Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why Do Libertarians Like Federalism? Why Does Anyone?

By Robert H.

I know why libertarians like government of limited powers: libertarians think government is an armed thug that forces people to do things at gunpoint, so they want to use it to force everyone to live in a minarchy at gunpoint.  The idea that the rest of us might have a right to have some sort of democratic say in how big government should be, or that democracy might by a better tool for ordering society than their personal whims and beliefs, can be dismissed.  After all, people keep voting for things libertarians dislike, so democracy must be wrong and need limits.*

But I don't get for one moment why libertarians are so into American federalism.  I honestly don't.

Here was the idea behind the constitution: government of near unlimited power with that power divided horizontally (executive, legislature, judiciary) and vertically (federal vs states).  The second division is federalism.  Theoretically it could work to avert tyranny (state and federal power will check each other) and promote limited government (if government gets too onerous in a state you can move, federal power can't get too onerous because it is limited).  

In reality state power was used to enslave people, institutionalize racism, and perpetuate corruption on a scale not even the federal government could match (Tammany Hall was not a national machine).  And states weren't even any more friendly to small government: during the lochner era we had the states desperately trying to create a nanny state and the federal judiciary just as frantically dismantling it.  It was the mirror image of what a pro-federalism libertarian might expect.

And yet libertarians act like federalism was a great idea.  I honesty don't get it.  "Unlimited power distributed vertically" is such a far cry from "limited power" that I don't see the theoretical appeal.  And the states have been so abusive of liberty historically that I don't get the appeal in practice.  Honestly I just do not get this.  Every scrap of American history seems to show that going back to a more federalist structure would just lead to fifty, worse run, more abusive little welfare states, not libertarian utopia.  We would be the EU, where citizens get to vote with their feet for exactly which kind of socialist (little s) state they prefer.  And if we were really lucky, some of those states would enslave millions of people again,

Man, f--- federalism.  Someone explain to me how anyone still embraces this terrible idea.

*Not to over-praise democracy.  It's dependent on good social norms, rights sometimes function in a counter-majoritarian way, and the iron triangle sucks and distorts democratic outcomes.  Libertarians can and do overemphasize these problems.


  1. What is your working definition of Federalism? Seems to me that we still have a lot of Federalism and much for the good. We learn a lot from different states trying to implement different policies. The Oregon health study is one recent example. We also get a lot of good with the bad. California can race ahead and implement health care reform, even if Louisiana drags its feet. Some heterogeneity at the local and state level is protective against a truly horrible national reform that is difficult to reverse. Lastly, there is a lot of heterogeneity across states, geographically and economically. It's quite possible different governments are optimal.

  2. I don't have any problem with having local government that can experiment or better match its policies to a local population, but I don't consider that federalist. Federalism, in my book, is when local government has power the federal government does not. So in 1830 Virginia could experiment with Medicare, it could work, and it would be n the other states to then implement that solution themselves. The federal government simply wouldn't have the power to. With the expansion of interstate markets and improvements in how we read the taxing and spending clause, now the federal government has that power.

    Or, to be less hypothetical, in the 1870s the federal government can't pass laws ordering places of public accommodation to not discriminate, in the 1960s it can. In both worlds states can experiment and pass laws, but in the second world 1. The federal government has as broad an ability to do so and 2. Can effectively override any state law.