Devolution and Preemption

Date: 25 Nov 2008 | posted in: governance | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

What level of government should exercise what kinds of authority? That question has been vigorously debated throughout U.S. history. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution itself represented a radical departure from the nation’s original governance structure under the Articles of Confederation from 1776 to 1789. The Constitution established the supremacy of the federal government vis-a-vis the states, and political power has increasingly been centralized in Washington. The Civil War cemented this supremacy. By the turn of the 20th century, the Courts had interpreted the Constitution as giving states virtually unlimited power vis-a-vis their cities and counties.

In the early 20th century the municipal home rule movement gained modest autonomy for local governments. Since the late 20th century there has been a substantial move to devolve authority from Washington to state capitols. At the same time, however, Washington increasingly preempts state authority and states increasingly preempt local authority. In the 1990s a new factor was added as free trade agreements began to undermine national authority as well.

The strongest argument in favor of local control is that government works best and is most legitimate when it is most intimately connected with its citizens. The strongest arguments against local control are that it fragments decisionmaking, burdens commerce, and often leads to parochialism and an erosion of civil liberties.

As befits the complex nature of the issue, this section is different from the other parts of the New Rules. It offers insights into the many dimensions of the devolution-preemption debate and discusses initiatives that devolve authority to communities while preserving the rights of minorities.

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