visit the US federalism site U.S. Federalism Site What is federalism? This site explores the relationship between states and the national government in the United States. Our U.S. system of government is based on sharing, overlapping and competing powers of these levels of government. I believe that relationship, ambiguous by design, is a crucial source of tension and energy in our system of government. This site celebrates the many ways that relationship affects us, presenting a number of perspectives on that relationship. In addition to descriptions of the issues and overviews of major contemporary debates, the site links to essential documents, key legal decisions, and sites where debates are currently under way as part of the continued unfolding of federalism. A Quick Definition Federalism in Context This site focuses on the United States system, and does not deal with comparative federalism. It also concentrates on the relationship between the states and the national government, rather than exploring other intergovernmental relationships. These limits lead to a particularly strong emphasis on constitutional and legal interpretations of the relationship. Perspectives on Federalism The site is organized into several sections representing perspectives on the federal relationship. Click on the underlined words to go to pages dealing with each of these aspects of federalism, or select other pages at this site from the set of links at the very end of this page. o Philosophical roots. This perspective interprets federalism as an expression of philosophical theories and concerns, particularly those 18th century theories of the nature of society that were influential during the founding period. This section presents these views and links to writings of the prominent philosophers. . o Historical documents and perspectives. This section views federalism as a historical and evolving activity that has different characteristics in different historical periods. It contains links to key historical figures and documents from the founding period, as well as commentaries related to federalism in other periods. In contrast with the philosophical approach, this section emphasizes the contingent and cumulative nature of federalism. The Law and its evolving interpretation of the constitution is the permanent record of these changes. o Economic interpretations and fiscal federalism. An important line of theory and empirical research, beginning with Alexander Hamilton, emphasizes the economic rationale for federalism and examines changing fiscal relationships between states and the national government. Much of the recent research on federalism, which this page references, focuses on this "fiscal federalism". In particular, contemporary devolution is predominantly fiscal. o Politics and interest groups in federalism. James Madison explicitly proposed federalism as a mechanism for managing and balancing competing interests. This section takes the same viewpoint and includes links to related sites. An emerging phenomenon that may reshape federalism in this era of mass communication and instant feedback is direct democracy. o Managing across governments presents unique challenges as a result of divisions in authority, accountability and control. This section also addresses intergovernmental regulation. o New Federalism, or devolution, returns authority for certain programs--and responsibility for their costs--to the states. --------------------------------------------------------------------- Philosophy of Federalism ABSTRACT Is federalism a theoretical construct, or a pragmatic, evolving accommodation? This section examines the underlying ideas that form the ideal of federalism, particularly the ideals of liberty and republicanism. It looks backwards to understand the political philosophies that converged onto American federalism, and forward to current commentaries about the meaning of this structure of government. There is considerable overlap with the section on the history of federalism insofar as both sections deal with the history of the idea of federalism. Federalism as a utilitarian theory is dealt with in the section of this site addressing economics and federalism, while institutional theories are in the section dealing with administration and federalism. OVERVIEW Federalism is an expression of political and philosophical ideals. The Constitution, which describes what was, at the time, a radically new arrangement for sharing power among governments may be viewed as an operating manual for government without diminishing the sense that it is an expression of philosophical ideals. In the words of James Madison, "...what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?" Federalist No. 51 This page deals with the philosophical underpinnings of federalism. The United States and its Constitution were creations of an era when philosophers considered the nature of government and the ideal relationship between government and citizens. We are taught in school that the revolutionaries who wrote, debated and ratified the Constitution included practical philosophers attempting to apply theories of the enlightenment to the greatest of all practical experiments, the construction of a government. The genius of the drafters lay in their invention of a system of government that shared power among governments and citizens in a way that would assure the greatest benefits of liberty and good government, a system that could change and grow to accommodate new needs as the country inevitably grew. While this version of the writing of the constitution and the role of its drafters