One of the key aspects to the American political system is the federalist system, where 50 different “laboratories of democracy” are empowered to govern themselves in ways that the people of each respective state desire.  Federalism and the concept of states’ rights have been on the decline in recent years, as more and more decision-making is concentrated in Washington rather than in the state capitals.

However, it is critical to remember what federalism really is, and embrace the crucial role it plays in the life of American government.

The idea of federalism is that state governments are more in touch with the people of their states then the federal government.  It is far easier, for example, to craft an infrastructure and transportation budget for the people of a single state, than it would be for the federal government to throw billions of dollars at a nationwide transportation system.  This would also mean that tax dollars would be spent more locally.  Taxes that are collected by “State A” would be spent in “State A,” as opposed to a citizen in “State A” paying federal taxes that could easily subsidize an earmarked project in “State B.”

One recent example of how local control can be more efficient is Vermont.  Last year, Vermont killed their attempt to to have a state wide single-payer health care system after taxpayers discovered how expensive such a program would be.  However, even if Vermont had implement the state-run healthcare program, the policy would have only effected about 626,000 people, instead of almost 319 million.  Federalism would have saved about 318.4 million people from the same outcomes experienced by people living under other single-payer systems.  By contrast, if the federal government was to impose that policy–as some actually want to–the entire country would be stuck with single-payer health care.

But why has the idea of federalism, which was so central to the original vision of our Founders, started falling by the wayside?

One reason federalism is diminishing is the concentration of power in Washington.  The federal government has taken on more and more responsibilities over time.  Though there were only four executive cabinet-level departments under George Washington, the executive branch now boasts fifteen cabinet-level departments.  Some of those departments, such as the Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Education, greatly increase federal influence over what used to be state- or locally-run functions.

Another reason is that, in the current cultural climate, giving states the power to set their own agendas isn’t popular with progressives.  Federalism allows each state to follow its own cultural values rather than look to some external authority for guidance.  This makes events in Washington D.C. less significant, which is perhaps one reason so many federal officials oppose returning at least some power and decision making back to the states.

The left’s appetite for cultural uniformity is complicated by federalism, which allows people to live in a state with a set of moral laws that are deemed “intolerant” by the “tolerant” left.  It is far easier for progressives to expand the influence of the federal government than it is to leave states to their own designs.

One example of the left’s push for cultural uniformity is the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on gay marriage.  The principles of federalism would have allowed the West Coast and New England to have state laws according to their social beliefs, while allowing the Bible Belt to maintain theirs as well.  Instead, the Supreme Court’s five-person majority used the 14th Amendment in a way that sets a bad precedent for future cultural battles.  The 14th Amendment was passed to grant blacks equal rights in American society after the Civil War, not to declare a right to same-sex marriage as the Supreme Court decided.  To compare a ban on same-sex marriage to what African-Americans had to go through prior to the Civil Rights Movement by using the 14th Amendment diminishes those earlier injustices.

Even though our federalist system was designed to limit federal power, the Supreme Court’s ruling dealt another blow to the federalism by ignoring the rights of states to determine what constitutes a marriage independent of federal influence.

The racial injustices of the past have given the idea of states’ rights a bad reputation. As Jonah Goldberg puts it:

For example, I’m a huge believer in states’ rights, if by states’ rights you mean the legal underpinning for federalism. But if by “states’ rights” you mean segregation, lynching and Jim Crow, then I’m against states’ rights…

The idea that states’ rights were used to justify things such as segregation is undeniable, but as Goldberg continues, “…if you tell me that the concept of federalism is racist, I will say you’re too dumb to be a spell-checker at an M&M factory.”


Federalism was one way that is supposed to keep Washington from becoming the all powerful juggernaut it has become.  The days of considering yourself a citizen of your home state before considering yourself a citizen of the United States are long gone, but taking responsibilities away from Washington and letting states exercise their Tenth Amendment rights is one way to reign in an ever-expanding federal government.  Rather than letting federalism continue to wither, conservatives must find a way to revitalize it.