Thinking Out Loud – A Return to Federalism

As a devotee of James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” I have long thought that one of our country’s chief ills is our neglect — almost abandonment — of the broad architectural structure he gave our government.   It is called Federalism.   By Federalism Madison meant that the national government, the one residing in Washington, D.C., is responsible for all issues national in scope — foreign policy, national defense, issuance of a national currency — while state and local governments are responsible for state and local issues — education, public works, the safety of their indigenous populations.

Today, of course, the national government has encroached upon so many of the state’s responsibilities, and powers, as to render Federalism virtually meaningless.  And since it is impossible for a national government located in one remote corner of the country to understand, much less effectively address, the concerns of the many different people in the 50 states and the thousands of different localities within those states, the national government usually does a bad job of it.

To my concerns, add those of National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, who recently wrote a column on Yale professor Heather Gerken, whose paper in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas notes that the turn away from Federalism has badly eroded the power of minorities.  Gerken argues from a liberal viewpoint; her emphasis is on racial minorities, but her complaint is valid — that although minorities have a voice in the national democratic debate, by definition that voice will always be drowned out by majorities.   “Racial minorities are thus destined to be the junior partner or dissenting gadfly in the democratic process,” she writes.

Her solution.  A return to Federalism, in which power devolves back to states and localities where minorities can turn into majorities and institute policies that best suit their principles and beliefs — and not just racial minorities, but all minorities.  This is, after all, a nation in which we can “vote with our feet.”  We can move to places that best reflect our values.  Thus, as Goldberg notes, while Mormons are not a majority in America, they are in Utah and Salt Lake City, and their environs reflect that.  Ditto Hispanics in parts of Miami.  For that matter, ditto gays and lesbians in San Francisco.

As majorities in states and localities, why shouldn’t they have more power to fashion a civic life that best reflects their principles and beliefs?  (And those minorities that object can always vote with their feet.)   Better them than the national government.  Or as Goldberg nicely puts it, “I think much of what passes for wise policy in San Francisco is idiotic, but it bothers me less than it would if Nancy Pelosi succeeded in making all of America like San Francisco.”