A Proposed Rationale for State and Federal Governments

Some Americans are preoccupied with the desirable size of the federal government. This, I propose, is a mistake. The ultimate question for the federal government is not how big it is; it is how well it does, or can do, the tasks appropriately set for it. If it needs to be big in some ways, or for some purposes (e.g., to fight a war), so be it. If it needs to be small at other times, or in other regards (e.g., those better done by the states), fine.

These remarks suggest three key areas of concern, for design of an effective federal government. First, there are foreign affairs, writ large. The question here is what the federal government needs, in order to interact effectively with other countries. Second, there are internal affairs, involving matters within the U.S. Third, there is the question of flexibility and adaptability: how quickly and efficiently can the federal government grow, shrink, or be reconfigured to meet changing needs?

In the area of international affairs, the federal government would presumably be the default contact point, except in matters devolved to and more effectively handled by the states. In domestic affairs, by contrast, the federal government is the arena for debate, where general standards are developed for all Americans, but the state level may typically be the better level on which to decide how to meet such standards. The federal role in domestic matters may typically be limited to that of an investor: redistributing supportive funds from other states to assist in meeting standards, auditing progress, and intervening or reviewing expectations when progress falters.

This is not to assume that the state level is necessarily the best level to handle the bulk of domestic matters. State governments can themselves be corrupt, inefficient, out of touch, and unresponsive. People are more likely to develop strong commitments to smaller organizations. Hence, at the state level, much the same logic applies as at the federal level: is a particular issue one that involves interactions between the state and external entities (typically, other states or the federal government)? Because if the role of the state government on a given issue is concerned solely with matters internal to the state, one might reasonably expect that the state, like the federal government, will often function as an interested observer of subunit compliance with uniform standards.

In other words, within a given state, some cities or counties (e.g., the rural ones) may wish to achieve a specified goal (e.g., eighth-grade reading level) by using Approach A, while other jurisdictions choose Approach B. If these are the preferences of people in their own communities, the state’s mission may primarily involve keeping an eye on progress and addressing instances of shortcoming. No doubt federal and state governments could offer research support, expert services, and consortium solutions to their constituent subunits, but this is very different from an assumption that the larger governmental unit will automatically take such things upon itself.

This proposal has several purposes. The primary purpose is to specify the reasons for the existence of state and federal governments – to clarify, that is, their roles in general. A secondary purpose is to echo that government by the people and for the people, however naïve it may sound, is a bedrock conception underlying the United States, and to observe that such government is relatively unlikely when power and responsibility are far removed from the people.

(This item was previously posted in another blog.)

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