In designing the American Constitution, the Founding Fathers were careful to establish a balance of powers — not only among co-equal branches of federal government, but also among states, federal government, and the people themselves.
If the United States were a computer, then federalism would be its operating system. Extending the analogy, the most basic functions are performed by a “Central Governing Unit” (CGU) and strictly enumerated by Article I, Section VIII. The states were delegated the task of “programming” in the gaps — specialized “apps” to handle more localized issues. This design was supposed to serve as a bulwark against federal tyranny, although we’ve seen how the principles of federalism have been eroded by the commerce clause, and other broad powers usurped by federal government from the states.
On the flip side, states and local governments are not immune from the temptation to seize powers beyond their designated scope. The 10th amendment specifies that the powers not delegated to the Federal government are reserved to the states and to the people. The founders were clear in their writings that the ultimate authority rests in individuals. Both conservatives and liberals have ignored individual sovereignty in promoting a bastardized version of federalism. Conservatives have often championed discriminatory legislation based on “states rights,” while contemporary liberals support the power of state and local governments to regulate the economy and redistribute wealth.
Standing firm against this “local leviathan” are libertarians. The smallest minority on earth, Ayn Rand noted, is the individual. Sometimes the individual has to fight city hall all by himself, and the odds are stacked against him. Other times, however, groups like the Institute for Justice can take the government to court to defend their constitutional rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Before becoming an Arizona Supreme Court Justice, Hon. Clint Bolick co-founded the IJ, which has been featured many times on this show. Shortly after founding the IJ, Bolick authored a book titled Grassroots Tyranny: The Limits of Federalism (Cato Institute Press). In it, he cautioned proponents of decentralization that localizing power is no guarantee that it won’t be abused. It’s not all about empowering states, Bolick says — both states and federal government are merely devices that ultimately derive their powers from their protection of individual liberty.
While states and local governments can still serve as “laboratories of democracy,” these laboratories must never be allowed to violate inalienable rights, lest federalism — the “bulwark” of liberty — turn loose a thousand experiments in governance gone wrong.
Tune in for the full discussion between Bob and Clint on Grassroots Tyranny: The Limits of Federalism.
- IJ.org — Institute for Justice
- Grassroots Tyranny: The Limits of Federalism — Clint Bolick — Google Books