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Quick Fix: Dual Federalism

The government of the United States was designed around the principle of  dual federalism.  According to wikipedia, this system places the following limits on federal authority.

1. National government rules by rules only.

2. National government has a limited set of constitutional purposes.

3. Each governmental unit—state and federal—is sovereign within its sphere of operations.

4. Relationship between nation and states is best summed up as tension rather than cooperation.

Now consider the story of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.  In 1984 the government wanted to make it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to drink.  The only problem with this was that keeping people from drinking didn’t fall within the “limited set of constitutional purposes” assigned to the federal government.  That’s why they had to change the constitution when they tried to keep people from drinking the first time.  This time, however, they decided to take a different approach.  They simply passed a law saying that if a state chose not to raise its drinking age to 21, the feds would cut that state’s annual federal highway appointment by ten percent.  In other words the feds said to the states “you don’t have to do what we want, but if you don’t, we will keep taxing your citizens and giving their money to other states but we will stop giving it back to you.”  Of course, every state fell in line, the constitution wasn’t changed and the government got a new power. 

More recently, if you watch MSNBC (especially Rachel Maddow) you have probably witnessed a long steady lambasting of republican lawmakers who voted against the stimulus bill and then later took credit for bringing stimulus money back to their districts.  Frequently a question like this will be proposed (although I’ve never seen it addressed to someone who could actually answer).  “If the stimulus was so bad, shouldn’t you have refused the money?”  Now these republicans are politicians so their principles are probably highly impeachable in many cases.  It is not my intention to defend republicans in general but rather to point out how ridiculous this question is.  Imagine Nancy Pelosi calls up your congressman and says the following:  “We want to spend a lot of money.  We’re going to give it out to states and then later we will have to tax them to pay for it.”  Now your congressman may think it’s a bad idea and vote against it but once it has been passed, the question is no longer whether he thinks it is a good idea or not.  At that point Nancy Pelosi comes to your congressman with a sack full of money, he doesn’t have the option to say “no I don’t want the money because it’s not worth the money that it will cost my state in the future. ”  His state is going to have to pay for it anyway!  The question is simply “do I want to get my state’s fair share of the wasteful spending or do I just want to subsidize wasteful spending in other states?”    Certainly most of them will choose the former and we can hardly blame them.

This brings me to the next key for fixing our system.  It is essentially a corollary to the previous entry in this category.  The flow of money between state governments and the federal government should be one way only.  That is, the federal government should be disallowed from giving money to state governments for any purpose.  Why is the federal government giving money to states to build roads?  Forget about setting a drinking age, where in the constitution is the federal government given the authority to build roads?  Shouldn’t that fall within the state’s sphere of operations?  Does it really work better when the federal government takes your money and then decides how much of it to give back to your state to build roads or do you think your state could handle that itself?  Could it be that the federal government only does this so that they will have leverage over the states to make them do little things that the feds want and if so is this “ruling by rules only?”  The only other reason I can think of is that they just like transferring wealth from one state to another, which I’m not a big fan of either.

For a hundred years the federal government has been finding ways to get the things they want done in spite of their limited set of constitutional purposes.  The most effective way they have found to do this is by creating a humongous grab bag of cash in Washington D.C. funded by individual taxes and then hand this money out in exchange for whatever they want.  Mary Landrieu doesn’t want healthcare?  I bet there’s some money for Louisiana in here.  Who’s next, Ben Nelson?  Let’s see what we have for Nebraska… There’s no reason for the federal government to be doing this.

If we were to abolish the IRS and make the federal government take their taxes directly from state governments, we would still have the problem that the Feds. would take way too much and then dangle it in front of states to “convince” them to cooperate (see limit on federal authority number 4).  This is much like the relationship they have with you and me right now.  When they “cut taxes” they don’t actually cut taxes they just give you a credit for doing something they like.  This gives you more money but it doesn’t give you more liberty.  In order to restore any degree of liberty to state governments the federal government must be prohibited from giving them money.

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Categories: Quick Fix
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  1. July 19, 2010 at 11:10 pm
  2. August 22, 2010 at 4:27 am

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