Is the federal government too powerful?

Is the federal government too powerful?


*Note: This post is part of an assignment for my AP US History students. You are welcome to comment even if you are not a student.

It’s hard to imagine the United States without a large central government. Americans often forget that the Founders disagreed vehemently regarding the size/form/structure that our new governement should take. These disagreements first resulted in factions (Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists) and eventually led to the development of America’s first political parties.

Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and other Federalists believed that Britain’s strong central government served as a wise model for the new American nation (minus a tyrannical monarch of course). Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that liberty would be best preserved in the hands of state governments and by extension, the people. These Democratic-Republicans feared a system that was ominously similar to Britain’s.

In your opinion, what is the proper balance between federal authority and state’s rights? Who should have the authority and why?

30 Comments

Add yours
  1. 1
    DeMoss

    The majority of constitutional powers and rights should be allocated to the States for several reasons. Rights should be specific and characteristic to each state or region; It wouldn’t be logical to have a biased governmental jurisdiction that imposes laws in the best interest of themselves rather than the nation as a whole. For example, a central government located near a port city would be more likely to impose laws to promote trade and exports, regardless of the negative effects which could potentially harm agriculture-based cities away from the coast. All in all, a central government would be naive to the welfare of the nation as a whole, but instead be focused more on the best interest of neighboring regions which would seem more important.

  2. 2
    Douglas Johnson

    Here’s a quote from Lincoln scholar Harry Jaffa’s “A New Birth of Freedom”:

    “…the Anti-Federalists saw the proposed Constitution as an encroachment upon the rights of the states and the people, while the Federalists saw it as a means for rectifying the weakness of a government radically inadequate for securing those SAME rights…” (emphasis mine)

    So the question was never where the bulk of law and policy-making should take place. Both Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed that it is in the states where most all of this activity would and should take place (and so I disagree a bit with how the question was framed at the top).

    Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike came together in ratifying the Constitution (although four states did not ratify), and therefore both sides agreed that the Articles of Confederation were insufficient in order to secure our rights as described in the Constitution.

    If Virginia were invaded by a foreign power, only the Federal Government could be relied upon to send troops to defend Virginia (you wouldn’t want to rely on, say, the good graces of Delaware to bail you out). Likewise if a state passed a law that violated the Constitution, then the Federal government needs the means to secure those rights violated by the state law, otherwise states could ignore the very Constitution they agreed to uphold.

    But that’s where both Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed the power of the Federal government would end–the Federal government should only have the power to secure our rights as described in the Constitution. Where the two sides split was over how much power the Federal Government needed in order to secure those rights (for instance, they disagreed over the need for a national bank). No one, not even the Federalists in 1787, ever envisioned the Federal Government becoming the legal and policy-making behemoth that it is today.

  3. 3
    Jordan Driskill

    In the question of who should have the authority: the federal government should justifiably have more power than each individual state government. Without a strong central power, unification between the states would begin to degrade. Today, the national government has more power than the state government; consequently, there are rarely conflicts among the states, with a couple notable exceptions.
    In defense, the Articles of Confederation left too much power up to the individual states. Congress had no ability to regulate commerce or enhance trade. Without that overarching power, currency “wasn’t worth a Continental.” Hamilton, a federalist, had to bail out (don’t think in modern terms) the United States by assuming the national debt of each individual state. Without this, the nation would have probably divided into poor and rich states. This class system would have caused more contention and division. Even with the assumed national debt, poor back country farmers revolted during the Whiskey Rebellion and tarred and feather tax collectors. It’s easy to imagine what the farmers would have done to debt collectors.
    The federal government should primarily serve as a diplomatic agency for the protection of its citizens.With the power to protect and aid, it would arguably have more power than the states. The term “regulating commerce” is tricky since the nation was founded on justifiable capitalist principles. The better term is that the federal government should “enhance” or “encourage” competition within the United States instead of regulate it. In addition, the national government should control the nation’s military. Individual militias within the states would spark contention. Sun Tzu stated that if a group has an army, they are going to use it.
    However, the states themselves should have the ability to make domestic decisions. Some questions might be: How are we going to fund education? Is gay marriage legal? Is abortion legal? Each of those issues should be left to be dealt with by the states. Education should not be supported by the national government since there are strong socioeconomic differences among the states. How can the standardized scores of one school in one area be compared to the scores in another area when the quality of the students is very different? This is an issue that should be dealt with by the citizens of each state. With the states able to regulate their own issues, American citizens will have a greater ability to make their choice of where they choose to live. Since states will have different make-ups and cultures, citizens will have the freedom to live in the area that suits them best. After all, America is based on freedom.

