The fed­er­al­ist so­lu­tion

Decision-mak­ing at lo­cal level still the rem­edy for wide­spread so­cial angst

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion - By Jonah Gold­berg

The bleat­ing about bro­ken gov­ern­ment and par­ti­san­ship con­tin­ues. “Why can’t those boobs in Washington agree on any­thing?” We’re con­stantly told that the way to fix the coun­try is to de­throne the left and right and em­power the mid­dle. Amer­i­cans Elect, No La­bels, the Gangs of Six and Four­teen, con­ser­va­tive Democrats and lib­eral Repub­li­cans: Hand­ing things over to these mid­dling min­cers and half-a-loafers is sup­posed to be the an­swer to all of our prob­lems. It’s as if we should just put Nel­son Rockefeller’s mug on the dol­lar bill and be done with it.

But what if the real com­pro­mise isn’t in forc­ing the left and the right to heel? What if in­stead the so­lu­tion is to dis­em­power the na­tional rul­ing cadre who think they’ve got the an­swers to ev­ery­thing?

Fed­er­al­ism — the process whereby you push most po­lit­i­cal ques­tions to the low­est demo­cratic level pos­si­ble — has been ripe on the right for years now. It even had a cham­pion in Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Rep. Ron Paul still car­ries that torch.

The main ad­van­tage of fed­er­al­ism is more fun­da­men­tal than the “lab­o­ra­to­ries of democ­racy” idea. Fed­er­al­ism is sim­ply the best po­lit­i­cal sys­tem ever con­ceived for max­i­miz­ing hu­man hap­pi­ness. A one-size-fits-all pol­icy im­posed at the na­tional level has the po­ten­tial to make very large num­bers of cit­i­zens un­happy, even if it was ar­rived at demo­crat­i­cally. In a pure democ­racy, I al­ways say, 51 per­cent of the peo­ple can vote to de­file the corn­flakes of 49 per­cent of the peo­ple.

Push­ing gov­ern­ment de­ci­sions to the low­est demo­cratic level — while pro­tect­ing ba­sic civil rights — guar­an­tees that more peo­ple will have a say in how they live their lives. Not only does that mean more peo­ple will be happy, but the moral le­git­i­macy of po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions will be greater.

The prob­lem for con­ser­va­tive and lib­er­tar­ian fed­er­al­ists is that when­ever we talk about fed­er­al­ism, the left hears “states’ rights” — which is then im­me­di­ately, and un­fairly, trans­lated into “Bring back Bull Con­nor.” But that may be chang­ing. In an es­say for the spring is­sue of Democ­racy Jour­nal, Yale law pro­fes­sor Heather K. Gerken of­fers the case for “A New Pro­gres­sive Fed­er­al­ism.”

Ms. Gerken’s chief con­cern is how to em­power “mi­nori­ties and dis­senters.” Not sur­pris­ingly, she de­fines such peo­ple in al­most purely left-wing terms of race and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. Still, she makes the com­pelling point that the cur­rent un­der­stand­ing of di­ver­sity — in­clud­ing mi­nori­ties as to­kens of in­clu­sion — pretty much guar­an­tees that racial mi­nori­ties al­ways will be po­lit­i­cal mi­nori­ties as well.

“While the di­ver­sity par­a­digm guar­an­tees racial mi­nori­ties a vote or voice on ev­ery decision-mak­ing body, it also en­sures that they will be the po­lit­i­cal losers on any is­sue on which peo­ple di­vide along racial lines,” Ms. Gerken writes. “Racial mi­nori­ties are thus des­tined to be the ju­nior part­ner or dis­sent­ing gad­fly in the demo­cratic process. So much for dig­nity.”

Al­low­ing lo­cal ma­jori­ties to have their way, Ms. Gerken said, “turns the ta­bles. It al­lows the usual win­ners to lose and the usual losers to win. It gives racial mi­nori­ties the chance to shed the role of in­flu­encer or gad­fly and stand in the shoes of the ma­jor­ity.”

She’s right, and not just about her fa­vored groups. For in­stance, Mor­mons (not a group Ms. Gerken high­lights) are na­tional mi­nori­ties. But they are in the Utah ma­jor­ity. Hence, Utah takes on Mor­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics. It’s no theoc­racy, but it is more rep­re­sen­ta­tive and dis­tinc­tive. In ar­eas where His­pan­ics or blacks are the ma­jor­ity, what’s so ter­ri­ble about hav­ing in­sti­tu­tions that re­flect their val­ues?

Let them all live by their mis­takes as well. In San Fran­cisco, which Mr. Gerken touts as a haven for dis­senters, they trans­late their val­ues into law. I think much of what passes for wise pol­icy in San Fran­cisco is id­i­otic, but it both­ers me less than it would if Nancy Pelosi suc­ceeded in mak­ing all of Amer­ica like San Fran­cisco.

I don’t see eye to eye with Ms. Gerken on ev­ery­thing, and I sus­pect she would be reluc­tant to push the wel­fare state down­ward. Public em­ploy­ees in Galve­ston, Texas, for in­stance, are not part of the So­cial Se­cu­rity sys­tem.

Still, I’m de­lighted her es­say has re­ceived re­spect­ful treat­ment on the left. A left-right fed­er­al­ist com­pro­mise would make Amer­ica a hap­pier, freer, more pros­per­ous and in­ter­est­ing coun­try. It also would de­throne those in both par­ties who think they know what’s best for more than 300 mil­lion Amer­i­cans.

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