OPINION: Simplicity vs. adaptability – What “federalism” means and why I think it works best for a nation as big as America

Before I get into the main topic of today’s column, why I think “federalism” is best suited for America, I feel it is best to clarify just what federalism is. The meaning of the word — at least in American politics — is actually the opposite of what I originally thought it was when I was younger. Dictionary definitions of the word were not as descriptive as I hoped, so instead I turned to a site that all of you (the students of us, anyway) are probably familiar with: CliffsNotes.

Federalism basically refers to a system in which there is a central government (what we in the United States would call the “federal government”) but also more localized governments — for example, the state government, county governments and then city/town governments. Instead of the federal or central government having all or almost all of the power, the power is divided up more evenly between the centralized government and the more localized ones.

The reason I make this distinction is since the national government here is called the federal government, I want to make sure to clarify that “federalism” does not refer to the system where the central government has the larger amount of power. That would be referred to as a “unitary” government. As confusing as that concept is, and it definitely was to me, “federalism” means less power to the federal or central government.

Two of the biggest mistakes a government can make, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many of those that I debate or talk politics with, are 1.) having far too complicated laws and codes that make everyday life just a little bit more difficult for its citizens one piece of red tape at a time and 2.) not having laws that adapt very well to the needs of different citizens.

For example, Northeast Ohio is part of what’s known as the “Rust Belt,” so the economy here is set up a certain way — or, more accurately, has “evolved” a certain way over time. Just a little bit south of us there’s a lot of corn farming and soybean farming, there’s a lot of stocks and bonds being traded out east in New York City or out west in Chicago. Chicago less so than the old days, but still.

In Cleveland, Kent, Des Moines, Chicago, New York, L.A. or wherever, the economy — and, therefore, the needs of the people — are going to be different. People are the same everywhere, ultimately, but one system of government is not just a “plug-and-play” that can work anywhere.

In short, I believe that governments should strive for a more perfect balance of simplicity and adaptability, and federalism is a perfect system to achieve such a goal as it can provide simplicity on a local scale, yet adaptability across a large and populous nation.

For example, lots of talk is made about what the minimum wage should be at the federal level, but I don’t really like that question because the needs of people in Montana and the needs of people in, for example, Los Angeles County, are pretty different. In L.A. County the cost of living is much more expensive than in Montana, so “$15 an hour” does not have the same impact or meaning in L.A. County as opposed to a place like Montana.

To clarify, this is not me being opposed to people being paid a living wage. In all honesty, I haven’t done the necessary research to determine what a living wage even would be. What I am trying to do is show that a “living wage” can actually be very different in different parts of the country. Trying to make a “one-size-fits-all” law for over 320 million people in 50 different states can be ineffective at best and disastrous at worst. In my opinion, the federal government would not be as effective as state and local governments in making that decision.

I’m not saying Montanans or Idahoans “deserve less” than Los Angelenos either, as my professor inquired earlier Tuesday. I’m simply saying that I believe that people living in Montana or Idaho have a much better idea of what is best for their neighbors and fellow citizens, just as people living in Los Angeles County have a better idea of what’s best for theirs.

America is a particularly large country, both in population and geographical size. It is home to around 330 million people, the third most populous nation in the world, and as of 2013 was approximately tied for the third-largest country in the world in square miles. For example, while Finland, Denmark and Sweden do very well with a fairly centralized government, those countries have populations of 5.5 million, 5.8 million and 10.1 million people, respectively. New York state has over 19 million on its own. On a personal note, as someone who has spent time in New York City as well as Cassadaga and Chautauqua, New York, I can guarantee there are differences even as to the needs of people living within the same state (hence the importance of local governments).

In short, the more people you have and the more distance they’re spread out across, the more need you’re going to have for more localized power. Economies grow and evolve differently, and people, therefore, have different economic needs based upon that. While most proposed policies of course have pros and cons, I like to go further with that line of thinking. Something that is great for South Carolina’s economy may be terrible for Illinois’s economy. Something that’s great for Kent may be bad for Dayton. In short, if we allow state and local governments to institute the policies their citizens and delegates (state legislators) think are best, we could get the best of both worlds and have different policies to benefit different areas.

Ross McDonnell is an opinion writer. Contact him at [email protected].