  4. 4
    Bethany Spencer

    I believe that the federal government should have more power than the states. While the states should have some power to govern themselves, without a central government they wouldn’t be as unified as they are today, and America is a lot stronger when the states are unified than it would be if they all had their own seperate governments.

  5. 5
    Logan Hamlyn

    weiiiird that Jordan wrote a novel :P.

    Anyway, previously stated, a strong central government needs to have power over individual states. It doesn’t make sense to have a federal government that cannot control it’s country. States need standards, this regulates many questionable laws/ ways of life and unifies the states — which creates a nation.

    However, the type of government set up really doesn’t matter if it’s leader/ figure head is tyrannical,crude, or just utterly stupid.

  6. 6
    Alison Zook

    There should be a fairly equal balance between federal authority and state’s rights. Each state should have the responsibility to make decisions involving education, marriage, and other issues along those lines. Due to individual states having different opinions and standards, certain issues should be handled by the states, rather than the federal government. During the American Revolution, there was a stronger state government because colonies had to vote on whether or not they were in favor of war. Pressure on the decision of America entering war was planted on the colonies. The federal government was much weaker during that time period than it is now. On the other hand, a strong central government is necessary for issues such as, national defense and the Department of Homeland Security. The federal government provides America with protection. Who is going to protect America if we were involved in a war with another country? Is Florida, an individual state, going to protect the United States or is the federal government? Once again, federal authority and state’s rights should both have authority, depending on the certain circumstances.

  7. 7
    Drew Nasholds

    Federal authority and state’s rights should have equal balance. The need for a strong central government is inevitable because without a source of central power, the states wouldn’t be unified. If the state’s all had their own separate government, certain decisions would go head to head and therefore let the nation fall apart. Also, without a federal government, defense against other countries wouldn’t exist.Although federal government is more beneficial, states should have their say in issues at hand. Without state government having their say in debates that occur, how else would we know what the problems are? Both federal and state authority should have equal balance.

  8. 8
    Taylor DeWitt

    Federal authority and state’s right are equally important. Without federal authority people wouldn’t be governed under the same rules. The federal authority is what unifies all the states, as one. Although,states should have the right to make decisions on more minor activities such as, marriage, state leaders, education, etc. This is why I think federal authority and state’s rights share equal power.

  9. 9
    Seth Austin

    Without a federal government that maintains more authority than the states, the Unites States would be non-existent. There would be no ‘union’ to bind the states together for a common cause. If the states had governments which were more powerful than the federal government, the states would act out of self-interest. However, the federal government cannot completely overpower the states because no state would want to be involved in such an authoritative government. Therefore, the national government is limited to control and govern the matters which all states absolutely have in common and to which all states are united (military, health care system, postal service, etc.). The states must be able to maintain to less important matters which vary from state to state (education funding, construction funding, gay marriage, etc). For the sake of argument, consider the United States in a position where the states have more authority than the national government. No matter what the time period, that system would replicate the situation created by the Articles of Confederation. The states were not bound to the central government and they determined that they would not benefit from strong ties with it. Therefore, the federal government was powerless over states that were uninterested in the common cause.

  10. 10
    Lauren Brumfield

    I personally believe that the authority should be divided up equally between the states and the federal government. I don’t think that one would be able to work without the other. The states need to have the power to govern themselves with occasional help from a bigger authority. Like others have probably already said, the federal government is needed to resolve bigger issues and act as a system to unify the counrty in times of doubt. If the government worked with the states in something like a checks and balance system, duties would be carried out a lot easier.

