And the federalism hits just keep on coming

26 Aug

From Wilfred McCay (clip):

And this complexity is precisely the genius of federalism—and of American federalism in particular. It divides political power between and among units of government—central and local, higher and lower—in such a way that all retain certain elements of autonomy and self-governance. Federalism thereby offers the prospect of reconciling the advantages of independence with the advantages of combination, the cohesiveness and diversity of smaller-scale local organization with the material resources and external security provided by a unified nation-state. It need hardly be added, however, that for such a system to preserve its character, it must find clear and consistent ways of strictly limiting the powers of the central authority, and protecting the autonomy of the local and provincial governments. This can best be done through a written constitution, of precisely the sort that the Framers provided. Whatever else one may say about Madison’s intentions in helping frame this unique “composition” of federal and national systems, he most emphatically did not offer the Constitution as a blueprint for a consolidated government that would completely supersede the separate authority of the states, or reduce them to mere administrative units at best. [3]

The federal idea, then, is an attempt to reconcile opposites, to find a balance between nationalism and localism without having to choose finally between one or the other. Contrary to familiar caricatures of the federal idea as a form of hidebound legalism, such a system, properly understood, is necessarily fluid and dynamic, even ambivalent in its sense of political life’s proper ends. It is not, and cannot be, a closed and finished product. Rather, it is splendidly fitted to a broadly liberal understanding of political life, especially the sort of liberal pluralism one associates with a figure like Isaiah Berlin, that envisions human existence as a struggle between and among many different expressions of human good and human perfection, rather than as a Whiggish struggle between darkness and light, grounded in the illusion of an eventual all-encompassing harmonious fulfillment and resolution of those conflicts.[4] This is one reason why the tendency of historians to reduce the Constitution to a compromise-ridden political deal is so misconceived; for the reconciling of opposites, the reconciling of the claims of conflicting goods, was one of the Constitution’s substantive goals.

The federal idea, then, was not somehow incidental to the Framer’s intentions. It was absolutely essential, and we need to remember why. There are, roughly speaking, two reasons; and it is in keeping with my allusion to Isaiah Berlin that one of them is negative, the other positive. First the negative one. The Framers distrusted power, distrusted government, distrusted majorities, distrusted human nature. They believed in “the necessity of auxiliary precautions” to guard against the abuses of power to which popular governments are prone. Hence the need to devise a government that deliberately set up “opposite and rival interests” that could check and balance one another, using “ambition. . . to counteract ambition.” Federalism was a crucial part of this arrangement. The separation of national and state governments, in tandem with the separation of powers within each level of government, provided “a double security” for the people’s rights, through the effective dispersion of power. [5]

That, then, is the negative function of federalism. But it is complemented by an equally important positive function, one that gets far less attention than it deserves. Federalism, properly conceived, makes it possible to preserve the integrity and vitality of smaller-scale forms of political organization and association. A federal regime, properly constituted, should offer a multitude for arenas for meaningful acts of citizenship, the kind of acts that elevate and deepen human beings, while binding them more closely and affectionately to their locale, and through their locale, to the nation.

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