Federalism is a system of government where power is divided between several different entities. Each entity is given the power to share control over the same geographic region as another entity. In the United States, a system of Federalism is in place because laws can be passed by a local government, the state government, or the national government.
This prevents one solitary body from being able to control every aspect of governing over a population. It also means there are tiered laws and systems that can be confusing for certain geographic regions when laws may conflict. Take the marijuana legalization that has occurred in the US. Recreational marijuana may be legal in some states, but it is illegal at the national level.
Even though local law enforcement may not arrest someone because the state laws say their actions are fine, national laws may dictate otherwise and allow a national law enforcement officer to conduct an arrest anyway.
Here are some additional Federalism pros and cons to think about.
The Pros of Federalism
1. It creates a sense of local patriotism.
People feel close to their communities. Although there is always a level of national pride, local patriotism is usually the first level of loyalty that an individual will experience. Federalism encourages this local loyalty by allowing communities to create laws and regulations that benefit themselves, even if those laws wouldn’t make sense to implement in another geographic region.
2. It lessens the bureaucracy.
Although there are tiered levels of laws and regulations, the level of bureaucracy that exists within a system of Federalism is lower than it is in other government structures. Diverse populations have unique needs that must be met and having a national-level government attempt to understand those needs is always difficult. By allowing local or regional officials to have the power to meet those needs, the safety and security of a population can be better met.
3. It can provide evidence of success… or failure.
Because local and regional communities can create their own laws and regulations, other government structures can look at the evidence of success or failure from those efforts to determine if they could be used in other geographic regions. Welfare reform in the US originated from regulation efforts made in Wisconsin, for example, and many environmental protection policies have originated from California.
4. It provides a better level of stability from a political perspective.
By allowing geographic regions to have a role in self-governing, the national government achieves political stability to some extent because the people feel like they are in control of their own destiny. The national government can then act as more of an oversight or support network to the local and regional governments that are in place.
5. It encourages involvement.
Because governments are at a local level, people know friends, neighbors, or family members who are active in creating policies, procedures, or laws. Most elected positions, from school and hospital boards to the city council and mayor, are local offices. Because there is such open access to the government, it encourages involvement because serving is so easy to do.
6. It separates the powers of the government.
Imagine if the President of the US were to eliminate all other branches of the national government. No more Congress. No Supreme Court. What could happen? Because there is a separation of powers, freedom is still ensured because the state governments act independently of the national government and the local governments, to a great extent, act independently of the state government. The checks and balances it creates allows for independence.
The Cons of Federalism
1. It creates confusion.
Because the laws vary in each geographic region, people who travel or move to a new destination may find themselves violating the law without realizing it. Recreational marijuana may be legal in Colorado, but if you take legally purchased product outside of the state, you are then violating the local law there. You’re also violating national laws on marijuana with a purchase. This makes it difficult to know if you’re actions are “right” or “wrong” as a citizen.
2. It encourages governments to “pass the buck.”
No one really wants to take accountability for failed policies in a structure of Federalism. Everyone blames everyone else and that creates gridlock between the various agencies. Then nothing gets done because everyone is trying to assign blame and each group feels they have the correct ethical or moral position. In other government systems, there is no question about who is to blame because there is only one unit of government.
3. It creates a wealth gap.
“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” It’s an expression that is heard in the US quite often and can be described as a “wealth gap.” Socioeconomic resources are maintained at local levels and the national government is then asked to fill-in whatever gaps may exist, with historically mixed levels of success.
4. It causes uncertainty.
Wildfires blaze throughout the Western United States every summer. Who is responsible for taking care of this issue so that no one gets hurt? Or a hurricane blasts the eastern seaboard and causes extensive damage, flooding, and homelessness. Who is responsible for responding? Because the government is tiered, no one is really sure who needs to respond or pay for the response and this can create delays in service.
5. It can be used for leverage.
Let’s say the national government wants to change health care laws for everyone, but a handful of regional governments don’t want any changes to take place. To garner support for the change, the national government could offer additional funding or resources to the hold-out regional governments, but not offer anything to those who agree that a change needs to be made. Federalism is a structure that encourages dissent because that dissent can be used as leverage to grab more resources.
6. It stops national policies from being implemented.
Local laws can hamper the passage of regional laws. Regional laws can hamper the passage of national laws. Federalism effectively disperses powers throughout a nation, but that also means the creation of national policies can be incredibly difficult. Unless there are exceptions in place for each geographic region so that individualized needs can be met in some way, it can take more than generation to pass national-level legal changes.
These Federalism pros and cons show us that it is a political system that is designed to ensure freedoms can be experienced, even in times of governmental turmoil. No one has all the power, which means the population can’t be overrun by their government. On the other hand, that insurance for freedom comes at the cost of creating national identities, unity, and policy.