have been given an almost sacred place in the national mythology (as befits origin myths), it has been fashionable since Beard to apply a more critical scrutiny to the personal and economic motives of the founders. Moreover, a historical debunking of the ideological origin theory describes the arrangements between governments in the constitution as little more that the ratification and reproduction of an earlier version of the organization of the American states, finding the prototype for federalism in the relationship between the Crown and the colonies (McLaughlin, 1918). However, these perspectives are presented elsewhere. The structure of the site reflects my belief that alternate readings do not need to be reconciled and may be simultaneously valid. Even a discussion of the philosophical roots of federalism must address more than the ideals that this system was designed to further, however. Elazar (1987:80) contrasts federalism as a means with federalism as an end in itself, a useful distinction in considering how various theories came to be embodied in the evolving American Constitution. According to Elazar's analysis, federalism in the United States has usually been treated as a means, although Madison does value it as an end as well. Furthermore, the debate around the Constitution, and the Constitution itself, is shaped by the authors' beliefs about the essential nature of history, their conflicting theories about human nature and human institutions, and their familiarity with faith-based sharing of responsibility under covenants. That is, in examining the philosophical underpinnings of federalism, one must include the very notion that a system of government could be created and that the "course of human events" could be redirected by such a creation. The authors of the Constitution understood very well that their ideal ends were grounded in and shaped by historical, economic and political realities. Recent experience with conflicts within and among states impinged on (in Madison's words) the "artificial structure and regular symmetry which an abstract view of the subject might lead an ingenious theorist to bestow on a constitution planned in his closet, or in his imagination" (Federalist 37). THE IDEALS The Constitution was designed to serve both liberty and republicanism. The contradictory implications of these principles for the distribution of political power set the stage for the invention of U.S. federalism. Constitutional federalism strengthened the national government while conserving a large amount of state power. It created a structure that permitted a secure government to form without requiring the assembly to resolve all its conflicting ideals and interests. In the eighteenth century, like today, liberty meant a number of different, and sometimes contradictory, things. The conservative definition of liberty emphasizes property rights: to own or govern oneself, as well as to be secure in one's ownership of property. The founders go beyond this materialistic conception of liberty, elevating the right to "pursuit of happiness" to the place Locke gave to property (Kenyon, 1962). Among the Federalists, liberty is described in various ways. While Hamilton stresses the secure enjoyment of property, Madison associates liberty with the pursuit of individual values and religion, which form the basis of an individual's ability to participate fully in society (Lawler). In this formulation, liberty is conceived as valuable not only for itself but as a means to community. Liberalism seeks liberty in the exercise of "values, behavior and social norms". At the extreme, however, such liberty may actually be corrosive of community, a criticism that the antifederalists put forward and that communitarians make today (Brinkley, 1996). Elazar (1987:91-93) distinguishes among five different notions of liberty -- ranging from communal liberty to affiliate in various ways and to varying degrees, to radical individualistic liberty from almost any shared ties -- and sees these differences as fundamental to various models of federalism. The contemporary U.S. understanding of liberty in the libertarian sense of the term, rather than affilliative and community meanings, is a legacy of the triumph of the federalist version of history, and the particular form that federalism has taken in this country, one that emphasizes individual liberty over the liberties of groups or governments that make up the federation. The centrality of liberty as an ideal is tempered by the fear of excesses in its name and hence the quest for structures to mediate conflicting interests. Government of some kind may be a necessary device to protect individual liberties from "the war of all against all", but at a price in freedom. Republicanism was the ideal of government that served as a reference point for the framers of the constitution as the system best suited to preserve liberty. After all, the colonies had successfully rejected monarchy. As free states, they were engaged in establishing a system of government with power residing in the governed. While some liberty must be relinquished, they argued that it should only be given up to a government that derived its power from the free individual, rather than narrow social or commercial interests or a hereditary regime. The founders struggled to match up the economic and demographic circumstances of the former colonies to classical theories of republicanism, and eventually modified the theories to meet their circumstance. The ideal form of a republic, harking back to classical political philosophy, was the republic of virtuous men. When