This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on August 5, 2015.
On Thursday, 17 people who would be President gather under the auspices of Fox News in two fora (they’re not true debates, but, that’s another story).
These candidates will try to look and sound presidential, responding to questions and delivering their soundbites. Appearing “presidential” today often means projecting forcefulness or presenting plans for federal action. But, under our Constitutional system, not acting—forgoing the use of vast federal powers—is more frequently the appropriate response for a President than is acting. This highlights an aspect of presidential leadership has been sorely lacking in recent years: a true understanding of federalism and its role in securing liberty for Americans.
Many elected officials understand the concept of checks and balances. At both the federal and state level, most legislators, chief executives, and judges understand that having three independent branches of government—the legislative, the executive, and the judicial—is a defense against a concentration of power, itself a needed protection for liberty.
As the title of The Federalist No. 51 (James Madison or Alexander Hamilton writing as Publius) suggested, “The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments.”
But America’s founders didn’t just leave checks and balances to the national government alone; they enlisted the states in the task as well. A complete understanding of federalism is rare in our time. Few know that we have a “compound republic” with defined powers at the national and state level. This is meant as a check and balance, just as much as having three separate and independent branches of government. From The Federalist No. 51:
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself…
…In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.
Of the 17 major candidates for the Republican nomination for President, nine of them have experience as governors. The temptation will be strong, even among current and former governors who should know better, to propose expansions of federal power at the expense of the states. For instance, in the arena of federal education policy or highway spending, the states have all the tools they need to tax, spend, and provide services. Why then is the federal government needed to tax (skimming some off the top for administrative expenses) and then send a portion of taxed dollars down to the states with myriad rules governing how federal money is to be spent in the classroom or on roads, bridges, buses and bike trails?
Increasingly, the federal government has been employed by advocates of a large and vigorous government as a great leveler, imposing anti-competitive rules favored by a few blue states on all states via whatever means available: if not by bills duly signed into law, then by executive order, regulatory rule, or federal court order.
Americans interested in liberty and the prosperity it fosters should listen closely on Thursday and in subsequent exchanges between the candidates in both major parties. The candidates best suited for the White House may be those who counsel Constitutional restraint; who understand that all political power does not rest in the presidency and who appreciate the vital and necessary role the states have in preserving liberty in our “compound republic.”
Chuck DeVore is Vice President of National Initiatives at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He was a California Assemblyman and is a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army Retired Reserve.