Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Federalism, A Truly Democratic Principle

Written by johnleemk on 11:08:29 am Mar 16, 2007.

Federalism as it is understood in an American context is often feared, and for good reason. In the United States, most who would campaign for greater "states' rights" are usually fringe members of the right wing seeking to impose an extremist agenda without interference from the more moderate central government.

Despite this, America is one of the most federalist states in the world, and although this can engender inefficiency at times — witness, for example, how difficult it is to handle interstate crime because every state has its own laws and police — it has also meant that grassroots politics is significantly stronger in America than it is elsewhere.

What is federalism? Federalism simply means that the central government is not the final authority in itself. Conventionally, it means that state governments also have a strong role to play in the political process, and have some authority in their own right rather than being mere lackeys and functionaries of the central government.

I would further add that I believe a true component of federalism is the devolution of as much power as possible to the people. The more distant a government is from the ground, the less federalist it is. For this reason, I would also include local governments as important players in a federalist polity.

Why am I so keen on federalism? Because I believe that the closer institutions of government are to the people they serve, the less waste and inefficiency there is. Because I believe that the greater a say people have in the policies that shape their lives, the better the quality of life will be for all, and the more accomodating a society can be of different groups and communities while remaining cohesive.

A unitary state, where the power of the people is concentrated in the central government, with state and local authorities merely implementing directives from the top, is almost invariably distant from the people. Even if the people de jure have significant power, it is much harder to realise this (in both senses of the word) because it is difficult to shape a national-level policy in any polity, federalist or unitary.

On the other hand, making a difference in your life and the lives of others in your community is a real possibility under federalism. Anyone can run for councilman or alderman, and anyone can go over to city hall and voice their grievances, with a real chance of something being done about them. This would be impossible in a unitary state because all the important decisions are made at the national level.

In many states, such as Malaysia, domestic policies that could be decided at the state or local level are instead made at the national level. Education is one prime example. There is almost no difference in attending a school in town and attending a school in the village, even though the experiences of students, teachers and parents in a town and in a village are very different.

In more federalist countries like the US, many educational policies are made at the state level, and even then, local governments are often free to deviate from these policies. Parents have a greater say in what their children are taught and how their schools are run, because they can run for school boards which have real authority to change things. The federal government has almost no clout when it comes to education because Americans rightly realise that education is a domestic policy to be decided by the people it serves, not distant federal bureaucrats.

My support for federalism in the abstract does not make me a supporter of some implementations of federalism. For example, I don't approve of some federalist-based decisions, such as the criminal system in the US. It does not make much sense to me for the police to be so decentralised to the point that cooperation in the tracking of interstate crime becomes impossibly difficult. Nor can I find a rational reason for giving the states the right to enact criminal legislation — there has to be certainty in the law when it comes to criminal issues.

I also do not like the approach taken by some federalists who believe the federal and state governments should be coequal. Parallel legal systems are a bad thing. It makes more sense to state clearly what is a matter for the federal government to legislate on, what is under the purview of state governments, and so on. Clear delineations of authority greatly simplify things.

I firmly believe that unitary states are not the way to go in a democracy. Democracy is about the sovereignty of the people, and even if they hold this sovereignty in theory, if they find it all but impossible to exercise, what point is there in it?

A federalist state, by devolving powers to appropriate levels of government, keeps as much as possible close to the grassroots. When it is possible for anyone to make a difference, then, and only then, can there be a true sovereignty of the people, and a true democracy.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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