Importance of Federalism

By Eric Magazu

It’s conventional wisdom to link our notion of freedom in America with democracy. We seem to equate our democratic institutions with freedom, and this is indeed true, but it totally misses another major element in our freedom. That concept is federalism.


Federalism might appear as an obscure philosophical term, but it has a very tangible meaning. It refers to the idea that decisions about how we are governed are made at a level of government closest to the people governed by that rule. It is only where absolutely necessary that the local community chooses to delegate power up the chain to a higher level of government.

We may be tempted to say as long as institutions are democratic that it doesn’t matter at what level of government laws are decided. It has been argued it is easier to centralize our institutions in order to save on overhead. However, does your vote count more as one in 300,000,000 or as one in 1,000? When your vote is one of a small number of total votes, not only does your vote carry a lot of weight, but you choose to be directly involved in the decision-making process.

One of the most important parts of the United States Constitution is the 10th Amendment, which reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In Massachusetts, the state constitution says, “It is the intention of this article to reaffirm the customary and traditional liberties of the people with respect to the conduct of their local government.”

When a person takes an interest in politics, it may seem tempting to look first to the president or to a senator. However, if we remain vigilant, local elections should be essential and ones for high office should be boring. We need the important decisions to remain close to us, within our cities and towns, and ultimately with each individual, family and neighborhood, because freedom truly rests not with democracy, but when we govern ourselves.

Recently there has been a gradual erosion of our right to local government. Politicians argue modern society is simply too complicated, or they say local government is a relic of our colonial past, or they say it results in the duplication of services among various communities. Political scientists say we live in an administrative state, where bureaucracy is the best way to govern in a large country.

The federal government has increasingly ratcheted up our tax burden, while simultaneously providing money to local communities with strings attached. They require our communities to agree to certain regulations in order to receive these funds. Many local politicians are eager to comply in order to receive the much needed funds. However, this money was taxed from members of that community in the first place.

If we shifted taxation from the federal government to local government, we could do away with the Internal Revenue Services. If the federal government needs money, it can request funding from the states. It would receive this money based on an established set of responsibilities determined by local communities themselves. This would be a reversal of things as they exist today, and it would be a good thing both for our liberty and for having accountability at the local level.

Local control is something more often stressed by conservatives, but it doesn’t have to be. How many times was Massachusetts stymied in its progress by the likes of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush? If more powers are left with local communities, each community can then decide for itself the policies that it views as conducive to the values of their community.

This can conceivably mean one community can place a high emphasis on social insurance, including healthcare and education, while another could emphasize a competitive business environment. Ultimately it would be up to each individual and community.

Keeping things local increases accountability, both of our local leaders and citizens to each other. If someone is not playing by the rules, it’s easier to figure out what’s going on if administrative functions are handled locally. By staying local, we can be more compassionate with each other. When your neighbor is in need, it’s much easier to help him out when he lives down the block than when he lives across the country.

We cannot allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking freedom is not a feasible governing structure in the 21st century. If anything, today’s technology should make it even simpler. We just have to trust ourselves. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard and expect more of each individual. It takes some effort to maintain our communities. If we want to retain this power as a free people, we must take responsibility for ourselves and our neighborhoods.

Eric Magazu is a Collegian contributor. He can be reached at [email protected]