  11. 11
    Christine Chandler

    A federal government is absolutely necessary to have to unite all of the states as one country. However I believe the balance of power for state and federal government should be split fairly equally. Most domestic issues should be handled by the states whereas foreign affairs and the security of the country should obviously be handled by the federal government. As stated in the constitution, all power not specifically given to the federal government should be left to the states. Likewise, the federal government must still have power over the states or what would be the point of having one at all? Certain issues, especially regarding foreign affairs, have to be handled by the country as a whole, and there has to be a way to carry out that process which is where the federal government would come into play. The roles of the state and federal governments should stay separate for the most part while they are both important to the success of the country as a whole.

  12. 12
    Kate Garber

    State governments and the federal government should not have equal power in the US system of government. In essence, this would bring about a conflict that parallels the tension between our democratic and republican parties. Both groups are after the same thing, a happy, healthy country. However, they have formed mindsets that set them against each other when it comes to decision-making. If state governments were given equal power as the federal government, the two would be pitted against each other in regards to law-making and such. Obviously, we do not need this type of competition within our government. Instead, state legislatures should be assigned certain aspects of power within the state, while most of the general power is held by the federal government. In addition, fifty individual and equally strong commonwealths would inevitably have conflict and tension. Ideally, each state shoudl have equal say in decision making and should be listened to by the federal government, who ultimately follows through on setting into motion these needed changes.

  13. 13
    Kalee Robinson

    As to which area should have more authority, the federal government or the state government, I believe that the federal government ultimately should hold more power over the states so that the nation continutes to keep its unity. The federal government should hold more power than the states for the purpose of equality; some rules and regulations should apply to all citizens of the United States, not just certain citizens in specific states. Another reason that the federal government should hold supreme powers is for the consistency of foreign affairs; individual states should not separately deal with such situations that can potentially harm the whole country. States, on the other hand, should hold powers that aren’t so serious, such as traffic laws and regulations, and for more specific laws that sufficiently appease the opinions of the people in that area. In conclusion, the federal government should hold the overall general power in the country in order to keep the states together as a country, whereas the states should more so specifically please the people.

  14. 14
    Kelsey Clark

    I believe there should be a higher level of governmental authority. It is necessary to have a higher level by which all else is governed. I feel the federal level of government provides a structure by which laws and rights are established. It is similar to a boss and a laborer. If there were not rules and policies established and expectations set there wouldn’t be a dominant relationship whereby the laborer looks to the higher power for leadership and authority. This is similar in the relationship between a state government and the federal government. The state looks to the federal government for leadership, direction and ultimate power. I do believe each state should have decision making authority with regard to individual issues within each state but it is ultimately governed by a higher authority, the federal government.

  15. 15
    Callie Owens

    The state and federal government should be treated equally. Without the federal government the states wouldn’t be able to unite and act as one country. There are several decisions we need to make as a whole, not as independent states-including agreements with other countries. Although the federal government is a necessity, it is also important for states to be able to make smaller decisions on the own. They should be able to make their own laws about education, marriage, taxes, and other things of this nature. These are just a few reasons for why the federal and state governments should be treated evenly.

  16. 16
    Travis Sims

    In order to have a succesful Country the federal government needs to have more power than individual states. If states had more power than each one would go after individual success. If this was to occur it would be very difficult for a Country to operate. Certain states wouldn’t pay there debt and taxes, making the country as a whole unable to pay national debt. It would be a similar situation that occured under the Articles of Confederation. But a state would need some authority in order to make decisions that don’t play a factor on the nation as a whole. For example, if a city wanted to spend money on renovation. This is why the Federal government needs to have more power than the states.

  17. 17
    Logan Jones

    If the country wants a more controlled, stuctured, and stern society than the way of a strong government is the way to go. Without a central government things would be chaotic leading to the uprising of new and crazy laws followed by the development of some states that are overpowered. The central goverment may be overpowered in a way but it is for the right cause. It is necessary to have this controlling factor in one’s society to decide on the tasks/issues unbiased and to chose the correct decisions for the country. without the goverment as a controlling factor the states would only focus on self growth and success. Plus, the government (even if not accepted by all people) is good in the way that it separates people who dont need to be making decisions with people who do. Also, the government provides a strong core for the country it leads and proves to be the very base of the structured society.

