To answer that simple question, we must know which spectrum? While many think in terms “left vs. right,” the concept is broad and usually viewed through the prism of the issues closest to one’s heart. Libertarians position political beliefs on a grid where one axis represents personal freedom and another represents economic freedom. Even then, our answer will vary if we evaluate protecting religious freedom or the right to life as opposed to our view on American involvement overseas. Issues don’t always fit so neatly.
While the Federalist philosophy addresses many policy positions, the common principle binding our ideas together is a balanced distribution of political power and the resulting effect on liberty.
Consider centralized state political power along a spectrum with anarchists on one extreme arguing for no government. Slightly less extreme are the anti-federalists. On the opposite extreme are internationalists intent on moving toward world government, and then the slightly less extreme nationalists. Federalists advocate a balance of power between government at different levels. On this spectrum, they are in the center.
The modern Democratic Party best represents the internationalist view. They seek to cede sovereignty and protections of our civil liberties to international entities such as the World Court, the United Nations, and restrictive multi-lateral agreements limiting our actions like the Paris Agreement. Some Democrats consider themselves “global citizens” first and promote incremental progress toward a world government. They advocate open national boundaries where anybody can enter, regardless of whether the immigrant helps, hurts, or poses a threat to the country.
The Republican Party best represents the nationalist view today. Despite lip service to federalism and state integrity, the national Republican Party consistently supports and facilitates greater centralization of power in the national government. From the prescription drug entitlement to education mandates (No Child Left Behind and Common Core) to discrimination mandates (Americans with Disabilities Act) to the creation of Homeland Security, the GOP helped nationalize education, healthcare, social welfare, and police powers. They took power specifically delegated to the states — either by bribery with grants or through outright seizure — putting their thumb on the scale in their favor.
Even with different endpoints in mind, the national Democratic-Republicans frequently share the near-term goals of supplanting state and local governance with national control. Both parties argue they need the power to “do good” for the masses. Inherent in their argument is their belief they know better how to manage your life than you do.
At the other end, anarchists and anti-federalists both find a home in the modern Libertarian Party. Prominent anarchists, like Darryl Perry, sought the Libertarian nomination for president. They seek to eliminate government, relying upon individuals to govern themselves. They represent only a tiny fraction in their own party. The anti-federalist libertarians are more numerous and more cautious. They sometimes discuss favorably the Constitution and federalism, but they support effectively erasing our national borders, international disengagement, and leaving a weak and ineffectual central government incapable of defending our nation from threats.
Federalists believe mankind is inherently flawed. Government is made up of flawed people. Given too much power, government becomes the main threat to life, liberty, and property. Given too little power, government is rendered incapable of protecting citizens, their property, or their civil liberties. Corruption and lawlessness will ultimately reign at either extreme of the spectrum.
How can we vest enough power in the government to protect us and yet prevent theses flawed government bureaucrats and officials from using the power we delegate them to become corrupt, steal our property, and abuse their authority?
Federalism is the key.
Most are familiar with the Lord Acton quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” They might also know the corollary from Senator Barry Goldwater, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything you have.”
Federalism divides authority among competing groups within different levels of government. The same proclivities of mankind whereby “power corrupts” are the same inclinations to set groups to jealously guard their authority and check the excesses of rival entities. By balancing the powers between the various branches of government and the several levels of government, authority is distributed, not concentrated. Their powers are limited and enumerated by the US Constitution and by state constitutions. Abuse is minimized and the temptation of corruption is checked by the high likelihood of being caught and stopped by peers.
Balanced federalism by itself is not a cure-all. Federalism is a critical structural component to guarantee liberty under the law. To function properly, equilibrium must be meticulously maintained. Accordingly, citizens must also perform their role in monitoring government and checking excesses — the calling of the Federalist Party.