| September 22, 2011

Does federalism still matter?

What is federalism? And more importantly, does it still matter?

Before jumping into a discussion about the meaning and purpose of federalism, we need to talk about human nature. If you do not understand the true state of human nature, your conclusions about methods of government will not be realistic, i.e., the philosophies of Marx and the modern political Left.

What is the actual state of human nature? Is it not inherently selfish and perpetually thinking of itself? Isn’t our natural inclination to believe that it is all about us?

In reality, we need the boundaries provided by our families, our friends, our religious community and civil government. To have any degree of safety and liberty, human nature must be subject to checks and balances.

But, is just having a government sufficient to guarantee individual liberty? One doesn’t have to look far in history to see oppression and misery brought on by a concentration of power. From the kingdoms of antiquity to the dictators of the twentieth century (such as Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein), people have been subjugated to the whims of tyrants. Even today, nations such as North Korea and Iran have a dismal track record of oppression and domination.

The maxim attributed to Lord Acton is still true today, “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

With this in mind, how did the Founding Fathers view human nature? The answer is obvious. The Constitution, through its structure, resists the darker aspects of human nature by separating the duties and powers of government. Different branches of government perform different functions. The personal ambitions of the leaders in each branch coincide with the constitutional prestige of their particular branch, causing each branch to resist encroachment by the others.

It is a system of limited government, of checks and balances and separation of powers. The legislature makes the law, the executive executes or enforces the law, and the judiciary interprets and adjudicates the law. If the intended boundaries are observed, individual liberty is preserved.

Let’s turn to another very important check and balance in the Constitution? This one is external. It is the idea of federalism. At a basic level, federalism is the vertical balance of power between the federal government and the States – in other words, a compound republic.

In Federalist 51, James Madison referred to our federal structure as a “double security…to the rights of the People.”

While federalism does not get much attention in the modern era, the purpose of federalism was to protect the individual communities of interest that are the states. Throughout American history, each state has reflected the character of its people. Cultural differences exist between the states, and public opinion may differ dramatically depending on the region of the country. Just as the three branches internally check and balance the federal government, the powers of government are to be divided between the states and the federal government.

The Constitution lays out the specific or enumerated powers of the federal government as well as the proper role of the states. The federal government is responsible for national and federal functions, and the individual states are responsible for everything else. It’s the concept of dual sovereignty. Each level of government takes care of its own business and doesn’t interfere with the other.

So, does federalism still matter? Is federalism just a quaint idea from the late 18th century, or does it remain relevant today?

To answer this, you must ask, “are the principles of the Constitution still relevant today?” “Do the Founders’ concerns about human nature remain valid?” “Has human nature improved or evolved to a higher level since 1787?”

The answer is obvious. Despite the assertions of modern philosophers, we have not evolved past the worst aspects of our nature. Look no further than the bloodshed and mayhem of the twentieth century to see that boundaries and government are still a necessity. More importantly, government must be decentralized with power and duties spread among different actors with the states remaining as important players in our system of checks and balances.

President Reagan said it best when he noted, “All of us need to be reminded that the federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government."

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