American federalism is a beautiful construction. It balances safeguards from tyranny with effective government, enabling states to experiment without creating national chaos. In a nation that was founded on the idea of individual freedom, the federalist structure ensures that no level of government gains too much power. Oftentimes, however, Americans lack appreciation or understanding of the rights of states. Attitudes such as these endanger the very fabric of our nation: federalism is integral part of our governing structure. In an age where the federal government grows bigger and more powerful, the importance and bounds of states’ rights cannot be understated.
Simply put, states’ rights are vital to checking the federal government’s power, testing new ideas, and ensuring that citizens can better have their voices represented in government. But before I explain why states’ rights are so essential, it is important to understand how they were established.
At its founding, the United States was unique in that citizens were viewed as having inherent natural rights. Under this belief, citizens gave power to the national government, as evidenced in the preamble to the Constitution: “We the people of the United States… do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” But even though the American people were clearly coming together to establish this new government, the states also played an integral role in its founding. Not only did the new Constitution and future amendments need the approval of state governments, but the legislature itself balanced popular will (House) and state power (Senate).
Of course, our Constitution was “Episode II” in governing doctrine after the failed Articles of Confederation. The Founders were wary of giving a central government too much power, especially since the original states had broken away from an authoritarian central authority. State pride was strong – much of the Continental Army fought in units organized by state – and state officials were loathe to cede much of their power. Patrick Henry, who declared at the start of the Revolution “I am not a Virginian, but an American,” was a strong proponent of state power; so much so, he even criticized the use of “We the People” over the use of “We the States.”
But in the end, the Constitution explicitly gave the federal government its powers while all remaining power remained in the hands of the people or the states, ensured by the Tenth Amendment. Case law is littered with state vs. federal jurisdiction battles, a topic requiring more space than this column can provide. With the preceding historical summary, it is time to address why states’ rights are good for Americans.
The nature of our federal system requires states to exercise their power to keep the federal government in check. If the federal government is allowed to seize state power, the system becomes unbalanced and power can become too concentrated at one level. Federal government intervention in historically state matter risks defeating the entire purpose of federalism. States exercising constitutional power are necessary to check the growth of the national government’s scope and power.
The federal system creates a “political sandbox” to test new laws and theories that might never be tested at the national level, in effect creating a free market to try new ideas. People living in Tennessee probably have different priorities and needs than those in Connecticut. Citizens of Oregon might want to try a new policy that Ohioans have no interest in trying. A federal system allows citizens and governments to experiment with policies that work best for them locally. Surely, citizens of each state know their local problems better than the Representatives and Senators in Congress.
Perhaps most importantly, the more rights retained by the states instead of the national government, the more impact each citizen has on a piece of legislation. The average Congressional district encompasses 710,767 citizens. In Maryland, my home state, 141 Delegates represent 5,928,814 residents, about 42,000 people per delegate. Which person does a voter have more influence over? Which politician best reflects a particular voter? The citizen has a larger influence over state politics than national politics, so by preserving state rights, we preserve citizen power.
Even as I defend the rights of states, we must remember that all governments’ power originates from the people. The Tenth Amendment dictates that authority not granted to the federal government remain in the hands of the states or the people. Because of this, states need to focus on protecting their power from federal encroachment, not individual liberty. The constitutional rights of states are essential in creating an efficient, effective government that preserves individual liberty.