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Why state regulation is better than federal regulation

In response to my condemnation of the insane requirement by Obamacare that restaurants and take-out pizza delivery services publicly post on their menus the calorie count for every item, including a calorie count for each of the literally thousands of topping variations for pizzas, regular reader Patrick Ritchie asked me, “What level of super market labeling would you support?”

I replied, “I think the federal government has no business requiring any labeling at all. This is a state matter, pure and simple, both for practical and Constitutional reasons.”

He responded, “Which practical reasons? I’m genuinely curious. What makes a state regulation inherently better than a federal one?”

My response to this last question was quite long, and after reading it Patrick suggested I elevate the comment into a full headlined post. I have decided to do so. Here is what I wrote, edited slightly for clarity:

The American federalist system is not an anarchy, it is a system founded specifically on government, but of a rational and complex nature. And the heart of that rational and complex system is local control, for both practical and Constitutional reasons.

First the Constitutional reasons. You cannot have freedom without law and rules. However, if you allow law to run wild you cannot have freedom. The Founding Fathers understood this deeply. The solution to this contradictory reality that they came up with was to give the greatest flexibility and power to the local governments, slightly less to the states, and then even less to the federal government. In fact, the Constitution itself is a negative document, whereby it outlines very specifically the few powers the federal government shall have, and then clearly states that all other powers not so defined are reserved to the states and the people.

This is the Constitutional reason why the federal government should not be requiring labeling on food products. It isn’t its right or power, according to law. It is fundamentally unconstitutional.

Then there is the practical reason, which is also why the Founding Fathers designed this system this way. They understood that it would be impractical in a large nation for all regulation to be managed from the central government. Better to leave the more mundane and detailed legalities to local and state governments, especially since these local and state governments are best placed to understand the problems themselves, being close to them. Central governments are too big, too distant, too unwieldy, to handle local regulatory issues.

Also, local and state governments, being numerous and small, can be more flexible. They can try different things, then compare their efforts and, far more easily than a big centralized government, adapt and adjust. Having the federal government do it means you only get one choice, which will be very difficult to change because of that government’s huge size and inertia.

Finally, there is the moral reason for keeping this regulatory power out of the hands of a big centralized government. Distant from the people it governs, it is too easy for a federal government to become power-hungry, greedy, and corrupt. Eventually its interests supersede those of its citizens. It acts for its own interests and power. It becomes oppressive. The law runs wild and freedom dies.

Such oppression, while possible in state and local governments, is far more difficult in those governments to maintain or impose. And even if they do become oppressive and corrupt, the citizens still have the freedom to move. They can flee a failed local government and move to where government and society is more rationally maintained. (In fact, that is exactly what has been happening for the past forty years, with the big urban cities, most badly managed and highly taxed, seeing their populations dwindle as their citizens fled to greener pastures.)

However, if a centralized federal government becomes corrupt or oppressive, there is no place for you to flee. And because of its huge size and power, it is far more difficult to modify or reform it. It simply grows and grows, and eventually eats itself and everyone else.

Which sadly, appears to be happening.


Conscious Choice cover

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  • JGL

    Beautifully layed out using the wisdom and logic of the founders.

    As this plays out it will become apparent how right they were related to human beings, goverance and power.

    Lets see if their counter balances to power are able to hold our country together and survive mans nature, this will

    be their ultimate test.

  • Patrick Ritchie

    Great post ;)

    Although important, it is easy to identify problems in our society. I believe it is even more important to occasionally step back and layout a path to solving the problem.

    When talking to friends, many of them on left, we have rarely disagreed about the problems themselves. Very few people will openly endorse corruption or pork, even when they are benefitting by it. But almost everyone wants a system that provides the best possible education for their kids, affordable healthcare good jobs etc…

    A logical reaction is to think that someone more knowledgeable about the specifics should be working to solve these problems and big government is often seen as the avenue to enable this. If we can’t clearly state why this is a bad idea and more importantly provide an alternate solution we are never going to win the argument.

  • Julie Henderson


    So I found this post when I googled “who does it better, State for Federal Government.” I am wondering if our government does not need an evolution so to speak.

    Your article has helped me to think that we do need an evolution. While it can be worrisome that the Federal Government could become corrupt with so much power, our beautiful system has so many checks and balances that this is not a very likely outcome.

    However, what i read is if a person is living in a local system that they disagree with, the resolution is that they can move away if they don’t like? That doesn’t sit well with me for some reason. Seems like a sad kind of unrooted life :( Of course that is unless someone enjoys moving all the time :)

    I am voting for programs to be in place for benefits, protections and well-being of the citizens of this country. Thank you, this article is helping in my research of these powers between local, state and federal.

    If you think about it, in a company that you work for, it is not the workers who have the most power, right? It is the CEO, the President the executive director, whoever is highest in charge (=Federal), then the managers/supervisors (=State) and then the workers. If the CEO is smart, they are going to work along with the State and Locals in order to make sure they are in touch with and gaining the most connection and information from those levels to operate the best.

    Thank you for this discussion _()_
    Julie Henderson

  • wayne

    Interesting take.

    I would however put forth— that’s not exactly the way our “government” was set up. The separate and sovereign States, caused the Federal government into existence. (We don’t work for the Feds, they work for us.)
    Our whole system is designed to push decision making & diffuse power, down to the smallest political subdivision that can realistically handle the governance required by the people. None of this was designed for efficiency per se, it was designed to disperse power among competing institution’s.

  • Julie: Just remember that the fundamental reason for this complicated American governmental system was to protect freedom. Freedom must rule. Any laws we pass must always keep that in mind, since that approach above all has shown that it is the best way to promote prosperity and wealth.

  • Alex

    @ Mr. Zimmerman: Freedom of the individual can be realized only in a more or less homogenous society, a situation which existed in USA until the sixties, but is loosed step by step at present. Diversity in ethnicity and culture – in a single country – is not a strength, it is just the opposite. A fact, which US population now has to learn by the hard way, by the reality.

  • Alex: The US has always been an incredibly diverse mixture of people from many different cultures. What has changed is that in the past we focused on what each individual could accomplish, freely. Today, we focus instead on their race, ethnicity, national background, none of which matters and only encourages bigotry.

    In a free society, it doesn’t if people are different. What matters is what they do to succeed, within that diverse society.

  • wayne

    I (sorta) get that sentiment, but would argue it’s a “European thing,” in large measure, and would insist;
    What historically made the United States “diverse,” was the whole melting-pot concept.
    “E pluribus Unum.”
    (I might be able to become a legal citizen of France for example, but I would never be considered “French.” A French citizen could however come to America and become an “American,” as long as he adopted our “American Ways.”)

    Immigration is not inherently bad per se, but it must be accompanied by integration into the larger community that is the United States. (and the first order of business is: “you don’t break into our Country and expect us to keep you.”)

    We are not a “salad,” we’re a “stew,” and that doesn’t depend exclusively upon a homogeneous ethnic make-up, it depends more upon an allegiance to the homogeneous concepts & culture of “being-an-American, or becoming-an-American.”

    The left however, has almost completely subverted what it means in practice, to “be an American.”

    “People” are the same everywhere, it’s our (historically organized) post Enlightenment, Economic & Political System, that has shown to be superior to all other systems in practice.

    As well– I fully empathize with European countries that have historically been more homogeneous ethically— you folks are even less prepared to deal with massive unchecked indiscriminate immigration, than we are, and it’s tearing us apart.

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