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When I say I’m a federalist, I mean that I support a system in which powers are divided between different levels of government. Federalism establishes co-sovereignty between a central government and regional governments. It does not mean that the federal government is always dominant as is sometimes suggested: the Supremacy Clause under Article VI of the U.S. Constitution covers conflicts of law between the federal government and lower levels of government. Elsewhere, however, the Constitution places strict limits on the powers of the central government by defining an enumerated set of federal powers. All other powers reside with the people or their state governments, ideally constitutional republics in their own right.

Federalism is thought to minimize conflict within a nation by allowing law to be formulated differently within sub-jurisdictions. In this way, it has a limited ability to accommodate different political and social preferences, and it creates a de facto laboratory within which experiments in governance can be assessed. Whether one approves of a particular experiment always depends upon the nature of the question, and experiments imposing limits on individual rights are unconstitutional. Individual rights established by the Constitution are thought to be inviolable and to supersede any federal or state legislation. We should all be absolutists about that. A federalist approach can also be a practical starting point in bringing about broader social recognition of new claims under the Constitution. There are many interesting cases, however, in which legitimate constitutional rights of different parties stand in conflict.

The federalist idea of a social laboratory across jurisdictions is very appealing. When a conflict over legal and social issues seems intractable, federalism makes it possible to see how well different approaches solve the problem. There may be a variety of interesting solutions or political compromises that can be brought to bear, and it can be easier to reach an accord at the state level. Diversity of circumstances and preferences may mean that a good solution in one state will be bad in another. So different states can try different arrangements under federalism. The results of these experiments can guide other states or even federal legislation, if it comes to that. Voters in each state have the power to reward or punish elected representatives, based on these experiments or their outcomes, or to “vote with their feet” by moving to a state that better matches their political preferences.

Today, the country is experiencing an epidemic of grievances on which there is little consensus. These cover issues related to gender identity, gay rights, polyandry, sexual consent, voting rights, due process claims, race and law enforcement, food labeling, drug legalization, censorship, assisted suicide, “micro-aggressions”, and any number of other causes célèbres. These issues may involve novel private or social arrangements, or they may necessitate a weighing of the asserted rights of an aggrieved individual or group against established rights of others protected by the Constitution. It may well be that the asserted rights of the aggrieved have a proper place in the Constitution, and if so, there might be a compelling case for protection relative to other claims. Federalism is one way this can be hashed out: a state legislates, pro or con; the legislation may be challenged in court; the courts rule whether the law is constitutional at the state level or even at the federal level. And the process may start in any number of states.

I have appealed to federalism on several issues in the past. When the rights of different parties stand in conflict, attempting to weigh different sides of an issue based on libertarian and constitutional principles does not always lead to clear-cut answers. However, laws work best when there is consensus among the governed. Political consensus may be more readily achieved at sub-national levels. That doesn’t necessarily protect the people of any state against big government solutions, high taxes or cronyism. However, at least dissenters within a state can register their dissatisfaction at the ballot box, agitate, attempt to persuade others, challenge in court, or move away.

Both left and right take absolutist views on many issues. They often find it difficult to tolerate variances à la federalism. For example, should a legitimate transgender individual be allowed to use the restroom compatible with their gender identity? The left regards that as an inviolable right, regardless of genitalia and potential threats to privacy. If you disagree, they may call you a bigot! Some on the right, however, regard transgenderism as perverse and not worthy of constitutional protection. Both are absolutist positions. There are, in fact, legitimate reasons for taking either side in the restroom debate, as I attempted to outline here last week. Under such circumstances, federalism respects the political balance within any jurisdiction and allows a way forward, short of resorting to federal legislation, which might well be impossible to achieve.

Federalism is usually associated with strong “states rights”, which are sometimes criticized on historical grounds because slavery was often characterized as a “states rights” issue. The horrific treatment of blacks under slavery was obviously based on an arbitrary distinction that should never have been tolerated under our Constitution; ownership of human chattel should never have been defended as a “right”, but it took a civil war and the Thirteenth Amendment to end it officially. The discrimination mandated under Jim Crow laws was based on the same arbitrary distinction, but it took another 100 years after the Civil War to end those laws through enactment of the Civil Rights Act. I grant that federal action was necessary in both cases. However, few of the challenges we face today are based on such arbitrary distinctions. Rather, they often involve constitutional ambiguity and legitimate concerns over protected rights. So let the experiments, the evolution of opinion and the court challenges play out. That is the essence of federalism. It helps us to muddle on through.