Lessons in Federalism

Imagine the local sheriff or police chief issuing an arrest warrant for the President of the United States.

Imagine that the majority of the citizens in that local jurisdiction agree with the arrest warrant, and in fact take to the streets to support its issuance.

Imagine that other local sheriffs and police chiefs band together to push back against dictates or laws enforced by the government in Washington, and accordingly mount a popular campaign to stop the President in his tracks.

In the American system of government, this possibility is quite remote, but other institutionalized federal systems around the world have done just that.

On Friday, leaders from the Federation of Greek Police, the largest police union in the country, threatened to issue arrest warrants for European Union and International Monetary Fund officials.

To the casual observer on the American continent, this may seem quite bizarre. Why would Greeks be trying to arrest people who are trying to help them get back on course, especially people who have no direct say in the government?

In much the same way as local sheriffs have no control over the President’s actions, the same exists for Greek police—or even the Greek people.

For a better understanding of federalism, it is fitting to examine three systems in three different contexts. This will include political power, economic power, and legal power in the examples of the European Union, the United States, and Canada.

THE UNITED STATES OF EUROPE

After years of successful treaties between European nations, the new form of government for the continent is one in which multiple nations have delegated away much of their individual sovereignty in order to secure a “common market” for all Europeans to enjoy.

Accordingly, Europeans are permitted to travel freely on the continent, as well as have access to the markets in other countries.

All the treaties were negotiated only by a few leaders of participating states, and individual populations were rarely, if ever, given the right to weigh in democratically on the new power structure sought by pro-European (as opposed to nationalist) negotiators.

In fact, whenever the treaties have been voted on publicly, they have been largely voted down. France and the Netherlands voted against the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, while Ireland initially voted against the latest Lisbon Treaty in 2009.

For the supranationalists of Europe—those pledging allegiance to a system of government where power is delegated to a higher authority above already existing states—the hope has always been for a kind of “United States of Europe,” as first imagined by Winston Churchill. This would follow the model of the United States of America, with a central government presiding over individual jurisdictions known as states.

While some would view this as a measure of natural evolution of confederated power, there are many other consequences that Europeans must deal with in this new federated system.

In the newly-constructed federal system of the European Union, laws and regulations are no longer solely decided by an elected legislature in the capitals of democratic nations.

Instead, close to 70% of all laws enacted in Europe are handed down by the EU bureaucracy, known as the EU Commission and headquartered in Brussels. The Commission is heavily staffed, adequately funded, and freed from the burdens of election cycles.

This means that individual populations have  no democratic control of the majority of the laws passed in their country. Even the makeup of the national budgets will be decided by the EU in the next few years.

According to the newest treaty compact, all European nations will be barred from producing any budget deficits larger than 0.5 percent.

And now, as Greece attempts to restructure its debt and pay back lenders who have sustained their grossly-enlarged welfare state for the past thirty years, the harsh decisions are not being made by the accountable politicians sent to Athens by the Greek electorate—all the power rests in unelected centers of power who have complete authority to dictate without repercussion.

Similarly, while the United States of America represents a union of closely-knit communities with a common history, language, and culture, the history of Europe is populated with a plethora of ethnic, linguistic, and historical groups.

THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Referring to the example entertained in the first section, it has always been assumed that the President of the United States enjoys an executive power which places the position far above the fray of local and state jurisdictions.

In the current American model, the most distinguishing factor is the growing centralization of political decision-making above local, county, and state levels.

And nothing is more evident than in the amount of money the government claims from its citizens.

In the last budget signed by President Obama, the federal government planned to spend $3.7 trillion. 

Considering the USA’s $14.58 trillion gross domestic product, this means that the Federal government in Washington, D.C. consumes 25% of all money earned.

For state and local governments, if spending and economic output are averaged across all 50 states, then each state’s spending  is approximately equivalent to 40% of total average GDP.

More simply put, if an average American works a full 12 months out of the year, then approximately 6.5 months’ worth of wages are paid directly to the the government, depending on the tax bracket.

At least for state government, more reasonable arguments exist for proportional amounts of public spending.

If the people elect certain politicians to spend a specific amount of money on programs, the ratio of electorate to elected officials should naturally determine that unpopular programs or spending will lead to new people being elected into office–the most basic premise of modern democratic government.

All politics is local. This is why local government is always more responsive to local concerns, whereas the highest level of federal government often exercises authority that large numbers of the population do not support. A public backlash against a county-wide health care plan, or even Romneycare, would be repealed much more easily than Obamacare, for example, because the political will against the bill is uniformly lacking across all 50 states.

This is a symptom of the significant amount of capital has been allocated to the central government in Washington, the federal system has overwhelming favored more expansive authority in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government.

The trend of the American federal system now leads to greater centralization, whether seen in education, health, or environmental concerns. This has been precipitated by the growing regulatory burdens passed by Congress, the unprecedented claims of power by the executive, and the nationalization of issues by the federal judiciary.

Viewed objectively, it is a very different system envisioned by the writers of the Constitution over 200 years ago.

The relatively simple, limited set of rules established by the founding fathers was to give preference to local jurisdictions and states, stringently holding centralized power to account.

Now, in the age of federalizing local police departments, nationalizing the simplest of regulations, and funding world history’s largest military ever assembled, the central government holds impressive weight in the balance against states, far ideal of a decentralized union championed so many years ago.

CANADA

The lessons of the American Civil War, which ultimately took close to half a million lives, were especially powerful in the formation of a new country in British North America.

Confederated in 1867, the nation of Canada sprung from the formation of two powerful political jurisdictions managed by the British Empire, later known as Québec and Ontario. By creating its own constitution, the newly-minted nation hoped to reclaim full sovereignty from the British crown, allowing it to eventually grow large enough to become the second-largest landmass nation in the world.

Keeping in mind the large size of the territory, as well as the disastrous Civil War to the south, the founding principles of Canadian Confederation rested on the idea of a powerful central government, authoritative enough to  manage affairs of the English and French-speaking populations spread out over millions of acres of territory.

After a century and a half of institutional evolution, as well as a formal legal separation from the UK in a new constitution in 1982, Canada stands proud as one of the most decentralized federations in the world.

Most functions of government are reserved for the provinces, such as healthcare, education, environmental legislation, and mining rights.

The federal government funds the military, federal police, and provides services for the aboriginal population.

If any constitutional question is brought before the Canadian Supreme Court, the presumption is always that the provinces have essential authority.

The provincial premiers (similar to state governors) exercise great authority in all realms of life (unlike state governors).

Juxtaposed with the American and European federated systems, the Canadian model is represents a proportional balance between major functions of government and equally powerful democratic accountability.

CONCLUSION

As long as states have been instituted among men, there have been restrictive arguments on how they should be ordered.

The major federal systems of today provide adequate examples where either too much authority has been centralized or where the discretion of the democratic majority has been purposefully avoided so as to bring out a government favoring certain groups.

If the populations of democratic republics wish to continue to honor the traditions and foundations which have overseen so much wealth creation and protection, they would be open to considering the true virtues of federalism in public life.

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