Our federalist roots still ring true

Jason Snead and Jason Snead

When they formed our government, the group of men history has come to collectively refer to as “the Framers” had a simple guiding philosophy: Too much power in the hands of too few individuals was a recipe for corruption and abuse as surely as it had been under the King of England. Unfortunately the question of how to establish a government that could both operate effectively and yet not run this risk was hardly so straightforward.

We hear in our civics courses of the answer they created, of the system of checks and balances and the separation of powers. Yet the whole idea of the Constitution is often paid but a fraction of the attention. That idea is federalism – the division of powers between the states and the national government – and it was considered by many of the Framers to be as important as any of the other provisions of the Constitution.

And yet two centuries later the American people seem to have forgotten this. Perhaps it is thought of as antiquated, flying in the face of more modern principles. Or maybe it has simply been allowed to slowly die in the minds of citizens seeking only answers and not interesting themselves in who can best provide that answer.

This is a dangerous way to operate, for when a people demand answers and do not pause to consider at which level of government the solution can best be determined and implemented. Their drive becomes one for a national response even if it’s the least effective way to solve a problem. And Washington politicians, sensing this perilous apathy, will almost never shy away from the chance to expand their own powers and garner prestige.

We as a democratic people should naturally fear and be wary of any government that seeks only to broaden its own authority, if even for the best of intentions. It is natural for us to expect our government to keep us safe and to address our needs, but we cannot and should not allow a government to cast off its constitutional restraints whenever a new problem emerges. We may be creatures of passion, but our government cannot be, for when a government becomes so powerful, it’s no longer held in check by the system that created it, and the threat to freedom and liberty is undeniable.

A second danger is no less terrible than the first. The drive for a national solution to all our problems is, in essence, a drive for uniformity, but for a people of such diversity this is seldom the answer. Few challenges facing us today can be truly solved with a national one-size-fits-all program or policy. What works for Detroit may not work for Houston, and what works for Houston may not work for Dayton. To assume the contrary is to act as a bulldozer, plowing through the many subtle differences that make our nation unique rather than accepting and navigating around them.

Pause for a moment and consider the many levels of government that exist in our nation. Local, state and federal, each layer of government is more powerful than the one before it, and each is subsequently further removed from the people. You as a citizen are far more likely to carry on a conversation with your mayor or meet with your state Representative than you are your Senator or the President.

Given this reality it is painfully obvious why federalism is such a key tenant of the American republic: State and local government is simply far closer to the people than the national government ever will be. So it would seem that states and localities are in the best position to know the needs, issues, values and desires of their people.

Somehow we as a nation have come to overlook this, believing that 537 elected federal officials are almost always able to represent a nation of 300 million more effectively than any other echelon of government.

This is true in some areas, particularly those that involve the health, safety, security and prosperity of the union as a whole entity. Some issues therefore truly do require a national focus and initiative, and these responsibilities are certainly enough to keep our federal officials occupied.

What we should demand of them therefore is not that they produce the solutions to problems such as education, welfare, gay marriage or abortion. Rather, that the federal government ought to respect the many differences in opinions and problems that exist today, as well as its own limitations and restrictions, and allow the states to resolve these types of conflicts wherever the Constitution permits.

This is the system that has preserved our liberties and our freedoms for two centuries, and we should not now turn our backs on the wisdom of the Framers.