Just My Thoughts – Federalism 101

(Silverdale, Washington; Sept. 3, 2020) – The United States is gearing up for a tumultuous presidential election. Unfortunately, human nature makes it far easier to manipulate people by stirring up emotions instead of teaching the population to think critically. After all, a populace which exercises critical thinking skills is far harder to manipulate…er, lead.

Understanding how our political system works, and why it works the way it does, is one of the keys to understanding why the United States succeeded in becoming a super power in less than 250 years, and why other formally great nations, that were beacons of hope, failed. I will begin with a targeted set of examples that focuses on one aspect of how and why federalism works.

Venezuela was one of the richest South American nations until the price of oil tanked. Venezuela’s economy was mostly dependent on oil revenue, so the collapse of oil prices wrecked the government’s ability to provide social services. Hugo Chavez promised to end every want and every need. The result is a disaster. Venezuela’s economy went from “tanked” to “nonexistent” as the world watched scenes of Chavez literally kicking small farmers off their land (ruining their lives) in order to collectivize it for the “greater good.”i

The Soviet Union forcibly collectivized farming. The famine of 1932 – 1933 resulted from this policy, and this famine alone believed to have killed 7.5 million people. I say “believed” because exact numbers were hidden to maintain the myth of Marxism’s success.ii

Vietnam is believed to have killed at least 100,000 people during 1956’s Phase 5 “land reform” (another name for elimination of private property for the “greater good”).iii

China takes the lead in the forced collectivization example with the Great Leap Forward (Backward?) from 1958 – 1962. Again, there are only estimates available for the scale of the slaughter, but it is believed 30 to 55 million people died for the “greater good.”iv

The loss of private property rights in just agriculture led to some of the worst mass killings of the 20th century. Political empires built on Fascism and Marxism (which includes communism and socialism) greedily engage in blood lust because the human being is declared less important than the state. It is estimated that over 148 million people died from all causes under Marxist governments alone in the 20th century (for simplicity, I have not included Fascist regimes).v I will never pretend monarchies, theocracies, and even constitutional federal republics like ours are innocent of massive numbers of wrongful deaths. However, to paraphrase Churchill, federalism is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.

So, what does this have to do with “Federalism 101”? Simply put, the common thread running through all the above atrocities is the concentration of government power in a single party and at a single point. Federalism is designed to prevent such a concentration and protect the rights of individuals to keep their freedom, property, and lives intact. Federalism implicitly recognizes the inherent dignity of human beings by putting the state in service to the people, not the people in service to the state.

Opponents of the current federal administration accuse the president of failing to sop the unrest in our cities. This accusation is made in either honest ignorance of federalism, or else with willful deceit in order to further a political agenda. The federalgovernment cannot “send in the troops” to quell unrest unless the state governments asks for help. The only exception to this is federal property. Like all property owners, the federal government can protect federal courthouses, office buildings, etc.

Under a federal system such as ours, this limitation is one check on the ultimate power of the federal government. A federal system puts responsibility for state and local security into the hands of state and local governments. Fascism and Marxism are defined by the ability of the central government to willy-nilly use national-level lethal force to subjugate the population.

That’s not happening here.

If one steps back from the raw emotions of the moment and thinks critically, one will see the federal government is not “allowing” riots, looting, arson, and murder. The state and local governments are allowing it. State governors can mobilize the state’s National Guard to quell riots under their own authority without federal approval. If the National Guard has not been activated by the governor of a state experiencing violent unrest, the choice was made the state governor, not the federal government. This is federalism.

Federalism prevents the federal government from acting despotically, but it allows for civil unrest to go unchecked if the responsible state and local governments don’t step up to the proverbial plate. Federalism leaves the ultimate approval or disapproval of such matters to the state and local population through state and local elections.

Federalism encourages multiparty political engagement because it divides power among three levels of government. This creates a situation whereby people can more easily associate with whom they wish, creating different political parties which will compete in the marketplace of ideas and policy proposals. At least, that’s the theory. Human nature being what it is, many politicians rely heavily on emotion because we are emotional beings, and critical thinking is hard. Putting aside emotions for a moment to see a bigger picture before making a decision is difficult. However, emotionalism led Venezuela from freedom to tyranny.

One-party rule, in any system, is a recipe for disaster because it automatically concentrates lethal power in one place. Federalism is one of the most successful means of preventing that. However, federalism is a human institution, and can be corrupted, manipulated, and destroyed if we don’t understand and protect it. Equating one party with absolute moral and legal authority is how depots like Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, and Hugo Chavez brazenly subjugated large populations. The United States has provisions in our Constitution protecting us from such actions (here’s looking at you, Bill of Rights!), but these provisions are useless if we stop understanding and upholding them. Civil rights come with civil responsibilities, including the responsibility to understand how the government actually works.

Giving way to emotionalism is easy….and dangerous. Let’s face it, we all want to believe in promises to alleviate every want, need, fear, and responsibility. What a dream that is! All our wants taken care of by altruistic politicians who will ensure our freedom, ensure our cupboards are full, ensure our safety, and ensure no one ever says a nasty word to us.

That attitude didn’t quite work out for Venezuela.

…Just my thoughts.

# # #

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iPeter Millard, Cindy Hoffman, Marisa Gertz and Jeremy C. F. L. “A Timeline of Venezuela’s Economic Rise and Fall.” Bloomberg News, Feb. 16, 2019. Accessed Sept. 1, 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2019-venezuela-key-events/

iiDavid R. Marples, 2007. Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine. Budapest; Central European University Press.

iiiLam Thanh Liem. “Ho Chi Minh’s Land Reform: Mistake or Crime?” Paul Bagdanor.com. http://www.paulbogdanor.com/left/vietnam/landreform.html, Accessed Sept. 1, 2020

ivFrank Dikötter, 2010. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62. New York; Walker & Company.

vR. J. Rummel, 2005. Death by Government, 5th edition. Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, England; Routledge & CRC Press.

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