Freedom, Not Democracy, Gives Power to the People

Freedom, Not Democracy, Gives Power to the People

A recent headline at claimed a new study proved federalism is a total joke.

The study, by Professor Steven Rogers of Saint Louis University, showed that voters base their decisions on the popularity of the president. So, over the past several election cycles, when President Obama’s approval ratings have been low, Republicans have made tremendous gains and now control most state legislatures around the country.


Rogers showed that “State legislators have relatively little control over their own elections.” That’s not surprising, but Vox reporter Jeff Stein considers it a “rather grim conclusion.”

Stein misses the fact that campaigns and elections are not supposed to be about the candidates. They are one small way that voters can have a voice in the general direction of the government. If voters want to give Republicans control of state governments because they want to slow down President Obama’s agenda, that’s their prerogative. It’s why we have a system of checks and balances.

But, the real value of federalism can be seen when you recognize that voting is only one tool that voters can use to hold governments accountable. In fact, it’s not even the most important tool.

Democracy and voting are an important part of our American heritage. But it is freedom that truly empowers everyday Americans. Freedom lets Americans exercise real power over state and local governments because it gives them the power to walk away.

Obviously, nobody moves into a community because of the style and competence of local governing bodies. Most are worried about more practical things like jobs, housing costs, schools, and the quality of life. Some of those things may be directly affected by government, but businesses, geography, and local civic groups play an even bigger role.

So, when we decide where to live, we are acting as a consumer. Even though we’re not thinking of our decision in political terms, the freedom to choose and the power to walk away gives us a lot more influence than our vote.

This reality was noted sixty years ago in an influential journal publication written by Northwestern University’s Charles M. Tiebout. Since then, many studies have confirmed his insight that the ability of individuals and businesses to move places great constraints on the power of local government officials.

For example, if a major employer leaves town, that could encourage people to move elsewhere and lead to a decline in city tax revenue, services, and housing prices. So, local officials have the difficult task of finding the right mix of costs and benefits to keep businesses and individuals from moving away. Fortunately, as consumers, we don’t have to evaluate all of their policy decisions, we just have to look at the end result.

We get to use our power as consumers only because federalism assigns significant power to state and local governments. Since people can walk away from these governments, they have the ability to control state and local government officials. Unfortunately, we have no such ability to control the federal government. That distinction is why people are so much happier with state and local governments than they are with the federal government.

Far from being a joke, federalism is a means of giving power to the people. And, in this era of dysfunctional politics, it’s hard to imagine anything more important.

Also see,

Poverty, Inequality, and Opportunity

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