To heal government, go local

Getty Images

Article Highlights

  • "Federalism is simply the best political system ever conceived of for maximizing human happiness" @JonahNRO

    Tweet This

  • Federalists have to overcome the obstacle where the left sees #federalism as purely #statesrights

    Tweet This

  • .@JonahNRO commends Heather Gerken's essay for allowing #local majorities to have influence on their institutions

    Tweet This

The bleating about broken government and partisanship continues. Why can't those boobs in Washington agree on anything? We're constantly told that the way to fix the country is to dethrone the left and right and empower the middle. Handing things over to these middling mincers and half-a-loafers — Americans Elect, No Labels, the "gangs" of six or 14, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans — is supposed to be the answer to all of our problems.

But what if the real compromise isn't in forcing the left and the right to heel? What if instead the solution is to disempower the national elites who think they've got all the answers? Federalism, the process whereby you push most political questions to the lowest democratic level possible — to states, counties, cities, school boards — has been ripe on the right for years. It even had a champion in Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) still carries that torch.

Federalism is simply the best political system ever conceived of for maximizing human happiness. A one-size-fits-all policy imposed at the national level has the potential to make very large numbers of citizens unhappy, even if it was arrived at democratically. In a pure democracy, I always say, 51% of the people can vote to pee in the cornflakes of 49% of the people.

"Pushing government decisions down to the lowest democratic level possible — while protecting basic civil rights — guarantees that more people will have a say in how they live their lives." -- Jonah Goldberg

Pushing government decisions down to the lowest democratic level possible — while protecting basic civil rights — guarantees that more people will have a say in how they live their lives. More people will be happy, and the moral legitimacy of political decisions will be greater.

The problem for conservative and libertarian federalists is that whenever we talk about federalism, the left hears "states' rights," which is then immediately, and unfairly, translated into "bring back Bull Connor."

But that may be changing. In an essay for the spring issue of Democracy Journal, Yale law professor Heather K. Gerken offers the case for "A  New Progressive Federalism." Her chief concern is how to empower "minorities and dissenters." Not surprisingly, she defines such people in almost purely left-wing terms of race and sexual orientation. Still, she makes the very compelling point that the current understanding of diversity — including minorities as tokens of inclusion — pretty much guarantees that racial minorities will always be political minorities as well.

"While the diversity paradigm guarantees racial minorities a vote or voice on every decision-making body, it also ensures that they will be the political losers on any issue on which people divide along racial lines," she writes. "Racial minorities are thus destined to be the junior partner or dissenting gadfly in the democratic process. So much for dignity."

Allowing local majorities to have their way, Gerken continues, "turns the tables. It allows the usual winners to lose and the usual losers to win. It gives racial minorities the chance to shed the role of influencer or gadfly and stand in the shoes of the majority."

She's right, and not just about her favored groups. For instance, Mormons (not a group Gerken highlights) are a national minority. But they are a Utah majority. Hence, Utah takes on Mormon characteristics. It's no theocracy, but it is more representative and distinctive. In areas where Latinos or blacks are the majority, what's so terrible about having institutions that reflect their values?

And, let them all live by their mistakes as well. In San Francisco, which Gerken touts as a haven for "dissenters," they translate their values into law. I think much of what passes for wise policy in San Francisco is idiotic, but it bothers me less than it would if Nancy Pelosi succeeded in making all of America like San Francisco.

I don't see eye to eye with Gerken on everything, and I suspect she would be reluctant to push some decisions downward — for instance, the "safety net" (the county of Galveston, Texas, for example, opted out of the Social Security system).

Still, I'm delighted her essay has received respectful treatment on the left. A left-right federalist compromise would make America a happier, freer, more prosperous and interesting country. It would also dethrone those in both parties who think they know what's best for more than 300 million Americans.

Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at AEI.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Jonah
Goldberg

  •  


    A bestselling author and columnist, Jonah Goldberg's nationally syndicated column appears regularly in scores of newspapers across the United States. He is also a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a member of the board of contributors to USA Today, a contributor to Fox News, a contributing editor to National Review, and the founding editor of National Review Online. He was named by the Atlantic magazine as one of the top 50 political commentators in America. In 2011 he was named the Robert J. Novak Journalist of the Year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He has written on politics, media, and culture for a wide variety of publications and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs. Prior to joining National Review, he was a founding producer for Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg on PBS and wrote and produced several other PBS documentaries. He is the recipient of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Tyranny of Clichés (Sentinel HC, 2012) and Liberal Fascism (Doubleday, 2008).  At AEI, Mr. Goldberg writes about political and cultural issues for American.com and the Enterprise Blog.

    Follow Jonah Goldberg on Twitter.


  • Phone: 202-862-7165
    Email: jonah.goldberg@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The Census Bureau and Obamacare: Dumb decision? Yes. Conspiracy? No.
image A 'three-state solution' for Middle East peace
image Give the CBO long-range tools
image The coming collapse of India's communists
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 14
    MON
  • 15
    TUE
  • 16
    WED
  • 17
    THU
  • 18
    FRI
Wednesday, April 16, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Calling treason by its name: A conversation with Liam Fox

Join us at AEI as the Right Honorable Liam Fox sits down with Marc Thiessen to discuss and debate whether America’s intelligence agencies have infringed on the personal privacy of US citizens.

Thursday, April 17, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
The curmudgeon's guide to getting ahead

How can young people succeed in workplaces dominated by curmudgeons who are judging their every move? At this AEI book event, bestselling author and social scientist Charles Murray will offer indispensable advice for navigating the workplace, getting ahead, and living a fulfilling life.

Event Registration is Closed
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.