Joe Carter has some worthy thoughts on federalism and conservatism:
Adopting a “federalist approach” doesn’t require abandoning such things as encoding protections for life in federal policy. Nor does it require that we buy into the concept that states should become, to use Justice Louis D. Brandeis’ old cliche, “laboratories for democracy” that experiment with different kinds of laws on contentious issues.
As federalism scholar Michael Greve notes, Brandeis’ “famous dictum had almost nothing to do with federalism and everything to do with his commitment to scientific socialism.” And indeed, the problem with this view of federalism is that it is more applicable for instituting socialism than for advancing conservative principles.
While some forms of federalism are defensible (Ramesh Ponnuru is one conservative that gets it right), I believe the concept is ultimately inferior to other principles of governmental demarcation, such as subsidiarity and/or sphere sovereignty.
Unlike federalism, where there is a part-whole relationship between the States and the Federal branch, each societal sphere is a whole unto itself. As my friend Gregory Baus explains, “not only can the other societal spheres never properly be made parts of the state, but the state (or any other sphere) can never be what creates the boundaries of sovereignty between spheres.”
This view is exponentially more conservative than the standard view of federalism, which could lead to forms of governance that are antithetical to conservatism. Under federalist principles, the state of Massachusetts could become a socialist utopia (or dystopia) if the people of the state so choose. The state government could assume complete control of all internal institutions, could even redefine all other societal spheres (marriage, schools, corporations) and refuse to recognize any institution that didn’t comply.
For example, Massachusetts could redefine marriage to include only polygamous arrangements and refuse to recognize any other form. As long as Massachusetts didn’t extraterritorialize their policy decisions on other states, they would be perfectly consistent with federalism — and completely antithetical to conservatism. This is why, for me, adherence to conservative principles always trumps federalism.
Federalism is, after all, a neutral philosophical position; it is neither conservative nor liberal.
Phew. A lot to unpack here. As I see it, subsidiarity and federalism are complementary practices. Reaffirming decentralization at the federal level may well encourage state governments to adopt a similar approach towards local communities. On a more practical note, state governments are simply more responsive to the concerns of local communities because they’re far less removed than our bloated federal bureaucracy.
I basically agree that federalism can be construed as a politically neutral principle – in other words, it either works or it doesn’t – but I think the idea that government works best at the state and local level is a profoundly conservative insight. Liberalism fetishizes objectivity, detachment, and expertise, so the idea of a distant, disinterested federal bureaucracy running things is entirely consistent with a progressive agenda. Local and state governments tend toward narrow-mindedness and parochialism, but that’s because they’re a lot more open to communal input, which is precisely the sort of thing I want influencing our political processes.
Enshrining regional prejudices through state and local government smacks of the Jim Crow-era South, and there’s always the possibility that decentralization can be taken too far (see Carter’s take the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, for example). That said, I think these fears misunderstand the nature of modern federalism. As I see it, the Constitution guarantees a robust baseline of certain inalienable rights – speech, association, due process etc. – that cannot be abrogated at any level of government, state, local or otherwise. Within this broadly-construed framework, local communities have a lot of leeway to determine their preferred modus operandi. Massachusetts, for example, may choose to experiment with European-style social democracy. The constitutional guarantees enshrined at the federal level exist to prevent liberal states from spiraling into Carter’s libertine Marxist dystopia, which offers something of a compromise between small town oppression and big government indifference.