  18. 18
    Kelvin Washington

    I believe for the country to be one whole nation you need a federal government. You don’t want the states to have to much power. If they did the USA today would be 50 different countries and not one. Its easier to have the nation in debt as a whole then as in seperate states. I can see why the anti federalist were against this some what but they were just scared of another monarchy like the british’s. The USA would be crazy if different states had different laws people would just state hop to get away from things. So its mandatory for the nation to have a federal governmen that rules the land.

  19. 19
    Kylie Roberts

    In order to obtain a stable society, the federal government should hold the majority of the power but the states should have the authority to make some decisions in their own state legislatures. There should be specific guidelines set my the national government, otherwise there would be state governments that are on extreme opposite sides of the political spectrum. The people should have some power in decisions made for the country, but a large group of people will never come to a common agreement. The proper balance would be one in which the states were allowed to make their own laws, according to guidelines set by the government, and a federal government with state representatives serving in place of the people, but also a federal government with the authority to override any state law that could be harmful to the people.

  20. 20
    Jon I.

    I think that the central government should have more power thenthe states. If the states had more power, the nation wouldn’t really be united, it would just be a bunch of rag-tag states with diffrent laws. I think that giving the central government more power but imposing a system of checks and balances was a very good idea. By using checks and balances the central government has power but is almost never allowed to mis-use that power. I also believe that having two opposing political groups keeps the central government’s power in check because if one party does something wrong, the other is quick to point out the error.

  21. 21
    Joe Yuhasz

    The relationship between the federal government and the states can be compared to a mother bird and its eggs. The mother laid the eggs and gave them life, and it will watch over them until they hatch, but once the birds learn how to fly, they’re on their own.

    After the Revolution (following a short interlude), the Articles of Confederation were drafted to establish a national government. They were aborted after 9 years because the majority (not all) of the leaders in the Continental Congress believed they did not relegate enough powers to the federal government, namely control of commerce and tax collection. Since no one was regulating shipping and interstate trade, states sometimes had conflicts over sailing routes and border disputes. These are problems to be expected from bordering nations, not from states of the same nation. Tax collection also needed to be regulated by the federal government, otherwise some states’ citizens would be taxed unfairly.

    These issues highlight why states should not have more power than the federal government. Rather, the states should have different powers. The federal government should oversee operations of the state to make sure no conduct is unconstitutional. Also, the federal government should take part in diplomatic affairs for the whole nation, keeping in mind the best interests of all the states collectively. However, issues that are more provincial and ideological should be left to the state. Education, gun control, abortion, capital punishment, drug regulation, drinking age, gay marriage, and many other issues that are not essential to the unity of the whole nation are examples of decisions that should be made by the state governments. Most of the decisions on these issues that become national do so because the Supreme Court decided on one side or the other. These rulings should not be a precedent for every other state court, because the issue originated in one state and should thus be resolved in only that state. The federal government should serve as a guard for all the states, but the states need to learn how to fly on their own.

  22. 22
    Amanda Campbell

    The federal government should have a slight degree of more authority over the state government. While it is vital for states to have a certain amount of freedom regarding healthcare, education, marriage, taxation and state leaders; it is also equally important for the national government to use it’s power to unify all these unique states. The federal government’s leaders are choosen by the electorial college, which represents each states opinion. This also true for the legislative branch where each state’s opinions and ideas are made heard by the federal government in congress and the house. The federal government functions based on a majority rule of the states basically so that the fed is still able to have a higher control over all but still do so without hindering on the tenth amendment. The unique workings of the US government is what makes it so great. We are united by the national government but are able to have our own “flavor” that makes each state different and intriguing.

