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Making a Federal(ist) Case Out of Civility

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Federalism possesses a philosophical foundation, which should not be overlooked in our current discussions about ‘civility.'

You don’t hear much about federalism these days, and the silence starts at the top. Search for the word “federalism” in UC-Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project online database, and one finds that since his inauguration, President Obama, in all of his speeches, press conferences, and executive memos, has used the term only three times—with two of those instances relating to Iraq’s national government. In the first two years of his administration, President George W. Bush used the word four times. President Clinton? Twice. We finally hit double digits with George H. W. Bush (14 times), but not since Ronald Reagan, who used “federalism” a remarkable 60 times in his first two years, has a president truly promulgated the term into the national consciousness.

Defined as the government framework where a central government and several state governments divide service, regulation, and tax responsibilities, federalism has its constitutional underpinnings in the Tenth Amendment. When that amendment was ratified in 1791, federalism was a governance framework connecting a fairly weak central government to much more powerful states. Over the centuries, the pragmatism of this practice has become evident. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1932: "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." Keeping major policy-making decisions at the state level allows for 50 customized “experiments” on issues ranging from public safety to infrastructure to education. But this is changing.

Not since Ronald Reagan, who used ‘federalism’ a remarkable 60 times in his first two years, has a president truly promulgated the term into the national consciousness.

Beyond its historical and political origins, federalism also possesses a philosophical foundation, which should not be overlooked in our current discussions about “civility.” Two recent essays on the subject by the New York Times’s David Brooks and Paul Krugman highlight the need to reintroduce federalism into the national conversation.

In his “A Tale of Two Moralities” piece, Krugman draws his usual Manichean picture of our current era, where “one side of American politics considers the modern welfare state … morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw,” while “the other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft.” Krugman continues to win rhetorical battles against straw men, concluding, “There’s no middle ground between these views.” Krugman defines the differences between the two sides as a “deep divide in American political morality.”

Coming in second place to Krugman’s essay in the Times’s most emailed stories that day, David Brooks’s essay “Tree of Failure” takes a deeper approach to civility, locating its “roots” in “failure, sin, weakness and ignorance.” Humility curbs the natural tendency in all of us to arrogance, with the understanding that, “even if you are at your best, your efforts will still be laced with failure. The truth is fragmentary and it’s impossible to capture all of it.”

With centralization in policy making comes a concentration of enemies with a consequent increase in rhetorical volume.

This modesty is an American virtue. As Brooks points out, “The nation’s founders had a modest but realistic opinion of themselves and of the voters. They erected all sorts of institutional and social restraints to protect Americans from themselves.” One of the “institutional … restraints” the founders developed was federalism.

Here we may find the “middle ground” that Krugman dismisses. His simplistic bifurcation of the American populace does not allow that all-important American governance question to be asked: not just what government should or should not do, but at what level should these decisions be made?

The federalization of social issues and service provision has naturally introduced a mathematical certitude: with centralization in policy making comes a concentration of enemies with a consequent increase in rhetorical volume. The dramatically higher political stakes involved in moving an issue from the state to the federal level also demand the use of apocalyptic language in order to “win” when the stakes are at their highest.

Healthcare policy rarely hit the radar screens of Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann when contended in Massachusetts or California, but bring it to Washington, D.C., and it becomes the subject of heated national debate. Something similar can be said for federal spending programs and the battles over earmarks. Only the federal government could propose building a “Bridge to Nowhere” of a scale determined, no doubt, by concentrated interests.

While Paul Krugman lives in a bi-moral world of his own making, perhaps he could consider a third ‘morality’: subsidiarity.

While Krugman lives in a bi-moral world of his own making, perhaps he could consider a third “morality”: subsidiarity. This concept recognizes that pushing political decision-making down to the most local level invites the closest scrutiny by peers and voters, while forcing greater participation and involvement by those governed.

As Pope John Paul II wrote in his Centesimus Annus in 1991, the centralization of policy development “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” Structural devolution helps to ensure closer supervision, but subsidiarity is also based on an understanding that wider jurisdictions invite greater levels of power seeking, and a certain hubris in embracing singular solutions to complex problems.

In his excellent Tucson memorial speech, President Obama called on Americans to “use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind us of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” Perhaps part of this “moral imagination” could include a more humble approach to policy making, one in which diffusing law making can lead to a defusing of our rhetoric, where the word “federalism” can be employed more than once a year.

Pete Peterson is executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.

FURTHER READING: Peterson has also discussed “Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart, and the Science of the Jeremiad” and “On L.A. Sidewalks: A Keynesian Cautionary Tale (for Both Parties).” Steven Hayward considers “Political Attacks, Circa 1800” and Jonah Goldberg decries “The Exploitive Rhetoric of Tragedy.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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