Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Advantages of Federalism - Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
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The Advantages of Federalism - James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government 
Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The Advantages of Federalism
What are the advantages of a federal system of government? Here are some that are commonly mentioned:
(1) Federalism enables States or peoples who differ a good deal from one another or have different backgrounds to join together for common benefits, without some of the States or groups being required to obey unquestioningly whatever the largest State or group orders. In this sense, federalism protects minority rights—the rights of communities or whole regions to maintain their customs, their diversity and individuality, their self-rule. It was so with the Federal union of 1787–1788: South Carolina was not required by the Constitution to model itself on Massachusetts, and in turn Massachusetts did not have to adopt the ways of South Carolina. Yet those two very different political communities found it possible to cooperate through the federal republic of the United States on many matters, most of the time, for the following sixty-four years, without resorting to force. Federalism, then, is associated with “States’ Rights” and is regarded as an important means for the preservation of local self-government.
(2) Federalism provides that States or regions can manage their own affairs, rather than being directed by a central autocracy or bureaucracy. A federal structure is particularly necessary to modern representative democracy, especially one so large as the United States. For unless there are political units on a humane scale that are not too big for citizens to understand or share in, “democracy” becomes a mere phrase. Genuine democracy requires that a good many people should participate in public concerns and be governed by representatives chosen from and accountable to the local community. People enjoy a sense of personal safety and security when they are governed by representatives drawn from their own community, who share their values, customs, and mores, and are accessible for consultation, advice, and assistance. It is easier to control a native son, living in the community, than a stranger residing in a distant city. If the United States were a unitary system of government, with all decisions made in Washington, it would be impossible for many Americans to take any part in public affairs and it would be difficult for public officials to understand local needs or to be restrained by the local population. The United States would then have, at best, what is called plebiscitary democracy—that is, rule by a single man or a narrow clique of administrators, endorsed perhaps by a national ballot at intervals, yet allowing the public no share in decisions beyond the opportunity to vote “yes” or “no” against the dominant regime. (And often, in such centralized systems, the voter is discouraged from voting anything but “yes.”) To put all this another way, a federal structure provides means for representative democracy to operate in both regional (State) and national affairs. For this reason, federalism is an important feature of political liberty.
(3) In his famous work On Liberty, the nineteenth-century English political philosopher John Stuart Mill presented a powerful argument against centralized bureaucratic government that illustrates the advantages of federalism from another perspective. Federalism, he observed, encourages independence and self-reliance. Because of federalism,
Americans are in every kind of civil business; let them be left without a government, every body of Americans is able to improvise one, and to carry on that or any other public business with a sufficient amount of intelligence, order, and decision. This is what every free people ought to be; and a people capable of this is certain to be free; it will never let itself be enslaved by any man or body of men because these are able to seize and pull the reins of the central administration. No bureaucracy can hope to make such a people as this do or undergo anything that they do not like. But where everything is done through bureaucracy, nothing to which the bureaucracy is really adverse can be done at all.
No less significant, he concluded, is the fact that decentralized government releases the creative force and genius of a free people. The absorption of all the nation’s energy and ability into the central authority, said Mill, “is fatal, sooner or later, to the mental activity and progressiveness of the body itself.” It destroys self-reliance. Government must aid and stimulate individual exertion and development or it will stultify and retard a society. “No great thing can really be accomplished” if there is a monolithic government which “substitutes its own activity for theirs; when, instead of informing, advising, and upon occasion, denouncing, it makes them work in fetters or bids them stand aside and does their work instead of them. The worth of a state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.”
(4) Federalism makes it difficult for an unjust dictator or fanatical political party to seize power nationally and rule the whole country arbitrarily, having first taken the national capital (a process which has occurred repeatedly in centralized countries, among them France most conspicuously). With a federal political structure, obedience to all orders from a national capital is not automatic, and State or regional leaders can resist political revolutions or coups d’état through political means or perhaps through State militia (as Thomas Jefferson thought Virginia’s State militia might have occasion to resist the Federalist party in power at Washington). To gain dictatorial control over Germany in the 1930s, Adolf Hitler had first to destroy the federal structure of the Weimar Republic. Totalitarianism cannot succeed where federalism thrives.
