There are many different ways of organizing a government. In this case I don’t mean the choice about how to structure voting, or whether to have a democracy versus some other form. I mean how power is distributed between different parts of the government. All governments, for example, divide responsibilities for different areas of government such as education, health, or defense between different institutions. The structure of these agencies and their funding can make a big difference in how those aspects of life are experienced in the country.
Another important way to separate powers in a government is through a federal structure. This is what I’d like to talk about today, since it is a necessary part of a healthy society in any large, diverse, or populous country. As we discuss how to handle new challenges it is sometimes easy to want to end the debate by imposing a one-size-fits-all solution and moving on. This is a mistake that takes away independence and opportunities to learn and refine. Instead it is important to take an approach that puts the solution at the lowest possible level. First let’s discuss what a federal separation of powers means and then consider why it’s important to respect it.
A federal division of powers delineates responsibilities not between agencies, but between separate governments. This occurs both horizontally and vertically. Horizontal separation gives autonomy to different geographic regions or, in some cases, social groups. The most common example is to place significant powers to the equivalent of state and local governments. In the American example most criminal law is controlled by the states. Each has equal power over criminal law within its borders and the national government has very limited authority in this area except for areas that cross borders such as drug trafficking, organized crime, and kidnapping or human trafficking.
Vertical separation is the idea that some powers will be given exclusively to different levels of the government. Property taxes, school funding, and local road maintenance can be done at the local level. Criminal law, marriage law, tort law (lawsuits), and state highways can be done at the state level. International diplomacy, regulation of currency, and the military are controlled at the national level. In these cases the separation can be exclusive or overlapping, depending on whether two or more levels are allowed to legislate in the same area and what happens when they conflict.
Federalism can also be customary or enshrined in law. For example, the powers of the state and national governments in the US are governed by interpretation of the US Constitution. This means that the national or state legislatures cannot unilaterally alter the balance of power. On the other hand, the exact powers or even existence of local government (municipal and county) is not constitutionally protected and could be changed by state legislation.
As noted above, a robust form of federalism is not the most common form of government. Most states have a strong central government running most affairs. Many others have some local devolution of powers at the discretion of the central government which may be only to certain groups or regions for historical reasons and which can be taken back by decision of the central government. But among the largest and most populous states formal federalism is noticeably more common. Canada, the United States, and Mexico in North America; Brazil and Argentina in South America; Germany and Russia in Europe; Nigeria and South Africa; India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia. Even China is not officially federal but is de facto organized along fairly federal lines.
Why has this system proven so attractive to large societies?
The basic answers are flexibility, and including more people in an ownership of society – which is one of the most basic obligations of a government. <link>
Any large nation has a large variety of geographic differences. Russia, China, and the US, for example, all include beaches with palm trees, subzero temperatures, deserts, and forests. There are areas by the coast and areas far it or from any major city. These differences translate directly into different economic and cultural realities between different areas. There may also be religious or ethnic differences. Uniform solutions imposed across the whole system when they don’t need to be can cause conflict when one size doesn’t fit all. A federal system allows for local differences to be expressed within the system. This reduces the potential for conflict between regions, gives the local people a greater sense of ownership, and conserves goodwill and political patience at the national level for projects that really must be undertaken on that scale.
This is a greater advantage than just feeling good. Local autonomy grants one of the best effects of the federal system – it hugely increases ability to conduct experiments and learn through trial and error. While adaptation to local realities is important, many things can work well across the whole country. However there are serious problems to a centrally-mandated solution in a large country. The scaling problems of funding, bureaucracy, infrastructure, and political willpower can make major changes slow. This can also mean that mistakes will be corrected slowly, if ever. And it means there is no experimentation – once a solution is put in place that is good enough not to break immediately, there may not be a search for a replacement for decades. Another part of this problem is comparison – if a national solution is enacted, there is nothing to compare it to. How would we judge whether it was better than alternatives that had not been tried?
In this way federal division can create a better, cheaper testing ground. There are 50 states in the US. On any given issue – drug laws are a recent example – there will be some states willing to try new solutions long before others or the country as a whole. And they will try different solutions – Colorado’s marijuana legalization is very different from Washington’s. This means that the other states can watch what happens. If new experiments go well that is a more powerful argument in favor of change than any debate, and it can lead other states to try. And the existence of multiple examples of how to do something gives much more information about what truly works and what doesn’t, helping everyone to get to a better place in the end.
These advantages mean that it is very important for control to be at the most local possible level. A military, or a diplomatic service, clearly must be at the national level to be effective. The local police force is better run at the local level. And there are areas in between that should be at the state level. We need to remember this if we want to have the best country we can.
Continued in this article.