Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Federal and national are not synonyms

There's a strange, and relatively recent, trend in America where most people do not seem to understand exactly what a "federal" government is. We often hear people upset that a presidential candidate, or United States congressperson does or does not support a certain issue. Often, a candidate will say the issue should be left up to the individual states to decide, and people get angry with him for that. But let's take a look at the word "federal" and what it means, both in definition and in applicability to the United States.

Wikipedia defines federalism as "a system based upon democratic rules and institutions in which the power to govern is shared between national and provincial/state governments." In order to better understand what that means let's also look at the definition of centralism, which is federalism's opposite. Webster's defines centralism as "the concentration of power and control in the central authority of an organization."

Under a federal system of governance, the member states are given a certain amount of sovereignty from the federal (in our case, national) government. This means that those states are free to make their own rules in accordance with the views and needs of their citizens, and the federal government cannot exercise powers over those states that have not been expressly granted to it.

So, how do we know what powers our federal government has, and which powers the state governments have? The answer is clearly defined in the United States Constitution. Article 1, Section 8 gives a listing of all of the powers that congress has. The tenth amendment in the Bill of Rights says, "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." This means that anything not listed in the link above is not something that the federal government has the power to do.

I'm not saying whatever issue is important to you isn't important, or that it doesn't need to be addressed. But instead of asking someone without the authority to address the issue for you, or to change the entire structure of our country in order to give them that power, it makes far more sense to ask the person who does have that power. That person is your state governor. The governor of a state is an extraordinarily powerful man who, combined with the state legislature, probably does have the power to address your concerns.

By now, some of you are saying, "But John, my issue is an important issue and it should be addressed at the national level!" My question to you is, why? Why should a liberal state like California have influence over laws that affect a conservative state like North Carolina? Why should a conservative state have influence over laws that affect a liberal state? The United States is a huge country with a very large and diverse demographic of people. Each state has its own makeup of people, its own culture, its own needs. Those needs are best served within the state itself. Your issue probably isn't unique to the United States, but I can think of no one who would want one world government telling the whole world how it should live. I certainly don't want the Middle East or China having any influence on laws that effect me.

To put this into a greater perspective, let's take a look at the issue of prohibition. When alcohol was prohibited, the federal government knew that they had no power to tell the states how to regulate alcohol. So they drafted the 18th amendment, which then had to be approved by the states. By the time the prohibition of drugs came along, no such amendment or amendment process was made. We now have several states where companies are operating perfectly legal (under state law) medical marijuana dispensaries, who are getting raided under federal law. We have some states pushing for outright legalization and regulation of the drug like alcohol. They will also likely face opposition from the federal government, at least initially. The federal government is exercising the exact type of power over the states that the Constitution was drafted to prevent. Now some of you are saying, "But John! Marijuana is a blight on society and should be illegal!" Well, then, how would you feel if the federal government took away your state's right to make it illegal?

But maybe we need a further example, just to drive the point home. In almost all cases, the most horrendous crimes you can imagine, including murder and rape, are left up to the states. Federal laws exist, but are only applicable when the crime is committed within federal jurisdiction. So ask yourself this, is your issue more important to the human race than keeping murder and rape illegal? Probably not, but the federal government leaves those two things up to the states as well.

Every election there are people who have very strong opinions on who should be president. Many of these people pay little to no attention to who is running for congress, to whom the president has to answer. Fewer still pay attention to who is running for governor of their state or for their state legislature. Even less pay attention to who is running in their local mayor or county supervisor races, even though those are the politicians who arguably have more power over your day to day lives than any of the above. If you want to make the greatest impact in the political climate that affects you, then you have to understand how the government works. If you want to be involved in politics, then you really need to be involved at the appropriate level. You would not ask the president to change your counties zoning requirements, so why ask him to change the laws that have been delegated by our constitution to your state?

Sometimes, when I discuss this topic, fellow libertarians say that we should be opposed to government overreach in all forms of government and that the majority at any level should not be allowed to take away the liberties of the minority. And they are correct. But that is not the topic of this post.

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