Skip over navigation

Federalism

Advantages and Disadvantages of Federalism

Federalism in Practice

Review Questions

The pros and cons of federalism have been the subject of debate since the creation of the republic.

Federalism’s Advantages

Proponents argue that federalism does the following:

  • Fosters state loyalties: Many Americans feel close ties to their home state, and federalism maintains that connection by giving power to the states.
  • Practices pragmatism: Running a country the size of the United States, with such a diverse population, is much easier to do if power is given to local officials. Likewise, state and local officials are closer to the problems of their areas, so it makes sense for them to choose policies to solve those problems.
  • Creates laboratories of democracy: State governments can experiment with policies, and other states (and the federal government) can learn from their successes and failures.

Example: California has frequently led the nation in environmental regulations: Many measures adopted by California are subsequently adopted by other states. And during the 1990s, Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson experimented with welfare policy, and those experiments influenced federal welfare reform.

  • Leads to political stability: By removing the national government from some contentious issue areas, federalism allowed the early U.S. government to achieve and maintain stability.
  • Encourages pluralism: Federal systems expand government on national, state, and local levels, giving people more access to leaders and opportunities to get involved in their government.
  • Ensures the separation of powers and prevents tyranny: Even if one person or group took control of all three branches of the federal government, federalism ensures that state governments would still function independently. Federalism, therefore, fulfills the framers’ vision of a governmental structure that ensures liberty.

Federalism’s Disadvantages

Critics argue that federalism falls short in two ways:

  • Prevents the creation of a national policy: The United States does not have a single policy on issues; instead, it has fifty-one policies, which often leads to confusion.
  • Leads to a lack of accountability: The overlap of the boundaries among national and state governments makes it tricky to assign blame for failed policies.

Follow Us