An Insider's View of World Federalism: Robert D. Ebel Has a Seasoned Perspective on International Governments. He Is Research Professor at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy and Visiting Fellow at the Joint Urban Institute/Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center. He Consults with the World Bank and Foreign Nations on Peace Initiatives

By Eckl, Corina | State Legislatures, June 2006 | Go to article overview
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An Insider's View of World Federalism: Robert D. Ebel Has a Seasoned Perspective on International Governments. He Is Research Professor at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy and Visiting Fellow at the Joint Urban Institute/Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center. He Consults with the World Bank and Foreign Nations on Peace Initiatives


Eckl, Corina, State Legislatures


State Legislatures: What makes the U.S. federal system so vital?

Robert Ebel: Some do not fully appreciate just how important federalism has been to transform this country from a set of colonies to an economic superpower. There are several results of federalism that matter. Key among them are:

Enhanced economic growth, stability and competitiveness. The empirical evidence is clear that decentralized countries such as the United States grow faster, exhibit a higher degree of economic stability, and are more competitive than systems characterized by a high degree of centralization. They also do a better job of reducing poverty. Additionally, a state and local system that has a high degree of fiscal autonomy receives a payoff through improved public sector performance, in the federal and state/local sector alike. In our case, the federal government has learned from the state/local sector regarding tax administration, the social safety net, affordable housing, telecommunications, transportation planning and maintenance, among other areas.

National cohesion. One way to think about how important federalism is to this country is to think what the country would be like if federalism were taken away--replaced with a system of central government command and control as is true in so many developing countries. The country could well fall into the same type of sectarian conflict we see in so much of the fiscally centralized world. Our sectarianism could be based on language, ethnicity, race, geography or religion. Think about it--one thing federal countries do very well is allow different systems of governance to exist throughout the nation so that people do not have to be like one another to live together. People around the world are fighting and dying for the fight to design their own tax and spending systems, ways of educating their children, police themselves, and even whether to use their money to build a soccer field or a health clinic. Consider what the people of California (Balochistan, Kurdistan, Darfur ... ) might do if Washington (Islamabad, Baghdad, Khartoum ... ) decided to make all of California's key tax and spending decisions.

SL: U.S. fiscal federalism has undergone many changes over the decades. What is the fight balance between the states and the federal government?

Ebel: The right balance changes as the nation's economic and demographic features change. But there are good principles. The European Charter of Local Self Government has it fight with its principle of subsidiarity: A central authority should perform only those tasks that cannot be performed effectively by state or local governments. Alternatively stated, government tasks should be assigned to the smallest, some say "lowest," level of competent authority

SL: Many nations around the world have strong central governments with sub-national (local) governmental entities, but have skipped state-level government. Why has this happened?

Ebel: This skipping or abolishing of intermediate (state) government was particularly evident in the countries that were under the Soviet sphere of governance, where the intermediate government was often the vehicle for Communist party control. With the fall of communism and the central-command state, the Central Europeans threw out that political level. Now, as many of these countries mature and become more secure as fiscally decentralized societies, they are reinventing intermediate general purpose governments, but this time as part of a functioning pluralistic intergovernmental system.

SL: Do vibrant sub-national governments strengthen or weaken the national government?

Ebel: Clearly, robust federalism and a vibrant state/local sector make for a stronger national government. A well-designed federal system constantly goes through and reviews the "sorting out" process: Which level of government--federal, state or local--can best carry out a spending task or exercise a revenue authority.

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An Insider's View of World Federalism: Robert D. Ebel Has a Seasoned Perspective on International Governments. He Is Research Professor at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy and Visiting Fellow at the Joint Urban Institute/Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center. He Consults with the World Bank and Foreign Nations on Peace Initiatives
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