How Effective is Federalism in the U.S.

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American federalism has evolved in many ways over the years. The common theme among the different types of federalism is balancing power between federal government and lower levels of government. There are those who shed light mainly on the disadvantages of federalism, but there are also those who choose to shift their focus to the advantages and ways that federalism can empower citizens. Does competition among state and federal government really focus on the well-being of citizens? How do mobility and choice tie into federalism? Is there a pending resurgence of federalism in our nation? Federalism is a unique system of government. In America, there are various levels of government such as local, state and federal. The idea of federalism is that the divided authority will counter an all-powerful federal government. The Tenth Amendment is the basis for American federalism (Unknown author, https://definitions.uslegal.com/f/federalism/, unknown publish date). This Amendment addresses the relationship between state and federal government (Unknown author, https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/tenth_amendment, unknown publish date). To understand federalism, it’s important to know the history of the system, what inspired the idea to begin with, how it’s evolved, the ways it affects citizens, etc. Around the 1780’s most nations had unitary governments. A unitary government is a system in which the central government wields either most or all political authority.

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Americans specifically rebelled against the unitary government of Britain. Understandably, when forming the U.S., early Americans weren’t too keen on the idea of jumping right back into this type of system. Confederations were another popular system of government around this time. This type of government gives a majority of the power to states. One of the main issues with a confederation is weakened central authority. Delegates at the Constitutional Convention came up with a tentative solution. Enter: federalism. The U.S. first saw dual federaism from 1789-1933. In dual federalism, it’s very apparent which level of government has what authority. For this reason, dual federalism is also referred to as “layer cake” federalism. Defined “layers” of governmental responsibility, just like a layer cake. Next, cooperative federalism (1933-1981) was implemented. Cooperative federalism is also called “marble cake” federalism. The reason for this is that in this system, different government functions all seem sort of blended together. While a cake with flavors that intermingle is quite enjoyable, as a system of government, it can become confusing. Who’s authorized to do what? That’s a question cooperative federalism poses. From 1981-2009, the United States saw the rise of new federalism. New federalism emphasizes the importance of local and state governments. The lines of authority are even more swirled together with new federalism than with cooperative federalism. Introduced in 2009 and still in practice today, we have progressive federalism.

Progressive federalism, of course, grants the federal government power to set certain ground rules for what states can do, but ultimately the idea is that states will have the bulk of the power (Unknown author, Types of Federalism, the Basis for American Government, https://www.dummies.com/education/politics-government/types-of-federalism-the-basis-for-american-government/, unknown publish date). A prime example of federalism is the movement to make the recreational use of marijuana legal. Marijuana is classified by the federal government as a controlled substance. Even though recreational use of marijuana is still federally prohibited, the Obama administration inspired a more laid-back attitude regarding marijuana. States are generally allowed to decide how they’d like to penalize (or not penalize) citizens if they’re found to be in possession of marijuana. Though, states still must meet specific requirements (like not allowing children to end up with marijuana in their possession) (G. Lopez, Marijuana Legalization, Explained, https://www.vox.com/platform/amp/identities/2018/8/20/17938372/marijuana-legalization-federal-prohibition-drug-scheduling-system, November 14, 2018). Competitive federalism is again, based on the Tenth Amendment. Its main concept is that states should be able to compete with one another on important policy issues. The idea is that if states are given the money and authority to do so, there’s more room for beneficial changes and breakthroughs (M. Mayer, Power to the States, https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2018-05-31/right-and-left-should-come-together-on-competitive-federalism, May 31, 2018). One major argument made by those who support competitive federalism is that it liberates citizens.

More specifically, supporters argue that competitive federalism gives constituents the ability to act as government consumers by finding which state best fits their specific needs and then moving there (O. Lipsett, the Failure of Federalism: Does Competitive Federalism Actually Protect Individual Rights?, Constitutional Journal of Law, March 2008). Choice and mobility are recurring themes throughout the multiple points of view on federalism overall. The new era known that brought about competitive federalism surfaced around 1978. At this time, state governments and federal government began engaging in competition with one another for citizens, support and resources. Around 1928 to 1978, the federal government had an apparent fiscal edge. This was known as the centralization period. Competitive federalism was a result of the loss of that advantage (J. Shannon, J.E. Kee, Public Budgeting & Finance, Volume 9, Issue 4, December 1989). There’s a lot of questioning about whether or not competitive federalism is truly beneficial to citizens. For example, in United States v. Windsor, the issue was same-sex marriage. The Defense of Marriage Act (known hereafter as DOMA) was passed in 1996. DOMA allowed states to decide whether or not they’d recognize same-sex marriages. At the time DOMA was in effect, the federal government specifically defined “marriage” as a union between a male and a female. Because of this, many same-sex couples didn’t have access to some significant benefits heterosexual married couples did (joint tax filing, estate-tax exemption, etc.).

The Court ultimately ruled that the states were permitted to choose whether or not to define marriage. Then, a woman who had been directly feeling the negative effects of DOMA took monumental action. Edith Windsor sued the federal government and succeeded. Her victory resulted in DOMA being repealed. It was determined that the federal government was not authorized to define marriage This is a significant example of competitive federalism because same-sex couples could move to states that wouldn’t deny them marital benefits. (Unknown author, 3.4 Competitive Federalism Today, https://cnx.org/contents/W8wOWXNF@9.1:dml__-Ad@2/Competitive-Federalism-Today, unknown publish date) Federalism can be empowering to citizens. First, there are many states that are extremely focused on individual rights. Since states are given leeway to make decisions on policy issues, some citizens who may not feel their rights are protected in one state may feel differently in another. This is closely related to citizen choice. Citizens are empowered because they’re given options to find a state that could meet unfulfilled needs. Citizens also can find themselves empowered through the emphasis on state government’s power. More Americans seem to trust state and local levels of government than in the national government. This is understandable, as these levels of government offer quicker and more efficient responses to constituents’ needs (Morone & Kersh, By the People: Third Edition, 2016).

