Federalism Explained Why a "one size fits all" government doesn't work

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Gene Hoyas May 5, 2011 @ 1:00 PM
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Simply stated, the term “Federalism” refers to a political system whereby controlling authority and political power is divided between the United States and the individual states that comprise it. Ask any farmer who sells eggs about putting a dozen of them in one basket and he will advise you to opt, instead, for a carton with individual cells for each egg to ensure that an impact to one doesn’t cause breakage in any of the others.

It’s a common sense principle that was not lost on the representatives of thirteen states who founded a republic based on the principle of federalism – where certain broad, discretionary and carefully enumerated powers (treaties with foreign nations, creation and deployment of armed forces, coinage of money, regulation of interstate commerce, etc.) are granted to the federal government alone while all other powers not specified or enumerated are reserved to the individual states or to the people.

The brilliance of the system lay in the discretion given to each state government to chart its own political, economic and social course: because of its proximity to those who elect the governor and the legislature, a state government will always be more responsive to the needs and desires of its people than a federal government in which the people of a state have influence in Congress only through two Senators and anywhere from one to fifty-three Representatives.

In effect, each state becomes what some have called a “laboratory of democracy” where lawmakers – at the behest and direction of their constituents – can experiment with different political, economic and social policies crafted to meet demographic requirements and geographic realities peculiar to that state and its people.

Thus, while the people of Arkansas are at liberty to apply the federalism model to their own state, delegating many – or even most – of the powers and responsibilities of the state government to counties and localities, the people of New York are equally at liberty to opt for a more centralized form of state government. The people of Texas are free to establish a parsimonious welfare system where relatively few indigent people receive support payments from Austin, while the people of California likewise have the freedom to create a a lavishly funded and hyper-generous system of public aid in Sacramento.

Presently the people of any given state send federal tax revenue to the nation’s capital (where they have  limited control over how it is spent) and the revenue is filtered through a costly bureaucracy, with much of it lost through waste and outright fraud and only a portion of it is returned to the state in the form of revenue or services.

Transferring from the federal government to the states those powers and responsibilities which of right belong to them would have the salutary effect of reducing the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy, allowing the federal government to concentrate its focus and energy on those matters which affect all the states collectively. The substantial reduction in the federal budget would, in turn, present an opportunity to decrease federal tax rates across the board – and eliminate many taxes altogether.

Subsequently, the burden for funding various social and economic programs would shift from the federal government to individual state governments, where the people have far greater control over how it is appropriated. The onus of prudent and sensible spending would fall on the shoulders of the governor and the state legislature, with the consequences of their actions affecting only the state itself.

New Jersey would have as much freedom to levy a high tax rate on its citizens and businesses for the purpose of funding generous social service benefits and programs as Oklahoma would have to impose a simple flat tax at a very low rate to fund a very limited state government with fewer services and benefits.

The net result of federalism? We avoid the one-size-fits-all dilemma of federal control over everything which more often than not gives advantages to certain states and demographic groups at the expense and detriment of other states and demographic groups.

The added beauty of this system is the freedom it affords all Americans: those who prefer states with large governments, heavy regulation, massive spending and the high taxes and fees required to fund them are free to remain there or to move there, while those who are partial to low taxes and minimal government are likewise free to remain in or move to those states where these things exist.

All the while, the federal government will be free to do what the Founding Fathers intended it to do: establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of a free and prosperous republic to all its citizens by protecting and preserving life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

When the U.S. Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, many of the Founders were concerned that individual state sovereignty would be subsumed into the federal government.

Twelve amendments were drawn up and ten of them, later known as the Bill of Rights, were adopted on December 15, 1791, with the understanding that the powers of the federal government would be few in number and specifically enumerated. Those powers not enumerated would be reserved for the states or the people, according to the Tenth Amendment.

The Federalist Party (which generally supported the Constitution) argued for a stronger national government, a loose construction of the Constitution, and a mercantile economy that incorporated the debts of individual states into a national debt.

The Democratic-Republican Party (which opposed the Federalist Party), maintained that a strong national government could threaten the liberties of the people. They argued that the national debt created by the new government would bankrupt the country, and that federal bondholders would be reimbursed from taxes paid by honest farmers and workingmen.

In a truly ironic twist of political fate, the Federalist Party eventually evolved into the Republican Party which, at its zenith under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, embraced the principles of the original Democrat-Republican Party. For its part, the Democrat-Republican party evolved into the Democratic Party which, at its present zenith under Barack Obama, has embraced the principles of the original Federalist Party.

In the early 1800s, the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, broadly expanded the power of the national government. The court of his successor, Roger B. Taney, held that the federal government ought to be limited to its enumerated powers and that all other powers belonged to the states, a philosophy that became known later as Dual Federalism. In the wake of the Civil War this model declined as the size and power of the federal government expanded.

The concept of Dual Federalism ended with the Great Depression as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies further expanded the size and scope of federal power which, by the 1960s, reached into the lives of U.S. citizens as it never had before.

In the 1980s “New Federalism” was initiated by President Ronald Reagan, who advocated a gradual return of power to the states. It lasted until 2001 with the election of George W. Bush, who – together with scores of RINOs in the House and Senate – repudiated it in favor of “Compassionate Conservatism,” which was little more than a lukewarm version of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The inauguration of Barack Obama as President on January 20, 2009 ushered in what many consider to be the death of Federalism: the sovereignty of the states that comprise the Union will ultimately be subsumed into an all-powerful and politically hegemonic federal Leviathan.

Movement Conservatism rejects the Obama Leviathan and embrace the New Federalism preached by Ronald Reagan. The time is approaching when Americans who cherish the republic bequeathed to us by the Founders will have to decide if they have the courage and the determination to turn the pyramid of power right-side up, dismember the Federal monster and return our nation to the Dual Federalism model.

WE THE PEOPLE still hold the fate of this republic in our hands.

And WE THE PEOPLE are getting restless.


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Categories: History, Ronald Reagan, U.S. Constitution, U.S. Government

  1. […] class is a perception that goes all the way back to the founding days of our republic, when the Federalists squared off against the Democratic-Republicans. The former favored a more centralized, more powerful federal government while the latter rested […]

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