The Case for Federalism

Categories: FederalismGovernment

The proper system of government has been a well-researched and debated question for generations and in our modern times the two main systems, federal and unitary, are in the forefront of that discussion. The question boils down to whether the U.S. would be more free, equitable, and efficient under a centralized government or instead sharing powers between the central government and the smaller political units? I believe the latter to be true because more government control is not the answer, it is usually the problem.

Whenever the government intervenes it creates third-party effects and the larger the government the larger the effects. In order to protect the people, the central government is given few and defined powers while the states are given numerous and indefinite powers (Madison, 1788). The friction occurs when the central government oversteps their bounds and tries to over regulate. To illustrate my point, I want to examine several current major issues in our country and show how government centralization does more harm than good.

Keep in mind that every decision involves consequences and trade-offs thus any system we implement will be imperfect. Nonetheless we can objectively investigate our choices and pick the most egalitarian system.

To begin, we must first consider our country’s geographic and demographic situation. We are the world’s third most populous country and the fourth largest in landmass. The U.S. hosts a plethora of different people, lifestyles, climates, and economic interests. Countries of comparable size and diversity tend to be federal because federal systems best accommodate higher levels of diversity.

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Federalism is what allows Minnesota to be Minnesota and California to be California; Florida to be Florida and Wyoming to be Wyoming. It is impossible for a bureaucrat in Washington to be in touch with the entire country’s needs, the task is just too monumental. Having a more devolved system of government allows for those elected political representatives to have a more personal relationship with their constituency. State and local officials will have a much better understanding of the local issues and can provide the appropriate solutions. The out-of-touch solutions offered by Washington bureaucrats usually hurt the very people they are intended to help while simultaneously gutting the taxpayer’s wallet (Friedman, 1962).

A prime example is the national government’s recent involvement in education with the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. Since education is mainly handled at the state level, anytime the national government encroaches on that responsibility it inadvertently creates more disparities. The NCLB requires states to design and administer standardized tests to assess students on certain basic skills in order to receive federal funding. The plan was well-intentioned however the consequences of this legislation achieved the exact opposite effect of its goal. Children were no better educated after the bill was passed than before. Schools lowered their test standards to boost passing rates just to receive funding. The brightest students became ignored and the needy got discarded to inflate passing-rates. Arts and music programs were cut to focus more on test-related subjects (Dee, Jacob, Hoxby, and Ladd, 2010).

The provision that the standards will be set by the state was a political tactic use to gain a foothold for future adjustments of the legislation. As time went on the national government imposed itself more on the states by pushing for annual exams, higher qualified teachers, and of course more funding. All this federal pressure and demands detract schools from actually performing their function. Funding the program costs billions and the measurable results of this bill proved that centralized control measures do more harm than good. Whenever a private program fails to meet expectations it cuts its losses and terminates, however, whenever a governmental program fails to meet expectations its failure is almost always blamed on insufficient funding and supervision and thus the program is expanded further. The bureaucracy will grow, the strain on the taxpayer increases, and in the end no one benefits.

When countries that are comparable in size and diversity to the U.S. employ a unitary system of government such as China, tyranny and injustice inevitably follow. China is honestly a modern political tragedy because of centralized government. If it had a more devolved system of government the many human rights violations and dictatorial policies would be harder to perpetrate. China is currently responsible for the global pandemic and its attempts to cover-up their mediocre COVID-19 response highlights how investing all the powers into the national government is a dangerous and insidious idea (Allen-Ebrahimian, 2020). President Xi and the communist party have essentially amended their constitution to remove term-limits so that he may rule indefinitely (Buckley and Bradsher, 2018). This is exactly what our founding fathers feared would happen under such a system and decided to divide the powers of the government to ensure proper checks and balances (Madison, 1788).

