The Agenda

Forward-Looking Federalism

My latest column for The Daily is on a pet peeve of mine: politicians like Ron Paul and Rick Perry have fallen into the habit of making the case for federalism on constitutional grounds rather than practical grounds:

One of the main differences between the federalism of Perry and Paul and that of Reagan is that while Perry and Paul are quick to invoke the Constitution and the eternal wisdom of America’s founders, Reagan made a more down-to-earth case. In a 1976 campaign brochure, he wrote of “a country busting with ideas and creativity,” burdened by a federal bureaucracy that was remote and unresponsive. “I am calling for an end of giantism, for a return to the human scale — the scale most human beings can understand and cope with.” Reagan was far from a hippie, but it is easy to see how his case against giantism might have resonated with a generation shaped by the counterculture and its anti-establishment views. Whereas the America of the 1950s believed that bigger was better, and that centralization was the wave of the future, the America of the 1970s was far more skeptical towards elites, who had been so badly discredited after Watergate and Vietnam.

We’re living in another moment during which faith in elites and experts has rightly been rattled, and small, nimble, responsive entities have a renewed prestige. What we need is a federalism agenda that makes a coherent case for a reordering of responsibilities between federal, state, and local governments, with an eye towards fixing misaligned incentives. A governor of Texas is well-placed to make these arguments, as Texas, with its majority-minority population, its distinctive climate, geography, and history, and its history of light building restrictions, etc., is an excellent illustration of the extraordinary, and increasing, diversity of this country, which lends itself to decentralization.  

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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