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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Debating Federalism

One might argue that federalism gets in the way of solving problems that are simply too important to go unsolved.  In short, the argument is that federalism impedes progress on important issues. State to state differences should not be tolerated, he argues, where important needs are involved. “Resources and die-hard beliefs in the role of local government vary too much from state to state” for us to trust State government to deal satisfactorally with grave problems.   I suspect this view is widely held today.

In response, I would argue that the choice of a governance system should only partly be determined by the ease by which particular problems are solved.  In designing the U.S. Government to include a separation of power between the three branches, the delegates in the constitutional convention of 1787 were looking to thwart the solution of problems by the Union’s general government.  In addition to fearing tyranny from a consolidation of power into a few hands, they believed that the functions of that government should be limited because the state legislators are closer to the people, and thus better as republics.  Rather than being problematic,  differences between the States (generically), or republics (more specifically), are natural.  Given the scale involved in many of the States alone, how could a Union of many such republics be anything but inherently diverse?  To ignore the differences and impose one solution on all is artificial and likely to build up pressure for eventual dissolution.  Such pressure can unwittedly be built out of ignorance.   So “ease in solving problems” may actually be antithetical to the criteria we want for designing our system of governance spanning a continent. I would argue, moreover, that it is short-sighted to re-orient a system of governnance to the whims of what is best for handling particular problems of the day.  To subject long-term viability to the vissitudes of the day is to subject one’s posterity to ruin.

One could also point out that federalism is a historical means to forming the Union and is therefore antiquated (as the Union is now formed).  Some of the delegates to the constitutional convention would argue that they had to put up with the continued existence of the States simply due to the politics (i.e., the intractability of the delegates defending their respective States).   Certainly Hamilton would have preferred to do away with the States—replacing them with administrative districts of the federal government.  I believe that a significant number of Americans today share Hamilton’s view.  If this sentiment is dominant among the citizens, we should give serious thought to a constitutional convention for the purpose of replacing federalism with consolidation, officially through an amendment.  Even though I believe that this option is not compatible with having a republic at the Union level, if a super-majority wants to change our system of governance, it should be changed (assuming a “constitutional moment” of reflection and debate on the proposal).

I do not believe that federalism was merely used as a political means of achieving agreement on the creation of a general government.  As I have written in another post, the diversity spanning an empire-scale polity can be accommodated by federalism.  Some large States are sufficiently large in themselves that they have diversity that could justify a federal system.  Consider, for example, California and Illinois.  Each of these republics is sufficiently diverse in its provinces that federalism could accommodate the different cultures and bring legislation that is more fitting and less compromised for all concerned.   That new States have been added to the Union since its founding—some of the last of which being quite different culturally from the others (e.g., HI and AK)—means that there could be even more diversity within the Union today than when it was founded (assuming that transportation and communications technology has not totally overridden the diversity inherent in the territorial scale of empire).  Paradoxically, the need for federalism could be more pressing today.  I have already argued that republic principles may be stretched too thin at the empire scale.  This, plus the matter of accommodating diversity within the empire, strongly points to the utility of restoring federalism. 

Finally, someone could say something like,  ”I believe in the power of each State, but I have NO confidence in the people” running the State governments.”  This point may resonate with the extant condition of state government today in the United States. That is, the eclipse of the State governments has almost certainly had an impact on the quality of the representatives the State level.  Do the best and brightest really want to work in a legislature that has been reduced to considering by and large local government issues?  What sort of person would agree to campaign for a rather impotent position?   The situation now is markedly different than in the revolutionary period, when the preference of the best and brightest of the politicians was to serve their respective countries.   Even as late as 1860, General Lee felt obliged to fight for his native Virginia—turning down Lincoln’s request that he fight for the U.S. Government.   So presumably were a balance of power restored such that State governments would have real power over the issues that really concern us, we might find the quality of our State reps improve.  We might have better candidates to choose from, and we might take more interest in their campaigns.  So I would argue that the enervated conditon of State government today should not be taken as indicative of how such government would look were it restored to a balance of power with the U.S. Government. For example, were the National Governor's Association given a formal role in determining American foreign policy, we might see better candidates running for governor.

In closing, I want to note that being in a large Union that is inherently diverse does require a certain amount of tolerance for regional differences.  “Not trusting” a State’s people who have a different understanding of government or who feel a different way on a problem is not consistent with having a Union.  That is to say, we won’t last as a Union if a dominant faction in one region imposes its ideology on States in other regions spanning the continent.  A certain humility is necessary.  Of course,  a Union has certain bed-rock common principles (in our case, representative democracy, for example) that delimit certain behavior and laws (e.g., holding other races in slavery).   The problem is the slippery slope wherein one uses “common principles” to impose one’s own ideology and the natural diversity spanning a continental Union is not accommodated.   The people of a republic will naturally want out if their way of life is imposed upon without justification.   In short, being in a Union requires having a sufficient tolerance that can admit that not every State is going to solve your important problems in the way you want.   I suspect that this Union has lost too much of this tolerance (contributing to divisive partisanship at the federal level).   One size fits all over a polity spanning across a continent (and beyond!) is likely to involve bitter partisanship because people view the approach as all or none.   To be sure, there may not be sufficient tolerance anymore among Americans to allow for a viable system of federalism.  Moreover, federalism itself is not perfect, so debate on it could lead to a decision by the popular sovereign to make the United States officially consolidated.  In my view, however, such a debate is urgently needed, for otherwise the American people will continue to live a consolidated lie under the rubric of federalism on parchment.