Why a Federal System?
The Framers of the Constitution created a federal system with a national government strong enough to unify the states in their pursuit of common goals without completely robbing the states of their independence. If they had not done so, it is unlikely that the ratifying conventions in the several states would have approved the Constitution. Indeed, the inclusion of the federal principle in the Constitution was a critical factor in its ratification. The benefits of federalism, however, have reached far beyond the ratification debates.
Protecting Rights and Liberties
Federalism contributes significantly to the protection of individual rights and liberties in this nation. While many of the opponents of the Constitution were fearful the national government would not respect the rights of the people, there have been several instances in which the national government has stepped in to stop the abuse of individual rights at the state level. The integration of the University of Alabama, the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and the investigation and prosecution of individuals and organizations that discriminate on the basis of race or sex are but a few examples of such efforts.
While the times when the national government has intervened to stop abuses in the states tend to receive comparatively more attention, there have been a number of cases in which it has fallen upon the states to protect their residents from the encroachments of the national government. Some prominent examples are the protection of land use rights, especially in western states, and countless state efforts to minimize the influence and intrusiveness of the national government.
Laboratories of Democracy
Perhaps the most important contribution of federalism to this nation has been the experimentation and "policy borrowing" it has fostered. Because states are free to develop, among other things, their own educational, law enforcement and economic development policies, at any given time there are several different approaches being utilized in different states to address the same set of public policy problems. As the programs and policies implemented by states succeed or fail, other states can learn from them and adopt, or choose not to adopt, similar policies.
Given the ability of states to experiment with different approaches to the problems they face, former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the states "laboratories of democracy." In each of fifty "laboratories," state policy makers can adopt "riskier" policies than a national policy maker would because when a program is implemented in only one state it can fail only in one state. While it might be difficult to recover from a nation-wide policy or program failure, it is comparatively much easier to reverse the negative effects of an unsuccessful policy at the state level. As independent political units, states can also develop policies that are appropriate for their needs and circumstances. A welfare policy that is effective in New York might be a complete failure in Idaho. Through experimentation and by learning from each other, states can develop effective policies and programs. Toward this end, the National Governors' Association has formed a policy information and assessment clearinghouse so state policy makers can readily review the programs in place in other states and their successes and failures.
Government Close to the People
Another significant benefit of federalism is that it keeps many political leaders, the decisions they make and the implementation of public policy close to the people. Imagine that there was only one school board for the entire nation, and not the tens of thousands that exist. Finding someone in Washington who would listen to the concerns of a mother or father from Flagstaff or Little Rock or Topeka would be next to impossible. The school boards and school board members in each of these cities and those in other towns and cities across America, however, can be responsive to the comparatively much smaller number of people they serve. Federalism, with its multiple levels of government, keeps government much closer to the people than would otherwise be possible.