In the United States, federalism is the division of powers between state governments and the federal government. In the Constitution, the federal government was given power to make laws in certain areas, such as national defense, bankruptcy, and the regulation of the value of money. (See U.S. Const. art. I, § 8.) The states retained power to make laws in other areas, such as education, welfare, and criminal law. Federalism is sometimes referred to as the vertical separation of powers. The horizontal separation of powers is the division of power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.
Many of the founders believed that the concentration of political power is dangerous to our liberty: “What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and power into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of a Venetian senate.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Joseph C. Cabell, Feb. 2, 1816.) The diffusion of power that occurs in a federalist form of government is a powerful check on tyranny.
Federalism also protects one of the privileges we enjoy as citizens in a representative government: our power to influence government decisions through our right to vote. When political power is consolidated into one body, the ability of citizens to influence government policy is diminished. The following example illustrates this concept:
Suppose that a number of years ago, the federal government entered an area of law that previously had been a province of the states – I will use agriculture in this example. In regulating agriculture, Congress and a federal administrative agency promulgated a variety of laws and regulations. For example, one regulation limited the amount of land farmers could dedicate to the production of certain crops. Congress also passed a law prohibiting states from regulating agriculture.
Tom is a farmer in Utah. Prior to the passage of the federal laws regulating agriculture, Tom could influence agriculture policy in Utah by voting for candidates for state office, such as candidates for the state legislature. After passage of the federal legislation, Tom could influence agricultural policy in the United States by voting for candidates for federal office, such as Congress.
When the federal government asserted control over agriculture, Tom’s ability to influence agriculture policy in Utah was significantly curtailed. Let us assume that there are 1,530,574 registered voters in Utah, (State of Utah Elections Office), and about 146,311,000 registered voters in the United States, (U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, November 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). Therefore, about 1% of registered voters in the United States are from Utah. As far as influencing agricultural policy in Utah is concerned, the votes of people from Utah are now worth about 1% of what they were worth when agriculture was a state issue. I note that in a state where the average number of voters is close to the mean of about 3 million (146 million registered voters in the U.S. / 50 states), the votes of people from that state on agricultural issues are now worth about 2% of what they were worth when agriculture was a state issue.
After Congress began to regulate agriculture, Tom’s votes for Congressional candidates could influence agricultural policy in the entire nation. However, Tom has little interest in influencing agricultural policy in other states. He has a much greater interest in influencing agricultural policy in Utah because it directly affects himself, his family, and friends.
When the federal government took the power to regulate agriculture from state governments, the votes of people from Utah regarding agricultural issues became diluted to the point of practical insignificance. People from Utah essentially lost the ability to control agricultural policy in Utah. The consolidation of political power results in the effective disenfranchisement of citizens. This disenfranchisement is a subtle erosion of individual rights, and occurs when the principle of federalism is violated.
When Congress entered the area of agriculture, people like Tom felt relatively powerless to influence agricultural policy in their states, and became less likely to vote or otherwise engage in the political process. We should not wonder at low voter turnout where the federal government has increasingly taken over functions that were previously allocated to state and local governments. Since the early days of this country, the federal government has greatly expanded its reach into many areas, including education, welfare, agriculture, labor, healthcare, the environment, and criminal law. Various problems arise when citizen involvement in the democratic process is reduced. For example, special interests are able to exert greater influence over the political process, securing results that benefit themselves, even while the populace as a whole is harmed.
Although the example above examines the division of power between the national and state governments, a dilution of an individual’s political power also occurs when a state assumes control of an issue that should be decided by a local government. Therefore, it is also important be aware of this issue in state and local matters.
In conclusion, the concept of federalism allocates greater political power to the individual because the smaller the political unit, the more influence each vote carries. Federalism encourages citizen participation in the governing process by protecting our voice in government – our ability to influence the political process.
*Note: In the example above I make the simplifying assumption that all individuals have an equal ability to influence policy with their votes. In reality, all votes do not have the same weight. For example, in elections for the United States Senate, the votes of people from less populous states have a greater weight than votes of people from more populous states, because no matter how many people are in a state, each state can choose two senators.