Principle #3: Legitimate Governments Derive their Powers From the Consent of the Governed
Our founders were not idealist, they were realist, they understood the limitations of mortal society, of human character, and the limitation of governments of men. They applied exhaustive study and thought to the mechanisms of government that would provide the best checks and balances against the carnal nature of men and thus work to preserve the divine gift of human liberty.
George Washington said, “Of all the various modes and forms of Government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, and is most effectually secured against the danger of mal-administration.” (Washington’s Farewell Address, 1792)
Our liberty depends upon the careful guarding of that Constitutional government which our Founding Fathers gave so much care to build upon a foundation of truth and frame with prudence for the preservation of representative government for many generations to come. They built a strong frame on a solid foundation that this house of liberty would house our society in safety for as long as we maintained that structure that guards it.
The Founding Fathers envisioned a nation of individual States, each with its own quirks and ideas, and each with wide latitudes to set its own internal laws and policies as it saw fit. Federalism allows for experiments in freedom. States and localities compete on a whole host of aspects, such as taxation, regulation, and social policies. Federalism also acts as an ultimate check against overreach by a federal government. In the Federalist system the federal government was meant to be of limited scope so that the governments with the most influence over the every day lives of citizens where those governments closet to the people. In this structure local politics should be the primary concern of it's citizens and appropriately reflect the culture and values of the regional areas of it's scope. In this system many different regional areas, with different needs and concerns, different cultures and beliefs could coexist peacefully by attending to their local concerns with a high degree of confidence that the federal government wouldn't interfere with their sovereign rights.
In federalism individual liberty is protected in two primary ways, 1) The government closest to the people is the easiest to appeal for redress for in justices, and 2) The individual is able to leave the state and choose a more favorably governed state when it is no longer desirable to be a citizen of that state. Essentially, federalism creates a kind of government competition. We can see examples of federalism working today as people relocate to states with better tax and business environments, or states with better cost of living or management of government resources. As people are most likely to choose more liberty, rather than less, this system of competition will tend toward freedom.
There are weaknesses in any form of government, both federalism and central governance have their pro's and con's, what our founders attempted to do was provide a structure by which the advantages of both could develop over time to best suit the needs of the country. Our founders believed that the influence of free government informed by a steady religion would produce a steady social progress grounded in the principles of free government. Early in our history federalism allowed for slavery to continue in the south, against the wishes of many founding fathers, but federalism also allowed for the states to unite in the first place. James Madison reasoned with his countrymen in the Federalist Papers, "Is the importation of slaves permitted by the new Constitution for twenty years? By the old it is permitted forever." In other words with the ratification of the Constitution there was a hope that such liberty would come for all men, without it there was no such promise.
The Bill of Rights at the founding only restricted the federal government, it did not extend to the states, and for a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal this was a serious problem. The Civil War demonstrated that there are some individual rights so fundamental to our national union that the Federal government must have the power to hold states accountable for the execution of those rights. It was essential to the progress of our nation to a more perfect union that the God given natural liberties of all citizens were secure regardless of the states in which they reside. Had we settled there the federal powers likely would have been sufficient to balance the ills of federalism, but the tug of war between the states the federal government have been ongoing, and in last century the federal government power has overpowered the federalism our founders constructed.
In a paper by Richard Wagner, a distinguished senior fellow at George Mason University, titled "American Federalism: How Well Does It Support Liberty?" Wagner explains:
"The American federal system was founded on the principle that competition among governments is the appropriate institutional complement to the individual liberty on which the nation was founded. Over the past century or so, however, the federal system has become increasingly monopolistic or collusive. A system of competitive federalism stands in opposition to a system of monopolistic federalism, in which political entities act in cartel-like fashion to promote the interests of their supporters over the interests of the rest of society. Within a system of monopolistic federalism, government becomes an instrument for expanding or contracting individual rights; this imports feudal principles into a constitutional system founded on the rejection of those principles."
There have been many reasons that our competitive federalism has shifted in favor of a monopolistic or collusive federalism, but the clear result has strengthened the feudal nature of political parties and reduced the impact that individuals are able to exert on the political processes that most affect their everyday lives. One Constitutional change that may have had the most profound effect for weakening federalism and thus strengthening the power of the federal governments, specifically the executive, was the passage of the 17th amendment for the popular elections of senators.
The U.S. senate was meant to be the legislative house that would most jealously guard the rights of the states in our competitive federalism system. They were to be elected or appointed by the state legislators or governors, per their state constitutions, and serve in Washington as representatives of the direct interests of their state governments. The peoples house, the house of representative was designed to be the representational body of the electorate from the various states. When the senate became a popularly elected body they became part of the party system for federal political power and overtime began to curtail the rights of the states for the interest of the national party agenda. The state governments lost their direct representation in the federal government and the federal executive branch was the winner. Senators began delegating state powers to the executive and federal executive agencies. The federal regulatory state was born and the powers in charge of this massive federal bureaucracy was tossed back and forth between political parties in national elections. Local elections and state politics became increasing less important and widespread discontent and disillusionment in the populous has been the result.
The weakening of the Constitutional mechanisms for the maintenance of free government for current and future generations has resulted in a much too powerful and extravagantly wasteful centralized government. "The relative size of the various levels of government has changed dramatically since 1900. Then, almost 60% of government spending took place at the state and local levels. Today, the federal government spends more than twice as much as all other levels of government combined. Today, states increasingly administer policies and programs emanating from Washington, making them for the most part agents of a national administrative government. As a result, states often act like supplicants seeking relief from the federal government." (Solutions for America: Re-embracing Federalism)
If we are to maintain our individual liberties for ourselves and future generations we will have to begin reversing the trend toward centralized power and expansive federal bureaucracy and the blueprint to do this is in plain print within the competitive federalism the Constitution established.