Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Different Views of Federalism

Federalism is simply the best political system ever conceived of for maximizing human happiness. A one-size-fits-all policy imposed at the national level has the potential to make very large numbers of citizens unhappy, even if it was arrived at democratically. In a pure democracy, I always say, 51% of the people can vote to pee in the cornflakes of 49% of the people.
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The problem for conservative and libertarian federalists is that whenever we talk about federalism, the left hears "states' rights," which is then immediately, and unfairly, translated into "bring back Bull Connor."

But that may be changing. In an essay for the spring issue of Democracy Journal, Yale law professor Heather K. Gerken offers the case for "A New Progressive Federalism." Her chief concern is how to empower "minorities and dissenters." Not surprisingly, she defines such people in almost purely left-wing terms of race and sexual orientation. Still, she makes the very compelling point that the current understanding of diversity — including minorities as tokens of inclusion — pretty much guarantees that racial minorities will always be political minorities as well.
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Allowing local majorities to have their way, Gerken continues, "turns the tables. It allows the usual winners to lose and the usual losers to win. It gives racial minorities the chance to shed the role of influencer or gadfly and stand in the shoes of the majority."
The New York Times editorial page, however, cites a recent study to disparage federalist approaches:
For all the reform talk by many governors and state lawmakers, very little has really changed in most capitals over the decades. Budgeting is still done behind closed doors, and spending decisions are revealed to the public at the last minute. Ethics panels do not bother to meet, or never enforce the conflict-of-interest laws that are on the books. Lobbyists have free access to elected officials, plying them with gifts or big campaign contributions. Open-records acts are shot through with loopholes.
And yet all the Republican presidential candidates think it would be a good idea to hand some of Washington’s most important programs to state governments, which so often combine corruptibility with incompetence. In a speech on Monday, Mitt Romney said he would dump onto the states most federal anti-poverty programs, including Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance, because states know best what their local needs are.
States, however, generally have a poor record of taking care of their neediest citizens, and could not be relied on to maintain lifeline programs like food stamps if Washington just wrote them checks and stopped paying attention. In many states, newspapers and broadcasters have cut their statehouse coverage, reducing scrutiny of government’s effectiveness and integrity.