Worldview Lessons from a Pandemic: Federalism and Subsidiarity

July 25, 2020   8:48 am

We are now 4 solid months into America’s reaction to COVID-19. Early on, the focus was on a national response to a pandemic that affected New York and Washington State most acutely; ventliators, masks, and all sorts of personal protective equipment were in short supply (or so we were told), and it was the Federal government’s job to get the states these vitally important supplies. Many people clamored for a national lockdown order to keep the virus from spreading; never mind that a) the Federal government does not have that power, and b) the same people clamoring for heavy-handed action from Washington, D.C. were the same people who constantly told us that the current occupant is just waiting for his chance to become a dictator.

The national order never came, and the reason why leads us to our first term; if you read the linked article above, you saw David call it “federalism at work.” The word “federalsim” can be a bit confusing, as we use Federal government and national government (or U.S. government) synonymously; however, “federalism” is the opposite of a centralized government. Federalism pushes as much responsibility and power as possible to the lowest level possible, the idea being that government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is best done by people in close proximity to one another. Our Federal government gets that name because it is a federation of the “several states” (to use the term from the Constitution) designed to deal with national-level issues.

How does federalism help us with our pandemic response? Easy - the states are in control of their responses, and can ask for help from the Federal government if they need it. We have seen this as the various states have begun their reopening procedures. Some have been aggressive, and ended up having to pull back; other states have been as aggressive, and have not seen as many issues. Some states are opening more cautiously - and, again, some are fine, but some are seeing cases spike in spite of that. Taken in isolation, this demonstrates that there is no one right answer for the nation at large. As we head into fall, states, cities, and school districts are trying to decide what school will look like; the one thing we can say for certain is that there will not be 50-state uniformity in these plans.

Back in the 1930s, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis voiced a concept that is now paraphrased “The states are laboratories of democracy.” The term “laboratory” is interesting, in light of the pandemic; they’re now serving as laboratories for more than just democracy! Different states will try different things, with different results. As a nation, our job will be to determine if successes could replicated at a larger scale; not everything that works in one place will work everywhere, and as programs grow, their efficiency often wanes. Federalism gives us a structure where we can have these public policy debates, realizing that we do not have to come up with a national answer. (I realize that I’m writing this in an election year; it can be tough to find candidates who say “Here’s what I’m going to stop having the Federal government do ‘for’ you,” but you can find them if you try.)

The other principle I want to highlight is known as subsidiarity. That link will give you lots of history behind the word as a civil, political, and social concept; but, the quick version is the idea that issues are best handled at the lowest level possible, and the level that handles it is also responsible for it. Subsidiarity begins with self, and works outward to family / home, church / school, city / county / state, etc. A piece of trash on your kitchen floor is likely not a county issue; a missing guardrail on a dangerous curve is likely not something for your church to fix; and funding prisons is not likely the sole responsibility of your family. If you’re thinking that it sounds a lot like federalism, you’d be right; federalism is subsidiarity in government.

Properly applying subsidiarity allows us to see positive changes in our communities. Politicians are going to politic; we can’t control that. However, we can make sure that we are not becoming careless spreaders of disease. We, along with our families, can make food, do chores, or otherwise care for someone who needs it. Our churches and civic organizations are a great level for community-oriented help, and often serve as a way to get people who need help with those who can provide it. As each organization’s focus gets wider, they are going to be the most productive if they can stay focused at that level. If they are having to do things that require more detail, they will be bogged down; if they are responsible for things above their level, they will not be able to do their actual mission.

A lot of the political anger overs masks vs. no masks, supplies, support, etc. can be seen as a failure of subsidiarity. Paul Harvey, the oustanding radio announcer, wrote “Government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have” (though this has widely been misattributed to Thomas Jefferson). The Federal government is the not the appropriate level for opening and closing decisions; that is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are precisely that - guidelines. Wyoming is going to have different needs than Florida; and, within Wyoming, Laramie and Cheyenne may need a different focus than Moorcroft or Hyattville. Pushing these decisions up too high is asking for those decisions to be poor and/or insufficient.

This isn’t to say that the Federal government does not have a role to play; through laws and programs, it has stockpiles of emergency supplies, and it has the ability to shift a large amount of money around (relatively) quickly. This can help those who need it; yet, even then, our culture is such that those who don’t need the help will raise a stink about those who do need it actually getting it. We also saw that Paycheck Protection Program funds went to many entities that are most certainly not small businesses; this, too, can be seen as a failure of subsidiarity, as these companies represented themselves as (at least) a level below what they actually were.

There really is no grand conclusion here. Just as no government can blink and make a million tests appear, I cannot sit here behind my keyboard and prescribe how all this gets better. What I can do, though, is encourage each of us to embrace and employ the principles of federalism and subsidiarity as our best chance of getting the best results for the largest number of people. Insisting on a centralized response is insisting on a lackluster, inept response - no matter who is in the White House.


p.s. This was planned to be the 3rd installment of this series from the time I wrote part 1, which I expected to have done within 2 weeks. But, given the emphasis of that post, the timing of this just proves the assertion I made in that first post - we are not in control.

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