Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Virtues and Vices of Federalism


The US is renowned worldwide for its unique federalist system. But is it a good system? Let’s consider its virtues and its vices.

Virtues

1. Allowing for government closer to the people

Instead of having a bureaucrat in far away Washington DC make decisions, we can have a bureaucrat maybe an hour away making important decisions on taxes and education, as well as other issues that affect us. Of course this doesn’t get us around having bureaucracy, but it could make the bureaucracy that we need to have more responsive.

2. People can self-select into unique cultures

If you’re an evangelical who hates abortion and secularism, you can move to a socially conservative state. If you’re a feminist who hates the Religious Right by contrast, you can go to a liberal state. The upshot of this is that decisions about difficult cultural issues could be left to states. That means national officials could focus more on other concerns.

Vices

1. Inefficient

Having 50 states make separate decisions can yield weird outcomes. For example, on education, we now have a patchwork of different standards. Imagine if during the past economic crisis, we’d had 50 different stimulus packages and bank bailouts? Concerted response would have been an impossibility.

2. Allows for trampling on rights

Tyranny of the majority is more likely to happen in one individual state than in the nation as a whole. In order to erode rights nationally, there has to be a diverse coalition. You have to amend the constitution, which is a difficult process. But in a state where say 90% of the residents are white, and 10% black and a history of racial tension, it’d be easier to erode the rights of that black minority with one referendum vote.

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