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Federalism is...

Posted by Kent Lassman at 12:47 PM

It is difficult to define federalism in a sentence or two. Today at NRO, Ramesh Ponnuru writes,

It can be defended as a way of ensuring choice, competition, and accountability. It may be regarded as a structural means of maximizing freedom and minimizing dangers to it. It may be seen as a way of realizing the goal of subsidiarity, the principle that responsibilities should be discharged by the smallest unit competent to do them. Or it can be valued as a way of encouraging experimentation with different policies (possibly as a prelude to national adoption of the successful ones). It may leave a larger number of people satisfied with the policies they live under than would be the case if a uniform national policy had to be adopted. It may be thought that the appropriate laws for a state depend on its particular characteristics. Or that it promotes a kind of civic engagement that cannot take place at higher levels of government. No doubt other reasons to support federalism can be added to this list.

While I like Ramesh immensely, I rarely enjoy the type of internal-to-the-conservative-movement arguments at which he excels. Today we have an exception. Federalism is all the things he describes, and more. Foremost, federalism is a means of organization. It is a means, not an end. So when he uses words like “a structural means,” “way of realizing,” a way of encouraging,” and “it promotes” he is right on target. Federalists recognize a blending of powers between branches and levels of government. This means of organization fragments and distributes power (promoting liberty) as well as qualitatively improves the distribution of government services (promoting justice).

Ponnuru chides conservatives for not making better arguments for their view of federalism. I wonder if any arguments are being made for federalism or rather, if it more often serves as a fig leaf to give a whiff of principled constitutionalism to the everyday arguments about policy outcomes.

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