One advantage of so many local and state (i.e., subnational) governments in the United States of America is often attached to freedom. When the Founding Fathers were thinking about how to organize the United States, they were worried about setting up a country that could slide into the type of...
One advantage of so many local and state (i.e., subnational) governments in the United States of America is often attached to freedom. When the Founding Fathers were thinking about how to organize the United States, they were worried about setting up a country that could slide into the type of tyranny and despotism that they associated with King George III and England.
The Founding Fathers did not want to supply one governing body with the absolute power to control all of the states. At the same time, they wanted the states to function with a degree of unity and coherence. While subnational governments can't do everything on their own (they can't declare war), they do possess the latitude to pass myriad laws and make their own choices when it comes to expenditures.
This freedom can also be interpreted as a disadvantage. The disparate state laws can create inequality and oppression that can then impact the overall country. Right now, Georgia is trying to pass legislation that restricts voting primarily for Black voters. Georgia’s impending voting law could change the outcome of the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election, which would then impact everyone in the United States.
Georgia is not the only state trying to restrict voting. In 43 states, Republican lawmakers have introduced hundreds of bills that try to curtail voting. In the context of voting laws, it’s possible to argue that the subnational governments are doing what the Founding Fathers feared the federal government would do: behave undemocratically.
The advantages of having so many subnational governments in the US include greater autonomy for different regions of the country. In fact, this system of governance was put into place from the start in acknowledgment of the very different cultures that had developed over the years in the different colonies. Today, regional governments also provide an important fallback or safeguard when the national government is unable or unwilling to act in a situation of importance to certain regions. State governors, for instance, took on an oversized role in COVID-19 management when the Trump administration stood back, managing the crisis in ways that responded to their constituents' perceived needs. Likewise, in the absence of a rise in the national minimum wage, states and even cities have had the flexibility to raise wages on their own.
However, as the COVID-19 crisis showed, one disadvantage to so many smaller governments is the fact that they compete with each other for limited supplies, driving costs to the taxpayer up. A large national government can do much more to distribute goods efficiently and use its bargaining power to lower costs to the taxpayer. Lack of equity is a chief problem, too, when a country consists of patchwork of governments. Laws can vary confusingly from state to state. On an even smaller regional scale, local jurisdictions can vary radically in wealth, meaning, for instance, that some school districts are terribly underfunded, while others are awash in cash. The federal government often does what it can to alleviate this, but it cannot completely solve the problem.
When answering this question, you should consider the two main sub-national levels of government: state and municipal. (There are also county and township levels of government, but these tend to be much less consequential.) When the Constitution of the United States was being drafted, there was a debate as to where power would reside in government. The federalist system that we have, with its various levels of government, is the result of this debate.
One advantage of having lower levels of government is that it makes it easier for citizens to participate. The national government is huge and complex, and competing with all the other citizens of the country to have your voice heard and make an impact would be difficult. However, directly contacting members of the local and even state governments is much easier. Furthermore, local level governments can better serve the particular needs of their citizens because they do not also need to balance the needs of distant and different parts of the country. Another advantage is that people are free to reside in a municipality or state whose government and laws better aligns with their values and needs. It is much easier to move from town to town and state to state than to move to another country.
When considering the disadvantages of having lower levels of government, you should think about how this arrangement makes things more complex. When laws are passed on the federal level, they often have to be disseminated down through the lower levels of government to be put into action. Sometimes states and municipalities do not comply with these laws and the matters get tied up in the courts for years. There can also be inequality between states and municipalities where wealth or certain liberties are available in one place but not the other. Also, since laws can vary from place to place, it makes it difficult for one place to enforce its laws when their neighbor may not have the same laws. Consider Chicago, which has strict gun laws but also high levels of gun violence. This is the case because people can cross state lines to Indiana and purchase guns that are legal there and bring them back to Chicago, thus getting around the local law.