Advantages of Federalism, Part I
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Advantages of Federalism, Part I


So, we have seen that the innovation of a
federal system of government solved a political problem for the founders of the American system. It made it possible for the United States to address matters of common concern among the several states, such as defense and currency, while promoting their philosophical objective of dispersing and separating the powers of government and, thereby, preserving as much liberty to the individual as possible. For the purposes of this course, we will resist the temptation to pronounce one form of government (either unitary or confederal or federal) as being better than the others. We can, however, identify and discuss some of the pros and cons of federalism and describe how the system has evolved over the two and one-quarter centuries of its existence. Political scientists have identified four
important advantages of federalism, as it has developed in the United States. First, it is frequently argued that federalism
keeps government closer to the people. It permits states and local authorities to develop and implement policies in a manner that is most amenable to local preferences. We find, therefore, that significant differences exist among the states in terms of the kinds of
policies that affect people in their everyday lives. Laws regulating speed limits for motor vehicles, laws establishing the parameters of social institutions such as marriage, and
laws setting standards for public health codes are among examples of such everyday policies that vary among the states. Such variation would not be possible in unitary systems. Even in the case of policies that we often
refer to as “national” or “federal” programs, states retain a lot of discretion
over elements of program design and implementation. For example, most of the public welfare policies created during the 1930s New Deal and the 1960s Great Society eras were created as “national-state partnerships” – that is, they were created as grants-in-aid in which the national government provided
funding to states to implement public assistance programs that would have been beyond the fiscal capabilities of states to provide from their own funding sources. States typically retained a great deal of discretion, however, in terms of important elements of the programs, such as setting eligibility standards, establishing standards of need, and determining the levels of benefits to be provided to recipients. As a result, tremendous variations have existed among the states in programs like Food Stamps, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Political scientists, economists, and other
policy analysts who have studied variations among the states in programs such as these have concluded that federalism allows state policy-makers to tailor “national” programs
to the cultural attitudes and values of their residents. Daniel Elazar’s scheme of political culture, which we have previously discussed, provides some interesting hypotheses concerning the differences among the states’ cultural types and the elements of public assistance programs. For example you’ll recall, traditionalistic states, such as Texas, typically set stricter eligibility standards and provide lower levels of benefits to the recipients of welfare programs than
do states with moralistic culture types.

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