Opinion: Daily Journal

Federalism Helps Protect Liberty

Americans often complain about executive overreach or congressional encroachment on individual liberties. Even so, many modern-day champions of limited government paradoxically and unwittingly look exclusively to Washington, D.C., for solutions.

I’m reminded of what North Carolina founder Thomas Burke penned in 1777: “The more experience I acquire, the stronger is my conviction that unlimited power cannot be safely trusted to one man or set of men on Earth.”

The checks and balances system, for sure, exists to divide power in the U.S. government. But what is the recourse when it seems that all three branches of the national government — legislative, executive, and judicial — go down a path that ends at the loss of individual rights?

It’s time Americans remembered the often underappreciated and misunderstood federal structure of the United States. American federalism resulted from the experiences of the 1760 through 1780s. Contemporary Europeans were befuddled that Americans did not form a centralized state, such as revolutionaries did in France.

Federalism, however, was not a theoretical concoction formed in the mind of some disheveled misanthrope, pondering and scribbling in a secluded and cluttered room, most likely paid for by a well-intended benefactor. The framers were no unsophisticated anti-intellectuals. Far from it. But they lived in reality.

The first three articles of the Constitution pertain to the checks and balances of the national government, and the last four articles spell out aspects of federalism. Federalism is also interwoven in the first three articles. Article 2, for example, spells out that the Electoral College elects the president.

Within American federalism, the states maintained sovereignty. Yet a general government was made more “energetic,” as the founders described it, and was given sovereignty in enumerated areas. This concept of “dual sovereignty” set up a constant and purposeful tension, much like the checks and balances system does among the three branches.

In his sophisticated yet accessible Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government, James McClellan delineates what he calls “the advantages of federalism.” Federalism, he writes:

• “[E]nables states or peoples who differ a good deal from one another or have different backgrounds to join together for common benefits, without some of the states or groups being required to obey unquestionably whatever the largest State or group orders.” Federalism makes it possible for many different people of varied beliefs and morals to live in the same country.

• “[P]rovides that states or regions can manage their own affairs, rather than being directed by a central autocracy or bureaucracy.” In other words, federalism is good for democracy, in the sense that people can participate in government and have leadership opportunities and decision-making power on different levels.

• “[E]ncourages independence and self-reliance.” Even John Stuart Mill was a fan; federalism can check a centralizing state that fosters a dependent mind set.

• “[M]akes it difficult for an unjust dictator or fanatical political party to seize power nationally and rule the whole country arbitrarily. … ” The point prompts this question: Can totalitarianism exist where federalism prospers?

• “[A]llows states, regions, and localities to undertake reforms and experiments in political, economic, and social concerns without involving the whole country and all its resources in some project that, after all, may turn out unsatisfactorily.” In a centralized state, all solutions derive from one source. Federalism indirectly encourages the creation of laboratories of innovation.

To protect individual liberty, however, concepts of federalism should exist within states and regions. In other words, local governments and regions should serve as checks on abusive state governments, and communities and neighborhoods should be a check on local governments and regions.

Although it is now weaker than what the framers and ratifiers desired, American federalism still exists and can be a way to protect individual liberty.

Dr. Troy Kickler is director of the North Carolina History Project.