We should all be thankful for the 10th amendment

States rights has gotten a bad rap in recent years, but de-nationalizing remains our best means to de-escalate political battles and reduce polarization

The much-maligned, often-forgotten 10th Amendment is very simple and straightforward:

  • The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Those few words, however, underpin one of the most brilliant and under-rated aspects of our system:  The endless flexibility and innovation provided by separating powers between the Federal, State, and Local governments.

To be sure, I understand this architecture likely prolonged two of the most tragic periods in our nation’s history, slavery and segregation.  In both cases, the proponents of these atrocious practices argued that states rights prevented the Federal government from taking decisive action.  These arguments, and the lack of action by the Federal government, had tragic results.  There is no excuse, nor am I trying to make one.

At the same time, the horrors of the past aren’t the sum total of the promise of the 10th Amendment or how a return to a more Federalist system of government could help to heal the country and reduce the polarization between our political parties and our populace.

Simply put, we have a tendency to nationalize every issue and every debate these days.  From Black Lives Matter to energy production to coronavirus, we seek a Federal policy when certain topics are better left to state and local decision making.  This has two very detrimental effects.

First, it turns all of our political debates into winner-take all, zero-sum games.  The winner is triumphant, the loser is embittered.  Perhaps even worse, the war doesn’t end there.  As soon as the opposing party is in power, they seek to overturn the objectionable law, regulation, executive order, etc.  This leads to further instability in addition to the endless political grind.

How many years are we going to spend fighting over every detail of the Affordable Care Act?  How much time is wasted trying to address law enforcement at the Federal level, when the Federal government provides barely one percent of the funding and has very little impact overall?  How many election cycles are we going to battle over fracking or energy production?

Second, it greatly limits innovation and experimentation at the state and local level, producing a less than optimal, one-size fits all result, complete with a myriad of unintended consequences that tend to accompany any kind of structural change.  Not to mention the concentration of power in the hands of a few.

Our system is designed for competition between the states, where ideas and policies can be tested.  The successful ones will rapidly promulgate to other states. The unsuccessful ones won’t, and any damage will be limited to a single state.

Policing is an excellent example.  The Black Lives Matter movement is correct that urban policing policies have had detrimental effects in minority communities, from police brutality to community mistrust to endless incarceration.  Where I disagree is whether the Federal government is the right body to do anything about it.

Police forces are funded, organized, and executed almost entirely at the local level.  A voter in Youngstown, OH has practically zero influence on policing in Atlanta, GA.  If we’re truly interested in reforming police forces and producing a better result for urban communities, the political battles need to be fought within each community.

The local community has control and they should exert their will.  The best policies will be adopted by other communities and we have a chance for lasting, positive change.

Likewise, whether or not fracking is allowed in rural Pennsylvania has little to no impact on a resident of Fresno, California.  That resident of Fresno seeking redress from the Federal government is ultimately trying to exert their will on a populace thousands of miles away.

Is there any wonder why some would come to resent it?

Fracking (at least right now) is managed by the states, and each state makes their own choice.  New York, for example, has significant reserves and still hasn’t chosen to exploit them.  I may disagree, but that’s their prerogative.

Why should a voter in Texas get a say?

A voter in Texas has no influence on New York’s state constitution, the organization of its government, the administration of its schools, etc.  We consider it totally normal that states have different tax codes, governmental structures, election laws, business regulations, even auto insurance and gun control.  More recently, states have adopted different drug laws.

Why do we then insist that every new challenge and every current debate needs to take place at the national level?

The answer:  We shouldn’t. 

We should be thankful the Founders reserved powers to the state and local government, and instead of demanding a national answer, we should look at each issue individually to decide where the matter is best resolved.

Of course, we’re likely to fight over that as well, but that is also kind of the point.

The first debate should be over where best to solve the problem. More liberal states will adopt more liberal policies, and conservative states vice versa.  This will naturally inform the larger discussion, providing hard evidence for better decisions.

The end result is a more virtuous cycle, where we are debating not only the right policy, but the right lever of government. This will produce better policies overall, a more engaged citizenry, and reduce the pressure on the national government to perform miracles for every issue.

Isn’t that something to be thankful for?


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