In Defense of Federalism

Individual states ought to have more power and control over both the lives of the citizens residing and visiting within it, as well as territory under their control, than the federal government.  The purpose of our national government is to accomplish tasks that state government is either unable to provide, offer large-scale benefits to all states, or restrain the states in certain aspects.  For example, it only makes sense for the national government to have the sole power to declare war, defend the states from invasion, and create and maintain a national currency.  Despite what some might say, the powers and limitations of the federal government are pretty clearly defined in the Constitution and its amendments.  I assure you that the 10th Amendment is in there for a reason!

By contrast, states have far more latitude.  Unlike the national government, assuming their constitutions allow it, they can create a statewide health care system, legalize all sorts of drugs, or modify the drinking age (assuming the federal government didn’t mettle by withholding highway funding).  Now I’m not saying that I advocate these plans, but, as “laboratories of democracy”, it is far better for a state to tinker with such modifications than Washington D.C.  Once a plan is proven successful in a state or, better yet, several states, and assuming it is constitutional, only then should it be considered on a national scale.  This largely forgotten theory was one of founding principles of our nation.  You want state run health care?  Then move to Boston.  You want to smoke marijuana?  Then migrate to Los Angeles.  Otherwise lobby your state and not the federal government.   Let’s agree to keep such plans out of the hands of D.C. bureaucrats.  If you want Virginia health care, or the freedom to use recreational drugs in Danville, then I recommend talking to the folks in Richmond.  Just know that I have the right to argue for the other side.

You say that the constitution is outdated and states rights are a thing of the past.  Assuming you are right (I sure hope you aren’t by the way), consider this fact.  If I want to contact my State Senator or one of his representatives in person, I need only to drive a couple minutes to downtown.  Conversely, if I’d like to meet someone from my U.S. Senator’s office, I’d have to travel about 2 hours to go to either Richmond or Roanoke.  Furthermore, State Senators have approximately 1/40th of the constituents that our national Senators have.  Who do you think is more responsive to a citizen’s concerns?  I often get letters, emails, and cards in response to my inquiries with Senator Obenshain.  Guess what I have gotten from Senators Webb and Warner…that’s right, nothing!  One of them knows me; the other has a territory too large for any sort of personal relationship.  Now tell me, which one represents me better?  Which is better suited to make policy decisions regarding your city, town or county?  Is it the one who lives in your community or the one who, like a distant relative, visits once or twice a year?  If for no other reason than proximity, increased devolution just makes sense.  Unfortunately, if we leave it up to the politicians in the D.C., we will continue the slow march toward a unitary state.

For additional information on this topic, I encourage you to read a recent article written by Josh Eboch, State Chapter Coordinator for the Virginia Tenth Amendment Center regarding the tension between libertarians and constitutional conservatives over the 10th Amendment.  I hope you find it as worthwhile as I did.

3 Replies to “In Defense of Federalism”

  1. The point about subsidiarity is well taken, and I find it off that there even is a so-called tension here between 10th Amendment Conservatism and Libertarianism on the point. The chief aim of government, it seems to me, is to prevent (as the Libertarian Party of Connecticut puts it) “force and fraud.” Beyond that, it’s matters of degree, and I’d agree that states are probably a good place to start in the reassignment of federal powers.

    An important caveat, of course, is that the Federal Government still would have to be empowered to ensure that one state could not unduly discriminate against the others – and by this I mean, prevent American citizens from travelling freely, form alliances with foreign powers, issue its own currencies, etc. That, I think, is what the more shrill among my party are really afraid of – the dismantling of the union in favor of fifty independent nation-states, and that I wouldn’t support, nor would I support any state making laws or setting up regulations that would violate the Federal constitution. But I think that there is definitely something to be said for restoring a more strongly federal system, as this country has made a significant slide towards unitary statism.


  2. As in many of the ideas of our nation’s founders, the key is balance. Too weak a national bond and prosperous states can become rivals that bicker over petty issues. If the bond becomes too strong, even a well-intentioned government becomes unwieldy and runs the danger of losing the pulse of the various peoples it attempts to assist. Those who designed our government had their rhetoric tempered by experience – the need to survive and thrive necessitated compromise and community on multiple levels.
    Interestingly enough, I see the administrative systems of the United Methodist Church as a helpful example of this sort of federalism. Different levels of ‘conferences’ are arranged concentrically, with the ‘annual’ level viewed as the main administrative level (the Virginia Annual Conference encompasses most of the state). No individual Methodist or solitary church can perform the entire work of discipleship – all churches in the Methodist connection, indeed all churches in the world, are part of the body of Christ. Even so, each part of the body (and each conference level) must be treated with appropriate respect and used wisely for the benefit of the whole body. To have true individual freedom, each Christian is called to love others as they love themselves. – Conference Structure –

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