(5) Federalism allows States, regions, and localities to undertake reforms and experiments in political, economic, and social concerns without involving the whole country and all its resources in some project that, after all, may turn out unsatisfactorily. If it is true that “variety is the spice of life,” surely a nation is interesting and lively when it has some diversity and freedom of choice in its political methods. In America today, one State can plan some particular educational reform, another State can take a different approach to improving schools; and results can be compared and discussed. Or, different projects of unemployment relief, or experiments in making tax assessment more just, can be carried on in several States simultaneously and States can compete with one another in healthy fashion. In a unitary political structure, no place exists for innovation or experiment except the bureaucratic central administration of modern nation-states. Commonly that central administration is complacent about its own policies.
Other good reasons for maintaining a federal political structure might be given readily enough. To some extent, the Framers of the Constitution were aware of these general or abstract reasons for preferring a federal plan to a central plan of national government. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—who would become, respectively, the second, third, fourth, and fifth Presidents of the United States—all were champions of a federated pattern of politics, as against unitary power concentrated in a central administration. Such gentlemen—politicians who were acquainted with history and political theory—perceived the general arguments in favor of federalism.
Foreign commentators who have closely examined the American political system have often shared these views, John Stuart Mill being only one of many examples. Alexis de Tocqueville, an astute French observer visiting the United States in the early 1830s, considered the American system of federalism unique and the greatest achievement of the Constitution. Yet he was a citizen of France, one of the most highly centralized countries of Europe. In his celebrated study of American government and society entitled Democracy in America (1832), Tocqueville came to the conclusion that the federal arrangement devised by the Framers was “the most favorable” form of government ever created to promote the “prosperity and freedom of man.”
Half a century later, the distinguished British statesman and legal scholar James Bryce published The American Commonwealth (1888), a profound, comprehensive, and sympathetic analysis of American institutions that ranks with Tocqueville’s work as one of the great American political classics. Like Tocqueville, Lord Bryce was favorably impressed by American federalism, notwithstanding his personal allegiance to the unitary system of Great Britain. He found federalism particularly well adapted to American soil because it united the States without extinguishing their governments and local traditions, and also supplied “the best means of developing a new and vast country.” Moreover, he thought that the American system stimulated interest in local affairs, encouraged constructive experimentation in legislation and administration, and “relieved the national legislature of a part of that large mass of functions which might otherwise prove too heavy for it.” Echoing Tocqueville, Bryce equated federalism with freedom and surmised that it had made a valuable contribution to the welfare of the American people by preventing the rise of “despotic central government” in the United States.
What was the secret of American federalism, and why had it succeeded while so many of man’s earlier attempts at confederation had failed? On this question, Tocqueville and Bryce were of one mind. What particularly impressed Tocqueville was the fact that the general government of the United States operated directly on individuals rather than on the States. “This constitution,” he explained,
which may at first sight be confounded with the [con]federal constitutions which preceded it, rests upon a novel theory, which may be considered as a great invention in modern political science.
Continuing, Tocqueville pointed out that in all previous confederations, the allied States had agreed to obey the laws passed by the general government, but had reserved to themselves the right to enforce them. Under the arrangement drafted in 1787, however, the new Federal government would exercise both the law making and law enforcement functions, thereby avoiding one of the major problems experienced under the Articles of Confederation—the reluctance and even the inability or refusal of some member States to enforce the laws and treaties of the central government.
The durability of American federalism, according to Lord Bryce, should also be attributed to the fact that it tends to promote political stability. In framing a federal system, the architects of the Constitution faced an eternal dilemma: how to balance power between the central and state governments; or as Bryce put it colorfully in an astronomical metaphor: how “to keep the centrifugal and centripetal forces in equilibrium, so that neither the planet states shall fly off into space, nor the sun of the central government draw them into its consuming fires.” The advantage of the constitutional edifice built by the Framers is that it solved the problem by giving the national government a direct authority over all citizens, irrespective of the State governments, thereby safely leaving broad powers in the hands of State authorities. “And by placing the Constitution above both the national and State governments,” observed Bryce, “it has referred the arbitrament of disputes between them to an independent body [i.e., the Supreme Court], charged with the interpretation of the Constitution, a body which is to be deemed not so much a third authority in the government as a living voice of the Constitution, the unfolder of the mind of the people whose will stands expressed in that supreme instrument.”
Tocqueville’s and Bryce’s praise of American federalism (and particularly of American local government) called the earnest attention of European and British scholars and public men to national federalism as an idea, a concept, a theory. And presently America’s pattern of federalism was emulated in very different countries—sometimes with modest success, sometimes with no success at all. However that may be, and whether or not federalism is a pattern for good government everywhere, certainly it was the best design for the new American Republic that can be imagined.