it came to translating that ideal into a national blueprint, however, the definitions of republican government proved to be as protean as liberty. "All good government is and must be republican. But at the same time, you can or will agree with me, that there is not in lexicography a more fraudulent word... Are we not, my friend, in danger of rendering the word republican unpopular in this country by an indiscreet, indeterminate, and equivocal use of it? [...] Whenever I use the word republic with approbation, I mean a government in which the people have collectively, or by representation, an essential share in the sovereignty." (Adams to Sam Adams, 18 Oct, 1789 in Works, VI:415,420-421) definitions of republicanism Is a republican system democratic? While today those terms are often used interchangeably, in the eighteenth century these were two distinct concepts. Republicanism might contrast with autocracy, where an individual could exercise tyrannical whims, but it would also contrast with democracy, where the tyranny of the majority was perceived to be a danger in polities that were too large or too diverse for face-to-face consensus and a shared sense of the common good, requirements for a republic. For the drafters of the constitution, republicanism had a more modern meaning that included representative government and majority rule, with representatives chosen by the people. However, there was considerable disagreement about what the nature of that representation should be, with different structures of representation reflecting different federal or national arrangements. Republicanism also meant limited government with a commitment to basic rights, including a concern that the rights of minorities not be lost to unrestrained majorities (Carey, 1990). This concern for minority rights has been variously interpreted through the changing lenses of Americas history as concern for religious freedom, protection of the economic perquisites of a ruling class, and a framework for pluralism. THEORIES OF POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT Political theorists of the eighteenth century disagreed on the best means to the end of republican liberty. Montesquieu in his discussion of the ideal scale of government considered how best to balance the ideal of liberty and the need for national security. On the one hand, he believed with the conventional wisdom of the day that only a small state could assure a republican form of government, where the common good was the object of citizens' attention. By contrast, while an "extensive republic" might have the virtue of greater strength, the strength would be achieved at the sacrifice of freedom because in a large state where citizens were no longer intimately engaged with one another private interests and individuals' despotic ambitions could successfully encroach on liberty without alarming the public. To reconcile the conflicting virtues of the two scales of government, Montesquieu proposed a "confederate republic", a pluralistic convention of small republics that could combine defensive strength with internal liberty. Hume's assessment of the relative virtues of various scales conflicts with Montesquieu. Far from encouraging republican government, he believed small polities would be particularly prone to waves of opinion, and that in fact a larger, representative republic was a preferable model for avoiding factions and protecting diverse interests. While Madison shared the belief that a large republic was desirable because it was likelier to be able to elect wise men, he differed from Hume in assuming there would be a large number of voters. An "extensive republic" was necessary, however, in order that competing interests would neutralize one another (Morgan, 1986) . According to Samuel H. Beer (1978: 12-14), the inventive genius of the founders of American federalism lay in their combining the contradictory theories of Montesquieu and Hume. The general government, following Hume, was designed to represent the social pluralism of the nation as a whole, while state governments would more nearly reflect Montesquieu's proposition, that multiple polities could protect the populace from central government encroachment. The key innovation in this design, as Hamilton points out (Federalist 28) is the creation of parallel, competing systems that the people can manipulate to check overreaching government at either level. THEORIES OF VIRTUE AND HUMAN NATURE Two very different concepts of civic virtue are invoked in the definition of a republic. In the classical version, virtue is an attribute of certain individuals, who stand out from the rest of society because of their character and civic dedication. The problem of representation is to assure the selection of virtuous individuals to disinterestedly serve the good of society. A strongly engaged electorate is not necessary. Because virtue is not certain, moreover, the structure of government must include many constraints to limit the possibility of abuse of power by unvirtuous men. Classical republicanism depends on a "virtuous" elite to understand and carry out the best interest of the people. The education of future leaders is an important tool to assure that the leaders have the needed skills and character, a concern reflected in George Washington's preoccupation with the idea of a national university (Loss). A strong alternative view of the relationship of virtue and society requires that society itself be virtuous, and that typical -- not superior-- representatives should be drawn from virtuous communities of shared interests. The most important