States and Confederalism
One aspect of federalism as it is viewed by several self-proclaimed federalists, especially in the United States, is that the state government is key.
To me, this is particularly nonsensical, since it harks back more to a confederation of states, rather than a true federation.
Most federations and confederations acknowledge this difference; Russia labels particularly autonomous states as autonomous regions, and Switzerland, with its near-powerless central government, calls itself a confederation.
However, these distinctions are blurred in the United States, perhaps because of its flirtations with confederation in the past — prior to the Constitution, its governing sacred document was the Articles of Confederation; needless to say, a whole civil war was waged on the very subject of confederation as well as slavery in the mid-19th century.
The key assumption of many American federalists is that the state government is best placed to assess the unique and specific needs of its constituents, while maintaining the large economies of scale necessary to enact wide-ranging policies.
While this may be true, I find it repugnant to the concepts of democracy and federalism to assume that the buck stops at the state.
It is very often a catch-all for politicians to argue that the state governments must take all the rights not explicitly granted to the central government.
When American politicians want a safe out from discussing abortion, or government funding of merit goods like education and healthcare, they just say, "Leave it to the states."
If you take the right to oppress the people from the federal government and give it to the states, how does that make the people of this country any less oppressed?
It makes little sense to me to say that if something is a failure at the federal level, it can work at the state level.
This may be true in some cases; small states are likely to be more effective and responsive to the needs of their constituents than larger ones.
But as a general rule, how can one make any firm statements about this? Many American states have larger populations and economies than most countries in the world — why do we assume they will be significantly more effective and responsive than the central government?
The most sensible democratic, the most sensible federal thing to do is to delegate as much power as possible to the people. They are the ultimate constituents of any political unit, be it a nation, a state, or a municipality.
Of course, this means there must be a clear delineation of powers and responsibilities, and a mechanism for resolving disputes. Sometimes there is more to be gained than there is to be lost by central government control; I find it difficult to see how the benefits outweigh the costs of having different criminal legal systems in the same country, for instance.
But regardless, it is a simplistic cop-out to simply state that it is the business of "the states", and leave it at that. We must answer the nagging question: why should it be the business of the state government?