The Virtues of Federalism

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I am a federalist.  Among the many powers in the United States, which influence or dictate to individuals and groups, the federal government has consistently been more progressive and a purer expression of the people’s will than have local or state governments.  The federal government is less subject to control by small minorities striving for power over the majority, than are local and state governments.  Local and state governments are where prejudices can best find haven and oppress citizens.  The federal government is also more progressive than the market, and more representative than are private interest groups, and corporations.  The market favors and reinforces those already possessing substantial advantages over others; and private interest groups and corporations are by definition self-serving organizations fighting against each other, and against the whole people, for their survival and dominance.  I am a federalist because the federal government is the organization best positioned, equipped, and willing to support my struggle for my own rights as a human being and as a citizen.

Governments are responsible for protecting persons and property; and for promoting the public welfare.  For the federal government, these functions manifest through constitutional provisions such as the commerce clause (US Constitution, Article I, Section 8, third clause), giving the US Congress the power “… to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states…”  The federal government is responsible for protecting business, workers, and our environment and resources.  The federal government is responsible for managing and arbitrating the necessarily conflictual relationships between business and employees and consumers; and between those wishing to use resources here and now and those wishing to preserve them for future or long term usage.  State and local governments are also responsible for pursuing these goals within their jurisdictions; but only the federal government is capable of managing these issues at the national level.  Market forces do not look after the interests of individuals, groups, or the nation; but simply react to prices and forces to restrict access to and usage of resources to those few who can afford it.  Private national groups and special interests look after only their own specific interest at the expense of conflicting interests.  A government must manage all of these forces and groups, and only the federal government is able to do that for the nation.

American power and wealth are built upon the foundation of two key pillars: public funding and direction, and private enterprise.  Throughout the history of this nation, private enterprise has depended upon the government’s active support, initiative, and funding to provide the necessary infrastructural foundation upon which to build successful businesses. The federal government played a key role in railroad development, providing public land and funding construction projects; and fueling a massive industrial revolution and employing hundreds of thousands of workers.  American shipping, communications, and motor works; oil and coal; agricultural industries and supports; were all built with federal dollars and federal initiative backing those men of wealth who could both afford and dare to build a greater economy with the people’s support and taxes.  No part of this nation was built by enterprise acting without government welfare, or by government acting without the organizational drive and muscle of free enterprise.

While vast fortunes were made (and very often squandered) by men of wealth, with the eager help of federal initiative and funding, the development of capitalism and all of its failings drove government to ameliorate the worst effects of capital.  The Civil War-era federalism of the Republican Party meshed perfectly with the party’s championing of workers’ rights against the greed of corporatism.  Later, the Great Depression drove the federal government to finally enact economic measures to keep the “boom and bust” cycle of unrestrained capitalism from breaking the lower and middle classes.  While state and local governments could moderate some of the impacts of economic spasms, the federal government could steer far more support to those areas suffering the greatest effects, providing help that only national funding could provide.  It was only federal New Deal mechanisms like Social Security, large construction projects, national labor and cultural drives, etc., that brought a broken US economy back onto its feet.  Private enterprise had failed, and state government was too near-sighted and hampered by local financial disadvantages to do more than minimize local manifestations of massive national problems.

Although deregulation has weakened the New Deal regulations that protected us from disasters like the Great Depression and the Great Recession, the federal government still attempts to ameliorate some of the failures of capitalism.  The Dodd-Frank banking reform law was one such attempt; with Senator Elizabeth Warren as the conceptual godmother of one of its key provisions, the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau empowered to protect consumers from irregularities in the banking sector.  Although Republicans have worked strenuously to keep the Bureau from functioning the way it was intended, the federal government still works to minimize the harmful ups and downs of the capital market.  The market, private business, civic action groups, and special interests are neither capable of nor interested in performing these roles effectively and beneficially.

