by Gary Galles
After a bitter and divisive election, Democrats have regained the presidency and widened their control of Congress. Now they are making the usual political victorsâ€™ calls for unity. But unfortunately, Americansâ€™ often diametrically opposed preferences for what they want government to do guarantees disunity under our current approach to governance.
Opposing desires (you want â€œAâ€ but I want â€œnot Aâ€) mean that no national approach or plan can form the basis of unity. Instead, only returning to our Constitutionâ€™s forgotten federalism, especially the 10th Amendment, can reconcile them with national unity.
The Constitution assigned only a few truly shared interests to the national government, reserving everything else for individuals and states, allowing citizens to vote with their feet into jurisdictions that better matched their preferences for government services and burdens. This option to leave unattractive situations for ones better suited to them was a central protection of citizens against government abuse.
Federalism reconciles unity with individual differences by allowing those with similar preferences to share policies they prefer and by giving citizens an exit option that sharply limits governmentâ€™s ability to mistreat them. However, the more is decided nationally, the less effective is this reconciliation.
Where preferences diametrically opposed, national plans create conflict by imposing uniform policies on many who strongly object. They eliminate states as experimental laboratories to discover what works more effectively. They make controlling federal policy more important and battles over its control more intense. Americansâ€™ rights and unity are both put at risk.
Government ability to mistreat citizens by imposing tax, regulatory and other burdens on them to benefit others is limited by peopleâ€™s ability to move in a federal system. Far more than regional governments, the federal government can treat some very badly without driving them away, since the unattractive alternative is leaving the country. That allows federal decision-makers to take more from such people, to give more to the politically favored. This greater potential for some to promote their causes at othersâ€™ expense is why those wanting less to be taken from them favor federalism, or even better, allowing individuals to make their own choices, while those wanting more redistribution in their favor prefer national policy-making. However, government policies that harm some to benefit others cannot unify people.
Unity can only be achieved when people share similar preferences about common policies. Given different preferences, that requires leaving most decisions, where people need not make the same choices, to individuals. It also requires federalism, to reduce the harm that can be imposed on members by government policies forcibly shared in common.
But Americans have had more and more decisions dictated by government, with Washington manipulating other governments directly or indirectly. No citizen can escape the power of federal redistribution, and no lower level government is beyond influence extorted with federal funds.
American unity is achievable only by reducing arbitrary government power over us. But the erosion of federalism and its protections for both individuals and lower level governments against federal abuse has increased that arbitrary power. To rebuild our unity beyond that of one coalition in Washington united in ripping off others, we must return to the vision of federalism that was an important condition of our founding. It cannot create unity where none exists, but it will reduce our disunity, and the government abuse it triggers, by restoring individual and state choices to greater roles.
Federalizing everything, including plainly private and local choices, has not benefited or unified America. The increasing divisive battles to control what is to be imposed on everyone makes that clear. If we want more unity, we need to take the federalism of the Constitution seriously again, leaving people to make their own individual choices where they need not be in common, and lower level governments to make regionally shared choices that need not be uniform nationwide. No other nationwide policy approach can unify us, except in what Thomas Hobbes called â€œa war of all against all.â€
Gary M. Galles [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.
copyright 2008 Gary Galles