Freedom and the Insufficiency of Federalism
Religion & Liberty Online

Freedom and the Insufficiency of Federalism

How free is your state? The Mercatus Center at George Mason University recently released its third edition of Freedom in the 50 States, a ranking of the states in the U.S. based on how their policies “promote freedom in the fiscal, regulatory, and personal realms.” Here’s a short, humorous video promoting the report.

While there are reasons to disagree with their overly individualistic definition of “freedom,” lets assume that most conservatives and libertarians (and even a few liberals) would broadly agree with their assessment and consider a different question: What are we to do with such information? If we live in a low-freedom state should we move to a high-freedom state? Should we, as many advocates of liberty suggest, “vote with our feet?”

While some people may choose to do just that, the majority of us will not. In fact, I suspect if you polled the staff of the Mercatus Center, which is located in #8 ranked Virginia, not a one of them will say that they plan to move to the state with the most personal and economic freedom—North Dakota. Even the most hard-core committed libertarians in places like New York (#50) aren’t likely to load up the U-Haul and head west to the Dakotas or even east to New Hampshire (#4). As Eric Crampton says,

A lot of libertarians live in New York; New York tends to come last in these surveys. Moving someplace that doesn’t keep trying to ban large sodas would mean giving up easy access to Broadway shows. It’s fine to be a pluralist and to weigh Broadway shows against personal liberties in some great personal utilitarian calculus, but it’s not exactly consistent with ‘Live Free or Die’ rhetoric.

Absolute differences across American states are perhaps not large enough to make it worth moving. But if that’s the case, what are we to make of libertarian activism in the less-free states? It’s exceptionally unlikely that even the most effective activist in New York could move the state more than a point or two in the ordinal rankings, but that same person could take an oil job in North Dakota and move from worst to first while working there to help make North Dakota even better.

Ironically, one of the reasons we pro-liberty activists are unable to move states “more than a point or two in the ordinal rankings” may be because of our obsession with federalism. In theory, federalism—a system, at least in the U.S., that shares power between the federal government and state governments—is philosophically neutral, neither liberal nor conservative, libertarian nor statist. In reality, though, federalism in American tends to foster authoritarian liberalism and greater government control.

The reason is that federalism is now viewed as a means of allowing the states to be “laboratories of democracy.” For example, Mitt Romney once defended the health reform plan he instituted in Massachusetts is by saying “the states were designed to be the laboratories of democracy.” But as federalism scholar Michael Greve notes, Justice Louis D. Brandeis’ “famous dictum had almost nothing to do with federalism and everything to do with his commitment to scientific socialism.” Indeed, the problem with the view of states as “laboratories of democracy” is that it is more applicable for instituting socialism than for advancing conservative principles.

While advocating federalism is often necessary when settling disputes between the federal government and the states, it oversteps its bounds when it’s used to justify giving power to the individual states that they should not have in the first place. Federalism is ultimately an insufficient demarcation of power and authority and should be replaced, in both rhetoric and policy, with concepts such as subsidiarity or sphere sovereignty.

As David A. Bosnich has defined subsidiarity:

This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom.

A related idea from the Reformed tradition (and the one to which I subscribe) is the neo-Calvinist notion of sphere sovereignty. According to the Wikipedia entry:

Sphere sovereignty is the concept that each sphere (or sector) of life has its own distinct responsibilities and authority or competence, and stands equal to other spheres of life. Sphere sovereignty implies that no one area of life or societal community is sovereign over another. Each sphere has its own created integrity. Neo-Calvinists hold that since God created everything “after its own kind,” diversity must be acknowledged and appreciated. For instance, the different God-given norms for family life and economic life should be recognized, such that a family does not properly function like a business. Similarly, neither faith-institutions (e.g. churches) nor an institution of civil justice (i.e. the state) should seek totalitarian control, or any regulation of human activity outside their limited competence, respectively.

The reason these positions are exponentially more pro-freedom than garden-variety federalism is easy to see. It would be consistent with federalist principles, though not with liberty, for the state of Massachusetts to become a socialist utopia (or dystopia) if the people of the state so choose. The state government could, insofar as it didn’t directly contravene the Constitution, assume complete control of all internal institutions, could even redefine all other societal spheres (marriage, schools, corporations) and refuse to recognize any institution that didn’t comply. For example, Massachusetts could redefine marriage to include only polygamous arrangements and refuse to recognize any other form. As long as the Massachusetts didn’t extraterritorialize their policy decisions on other states, they would be perfectly within the bounds of federalism.

Federalism can be useful in drawing legitimate lines of Constitutional authority. But when it is allowed to transfer power to the states from other societal spheres, the philosophy merely creates fifty separate laboratories of liberalism.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).