The federal government’s irreplaceable functions are most evident domestically in the support and development of national infrastructure.  From the canals and railroads of the 19th century, to the interstate highways and nuclear power plants of the 20th, to the information network and green energy of the 21st, only the federal government has had the combination of political power, national jurisdiction, and fiscal resources to push private groups to do what the market is ill equipped to do by itself:  invest in their own and the nation’s success through federally funded and managed infrastructure programs.  No other entity has either the constitutional mandate, the public oversight, and the funding to make strategic decisions for our country, and to implement those decisions. In the 1950s, the increasing global competition with the Soviet Union pushed the federal government into a greater, more cohesive program of education, infrastructure, scientific research, and economic investment and management.  Similarly, the increasing competition today for jobs and markets in a globalized economy and information network pushes our country to a return to federal management, to a renewed faith in the virtues of federalism.

Infrastructure is one of the key public goods provided by government.  The public good is the measure of that which the people do best by doing it through collective governance rather than through private initiative or on the free market.  Examples of public goods are the roads on which we drive, the water that we drink, and the schools in which we teach and learn.  Schools in particular present a strong case not only for the provision of the public good, but for the federalization of that good.  The management of schools by local and state government derives from the growth of districted common schools funded by those authorities – the authority to manage comes with the fiscal responsibility for providing the public good of education.  However, our schools are failing because local communities and state governments have failed to fund such schools, as budgets have grown constricted amid economic woes and a growing conservative disdain for the public.  With district school funding keyed to local taxes (usually property taxes), schools in high-income areas have substantially greater funding than do those in low-income areas.  The conservative notion of “failing schools” refers not to a lack of our schools’ commitment to care for their students, but to these schools’ inability to squeeze the necessary funding from poverty-stricken areas.  Federal funding is the simplest answer to fixing such funding discrepancies.  The federal government has far greater assets with which to fund schools, and federal funding is not subject to local or state-level economic crises or failures.  Poor states would be more capable of competing with rich states for jobs and resources were their children better educated, and more consistently educated in accordance with priorities determined by federal authorities tasked with keeping American schools competitive with foreign schools.  Federal funding would also protect our schools and our students from local variations in political and moral extremism; although a continuing role by state and local authorities would still be necessary to give the communities a degree of power in offering electives favored by the community.

The autonomy of state and local governments is often championed by states’ rights advocates as negating the intrusion by the federal government into the lives of citizens.  However, states’ rights advocates ignore the glaring problem of state autonomy, which is that virtually all oppression which visits American citizens comes from their state and local governments.  States have vastly greater powers over their citizens than does the federal government.  State and local governments control speech, public behavior, unions, religion, arms, voting, education, marriage, welfare, housing, employment, food, water, the environment, commerce, communications, transportation, sewage and garbage, and many other activities.  In any given location in the US, the overwhelming number of laws that restrict people’s lives and choices come not from the federal government but from their state and local governments.  States were responsible for preserving slavery, segregation, poverty among African-Americans and other minorities.  It took the federal government to push a civil rights agenda to protect our basic freedoms.  North Carolina and other states are even dictating their citizens’ gender identities, while the federal government attempts to intrude into our state governments’ intrusion into our rights.  States’ rights do not represent the rights of the people; they represent the rights of a minority of people to enforce their power over their neighbors and fellow citizens.  The federal government operates as an ameliorating force in the struggle between the powers of the state and local governments, and the rights of the people.

A major problem with state and local government in the US is that the focus by our national media, and the attention of those few people who follow politics, are centered on the federal government.  This attention puts the federal government under a microscope that largely ignores the place where most of our law and most of our governments’ abuse of power takes place: in the states, counties, cities, townships, and villages.  Few as Americans are who can name their legislators in the US Congress, far fewer can name their state legislators, city council members, county commissioners, and other key elected officials.  This enables a far greater degree of corruption, lobbying, and abuse of power at local and state levels than can take place at the federal level.  State and local governments generate and enforce law with relatively little input or awareness by citizens (other than the few corporate actors funding local officials’ election campaigns), and with relatively little attention by either the media or the people.  In the meantime, the national media shouts loudly and constantly about major legislation in the US Congress, about election campaigns for federal positions, about bureaucratic operations, and about corruption and lobbying at the federal level.  This shouting ignores the fact that, taking place outside of most citizens’ attention, and with much lower voter turn-outs, local elections take relatively little funding; and a small corporate donation can create a far closer relationship between local government and the corporation than can be created by a much larger donation at the federal level.