  23. 23
    Tim Bihl

    The State’s authority should supersede that of the federal government in almost every aspect of governing. The primary purpose of the federal government should be to unite the States in diplomacy, foreign affairs, and security. It should probably also serve to enforce laws, though I’m not quite so adamant on this point. Because the purpose of the federal government in this instance would be solely to protect Americans and their property, the funds for the government would come from a flat tax on property and real-estate that didn’t try to gouge the rich. In this way, everyone would pay their share based on how much stuff they have that’s being defended. The federal government is ideal for this purpose because it unites a large group into a strong coalition of states with a common interest in defense.
    Great insight into different systems of government by examining the works of Thomas Sowell, who writes that there are basically two diametrical philosophies to government, and everything falls somewhere between them . These two different systems are the constrained and unconstrained views.
    In an unconstrained understanding of humans and government, people can always “improve” toward the goals of society in order to progress toward prosperity for all. This unconstrained vision was the leading view in the French Revolution. It also coincides with the philosophers such as Rousseau who think that humans by nature are good, but become corrupted by society. In this system, people who harbor selfish interests must be subdued by those with more altruistic visions. To do this, it becomes necessary to have an elite group of politicians who are well-educated enough to analyze the implications of all regulation enforced and laws passed. A central tenet of the unconstrained vision is the belief that these planners can exist, and that they can defend the best interests of a population.
    On the other hand, the constrained version preaches that society is imperfect and men will act only in their own self-interest, so it becomes necessary to control them in order to have a functioning society. This is the view that the philosopher Hobbes expresses in his work. In contrast to the great organizers of the unconstrained vision, the constrained model holds as a central truth that no one can effectively govern large groups because: people seek personal gain, and; no one can possess sufficient knowledge to dictate effectively how large, complex systems of people should interact. In this constrained view, the significant knowledge is not taught knowledge; instead it is experience. Supporters of the constrained view declare that the collective knowledge of everyone’s experience is superior to the ideas of any single leader in running systems, and no one person can have sufficient experience to control more than a miniscule piece of the great system that is a country. This preference of experience is frequently associated with Adam Smith.
    So now, it must be considered which is a more desirable way to approach the world. I prefer the constrained view, because letting everyone protect their own interests is far better than trying to change the way everyone acts. Self-preference is a necessity of any species that has ever existed for more than a single generation, so it seems silly to try to beat it out of humans. Not only does it seem like a hopeless and impossibly large task, it would be detrimental to the entire species. Just because we understand evolution doesn’t mean that we’re exempt from it.

    The other important belief influencing how I believe government should be structured is that I don’t think any entitlement exists. No one has the right to demand anything which they did not produce from anyone unless they can obtain it through a deal that is favorable to all parties. Anything short of a mutually agreeable transaction is either fraud or extortion, and extortion is just a watered down form of slavery.
    So, back to applications in government. The State must be the more powerful ruling entity because it allows organization at a much lower level. Because no one can effectively gauge all the wants and needs of everyone in a large system, the most logical course of action is to divide the country into separate jurisdictions that can address their own interests. Health care is an excellent example of something that cannot be made to satisfy 300 million people. The generally more healthy people of some States ( Colorado comes to mind) cannot be made to subsidize the medical needs of unhealthy States such as Mississippi. In the health care debate, politicians like to throw around a figure saying that there are about 46 million uninsured Americans. This is then paraded as some great tragedy. The question is, to whom is it so horrible? They either choose to be uninsured, or they cannot afford it. In the second case, they should work to progress to a point where they can afford it, or they should accept their position, but they absolutely cannot demand that their fellow citizens become their slaves in order that they may have health care. If a particular community finds it advantageous to have communal health care, they can do so, but when there is such clear opposition to a matter, it should not enacted in the entire country. Unfortunately, the politics of this country made it advantageous to Congress to do so anyway. The solution is to severely limit what Congress, and the rest of the federal government, may do.
    Now I’ll consider the revolutionary era. The Constitution should have been written so that Congress could not interfere with commerce in any way. It also should have explicitly stated that any power not expressly granted was forbidden.
    The issue of the worthless continental was not a result of decentralization ( it was a national currency), but rather one of the government seizing too much power where it didn’t have sufficient knowledge. The currency was improperly backed by real wealth, so that the Continentals were representing some value that did not exist. This meant that the only possible path was that of inflation until the currency was worth exactly the paper it used. One could argue that any centralized currency is a problem, as it simply represents some value. This causes a dangerous disconnection between the value and the currency itself, and is probably one of the most precarious steps toward peoples’ false sense of entitlement.
    The issue of State debt consolidation is one that showed why central government needs to be limited in its power. It was advantageous to those states with debt to pass it on to some other entity, where the costs would be diffused. However, no one other than the debtors themselves should have been repaying the loans. When self-interests clash against a moral crisis such as they do here, the necessary reaction is to have a government that restricts, not facilitates, the taking advantage of people.
    I think I’m going on too long, so I’ll just stop there.