task of government is to continuously raise the level of virtue in society. Civic involvement is an essential part of community life, and political communities--republics-- should be limited in size to assure the face-to-face accountability in which civic virtue is grounded. (Duncan, Zuckert). The authors of the Federalist Papers had little faith in either classical republican virtue or the virtue of the general will. Madison proposed that a republican government could be structured in such a way that it did not depend on virtue in either men or society. The constitution was layered with competing systems, including the rivalry of state and national governments, designed to harness the sheer energy of human political activity without regard to the purity of its purpose. That very skepticism may have made it acceptable at that point in history. It allowed a national government to form without first resolving conflicts among groups that mistrusted one another--notably the Northern and Southern states-- albeit only after the bill of rights was added to assure the primacy of individuals. Madison believed that virtues orient people to proper action, but he believed that contradictory impulses of ambition and personal interest were often more powerful. The challenge was to design a government based in the people and serving the general good without entirely relying on either community or individual virtue. Madison offered a pluralistic design that gave government the role of balancing competing interests, on the theory that the general good would be served in the process. To assure this required designing a system that would automatically adjust itself if any interest became too strong. Institutional structures would reinforce the tendency to promote public good and harness the force of competing interests. (Howe, Kobylka, Scanlan, Sorensen). The antifederalist opposition to this approach rested in the belief that virtue and communities were not only necessary as the basis for the republic, but that communities generated virtue. A society designed to function without the moral demands of face-to-face government and consensus would inevitably lose the very virtues on which it ultimately depends. While they were equally pessimistic about human nature, they were also skeptical about the effectiveness of artificially constituted institutions to compensate for deficiencies in other societal systems. CONSTITUTION AND COVENANT The act of drafting a blueprint for the national government--the Constitution--to be ratified by representatives of the people was an unprecedented act (Kenyon, 1962). Elazar (1987: 115) points out that the term "federal" derives from the Latin foedus, meaning a covenant, and he points out that the authors of the federal covenant were familiar with religious covenants. A covenant explicitly delineates a relationship in which authority and power are shared . They are agreements between parties, not dictates from ruler to ruled. Such dyadic relationships are balanced by the covenant to assure that neither party entirely dominates; if that were to happen, the covenant itself would fail. In terms of game theory, a covenant or constitution defines the rules of play. In those terms, the American constitution is particularly successful because its rules have produced dynamic stability and continued play, resisting the tendency to collapse to a simple game of dominance. Who are the parties to the covenant of American federalism? The Articles of Confederation is a covenant among states. But the Constitution creates something new, neither fully national nor entirely federal in the traditional sense. The document is a covenant among the people, not the states. They hold dual citizenship--in states and in the nation. Beer (1978:12) contrasts two theories of American federalism that have repeatedly emerged in national debates over the meaning of federalism: * National theory, which asserts that the sovereign people of the United States created both state and federal governments, each of which was delegated certain limited authority, and * Compact theory, which considers the colonies to have become independent polities after they separated from Great Britain. These sovereign entities then created a limited general government. While the general view is that compact theory was laid to rest once and for all by the Civil War, it occasionally re-emerges in the national discourse about the role of states. THEORIES OF HISTORY The relationship among the states, nation, and individuals has changed over time. This may be viewed as a corruption of the original design, or an affirmation of its dynamic stability. The constitution was created at a time when history was held to be inevitably cyclical. The cycles were seen as a guarantee of virtue by the antifederalists: a corrupt government would inevitably be overthrown (Lienesch). This was not a reassuring prospect to founders who hoped to establish a durable republic. The only historical precedent in English history for a revolution against the throne, Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, had fallen into civil war, dictatorship and the return of monarchy. In the American Confederation, Shays' rebellion raised fears that a similar cycle would repeat itself if something new in history was not done. The federalist theorists explicitly set out to design a system to resist the violence of historical cycles. To their triumph, they succeeded in designing a system of checks and balances that creates a self-enforcing equilibrium, a veritable "machine that would go of itself" (Brynner, Lowell, Mannin).