America and Federalism

Unlike most countries around the world, the US gives large powers to its federated regions (known as states for their historic sovereignty during the period under the Articles of Confederation, the first American constitution). However, unlike other federalisms, the American version has limited forms of state sovereignty. Even Canada’s federalism, the closest to the American version of federalism, does not have provincial constitutions, but instead merely the ability to administer programs and legislation established through the national parliament. One could argue that the US, rather than being a unified nation, is instead a collection of fiefdoms, over which state legislators and governors rule. What the hell, USA?

Just for comparison, the scale of national government control moves from confederacy, a collection of countries (similar to the current model of the European Union (EU)), a federation (Canada, UK (arguably), Germany, Russia, Mexico), a country divided regionally for efficiency of administration, and a unitary state (everyone else). For those in the US, the idea of a unitary state is unthinkable, yet for most of the world, the opposite is true. However, just to be clear, even a unitary state has municipal divisions (counties, prefectures, etc); it just lacks the middle category. The US, while claiming to be a federation, is in practice far more like a confederacy. The national government in the city of Washington is more akin to the European Parliament it broad and often vague legislation which leaves the real powers that be in state capitals to hash out the details.

The American model carries with it several problems. The most frustrating problem is the inconsistency of legal codes across the country. The US is in reality a biconstitutional system with state constitutions. This complicates things because there are often large loopholes key federal laws that are often arbitrarily determined by the American states. American state sovereignty also leads to the most bizarre laws in the US. While laws about fake mustaches and bouncing pickles are amusing, there are major problems with the state sovereignty.

The criminal codes are often determined at state level, so for example, smoking marijuana, a hot button issue in the US, is legal in some parts of the country and penalized with long term prison sentences in others. Even more problematic are the applications of justice, such as the legality of the death penalty, where the issue is literally life or death. What is more telling about this system is that despite the application of laws at the state level, the legal divisions are often more than not regional, often North vs South along the Mason-Dixon line, reminiscent of the nineteenth century American Civil War, hence the oft-used term “culture wars” (See American and Political Polarization). While Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis praised states as “laboratories of democracy”, one could argue from the modern tensions in the political system that they are also the drivers of polarization, regionalization, and corruption. Not only are the states divisive, they undermine key federal programs, because of the level of inconsistency in application by state governments.

The other half of the federalist divide is the way that state governments function in contrast to the national government. How one votes for state representatives is often determined by the state constitutional procedures, making a move from Arkansas to California, for example, a headache for even the most avid legal scholar.  Often this complex bureaucratic system results in voter’s general confusion, because there are so many representatives to vote for and so many laws to keep up with.

This being said, its not all bad, especially if one lives on the western coast or  northeastern regions of the country. Minimum wage and labor rights are better than average, voters often have the ability to directly create legislation through citizen’s initiatives, constitutions are more adaptable because many state constitutions, but especially those in more developed areas require amendments, and there is far less money involved in the electoral process due to stricter regulations of funding for candidates, though nowhere near those of the European and East Asian countries. However, this is largely at a cost, with higher property values, higher cost of living, and more competition for work. For a lower quality life than those in the EU or East Asia, Americans work much harder and are often saddled with large debts. America requires a solution, more likely than not national in nature, but based on the gains already made in the states.

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