This past Saturday morning, I had the privilege of speaking at Community Brainstorming, a weekly forum held at St. Matthew's AME Church. The topic was the Supreme Court's recent decision in Shelby County. Although Shelby County is often simply described as "gutting" the Voting Rights Act, it actually struck down the 48 year old formula by which certain states are required to seek the permission of the federal Department of Justice before they can implement any change in their election laws. Denying or abridging the right to vote on the basis of race continues to be prohibited by the Voting Rights Act and the United States Constitution.
I don't want to repeat the arguments for and against the result in Shelby County. Wisconsin was never one of these pre-clearance jurisdictions. I want to make a larger point about federalism.
In the course of our debate, Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director of the ACLU, asked why we should be worried about the rights of the states as opposed to the rights of the people. I think that's the wrong question; what our President would call a "false choice."
Although we so often lose track of the point, our system of federalism was conceived as check on governmental abuses. In other words, it is one of the ways in which the liberties of the people are protected. This happens in two ways. First, it is far easier for any one of us to exert influence on the state and local level than to have an impact on what happens in Washington DC. This is particularly true today, when much of what the federal government does is the product of administrative regulations and fiat. Under the Voting Rights Act regime of preclearance, it is not the President or Congress, but lawyers in the Department of Justice who hold up laws enacted by the legislatures and executives of covered states.
But even more importantly, a system of federalism disciplines government. The ability of, say, Illinois to overreach is limited by the ability of its citizens to move to Wisconsin. The option to vote with one's feet can protect liberty just as much as the ability to vote for politicians.
Of course, there is a proper role for the national government. That is why we have federalism and not confederation. But the presumption that Washington knows better - or even that Washington will always be friendlier to racial minorities - is not self evidently true.
I understand that, if you believe that the government ought to heavily tax and regulate a minority of the population - say those that are wealthier or own businesses - then this view will be less appealing to you. You will worry that the people who you want to take from money from or businesses that you want to control will leave. This may be why I suspect my view of federalism was not shared by many of the Brainstorming attendees.
But it seems to me that, if you believe that your policies are right, if you think that "the blue model" leads to Seattle and not Detroit (and "red model" produces, say, rural Mississippi and not Dallas), then you ought to have the courage of your convictions.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.