Private ownership is the first of three private economic principles. It’s the responsibility of the government to determine who owns what, permit property owners to use their own judgement to determine the best use of their private property. The government must also protect private property. In nations that don’t have an organized, formal system for private ownership, there are lots of issues. If government isn’t establishing legal rules that determine who owns what, there’s not much they can do to protect the property (T. West, The Heritage Foundation’s First Principles Series, The Economic Principles of Americas Founders: Property Rights, Free Markets and Sound Money, No. 32, August 30, 2010). Market freedom is the next private economic principle. Everyone must be entitled to sell what they what, when they want and to who they want for a reasonable price that’s mutually agreed upon. There are some exceptions, of course. The role of the government in market freedom is to clarify contracts and ensure the terms are upheld ( (T. West, The Heritage Foundation’s First Principles Series, The Economic Principles of Americas Founders: Property Rights, Free Markets and Sound Money, No. 32, August 30, 2010). A command (or planned) economy is the opposite of a free market. Command economies place centralized power in the government to delegate how much of certain goods are produced and how they’re sold and used (L. Kramer, What’s the Difference Between a Market Economy and a Command Economy, https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/100314/whats-difference-between-market-economy-and-command-economy.asp, January 9, 2018). The last private economic principle is stable money. There needs to be a reliable way of measuring market value. A lack of reliable money can lead to unpredictable fluctuations in the prices of services and goods (T. West, The Heritage Foundation’s First Principles Series, The Economic Principles of Americas Founders: Property Rights, Free Markets and Sound Money, No. 32, August 30, 2010). Mobility and choice are key topics within federalism. There are those who are of the opinion that federalism offers citizens more choices. Those who are in this camp of thought argue that citizens can simply base their decisions on where to move according to which states offer which benefits, programs, resources, etc.

However, there are also those who argue that people aren’t always able to easily utilize that mobility (Morone & Kersh, By the People: Third Editon, 2016). Federalism relates to centralization and addresses same. The fiscal correlation between federalism and centralization is that in theory, lower levels of government are given more freedom to make decisions. Federalism also directly relates to policy centralization. Again, since federalism aims to balance power, there’s a drive to let states take more charge on policy matters (J. Rodden, Comparative Federalism and Decentralization: On Meaning and Measurement, Comparative Politics, Vol. 36, No. 4, July 2004). One advantage of federalism is protection against autocracy. This is arguably one of the most important advantages of a federalist system. With power divvied up between, there’s less of a chance of the nation falling under tyrannical rule. Checks and balances are important for this reason (R. Wiseman, Advantages & Disadvantages of Federalism, https://bloomp.net/articles/benefits-of-federalism.htm, unknown publish date).

Another advantage of federalism is that citizen participation is increased. As mentioned previously, citizens show more trust in local levels of government. Because the federal government isn’t given omnipotent authority, citizens are more inclined to participate in political activities (R. Wiseman, Advantages & Disadvantages of Federalism, https://bloomp.net/articles/benefits-of-federalism.htm, unknown publish date). A third advantage of federalism is that state governments are far more responsive to the needs of the citizens. This is very closely tied in with increased citizen participation. This leads to better conflict management and a more efficient system (R. Wiseman, Advantages & Disadvantages of Federalism, https://bloomp.net/articles/benefits-of-federalism.htm, unknown publish date). Now, of course, there are certain disadvantages of federalism. The first is that federalism makes it possible for there to be policy imbalances among the states. (R. Wiseman, Advantages & Disadvantages of Federalism, https://bloomp.net/articles/benefits-of-federalism.htm, unknown publish date). An example that comes to mind is the case of United States v. Windsor, which I discussed earlier in this paper. A second disadvantage of federalism is that it makes unanimity quite difficult. We are a nation of different political parties. When local officials are in charge of parties in a state, the politics can get particularly chaotic (Morone & Kersh, By the People: Third Edition, 2016). Finally, as previously discussed when reviewing the history of federalism in America, it was made very obvious that blurred lines of authority can pose various issues. Overlapping governmental responsibilities can breed coordination issues (Morone & Kersh, By the People: Third Edition, 2016).

There are some factors that may be paving the way for a resurgence of federalism in America. Historically, America has had a national government smaller than other nations. During significant events such as the World Wars, the Great Depression and the Cold War, the size grew. However, with each increase in size, efforts have been consistent to reduce size again. Another factor is that Americans have displayed a tremendous amount of civic voluntarism since the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This means citizens are getting involved in public life of their own volition. This voluntary spirit leads to political innovations and positive changes in policies across the nation. Finally, checks and balances, ensuring that public officials cannot act unilaterally, could has and will continue to lead to great strides for our nation (Morone & Kersh, By the People: Third Edition, 2016). Throughout the process of examining the positive and negative aspects of a federalist system, I do believe that it’s an effective system. Checks and balances, citizen involvement and responsive officials can all lead the way to improve upon this system and work toward empowering the nation’s citizens more than ever before.

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How Effective is Federalism in the U.S.. (2019, Feb 15). Retrieved November 26, 2022 , from
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