When the Founding Fathers gathered for the Constitutional Convention in 1787, they sought to create a government that would meet the needs of the people and protect individual liberty. The founders knew that a balance must be struck between a strong national government and states to maintain their sovereignty, and thus, they adopted federalism. They may not have anticipated the circumstances we now face, but the principles they outlined remain relevant for the 2020 election and the COVID-19 response.
One of the main arguments for federalism is that it best preserves liberty through decentralized self-rule. As the Brookings Institute points out, this “division of labor” allows the national government to take on specific primary policies while differing to states to determine policy for secondary policy. Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French political scientist, admired the American system and its emphasis on federalism for this very reason: it is best for localities to have specific directives in government, allowing for diverse populations to meet the needs of their citizens while maintaining liberty.
The most relevant example of this principle is the COVID-19 outbreak. President Trump allowed states to make executive decisions during the pandemic, offering federal guidelines as a suggestion for states to follow. States such as Wyoming, North Dakota and even Mississippi were able to remain open because their population density varied greatly from those of New York, New Jersey and California. Here, the Tenth Amendment, which gives all powers not enumerated in the Constitution to the states, was exercised in great array. Those states whose leadership felt they had no need for lockdown were proportionately affected by the virus and maintained a semblance of normal life. Meanwhile those with large metropolitan areas proceeded with policies that best suited the wellbeing of their citizens.
Today, federalism is still preserved, but on a much smaller scale. Some of the norms and institutions that exist through federalism have been side-stepped or abandoned.
Take senatorial elections — what used to be an indirect election of public officials through the state legislature has now become a direct election by state citizens because of the Seventeenth Amendment. Another example: the abandonment of the electoral college in some states for the popular vote. This can have major implications in the 2020 election as metropolitan areas that are usually Democratic will drown out the voting blocs in suburban and rural areas that are more Republican.
Most importantly, federalism establishes a reliance on local government to solve issues rather than a massive, centralized social state. Communities focused on individualism benefit largely from this system, and Mississippi is a prime example. Although Mississippi is praised for its small government and individual liberty, it has over 118,000 regulations on the books. Limiting freedom to citizens in making entrepreneurial decisions, especially in the realm of healthcare, puts Mississippi towards the bottom of health and education outcomes. Take a state with one of the freest and most prosperous economies, Texas, and its response to healthcare. Limited regulation has allowed for transparent pricing for surgeries and medical procedures, eliminating unnecessary insurance fees and creating a competitive market that offers low prices to those in need. Mississippi can learn from these states in deregulating the administrative state and returning decision-making to localities and individuals.
States have a responsibility to take back sovereignty in policy areas that affect citizens’ social and economic outcomes. As they continue to lose power, people turn to a large federal government to fix their problems, but the Founders never intended for the national government to get as large as it has. Citizens must get involved in local government and take back their right to individual liberty and self-determination.
Lauren Moses is a senior from Coppell, Texas, studying economics and political science.