Federalism and the future

Looking forward, I feel that conservatism (and liberalism, although it is not the focus of this work) is at a cross-roads. Many worry about the youth and their embrace of the siren’s song of modern liberalism, and yet manage to miss one of the key facts that will need to be dealt with going forward. Times are changing. This is not 1980, nor is it 1964 – this is 2008, and there is a great deal of cultural, technological, and societal change that needs to be accommodated and understood in the fight for the future.

For all their faults, I think the American people are smarter than we give them credit for. Take the alternative energy movement. Many look at this as a global-warming funded boondoggle, pushing expensive solutions with government cash along with carbon indulgences – sorry, I mean offsets – as a means of assuaging liberal guilt without actually having to give something up and do something about the problem. And there are certainly many, especially among the elite, for whom this is true. But even here I am heartened by the example of those doing more. For instance, the individuals going “off-grid” and working with information from the internet, their own cash, and the desire to tinker who are setting up solar power/hot water, wind turbines, and other renewable power sources. They aren’t doing it on the government dime, and they aren’t tied to the “one true way” – they’re genuinely trying to do what they feel is right and make a difference one household at a time.

There are other examples of this on the more “liberal” side of the divide – bio-diesel reactors that enable an individual to make their own fuel from waste oil. Start-up companies looking into algae farms to turn deserts into bio-fuel stations. Small farmers growing local foods and raising livestock that are sold direct to consumers. All of these give me faith in the future of the country, as they represent a quintessentially American approach – if you don’t think the government is doing the right thing or is standing in your way, just go around it.

While I may not agree with all of the ends, I believe that this is absolutely the direction we need to be taken going forward. All too often, conservatives focus on “the issues” or “the narrative” in arguing against government action. I think this is a strategic error by conservatives. As an example, we may not agree on the importance of global warming going forward, but rather than focusing on the “science” of the issue we should be making the point that government action is not desirable because government is incompetent. We deride the faux praise for “speaking truth to power” in a country with First Amendment guarantees, and yet one of the more common slogans of the 60’s could easily become a new rallying cry for conservatives – “Power to the People”.

Why does so much lobbyist and special interest money come to Washington? Is it because of the character and wisdom of our elected leaders? No. It is because of the power that Washington has bestowed upon itself; the power that we have let them wield with all too little opposition. People view the graft, corruption, cronyism, and money coming into DC as the problem – a case of the “establishment” corrupting those “fighting for us”. This is exactly backwards. Conservatives should be making the point repeatedly that the money and the corruption are mere symptoms – the problem is the power itself. Money follows power. Power corrupts.

Neither of these requires advanced education to grasp – the 2007 federal budget works out to $5.1 billion dollars per Senator or Representative. How many people would you trust to effectively handle a $5.1 billion dollar spending account responsibly? How many politicians would you trust with the same? We need to hammer home the point that this is not about trusting the “wrong” party or moving towards the “wrong” goals, but a far simpler matter – we should not trust anyone with this level of responsibility or control over our lives, regardless of party or intention. We need to diffuse the power for our own good – returning power to the states and the people so that “the issues” are dealt with close to home, and so that individuals have as much ability to influence the process as possible. Adjusting a health insurance policy should NOT require an act of Congress! Making a dirty joke should not be a federal crime!

For all this cash, how effective has government been in the current crisis? What’s the last example of a quick, clean, and efficient government intervention? When the lights were elsewhere, when’s the last time your legislators made the right call when it went against their re-election prospects? Bonus question – have the government’s “management” of the economy and public “safety net” programs made more or less likely the excessive debt loads that are exacerbating the current crisis?

Conservatives need to re-direct their efforts and their fights. Certainly, we would like to win this election and future elections, but we should not depend on it. Any system that is only stable when the “right” party wins is not a stable system. We should not be content to leave dangerous levers that need not be there in government hands because we trust those currently manning the levers. We need to fight to remove power from the federal sphere and return it to the states and to the individual, the better to guarantee that there are a wider range of hands at the wheel, and that any individual failure has a smaller area of impact. If we had fifty separate Fannie/Freddie pairs run by states, what are the chances that all would fail simultaneously? How likely would it be that any individual failures would bring down the system?

Federalism can be a winning issue if we’re willing to push it – not just the states rights position for abortion and topics where this would be a net positive for conservatives, but across the board. Power from Washington, power to the people. If “universal health care” is so important to liberals, let the “blue states” implement the system, and levy the taxes to do so. If New Hampshire wishes to become a libertarian paradise, more power to them. Should California wish to prove out “alternative energy” and move beyond oil, let them pave the way, but on their own dollar.

Let us return the power and responsibility of government to the states, a level where individuals can make a significant difference, where government policy is once again responsive to citizen activists. Breaking the power monopoly forces “special interest” groups and lobbyists to run 50 individual campaigns instead of one federal one, granting greater power and responsibility to citizens than the current system. Reserve to the federal government only those functions that cannot be reasonably delegated to the states, and question those functions regularly.

This is not the easy “we’ll give you everything and have someone else pay for it” of the liberal elite, but now more than ever it can bee seen that no single system can do it all. The government would do well to take a page from computing in reliability and redundancy – the more separate and independent mechanisms you have, the more likely you are to be isolated against specific faults or incidents. Would entitlements be the problem they are if they were separately determined by 50 states instead of one federal government? If the federal government restricted monetary policy to maintaining a stable currency value and trusted the states with the “economic management” would we be in the same situation?

More than ever, we need the laboratory of democracy that has served our federal republic so well in the past – the ability for each state to chart a different way, and for each state to look at the others to evaluate their course. A single power center is always unstable – monopolies fail, monarchs and emperors are overthrown. Corporations have not merely a CEO, but a board and shareholders who possess a measure of power and control. Modern governments use checks and balances to distribute power among different branches and ministries.

Leaving a single federal government with as much power as ours has, regardless of the party or individuals in charge, is a fundamental risk that we do not need to take. Let us learn from the internet – go small, go local, and wherever possible enable people to work together to work around interruptions and problems in the system. Let us distribute the responsibility so that no one group or party has the power to create these problems in the first place. Get government out of the way, remove the power to keep them from initiating the next crisis, and let the American people get to work fixing the mess they created.