On Thursday I spoke at a panel at the Federalist Society’s National Convention entitled: Is Everyone for Federalism Now? The title is a backhanded tribute to the President. Finally, he is bringing us together, because he has caused the liberal resistance to Trump to appreciate federalism—a cornerstone of conservative thinking about constitution! But that is actually the shallower reason for the renewed interest in possible cross- ideological agreement on America’s most famous practical contribution to governance. The deeper reason is that a whole new school of law professors has embraced federalism under the new name of “national federalism.” Two of its most distinguished adherents, Heather Gerken and Abbe Gluck, were on this panel.
Count me a skeptic, however, about the prospect of any enduring alliance. To be sure, there may be tactical and opportunistic use of federalism by those who oppose the administration: that is the nature of politics particularly in Washington where for many politicians the meaning of the Constitution changes depending on whether they are in power. And there may be a few actual areas of rapprochement: it is conceivable, for instance, that some liberals may join conservatives in opposing commandeering of state officials.
But in general there will be no intellectual convergence because the right and left’s understanding of federalism—its content, origins and purposes—is very different. The right believes that federalism derives from a text of the Constitution that limits the power of the federal government, giving different responsibilities to federal and state officials. The purpose of this distribution of power is ultimately to protect individual liberty from government.
In contrast, progressives who promote federalism support a federalism that promotes activist government and exists largely at its sufferance—almost the opposite of constitutional federalism.
As I thought more about my post yesterday (that discussed views that recognize tradeoffs and those that do not), I realized that it related to an excellent book by Thomas Sowell. His book, A Conflict of Visions, discusses two visions of the world that has some relationship to the two that David Sloan Wilson discusses. Sowell labels his two visions the Constrained and Unconstrained Visions. Charles Murrays describes the two visions as follows:
The Left holds an unconstrained vision: Given the right political and economic arrangements, human beings can be improved, even perfected. Success is defined by what people have the potential of becoming, not by people as they are. The Right holds a constrained vision: People come to society with innate characteristics that cannot be reshaped and must instead be accommodated. Success in political and economic policy must be defined in light of those innate characteristics.
Clearly, the constrained and unconstrained visions resemble the visions that recognize tradeoff and those that do not. Like the visions that recognize tradeoffs, the constrained visions holds that we cannot have a perfect world – that there are inherent limits on our ability to improve things.