  24. 24
    Ben Shrewsberry

    I believe that the federal level of government should have the most authority but not all of it. Certain processes and legislatures should be divided up between the states and the federal government. They should have a “balance of power” system like the judicial, executive, and legislative branches have. I also think the states should have majority choice over their rights but not to extremes.

  25. 25
    Nick Rodammer

    There definitely needs to be a balance between the local and federal government that is more substantial than we currently have, but the overarching national government does need to maintain certain powers it has evolved in our two centuries as a nation. National regulations concerning food and commerce need to be maintained by the FDA and the Commerce Department, which cannot be allowed to be subsidized to the states, as each will develop their own sense of what’s “healthy” regarding those areas. However, if a government does continue to grow at an exponential rate where the citizens can no longer hold their policy makers liable, and those same legislatures don’t follow the will of the people, it quickly becomes simply unfeasible to maintain such a structure. It is especially when civil liberties begin to be breached that certain obligations have to begin to be given back to the states.

    A government must be run by balance. The elected officials must adhere to the will of the people, the states must work for their local rights, and the citizens must hold their legislatures accountable. If any one of these areas begins to wan, a gross abuse of power will develop, either gradually, or immediatly.

  26. 26
    Ben Brooks

    I believe that different powers should be given to different levels of government. National and international affairs should be taken by the national government, and town & individual matters should be taken care of by the state government. Although the national gov’t can make laws concerning individuals, the shouldn’t be able to interfere with state affairs.

  27. 27
    Katie Fitzgerald

    If there were such a case where the individual states had all authority and there was no federal government, the United States would simply not survive. With any disagreement over what should be the rights of a state, the states would persue them in different directions; Each state would be interested in a completely separate goal then the next, resulted in a ununified U.S. This being said, individual states have some say and responsibilities in what their laws and regulations are, and the federal government should not have absolute power. Although the states are faced with their own situations and difficulties, the federal government should be taking on larger, international affairs. Seperate states are too weak to handle such problems on their own. What I mean is, the federal government should have authority over states’ rights, with also allowing states to handle (or maybe at most have a large say in) personal affairs. :)

  28. 28
    Selena Cassendra

    Alexander Hamilton sought a strong central government working in the benefits of commerce and industry. To him, making these measures positioned the federal government on the appropriate track to triumph, earning credit from other nations and developing groups of businessmen to support the national government. To start, he had devised a federal bank, sponsored the National Mint, and argued in favor of tariffs. A strong federal government is essential for the United States to be prosperous. Without a strong central power, the unification between the states would begin to degrade- triggering conflicts. Each state will have different laws and beliefs – each one going after individual success. What about foreign affairs? States should not be handling situations that may put the country in despair. Composing a strong central government was the veracious choice made, which put the United States on a firm and solid foundation. Too much individual power between the states roots numerous troubles the United States has been struggling to prevent.

  29. 29
    JWAL

    Hey Selena,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I think most would agree that a strong central government was/is vital to the national defense.

    At the same time, Hamilton’s plan appeared to have triggered some long term consequences. In your mind, are there any areas where it would be better for states to retain control?

  30. 30
    raghvendra

    I think that if the state govt. have equal power as union govt. then many states india will divde into many small countries

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