Government and Politics - The Benefits of Federalism
In the early days of the United States, it was obvious to many that a system combining both federalism and representative democracy was needed. According to the textbook, “the people were too widely dispersed, and the country’s transportation and communication systems too primitive to be governed [solely] from a central location” (pg. 58). Although today both communication and transportation are highly advanced, America still maintains a federal system. The driving force behind that system is our increasingly expanding diversity. The United States ranks fourth in the world in size (www.stats.demon.nl/chart.area25.htm) and third in population (www.census.gov/ipc/www/idbrank.html). There are 213 languages spoken in America (www.sil.org/ethnologue/countries/USA.html) and probably just as many religions practiced. Federalism
is the method by which this diverse population is better represented in the democracy of the United States.
The national government
makes many important decisions that impact our daily lives; however, there are some issues on which the opinion of the American public varies widely. In our federal system, the states are usually responsible for making policies that involve social, family, and moral/religious issues. This is one of the most important advantages of a federal system. The decentralization of the government allows the desires and needs of smaller groups of people to be acknowledged and fulfilled at the local level. Californians differ in many ways from residents of Arkansas who differ greatly from Alaskans. Variations in culture and lifestyle create needs for different political policies. A large, single, centralized government would be unable to make efficient social policies
that were compatible with the convictions of a majority of America’s diverse groups. However, the national government still has enough power, through a system of checks and balances, to obliterate local policies that infringe upon the human rights of smaller factions.
Federalism is not, of course, without disadvantages. To begin with, more levels of government equal a larger bureaucracy with many more people involved in the decision-making process. This provides more opportunities for corrupt government officials. Federalism also means that a complex tax system must exist so that each level of government receives funds from those in its jurisdiction in order to carry out laws and policies. Another major disadvantage of federalism is slow response to crises. Because so many people are involved in the decision-making process, it takes longer for the necessary authority to be alerted and for action to be taken.
Under the American system of federalism, a delicate balance of power has been established. Some believe that the states have too much power, and others believe that it is the national government that possesses too much control. One thing is for certain, though, and that is that a strong national government is necessary for the survival of the United States. The earliest American leaders understood this. Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government was weak and unable to control small factions: a perfect example being Shay’s Rebellion. It was obvious to all that the national government must have a certain level of authority or the new nation would not live long. The fact that our current government system has lasted now for over 200 years is testimony that something is being done correctly.
Although in most cases the states or other local governments (county, city, school district) enact policies involving moral and social issues, the federal government does indeed get involved. In the past, the Supreme Court has made decisions on issues such as drinking age, speed limits, suffrage, and abortion. Some of these decisions have been overturned and the power to decide them given back to the local governments. Usually, when the Supreme Court acts as the American conscience, it does so under the blanket of the Bill of Rights. Nearly every person in the country believes that murder is immoral and wrong, and policies involving such human rights are not questionable. Therefore, the national government can make laws concerning such rights without fear of infringing upon the moral convictions of most secular groups. But some issues are not so clear-cut.
Abortion is one example of such an issue. As I mentioned before, nearly every American (for that matter, almost every person in the world) believes murder of another human being in wrong. In the matter of abortion, the big question is: “When is a human fetus considered a human being?” The answer to this question is what various religious and cultural groups disagree on. I believe that the issue of abortion should be given to the states to decide upon, because they represent a more homogenous collection of voters and citizens than the national government does, and therefore are more likely to better represent the moral convictions of the citizens.
There are several advantages to the federal system in the United States, and there are also quite a few disadvantages; however, I believe that the diversity of the nation demands that the system remain. Americans will probably always disagree on balance of power between national and local governments, though it is hoped that as we continue to grow as a nation, our political system will remain as adaptive and flexible as it has in the past. In the words of W.H. Seward, “The circumstances of the world are so variable, that an irrevocable purpose or opinion is almost synonymous with a foolish one.”