Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Who Cares About Federalism?

A little while back, there was a bit of a multi-blog debate on the issue of federalism and rights. The starting point was that many liberals today are skittish of federalism, mainly associating it with Jim Crow resistence to Civil Rights reforms. However, federalism defenders say that this is nothing inherent to federalism, but rather a historical happenstance, and it is quite easy to imagine a scenario where a state might try to experiment with increased protection of minority rights, only to be shut down by the federal government. I missed this discussion the first time it went around the blogosphere, but Ilya Somin gives me a chance to weigh on the topic, remarking on Paul Horwitz's post on the Mormon cases:
Americans tend to think of federalism as antithetical to minority rights because of the history of local minorities (such as African-Americans in the Jim Crow South) being oppressed by local majorities. Utah, however, represents an important case where a minority at the national level achieved majority status within one would-be state (Utah was still a territory when the Mormons first settled there) and tried to protect its values by controlling that state government. Their experiment was, of course, cut short by federal intervention that undercut the state's autonomy.

The problem here is that all this seems to prove to me is that I shouldn't really care about the federalism issue at all (or more accurately, should completely subsume it to the issue of rights protection). If minorities sometimes are treated more justly by a federalist system, and other times by a centralist system, then the moral I take is that there is no advantage to prioritizing either one. Instead, I'll be a federalist when that creates a more just system, and a centralist when that creates a more just system.

In other words, there is no way for me to circumvent the basic obligation, which is to support systems which treat people fairly, by running to the meta-structural debate, about where political power should rest. At the end of the day, if neither federal nor centralized systems can be said to be causally related to that goal, they lose their status as primary goals and instead become purely instrumental. Instrumental debates matter, of course, but the framework changes--since I'm affirmatively putting rights over power distribution, the entire federalism/centralism debate is contingent on the degree to which either will assist in the ultimate goal in a given situation. They are not free-existing standards anymore.

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