What kind of America do you prefer, one of diversity or homogeneity? Though debates over the proper relationship between states and the federal government are a staple of American politics, substantive discourse is often lacking. The opposing positions of the two parties are clear, but only as slogans and soundbites. Republicans deride big government as being invasive and inefficient, while Democrats cast the argument in terms of universal principals and rights that all are entitled to. What goes unnoticed is that these two things are not mutually exclusive.
For me, the strongest argument for states’ rights is the idea that state governments are a marketplace for ideas. When states are allowed to make their own decisions, we have an opportunity to see how that decision plays out in practice, and whether it is a good or bad idea. If a way of dealing with a problem is particularly effective, it will be adopted by other states and may eventually achieve universal acceptance. Though people may never universally agree, at least the other ideas will have had the opportunity to fail.
Another neglected merit of state autonomy is that a defeated minority can vote with their feet. If an individual finds a state’s laws oppressive or incongruous with their values, they can move to a state that better reflects those views. Under a system where most decisions are made at the federal level, short of ex expatriation, there is no escape from an oppressive or incompetent government.
For too long the Federal government has tried to be everything to everyone. As the guarantor of national morality and steward of the national economy and personal well being of every man woman and child, the Federal government is intimately involved with every aspect of our daily lives. The federal system we currently have puts our collective fates in the hands of a small number of people. Now gridlocked, their failure to solve the nation’s problems will be everyone’s failure.
There is something to be said for the survivability of diversity. Where power and decision making is spread out, the bad decisions of a handful of people are less likely to have catastrophic consequences for everyone. Moreover, when power is dispersed, a minority is less likely to capture the government and force everyone to accept their values.
I’m not proposing abolition of the federal system. There are many things that only the Federal government can do. However, most things can and should be left to the states. The Tenth Amendment envisions a limited Federal government. It is only through strained interpretations of the commerce and spending clauses that the Federal government has gained almost plenary authority. The result being political disengagement by the American people, a bankrupt nation, and a political system that has ceased to function.