Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why I Like Federalism

My Ideal Constitution, Part IV: Localized Law vs. One Law Fits All

Up until this point, we’ve said nothing about the number of people or the size of the territory being governed. Both can have significant implications for the government’s legitimacy. Naturally, the bigger the territory, the more people those boundaries will encompass. A larger number of people from a diverse variety of places will include a wider array of perspectives, values and opinions than will a smaller, more condensed group. And the more differing viewpoints are included in the populace, the harder consensus is to come by. This causes problems in countries which govern large territories and vast populations.

One way to mitigate those problems is to divide the government into multiple regional branches, with each subdivision governing only the people within its own territory. Like everything else, this has several pros and cons. One main advantage is that by reducing the number of people voting on the law, each individual citizen has a larger say in how he will be governed. For instance, if a nation with one million people vote on the law, each voter has one one-millionth of the decision making power. But if 20 equally populous regions each have a separate vote, then each voter has one fifty-thousandth of the decision making power in his region. Beyond simply voting, local government means there are more lawmaking positions to fill, and fewer candidates eligible to fill each slot,  which gives people a greater opportunity to run for office or become otherwise engaged in the political process. Government becomes more accessible to the average person, and this enhances political efficacy. Secondly, localized government maximizes the number of people who get their way, because it enables different regions with different preferences to each get what they want. Unlike in a one-government system, disagreeing factions are not forced to compromise or concede to the stronger group. Instead, they can each get their way without overruling the other. This also allows people to “vote with their homes” by moving to the regions which best suit their personal preferences. And beyond mere opinion, a third benefit of local government is that some solutions will just objectively work better in some places than in others. This could be due to culture, industry, economics, or any number of regional factors, but regardless of what the reasons are, people from the region affected are much more likely to understand those factors than are people from other places. One centralized authority usually cannot account for these regional nuances when shaping law for the nation at large. Localizing law keeps the lawmakers in tune with the situation on the ground in the places they govern, and this makes government more practically effective overall.

A fourth advantage of this solution is that it enables the regional governments to serve as “laboratories” in which different policies and laws can be experimented with. One government can only pick one policy at a time, and the results are often difficult to evaluate since it’s unknown what would have happened in the alternative; if the law had failed and/or a different policy were adopted, would things have turned out any better or worse? Who knows? But if several similar regions can adopt different policies at the same time, it’s easier to identify which policies work and which don’t over time. Finally, yet another advantage of this divided government is that is serves as another way to separate the government’s power without reducing it on sum. This enables government to have the power needed to fulfill its duties while still preventing too much concentrated power from falling into the hands of any one person or group. I talked a lot about why this is good in Part II of this post. By restricting the authority of each lawmaker to the region in which he governs, it makes it harder for misguided or corrupt politicians to screw things up for everyone.

That’s a lot of advantages, but it’s not a perfect solution. One criticism of localized government is that if the regions are to remain one country, they must still have a single governing body over top of them, which causes confusion because the people are now subject to two separate authorities at the same time. That means those governments have to either share the power, or split the power. If they share it, it can be challenging to determine which should overrule the other in the case of disagreement. If they split it, it can be challenging to determine which authority gets which power. Overlapping powers also makes it more difficult to determine accountability. If something goes wrong, the people can’t be sure which government is to blame; when things are going well, they can’t be sure which gets the credit. Another disadvantage is that increasing the number of politicians to keep track in turn increases the duties of the citizenship. Navigating this tangled mess of governing structures and educating oneself on all the different candidates running for all the different positions can be a daunting task. This “election overload” can lead to apathy, uneducated voters, and low voter turnout.

But the primary objection to this system is that many people are simply uncomfortable with the lack of a single, national policy on the issues important to them. Most of our moral opinions don’t recognize artificial human boundaries; if something is wrong in one place, it’s equally wrong in another. When citizens have different sets of freedoms depending on where they reside, inequality of rights is the result. Many people view that as an injustice.

Many people involved in politics have the mindset that there can only be one right answer by which everyone ought to abide. They feel that the job of government should be to figure out what that right answer is, and pursue it as fast as possible. These people naturally have opinions as to what those right answers are, and so they trace the “progress” or “advancement” of society in terms of how close it becomes to their preferred solution, and how long that process takes. When some parts of a country get close to their answer but others don’t, they become frustrated and impatient with the stragglers. This is perhaps the primary objection to local governance in modern politics; the compelling urge to force one’s own opinion on the localities that disagree, regardless of the resident’s opinions.

I’m not one of those people. They are partially right that injustice can (and often does) occur when rights are applied unevenly. But unfortunately, there’s no way of objectively determining how to justly apply those rights across the board. National uniformity in law enhances equality of rights, but it does not necessarily enhance justice; the whole nation could just be equally unjust. For those who seek progress, I’d point out that even when permanent long term social shifts are occurring, progress needn’t be realized all at once. Some regions are more resistant to change than others, and yes, that does mean universal change may take longer. But it also means that regional change will take less time, because the more “progressive” localities don’t need to wait for the others to catch up to start doing things their way.

For this reason, I’m sympathetic to the arguments favoring localized government in each region. It’s not that this system is necessarily any better at protecting liberty; a majority of 75 people can take away your rights just as easily as can a majority of 75 million people. I just feel that on whole, the benefits outweigh the downsides.

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