The structure of the federal system is designed to disrupt the chances of a monarch forming because of its many veto points and separate powers. The framers recognized that government was at best a necessary evil that must be kept to a minimum; since government has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, wanting to limit its effects is only natural. This is exactly why we should implement term-limits on political officials as to prevent the accumulation and abuse of power. George Washington recognized the importance of limiting one’s tenure in office. Washington left office only after two-terms despite there being no rule stating otherwise. Abraham Lincoln said “If you want to know a man’s true character, give him power.” Well history has shown us that career politicians will become complacent, completely self-interested, and totally out-of-touch. The very nature of the position with its vested powers will corrupt any official given long enough. If the executive branch can have term-limits, why not congress?

Another major issue our country faces is the affordability and accessibility of healthcare. Most Americans would agree that healthcare is far too expensive in our country. The main reason for this is because of too much government involvement. First off, despite popular opinion the fact is we are paying more because we are getting more. There are so many things which we take for granted that are luxuries in many parts of the world. For example the availability of doctors, equipment, elective services, the ability to be seen privately and not in a ward, etc. All of these things cost money and the spoiled American attitude assumes that this standard we are paying for is universal. Secondly, many believe that universal healthcare provided by the government can actually lower the cost of our healthcare and increase accessibility. To assume that the government can lower the cost of healthcare would be to assume that the government can operate this system more efficiently than the market can, and the government almost always fails to outperform the private sector.

The U.S. Veteran’s affairs is the largest healthcare system in the U.S., now only 1% of the U.S. are veterans so less than that 1% qualifies or even receives VA benefits. But look at how large and inefficient the bureaucracy of the VA is. Scheduling crucial appointments can take months to years, the substandard equipment and facilities, the poor level of services and care, even being approved for a disability claim can take years or even decades! There are many cases of veterans dying waiting for treatment and other injustices that have angered some to the point of suicide or violence. However, despite the clear evidence that the government cannot properly administer the VA, progressives will still find a way to advocate for a healthcare system that can encompass the entire U.S.. The system would be so enormous, convoluted, and expensive that nothing would ever get done timely or properly; a system that large is bound to be an administrative and logistical nightmare. As a member of the VA, I have personally travelled to Peru and paid out-of-pocket in order to receive more expedient and personal medical treatment despite the VA providing me with free services.

Now the government can provide universal healthcare and decide not to pay the expenses but that is much different situation than being a more efficient system. Countries that refuse to pay their medical expenses such as Canada, will have sub-par levels of healthcare. Lacking prompt scheduling, equipment, technicians, etc. Now because the government has made their healthcare “more accessible” you will see an increase of Canadians traveling to countries like the U.S. to satisfy their healthcare needs. Many Canadian clinics are not even open on the weekend and your timeliness of seeing a doctor is contingent on the triage conducted by a low-level nurse. This is a clear example of how government impedes citizens from receiving proper treatment. Another example is until last year in Sweden it was almost impossible to pay for private care as it is only about 4% of the system. The Swedish government takes precaution in order to prevent profit-seeking in the health sector essentially forcing you to use their system. What right does the government have telling you what you must spend your money on? Is that not the definition of tyranny?

Moving on to drug addiction which many Americans find to be a serious issue in America today. The high rates of drug addictions are a direct result of centralized government involvement. Remember all drugs where legal until 1914 and despite this there are probably more addicts walking around today than before 1914. History shows us that prohibition did not stop people from producing, distributing, and consuming alcohol. Like the war on drugs that has raged on for decades this has not solved America’s drug problem. Out of the war on drugs came the formation of the DEA, with a mission to enforce controlled substances laws. The DEA classifies drugs in our country and drugs such as cannabis, LSD, and heroin are in the deadliest tier. The tier that says there are no medical uses or benefits of these drugs and limits research on them.

