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What is Federalism?

The proposed Constitution, so far from implying an abolition of the State governments, makes them constituent parts of the national sovereignty, by allowing them a direct representation in the Senate, and leaves in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power. This fully corresponds, in every rational import of the terms, with the idea of a federal government.

Alexander Hamilton – The Federalist, #9 (excerpt)

Federalism is a system of government in which sovereignty is shared between regional and national governments. In the United States, its is composed of the federal (national) government and the various state governments. (Local governments, strictly speaking, are not sovereign. They are creations of their state governments.)

It is a structure that is well suited for large countries like ours, because it allows simultaneously for unity in some matters and diversity in others.

American Federalism

When we declared our independence from Britain, we did so as a union of independent states. The Declaration of Independence refers to “the United States,” which was a phrase that meant that thirteen independent states were acting, for this particular purpose, in unity with one another. We were not one country; we were thirteen of them.

Our first attempt to unify these states into a single country was under the Articles of Confederation, which created a strictly limited national government and left most of the power with the states. This proved ineffective, and the federal government was largely paralyzed. Delegates to a constitutional convention gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 and crafted a new U.S. Constitution, which, with twenty-seven amendments, is (at least nominally) still in effect today.

Although the U.S. Constitution provides for a much stronger federal government than the one that existed under the Articles of Confederation, it still retains a distinctively federal structure. The states are the general sovereigns with the primary responsibility for governing. The federal government is only authorized to act in the specific areas delegated to it by the constitution.

Some of the founders — including George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson — were concerned that the new constitution did not sufficiently protect the rights of the people or the sovereignty of the states. To allay their concerns, one of the first acts of the new U.S. Congress was to propose new amendments to the constitution: the Bill of Rights. Ten of the proposed amendments were successfully ratified. Nine of them dealt primarily with individual and group rights, but the tenth dealt explicitly with the concept of federalism and the dual-sovereignty arrangement:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

U.S. Constitution, Amendments, Article X

This is not rocket science. The federal (national) government only has the authority to do the things that the constitution specifically delegates to it. All other sovereign rights belong to the states, which enjoy a more general sovereignty, or the people, who are the ultimate sovereigns in every republic.

Any activity performed by the federal government outside of the enumerated, delegated powers is an unconstitutional and unjust activity, violating the principles of self government and encroaching upon the sovereignty of the states.

Difference Breeds Unity

We have the right to change our system of government — self governance is a human right — so we have the right to amend or rewrite our constitution to create a single national government that holds all sovereign authority within the bounds of natural law. We have not done so, of course, but we could.

But this would be a bad idea. Federalism is not just a dusty piece of eighteenth century political theory. There is a reason why some of the most brilliant thinkers in American history built our political system this way, and their reasoning still applies today.

First, we must acknowledge that the United States is a large, diverse country. We are made up of fifty states, each of which has its own culture, its own political leanings, it’s own economic strengths and weaknesses, and often its own vernacular. You would have to be living under a rock not to see that the country is pretty polarized right now; some states are “deep blue” Democratic, while others are “blood red” Republican.

When it comes to domestic policy, it would be practically impossible to craft a major policy that would make the people in both California and Alabama equally happy. And even if we put aside a state’s political leanings, it is unreasonable to assume that a policy that works well in New York would automatically work equally well in North Dakota.

There was a similar difficulty in the early days of our republic. Though we were all bunched up on the east-coast at the time, there were still deep and seemingly irresolvable political differences between, say, Virginia and Massachusetts. A fully unified nation without a federalist dual-sovereignty system would have failed. Indeed, as the nation became more and more nationalized at the federal level, and became more and more prone to imposing policies on states that did not want them, the resentment soon grew so strong that we literally went to war with ourselves.

(Obviously slavery was a huge part of what led up to that conflict, and obviously slavery was deeply wrong and unacceptable. It was, and still is, a direct affront to the human rights of life and liberty. But at the same time, we cannot ignore the self governance and federalism issues that were also causes of the Civil War.)

The beauty of a healthy federalist system of government is that you don’t have to try and craft national policy in a country that is really fifty smaller nations that all have different beliefs, different approaches, and different priorities. The federal government should limit itself to the areas in its purview — those areas where the states all agreed to delegate authority upwards — and let the states manage their domestic affairs.

Let’s use health care reform as an example. The “Affordable Care Act” was imposed, with the slimmest of congressional majorities, on a country that basically didn’t like it. Those in “deep blue” states felt that it didn’t go far enough, and continued to clamor for a socialized single-payer system. Those in “blood red” states despised the federal interference in their lives and the negative impacts it had on their premiums and on the availability of care.

Maybe a better approach would have been to leave health care reform to the states. Do some general interstate commerce regulation at the federal level. Then let the blue states enact statewide single-payer systems and let the red states slash restrictions and let the free market work. Let the states somewhere in the middle enact hybrid systems. Nobody gets steamrolled, nobody gets resentful, and we get to see what works and what doesn’t.

Over time, the kinds of systems that work well will be adopted by more and more states. The systems that don’t work well will be abandoned. But nobody will feel like some unaccountable dictators in Washington forced them to do something they didn’t want to do. Difference, counterintuitively, can breed unity. But forced unity only breeds resentment.