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How strong should the national government be?



Quick answer:

A national government should be strong enough to coordinate effective and unified national responses to events while offering regional governments the autonomy and flexibility to nuance their own responses to meet local needs.

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In a US context, this is a perennial question and contest, with push and pull between states' rights and federalism.

If we pull the camera back, however, to a more generalized consideration of the issue, a strong national government is important to growing a powerful state, but taken to an extreme, can lead to revolution. An important example is France in the late seventeenth century up through 1789. Louis XIV so strengthened the national government and so weakened the system of local government that for more than a hundred years, he and and monarchial successors were able to rule without calling a parliament or getting any input from all put a small group of advisors.

When Louis XVI's debt situation finally got so bad in 1789 that he did convene an assembly, events went out of control: for far too long, the central power had been cut off from the needs of the people, both middle and lower class, and had bottlenecked change so completely that when the possibility came, it led not to releasing steam but to a massive explosion.

At the same time as an overly power central government is a problem, a weak national government can't control its outlying districts, leading to constant challenges to its authority and an inability to lead needed change and reform. Tudor England, for example, emerged from the War of the Roses in a weakened state with feudal lords from different parts of the country often able to run their estates as if they were their own mini countries.

Whatever complaints we might have about Henry VIII on the domestic front, he is widely praised for establishing the beginnings of modern bureaucracy and an effective centralized government in England that gave the nation the tax revenues it needed to thrive. However, James I and Charles I are widely criticized for over-centralizing power in the monarchy, leading to a civil war.

In recent decades, we have seen the strengths and weaknesses of a US governing system that has tried to walk a line between strong federalism—and the role of the national government increased massively in the twentieth century, a necessity for a modern nation state—and protecting states' autonomy. Both are necessary for a robust but flexible system of governance in which both national interests and regional and local needs are addressed. In sum, a national government should be strong enough to coordinate an effective national response to a crisis or to stave off such a crisis while allowing regions enough flexibility to respond in nuanced ways to local needs and circumstances.

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This question has been asked and debated since the inception of this country, in the late eighteenth century. Let's examine some of the historical background to this question, contemporary issues, and possible future trends.

The Articles of Confederation served as the first constitution of America. It survived for only a few years, because it gave too much power to the states. The weak central government had only a Congress (not an executive branch) and very little real authority. It could not raise taxes or regulate commerce.

The Founding Fathers met at Philadelphia because the first constitution failed. They brought their knowledge together to produce the US Constitution (1787). They knew that they had to strengthen the weak national government, but they still wanted to leave a great deal of authority to the states.

Even though the Constitution is a splendid document, the proper balance between national and state authority has often been open to interpretation. During the presidency of George Washington (1789–1797), there was a virulent debate between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton wanted a powerful national government, while Jefferson preferred to grant more powers to the states.

The Civil War (1861–1865) strengthened central government. This bloody conflict determined that a state could not leave the nation and that the national government was paramount.

In spite of this, the Gilded Age (1877–1899) showed that the national government needed to be more active in regulation. During this period, the mighty railroads and avaricious executives took advantage of farmers, laborers, and other segments of society. State and local governments were often corrupt and ineffective during the Gilded Age.

In the twentieth century, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and other presidents made the central government more powerful in order to regulate the economy, help the impoverished, and defend the nation from foreign enemies.

Today, states still have considerable powers. Online gambling, marijuana, and minimum wage laws vary greatly from state to state. Education is largely a local or state matter. In my view, many of these issues—such as online gambling—should be dealt with on a national level.

In the future, the national government is likely to become more powerful. This seems inevitable because the Internet and transportation have made the country feel like a much smaller place.

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There are varying viewpoints about how strong the national government should be. Just about everybody agrees the government needs to have enough power to run our country, to defend our country, and to keep order in our country. Before the Constitution was written, these were real issues with our government under the plan created by the Articles of Confederation.

The real debate starts with how much more should the government be able to do. For those who have a distrust of business owners, they would want the government to have a lot of power to control our economy and our businesses. They would say that businesses would do what is best for them. This may not be what is best for the workers, the environment, or the community. These people feel that without government programs to help the needy, the needy will suffer and be mostly ignored. These people believe that without many rules and regulations, the rich will get richer while the poor will get poorer. They also believe the government should work to prevent political corruption.

Those who distrust the government say it has too much power. These people believe that the government interferes too much in our lives and reduces our freedoms. They believe that too many government rules and regulations hinder economic growth and business investment. They believe too many government bureaucrats don’t use common sense and impose too many restrictions on our people. These people want to limit the government’s power to doing only what the government absolutely has to do in order to run our country. They will support the government having a military, protecting our freedoms, and creating economic opportunities. They want the government to encourage people to invest and to help our economy grow. This usually means supporting a lower tax rate. They won’t support a lot of government social programs.

The debate about the role of government is a fierce one today. It is a key issue dividing the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Now that I have shared the thoughts of both sides of the issue, where do you stand on this topic?

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