To heal government, go local

Getty Images

Article Highlights

  • "Federalism is simply the best political system ever conceived of for maximizing human happiness" @JonahNRO

    Tweet This

  • Federalists have to overcome the obstacle where the left sees #federalism as purely #statesrights

    Tweet This

  • .@JonahNRO commends Heather Gerken's essay for allowing #local majorities to have influence on their institutions

    Tweet This

The bleating about broken government and partisanship continues. Why can't those boobs in Washington agree on anything? We're constantly told that the way to fix the country is to dethrone the left and right and empower the middle. Handing things over to these middling mincers and half-a-loafers — Americans Elect, No Labels, the "gangs" of six or 14, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans — is supposed to be the answer to all of our problems.

But what if the real compromise isn't in forcing the left and the right to heel? What if instead the solution is to disempower the national elites who think they've got all the answers? Federalism, the process whereby you push most political questions to the lowest democratic level possible — to states, counties, cities, school boards — has been ripe on the right for years. It even had a champion in Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) still carries that torch.

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.

"Pushing government decisions down to the lowest democratic level possible — while protecting basic civil rights — guarantees that more people will have a say in how they live their lives." -- Jonah Goldberg

Pushing government decisions down to the lowest democratic level possible — while protecting basic civil rights — guarantees that more people will have a say in how they live their lives. More people will be happy, and the moral legitimacy of political decisions will be greater.

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.

"While the diversity paradigm guarantees racial minorities a vote or voice on every decision-making body, it also ensures that they will be the political losers on any issue on which people divide along racial lines," she writes. "Racial minorities are thus destined to be the junior partner or dissenting gadfly in the democratic process. So much for dignity."

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."

She's right, and not just about her favored groups. For instance, Mormons (not a group Gerken highlights) are a national minority. But they are a Utah majority. Hence, Utah takes on Mormon characteristics. It's no theocracy, but it is more representative and distinctive. In areas where Latinos or blacks are the majority, what's so terrible about having institutions that reflect their values?

And, let them all live by their mistakes as well. In San Francisco, which Gerken touts as a haven for "dissenters," they translate their values into law. I think much of what passes for wise policy in San Francisco is idiotic, but it bothers me less than it would if Nancy Pelosi succeeded in making all of America like San Francisco.

I don't see eye to eye with Gerken on everything, and I suspect she would be reluctant to push some decisions downward — for instance, the "safety net" (the county of Galveston, Texas, for example, opted out of the Social Security system).

Still, I'm delighted her essay has received respectful treatment on the left. A left-right federalist compromise would make America a happier, freer, more prosperous and interesting country. It would also dethrone those in both parties who think they know what's best for more than 300 million Americans.

Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at AEI.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Jonah
Goldberg

What's new on AEI

In year four of Dodd-Frank, over-regulation is getting old
image Halbig v. Burwell: A stunning rebuke of a lawless and reckless administration
image Beware all the retirement 'crisis' reports
image Cut people or change how they're paid
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Monday, July 21, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Closing the gaps in health outcomes: Alternative paths forward

Please join us for a broader exploration of targeted interventions that provide real promise for reducing health disparities, limiting or delaying the onset of chronic health conditions, and improving the performance of the US health care system.

Monday, July 21, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Comprehending comprehensive universities

Join us for a panel discussion that seeks to comprehend the comprehensives and to determine the role these schools play in the nation’s college completion agenda.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | 8:50 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Who governs the Internet? A conversation on securing the multistakeholder process

Please join AEI’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy for a conference to address key steps we can take, as members of the global community, to maintain a free Internet.

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Expanding opportunity in America: A conversation with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan

Please join us as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveils a new set of policy reforms aimed at reducing poverty and increasing upward mobility throughout America.

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 6:00 p.m. – 7:15 p.m.
Is it time to end the Export-Import Bank?

We welcome you to join us at AEI as POLITICO’s Ben White moderates a lively debate between Tim Carney, one of the bank’s fiercest critics, and Tony Fratto, one of the agency’s staunchest defenders.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.