Science has proven to us that cannabis and psychedelics have real potential benefits to certain individuals and when those substances are outlawed their prices rise. If we go around arresting every cannabis distributor then the prices rise and users turn to cheaper alternatives even if they might be harder drugs. Alternatives like spice, methamphetamines, and other synthetic drugs that the buyer might not have used otherwise if they had access to their drug of choice in the first place. Look at crack cocaine for example, the only reason it was created was because cocaine is too expensive. The stronger alternatives would not even exist if all drugs were decriminalized because users would have the freedom to use their drug of choice. States like Colorado and Oregon whom have legalized cannabis for recreational purposes have shown lower levels of teenage users, increased state revenue and job opportunities, and decreased the amount of hard-drug users. Oddly enough, alcohol and tobacco are far more deadly than cannabis or psychedelics and they are not illegal. There is still yet to be a person whom has died from ingesting too much cannabis unlike alcohol or tobacco whom are guilty for millions of negligent deaths, preventable diseases, and birth defects to mention a few.

Furthermore, it is precisely agencies like the DEA that inadvertently keep cartels in business and mass incarceration rampant. The interdiction of drugs causes a black market to form and cartels will battle it out to dominate the market place. Those effects will cause immeasurable amounts of human suffering in the U.S. and in all the countries involved in the criminal enterprise. Billions of dollars a year are spent in an effort to stop drugs from coming into this country but according to their estimates the DEA only seizes about >1% of all drugs that try to enter the country. Any agency that performs its duty at a success rate of >1% is a clear indication that that program is not effective. The high levels of incarceration are in part due to our country having so many laws to break. The more laws there are the more criminals there will be. In combination with mandatory minimums and the three-strike policy, many Americans (especially minorities) will find themselves incarcerated sometime in their life. The decriminalization of drugs will remove the need for cartels and keep consenting drug users/sellers out of prisons.

No system is without its faults and the main concern with a federal system is that it protects minority interests (Simon, Steel, and Lovrich 2018). A major critique of the U.S. is that slavery would not have existed as long as it did if under centralized control. However, I really doubt that considering many founding fathers owned slaves and plenty of congressmen in the 19th and 20th century held racist sentiments. South Africa is a prime example of how centralization harms majority interests. In the 1920s after the Nationalist party gains power the obviously racial minority (whites) implemented apartheid well into the 20th century. It is clear that government itself only protects the interest of the officeholders, that is exactly why shared and delegated powers are necessary (Gerring, 2007). If the U.S. had a unitary system then slavery could have lasted even longer!

All in all, our government would be far more unjust and inefficient under a unitary system. A unitary system is too large, expensive, and controlling to properly accommodate the public’s needs. Honestly, those that advocate for a system are closet totalitarians. There has to be a clear separation of powers and responsibilities, but this does not mean that the national and state levels cannot pragmatically cooperate with each other. When the States were under the Articles of Confederation the central government was consider too weak but the other hand if it was under a unitary government the central government would be too powerful. Thus the appropriate compromise is of federalism is the natural choice for promoting the most egalitarian ideals.

Works Cited

  1. Allen-Ebrahimian, Bethany. 2020. “Timeline: The Early Days of China’s Coronavirus Outbreak and Cover-Up.” Axios. March 18, 2020.
  2. Buckley, Chris, and Keith Bradsher. 2018. “China Moves to Let Xi Stay in Power by Abolishing Term Limit.” The New York Times, February 25, 2018.
  3. Dee, Thomas S., Brian A. Jacob, Caroline M. Hoxby, and Helen F. Ladd. ‘The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Students, Teachers, and Schools [with Comments and Discussion].’ Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2010, 149-207. Accessed May 27, 2020.
  4. Friedman, Milton, and Rose D Friedman. 1962. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.
  5. Gerring, John. 2007. “Global Justice as an Empirical Question.” PS: Political Science & Politics 40 (01): 67–77.
  6. Madison, James. “Federalist No 45.” Yale.Edu. 1788.
  7. Madison, James. “Federalist No 51.” Yale.Edu. 1788.
  8. Simon, Christopher A., Brent S. Steel, and Nicholas P. Lovrich. 2018. “Chapter 2: Federalism.” Open.Oregonstate.Education. Oregon State University. 2018.
  9. Trickey, Erick. 2018. “Inside the Story of America’s 19th-Century Opiate Addiction.” Smithsonian. January 4, 2018.

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The Case for Federalism. (2021, Apr 23). Retrieved from

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