Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Federalism Is Not Enough

Bill Gram-Reefer


June 3, 2011

by Bill Gram-Reefer

In his May 4 review of Congressman Ron Paul’s new book Liberty Defined, Joe Carter, at First Things, briskly outlines how American-style federalism falls short of the call for justice. In  “The Lives Federalists Won’t Save,” Carter notes how secular conservatives and even many pro-life Christians are tempted to make the same error.

Touching on Roe v Wade and the Terry Schiavo case, Carter notes Congressman Paul’s preference for federalist procedure ahead of principle, notably in absolving the federal government from protecting human fetal life. The issue is much deeper than a matter of states rights, explains Carter. If any level of government fails to do its duty in defending and protecting the lives of its innocent citizens, is it not the obligation of the other branches to compensate for the failure in governance?

Carter notes that many pro-life conservatives share Paul’s libertarian view of federalism. They mistakenly assume that federalism is a conservative philosophy that limits government. On the contrary, citing Robert Alt, Carter describes federalism as “a series of constitutional rules, and as rules cut against both conservative and liberal positions alike … in terms of policy outcomes, federalism proves itself to be a neutral dealer.” Carter argues:

“The proper scope of federalism is limited to determining what level of government—state or federal—should have specific power and authority. What federalism doesn’t address are situations in which neither the state nor federal government has a legitimate claim to power and authority.”

“Too often conservatives—especially conservative politicians—read the 10th Amendment too broadly. They interpret the claim that powers not delegated to the federal branch are reserved to the States or to the people as implying that just about anything can be decided by the individual State.”

So, under purely federalist principles, Paul and other like-minded conservatives must defend the right of California state government to redefine marriage, persecute faith-based adoption agencies and medical providers, practice institutionalized racism and religious discrimination in its public schools, or whatsoever the people of the Golden State choose.  Carter concludes that, “if conservatives are willing to put the rights of the government ahead of the rights of the individual, to let adherence to procedure trump our dedication to justice, and to give the state the power to decide whether one can kill an innocent woman or an unborn child, then conservatism has lost all meaning.”

Ironically it could be argued that within Paul’s libertarian defense of federalism is a nascent statism that advocates that government—albeit state government, not the federal government, but government nonetheless—be allowed “an increase in unchecked power and illegitimate authority!” According to Carter, “Conservatives should be for more checks and balances and limits on government, rather than a mere shifting of power from federal to state authorities.”

If federalism is only a way to draw lines between constitutionally proscribed governmental authorities, without care for the origin of the rights of the people or the proper limits of government, then where can Christians look to find legitimate partners and authority that can tame Leviathan? 

There are two rich resources. The Catholic tradition of subsidiarity teaches us that nothing can be done by larger, more remote, and more complex organizations that cannot be done as well or better by smaller, closer, and simpler organizations.  The idea of sphere sovereignty (first articulated by Abraham Kuyper) teaches that each sphere of life—such as family, school, business, clubs, unions, or church—has its own distinct task, authority and competence. Each sphere stands equal to the others; they are not creatures of an all-powerful state, or are derived from some contract between sovereign individuals. Unlike federalism and its mere distribution of state power, these spheres each have their own integrity that can limit the role of government and protect the dignity and liberty of both individuals and communities, argues Carter.

Together, subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty are exponentially more helpful than “garden-variety federalism,” suggests Carter. The biblically informed Catholic and Kuyperian traditions can help a central failing of federalism: the tendency to allow squabbles over state power to trump matters of justice in civil society.

—Bill Gram-Reefer is president of WORLDVIEW PR and is publisher and editor of Halfway To Concord, a blog that covers the impact of ideas on California politics and Contra Costa County.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”