Rediscovering Federalism

Pietro S. Nivola
Pietro Nivola
Pietro S. Nivola Former Brookings Expert

July 1, 2007

This paper stipulates that federalism can offer government a helpful division of labor. The essay argues that the central government in the United States has grown inordinately preoccupied with concerns better left to local authorities. The result is an overextended government, too often distracted from higher priorities. To restore some semblance of so-called “subsidiarity”—that is, a more suitable delineation of competences among levels of government—the essay takes up basic principles that ought to guide that quest. Finally, the paper advances several suggestions for how particular policy pursuits might be devolved.

Whatever else it is supposed to do, a federal system of government should offer policy-makers a division of labor. Perhaps the first to fully appreciate that benefit was Alexis de Tocqueville. He admired the federated regime of the United States because, among other virtues, it enabled its central government to focus on primary public obligations (“a small number of objects,” he stressed, “sufficiently prominent to attract its attention”), leaving what he called society’s countless “secondary affairs” to lower levels of administration. Such a system, in other words, could help officials in Washington keep their priorities straight.

It is this potential advantage, above all others, that warrants renewed emphasis today. America’s national government has its hands full coping with its continental, indeed global, security responsibilities, and cannot keep expanding a domestic policy agenda that injudiciously dabbles in too many duties best consigned to local authorities. Indeed, in the habit of attempting to do a little of everything, rather than a few important things well, our overstretched government suffers a kind of attention deficit disorder. Although this state of overload and distraction obviously is not a cause of catastrophes such as the successful surprise attacks of September 11, 2001, the ferocity of the insurgency in Iraq, or the submersion of a historic American city inundated by a hurricane in 2005, it may render such tragedies harder to prevent or mitigate.