Federalism Pros & Cons #2

Over the last many weeks, we have reviewed what federalism is, why and how the framers came up with the idea, and how things have changed since then. This week, we continue with Part 4 of 4: the pros and cons of federalism in relation to other ways of arranging governments. If you want to go back to read the earlier material, or get everything in one gulp, you can click here.

Many Opportunities for Political Competition

Multiple arenas of government mean multiple opportunities to compete for elected offices.  This feature of federalism is deeply important. One of the essential elements of a self-sustaining republic is the assurance that political parties and candidates will have many future opportunities to compete, even if they lose an election here or there.  Both political parties tend to compete more strongly in the state arenas when they cannot control the federal government.[1]

Federalism also opens up the possibilities of intergovernmental (federal versus states) competition and interjurisdictional competition (between states or between municipalities).[2]

  • Within the realm of concurrent powers, intergovernmental competition by vote seekers can motivate both arenas of government to become more responsive to more of their citizens.[3] The federal government sometimes responds to public pressure only after seeing the majority of states doing so. The evolution of women’s right to vote,[4] discussed in Part 3 (The State’s Role in National Policies), is an example.  Conversely, there are times when the federal government has been more responsive, eventually forcing any lagging states to fall in line.  Several states, for example, were unresponsive to demands from people of color for voting rights until compelled under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.[5]
  • Competition between states (or between cities) can encourage greater fiscal discipline, more efficiency, more innovation (see below), and races to the top as governments seek to attract and retain residents and businesses that might otherwise vote with their feet by moving elsewhere.  States and cities might also offer wasteful tax incentives, spend tax money on needless projects, and reduce important regulations – in an effort to attract more businesses and voters.  These efforts will produce both winners and losers.  Those on the losing side may be harmed by reduced spending on services, welfare, and environmental protections.

[1] Kincaid, 1990, p. 152.  Kincaid, 2017, pp. 1078-1088. Rozell & Wilcox, 2019, p. 1. 

[2] This sub-section draws from https://encyclopedia.federalism.org/index.php?title=Competitive_Federalism

[3] Responsiveness is generally thought of as a good thing, but it can be bad when the majority want something that might ultimately be harmful even if rewarding in the short-run.  Note: responsiveness is also dependent upon the administrative capacity of government.

[4] From https://constitutioncenter.org/timeline/html/cw08_12159.html

[5] See https://www.justice.gov/crt/history-federal-voting-rights-laws

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