Sunday, December 19, 2010

Is "federalism" really the solution?

"Federalism" is often touted as a solution to our problems. Usually what people mean by "federalism" is a bias towards state and local governance in opposition to federal governance. I've come to think that this is a phony issue. First of all the same citizens who elect federal office holders also elect state and local office holders. So the idea that there is something uniquely pure and republican about local and state politics is ridiculous. There is no value distinction between these levels of government.

Second, state and local governments have been run just as incompetently as the federal government. In my state there are many local governments that are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the state government has been passing its budgets on smoke and mirrors. There is nothing about local and state government that justifies the romance and fantasy that is propagated by advocates of "federalism."

The federalism argument is rooted in a mid-20th century opposition to a big federal government. Opponents were looking for any alternative to big government and they latched on to "federalism" as a tactic to oppose big government by claiming that local and state government should have priority. But in my state, local governments are struggling with roles and responsibilities that were organized in an industrial society that no longer exists.

So just saying "federalism" doesn't solve any problems. This is why I've lost patience with libertarian and conservative rhetoric about federalism. Libertarianism and conservatism as movements have been dominated by intellectuals who have little practical experience with governance. How many have been city managers struggling with the challenges of local governance? Libertarianism and conservatism have been so focused on opposing the industrial-age managerial liberalism, that they never really addressed how to govern an industrialized society. Classical liberalism is a pre-industrial variety of liberalism and it offers little guidance for the challenges we have faced over the past hundred years.

We need to think about how to apply liberal principles to 21st century realities.

1 comment:

Purpleslog said...

I think of federalism more along the lines of separation-of-powers/balance-of-power.

It is pretty clear that the quality of governance at all US levels is pretty bad right now.