Real Federalism: Why It Matters, How It Could Happen

By Leef, George C. | Ideas on Liberty, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Real Federalism: Why It Matters, How It Could Happen


Leef, George C., Ideas on Liberty


Real Federalism: Why It Matters, How It Could Happen by Michael S. Greve American Enterprise Institute * 1999 * 201 pages * $34.95 cloth; $16.95 paperback

Reviewed by George C. Leef

"Federalism's history has been the history of its demise." So writes Michael S. Greve in a book designed nevertheless to prove that, like Mark Twain's demise, the death of federalism has been greatly exaggerated. Federalism has been down for decades, floored by the pro-New Deal shift of the Supreme Court in 1937 and kicked repeatedly by the Court and Congress ever since. Greve, however, has found that it still has a pulse and shows some signs of getting up off the mat. Those of us who prefer freedom to government diktats should be encouraged because although federalism does not ensure freedom, freedom fares better under federalism than under a completely centralized politics.

Greve, executive director of the Center for Individual Rights, sets out first of all to explain the case for federalism, a case few Americans are familiar with. Federalism, he explains, is a means of injecting market competition into politics. "The citizens' ability to vote with their feet and take their talents and assets elsewhere will discipline government in the same way in which consumer choice, in nonmonopolistic markets, disciplines producers," Greve writes. As long as people have the right to leave political jurisdictions they find undesirable, states (or smaller government units) have to bear the costs of their mistakes. Organized labor, for example, might want a state to enact compulsory unionism, legislation against plant closings, and a $20 minimum wage, but the state that does so will soon find its economy withering.

The Constitution's drafters understood the need to maintain such discipline on the states and sought to secure it by creating a central government of strictly enumerated powers. With but a few exceptions, political controversies were not to be decided in Washington, where losers have the choice of living with it or departing the country. Instead, they would be settled at the state or local level-often without government at all.

But just as Jefferson observed that it is the natural order of things for liberty to give way to authority, it also seems to be the natural order of things for federalism to give way to centralization. Those who want to employ coercion would rather fight and win once at the national (or, as is becoming increasingly possible, international) level than fight dozens or hundreds of battles in smaller units where success is less likely and if achieved, less durable. …

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