At state and local levels, prejudices are actualized into law (both written and unwritten) far more easily – and over a vastly greater number of issues and behaviors – than at the federal level.  This is why the civil rights battles had to take place at the federal level; the state and local governments of the Old Confederacy were unwilling to loosen the chains of oppression and to allow their citizens access to their constitutional rights.  Whatever states’ rights advocates argue about federal incursions into our freedom, the federal government has protected and enhanced our rights across the several states far more than our own state governments have, as controlled as the latter have been by local forces unwilling to change.

While democratization, civic action, and increased transparency can happen at state and local levels, it often takes greater resources than local citizens can access to put a spotlight on local problems.  It took national organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee to organize voters’ registration in southern states in the 1960s.  It took national actors and media outlets like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Time Magazine to finally enable the citizens of Flint, Michigan to fight their own state government’s lack of concern over their poisoned water.  In both cases, national actors helped push the federal government into a response as well, generating relief to oppressed populations that was not forthcoming from state and local governments.  As the federal government has stepped in to denounce North Carolina’s HB2 law, it is again taking the national resources of the whole people to fight against a minority of people, who are attempting to abuse their powers of law to oppress their own neighbors and citizens.  By spotlighting issues like voting in the 1960s, and Michigan’s water fiasco and the North Carolina law of today, the federal government can push democratization into local areas oppressed by their own governments.

Government is both a boon and a burden; the means of keeping ourselves free and a machine used to oppress us.  In the US, we have complicated relationships between federal, state, and local levels of government; and between government and corporations, the media, and private citizens.  Each of these is a form of oppression against the rest; and each is also a source of freedom from the rest.  Failures of policy, the impact of corruption, and abuses of power occur at all levels, from top to bottom, and throughout both the public and private sectors.  However, the attention of voters, information consumers, and the media have for some time been focused on federal and national issues, at the expense paid to state and local levels.  We have achieved a transparency of power in the federal government that is sorely lacking in the very place where most of our laws and our governments’ powers are enacted and enforced.  The sordid history of human rights in the US shows that there is not just an imbalance of power between federal and state levels; there is an imbalance of interest.  The forces of patriarchy, theocracy, racism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and oppression find quiet, dark corners in that very center of American law and power, our local and state governments.  Like cockroaches fleeing when a light is turned on, these forces slink into our local and state governments, away from the level where the greatest and brightest lights are shined by our media and our attention.  This is why I am a federalist; and this is why I cringe at the words, “states’ rights.”

In the 1800s, in the 1900s, and today, “states’ rights” have always meant the “rights” of a minority (those few holding local and state seats of power) to take away the majority’s rights.  States’ rights are not people’s rights; and they are the means for restricting or eliminating our rights.  While clearly imperfect, and subject to its own hungers and abuse of power, the federal government is better positioned, and has done more, to protect local human and civil rights than our local and state governments can do or wish to do.  I am a federalist because I am jealous of my freedom, and I am suspicious of power that slinks into dark corners away from transparency.  I am a federalist because my nation’s history shows that in the battle for our rights, the federal government has been a purer expression of the will of the people than the local and state governments have been.  I am a federalist because our local schools become less able to teach the more our local and state governments interfere with them, and because we need a federal effort to fund schools regardless of their geographic locations or the socioeconomic status of their districts.  I am a federalist because our nation works best when it works together as a nation.  We the People have formed a more perfect Union; and we must uphold and empower our Union.

Headline image of the preamble to the Constitution, from Wikimedia Commons.

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