Federalism – distribution of power in a federation between the central authority and the constituent units (as states) involving esp. the allocation of significant lawmaking powers to those constituent units.

Most academic examinations of federalism tend to focus on the U.S. system and the structure established by the Constitution.  But in his recently released book Federalism: A Normative Theory and its Practical Relevance, political science professor Kyle Scott take a broader perspective, not only looking at the practical structure of federalism, but seeking answers to a more basic question: why federalism in the first place?

Scott roots his analysis in the bedrock of political philosophy, building his argument on the works of thinkers including Althusius, Aristotle, Plato,  Locke and Tocqueville.  Most modern political thinkers advancing the idea of limited, decentralized government tend to focus on principles of individualism. Scott comes at things from a different angle. While not completely rejecting the idea of individual sovereignty, Scott argues that people simply cannot coexist without associating, and that through these associations, people have responsibilities and obligations to one another.  Scott makes the case for federalism, arguing that large centralized government replaces local associations where consensus building, problem solving and compromises naturally occur. This leaves people isolated, clinging to a radical individualism, looking more and more to centralized power structures to solve their problems.

“The nation-state forces individualism, but strives for a manufactured patriotism as a way of binding people to the state. The state fails to reproduce a natural sense of community and in the process eliminates some natural communities, associations and identities.”

Scott goes on to explain the benefits of federalism.

“By emphasizing local governance, a sense of community will increase along with civil society. As a result, people will be less reliant on the government and the government will tend to be less overbearing, for it will be given less opportunities.”

Scott’s argues that by devolving decision making to smaller bodies, people will become more involved in the decision making process. Citizens will begin to see themselves politically relevant and will once again take an active role in their communities. Instead of living as isolated individuals, they will become participants in civil society. Scott harkens back to the town halls of New England, where people gathered debated and worked together to make decisions.

Having laid the philosophical groundwork for federalism, Scott goes on to discuss three powers he views as imperative in a federalist system: the powers of veto, nullification and secession.  Scott manages to detach these controversial concepts from the cultural baggage most Americans cling to. He does this by building his arguments on the same philosophical foundations he uses to defend the idea of federalism and through examples outside of the American experience. Scott illustrates veto through events in Sri Lanka, and instead of focusing on Southern secession in the United States, he studies the idea using examples from Belgium, Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.

Scott not only defends the power of nullification, veto and secession, he goes on to propose a practical, workable framework through which smaller governmental units can exercise these powers.

Federalism: A Normative Theory and its Practical Relevance adds another valuable perspective to the battle to reign in overreaching federal power. Scott’s practical framework for nullification, veto and secession demonstrates the possibilities of creative thinking and will help move readers outside of the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset. More importantly, Scott’s defense of federalism can serve as a bridge to those who tend to view the typical defenses of limited government as too individualistic. Scott makes the case for small government without rejecting the idea of civic responsibility and the interdependence of citizens in a society.

This book is a must-read for those interested in formulating a deeper, philosophical framework for limiting centralized government. It will help place the concepts of federalism into a much deeper political-philosophical context and help the reader articulate the ideas outside of the American system.

About the author:

Kyle Scott has authored three books. In addition to his books he has authored numerous scholarly articles. He has served as a guest blogger on a number of occasions as well. Kyle began teaching high school before receiving his PhD in 2005. Kyle has taught American politics, political theory, and public law at Miami University, University of North Florida, and the University of Houston. In all of his work Kyle seeks to understand how a society can order itself in order to produce justice, liberty, and a virtuous citizenry.

Mike Maharrey

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