In Brief: Can Local Self-Rule Save America?
The Founders designed our federalist system, and we need it now as much as ever.
It’s no secret that America is pretty divided these days. Much of that has to do with a simple fact: We fight too many political battles at the federal level.
University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, therefore, proposes another look at federalism.
At the smallest scale, the tony community of Buckhead, Ga., may be seceding from Atlanta. Mayor Keisha Bottoms’ anti-anti-crime strategy has led to a predictable criminal surge. Buckhead wants escape from dysfunction — via self-rule.
The same thing is happening within states. Last month, several communities in eastern Oregon voted to secede and join Idaho. The region’s farmers don’t want to be ruled from their state’s weed- and Antifa-plagued coastal regions.
Parts of New Mexico want to join Texas. A huge swath of downstate Illinois talks of splitting from Chicagoland. Some upstate New Yorkers have been talking for years of splitting away from Gotham. Then there are various plans for splitting California into two, three or even six new states. All are gaining attention.
These plans would be hard to pull off. Splitting a state requires consent from both its own legislature and Congress, and unless Congress is ruled by a one-sided majority, it will be hard to get anything through that changes the balance in the Senate. (It has really only happened once, when West Virginia split from Virginia during the Civil War.) But the growing interest in this sort of separation does signal something.
For most of US history, the trend has been toward bigness and consolidation. But now people are wanting to make things smaller.
States are also asserting themselves. First we had “sanctuary” laws involving illegal immigration. Then we had states legalizing marijuana and essentially daring the feds to do something about it. (The feds, for the most part, backed down.) Now cities and states are declaring “sanctuary” status for gun rights, pledging not to cooperate with the enforcement of federal gun laws.
Left and right, in other words, are resisting federal rule when it comes to their pet issues.
Reynolds spots a trend, and he likens it to the declining Roman Empire. The federal government faces 80% public distrust, all while piling on laws and regulations. States, therefore, see an opening to buck the system.
The simple truth, Reynolds says, is this: “When people see the government as less legitimate, they are less likely to go along.”
The saving grace in our system is the very system our Founders designed:
The federal government might collapse or go broke — current spending and debt numbers suggest the latter — but the states have their own credit ratings, their own bureaucracy, their own police and quasi-military forces, their own reservoirs of legitimacy. We’re already seeing that.
Even if the federal government fails, the states will remain. Think of it as a backup system that we hope we won’t need — but increasingly might.
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