is in the best position to work with subfederal institutions to produce and synthesize regulatory information. Even if the government does not do the collection and synthesization itself—indeed, mistrust by state actors may prevent this level of involvement—it should fund and partially manage it. Federal involvement is important because when the federal government allows subfederal experimentation in areas of federal concern, it should already be producing much of this information anyway in order to monitor state regulation to ensure that federal goals are being met and ensure that states are not imposing externalities on their neighbors. Increasing the availability of regulatory information will enable more informed experimentation and allow monitoring of policy gaps. In the many areas in which it does not regulate directly, the essential federal government role in modern regulatory experiments is an informational one.