Federalism is the Answer

Would you rather do what you want to do, or force other people to do what you want? This is a real question Americans are asked periodically, if not so explicitly. Too many Americans choose the latter and surrender the former.


Many liberals were traumatized by last November’s election. They expected to win the presidency, but instead lost it to the opponent they feared the most. I can relate. As a conservative, I went through the same thing four years ago. I fully expected Romney to win and put an end to the damaging policies of Obama. Instead, Obama won re-election and pushed America further left.

But now that Trump is president with a Republican Congress, liberals are understandably concerned that Republicans will institute policies they find abhorrent. Many liberals are concerned Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will ruin the education system; or that HHS Secretary Tom Price will destroy the healthcare industry; or that Speaker Ryan will privatize social security; or that… you get the idea.

California, a bastion of liberalism, is very much worried that President Trump will annul policies the vast majority of Californians support. They do not want a Republican president and Republican Congress in Washington DC dictating what they must do and overruling their liberal State Government.

In fact, some Californians are so concerned that Trump will force harmful policies on them that they are trying to leave the United States altogether. Backers of the so-called Calexit are currently gathering signatures to put a secession referendum on the next ballot, and a poll conducted over December and January found 32% of Californians in favor of leaving the USA. That so many would even consider breaking away from the United States is concerning.

But I have an alternative solution: instead of secession, maybe try federalism.

Under a federal system, like we used to have, the national government would do the things only a national government could do – such as set foreign and national security policy, regulate trade, maintain a national currency, etc. Meanwhile, everything else would be the prerogative of the individual States. I read something similar before

Under federalism, California and Texas can establish completely different education systems. New York could keep Obamacare; Vermont could take up a single payer system; and Indiana could institute tort reforms, HSAs, and other free-market initiatives.

We can call this a live and let live approach to governance. Each State can do as they please without the other 49 imposing their will on them. The only downside is each State also cannot impose its will on the others. Unfortunately, that’s a bargain too many American’s are not willing to accept. That’s a sad realization, because federalism could solve many of the problems we face today.

The defense of federalism typically falls into two main categories. The first is the one people are probably most familiar with. The theory is popularly known as the laboratories of democracy. The argument is grounded in a sense of humility and an understanding of competition: since we cannot know for sure what is best for 300+ million Americans, let each State try its own ideas and see what works. When one State succeeds, others will follow suit. In this way, everyone eventually receives the benefit without one overarching force smashing competing ideas and possibly imposing the wrong policy.

The second argument is one of accountability. The government closest to the people is the government most accountable to the people.

The table below shows the total number of votes cast for the elected offices that govern where I live, split between the various executive and legislative branches:


Based on those vote totals, who do you think is most likely to be responsive to my concerns? A flip of just a few thousand votes, or even a few hundred, could throw a mayor out of office. If everyone who voted in my city’s mayoral election decided to vote against my governor, he would have to take note, but it might not be critical. The same scenario would be a rounding error in presidential elections.

I do not place much faith in the nobility of politicians. Many want to advance policy agendas, but all want to be reelected. The higher the elected office, the further from the people are the office holders. A local politician must be concerned that just a few disgruntled constituents could organize their friends to vote against them and cost them the election.

A president cannot afford to worry about individuals. In an election involving over a hundred million voters, you stop being an individual and become just one more member of a demographic group. Odds are you are not even in the small part of the country the president needs to worry about come election day. Your power and influence is greatly diluted.

Furthermore, the higher and more powerful the elected office, the more motivation there is for big businesses and special interest groups to attempt to influence the politicians, and the more politicians rely on large donations. It is inefficient and ineffective to bribe tens of thousands of local officials throughout the country, but with a powerful national government just a few well placed donations can generate a windfall.

All of this can be solved, or at least greatly improved, through the use of a federal system. Various States and localities can try new policies until the best method is found, and those policies would be devised and implemented by people more receptive to your concerns than they are to special interest groups.

But there is one massive roadblock to returning to a federal system. Federalism would not only mean that the president from the other party cannot impose his vision on you, it also means that the president from your party cannot impose your vision on others. So I ask the question again: Would you rather do what you want to do, or force other people to do what you want?