The Constitutionalism of Ron Paul has ignited a debate that’s sorely needed in this country. The Founding Fathers envisioned a nation of individual States, each with its own quirks and ideas, and each with wide latitudes to set its own internal laws and policies as it saw fit. The central government was tasked only with foreign affairs and acting as arbiter of inter-state matters. The individual States had nearly full sovereignty with most other affairs. In many ways, the United States was set up with a roughly similar mix between central authority and State sovereignty as the current EU.
Ron Paul and many libertarians reflexively yearn for a return to such an idea. The central government we have now is a behemoth, trampling our freedoms under its oppressive taxes and mountains of regulation. Even worse, the system is largely out of control, and citizens have almost no power over its workings. Devolving power to the States and local governments would counter the dilution of power that naturally occurs when one is a single voice out of 300 million. Petitioning your city or state representative is much more effective than some Senator who may represent several million people.
Inherent in the assumption by these libertarians, though, is that moving power to smaller levels of government will improve individual freedom. I’m not sure that assumption is accurate. There are pros and cons of both systems.
On the positive side, federalism allows for experiments in freedom. States and localities compete on a whole host of aspects, such as taxation, regulation, and social policies. In many instances, it allows those states to do things that would not be allowed in a true top-down structure. In some cases, that may be liberalized policies such as California allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana, the city of Galveston, Texas to opt out of social security for their retirement plans, or states like Massachusetts recognizing gay marriages. These are all things that individual states or localities are doing to increase personal freedoms.
But there’s a big negative. Many policies undertaken by individual states inimical to individual freedom. For example, the trend to outlaw smoking in private businesses would be a simple example. Another fairly innocuous example would be the crazy alcohol “blue laws” dotting the nation, many of which have absolutely no justification and are simply a way to appease special interests at the expense of freedom. On a more serious note would be the “Jim Crow” laws, or if you’re looking for a modern incarnation, Massachusetts’ new health-care plan. States are laboratories for new policies, but those policies are not always pro-freedom.
The benefit of central government mandates are simple: if the central government does something right, it can immediately apply that across the country. Many of our Constitutional amendments have followed this path, such as the 24th, eliminating a poll tax. It was a way to end an immoral form of discrimination in a place which sorely needed it. Similarly, while the 14th amendment may have opened the door to some very strange unintended consequences, the idea is purely in favor of liberty: to make sure that individual states and localities cannot engage in unfair discriminates against individuals based on things such as race or gender.
But again, there’s a big negative. As co-contributor tarran quoted Barry Goldwater to me in a discussion on this topic, “The government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take it all away.” Look no further than the government’s failed attempt at Prohibition, a distinctly anti-freedom policy that might have been proven to be damaging if done in individual states that was instead foisted on the entire nation. Even worse, our central government has the potential to cut down individual states’ pro-freedom policies at the knees, as we saw in Raich.
So what’s best?
Well, the ideal government would be a single world government that was only powerful enough to protect freedom but disciplined enough not to infringe on individual freedom for the “common good”. However, such a government has never existed, will never exist, and with the incentives inherent in government, can never exist. So looking at the ideal government is not a useful way to answer this question.
The best way to answer this question is to ask how federalism relates to individual freedom. I used “vs.” in the title of this post for a reason. Of course, I don’t believe that federalism works contrary to individual freedom. However, I don’t think it necessarily works FOR individual freedom either. Federalism is only a tool for individual freedom if the people in a region believe in individual freedom, likewise a strong central government is only as damaging to individual freedom as the populace allows it to become.
Where federalism does shine, however, is in giving individuals choice over what mix of freedom and of taxation/regulation they prefer. However, as the differences in politics between the “liberal” and “conservative” states show, federalism does not automatically equal liberty. In states like California, there are large degrees of personal freedom, but not much economic freedom. In states such as Georgia, there is a large degree of economic freedom, but the level of social conservatism circumscribes personal freedoms. All this occurs in the spheres of control outside those of the central government, and I see no reason to believe this would not be the case if the central government were weakened.
The problem, whether you look at the central government or individual states, is that the government will only be as pro-liberty as the populace it represents. If you’re in Massachusetts, you just might get a weak version of socialized medicine through “mandatory coverage”. If you’re in Alaska, you may find nearly non-existent government that actually pays you out of oil revenues to live there.
But as I mentioned, if you then have a choice between Massachusetts and Alaska, you have a lot more choice than between America and Australia. The closer in proximity those choices become, for example between Taxachusetts and the Free State, and the better it will be for lovers of liberty. And the weaker the central government is, the more differentiation there will be between more-free and less-free states.
Federalism is not a panacea that will solve our nation’s problems. It’s a step in the right direction, but it must always be remembered that the message must be about freedom, not about federalism. Federalism is a potential means to the end, but it is not the end in itself.