Federalism: Statement of Principles

Every now and then, it’s worth revisiting certain principles of good government—like federalism. A good place to start is with President Ronald Reagan’s Statement of Principles, issued on April 8, 1986, and reproduced on the opposite page. Reagan’s principles are relevant to many policy problems. One such is education policy, a current topic of national debate.

Discussions of education policy typically focus on things like budgets, testing, accreditation, and standards. Today policymakers are considering expanding the federal No Child Left Behind program so that it encompasses high school as well as elementary school children. Further, some are even talking about NCLB as a model for a higher education testing regime.

Reagan’s principles direct us to a different set of questions. Is the federal government uniquely competent to set education policy for every state? Could state experimentation help us find better solutions for increasing educational achievement? Is there really only one best education policy that fits every state?

At page 12, Eugene Hickok notes that federalizing education policy threatens to undermine the important role of responsible citizenship. If the federal government intrudes where state policy fails, then why should citizens bother holding their state governments accountable for performance?

At page 15, George Leef shows that higher education is plagued, not be a lack of government action, but by overly generous subsidies from both the states and the federal government. As we go to press, the U.S. Congress is considering expanding student loans and creating a federal testing regime. How are the states to fix bad policies when the federal government is moving in exactly the wrong direction? —Editor


April 8, 1986

I. Federalism is rooted in the knowledge that our political liberties are best assured by limiting the size and scope of the national government.

II. The people of the States created the national government when they delegated to it those enumerated governmental powers relating to matters beyond the competence of the individual States. All other sovereign powers, save those expressly prohibited the States by the Constitution, are reserved to the States or to the people.

III. The constitutional relationship among sovereign governments, State and national, is formalized in and protected by the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution.

IV. The people of the States are free, subject only to restrictions in the Constitution itself or in constitutionally authorized Acts of Congress, to define the moral, political, and legal character of their lives.

V. In most areas of governmental concern, State and local governments uniquely possess the constitutional authority, the resources, and the competence to discern the sentiments of the people and to govern accordingly. In Jefferson’s words, the States are “the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies.”

VI. The nature of our constitutional system encourages a healthy diversity in the public policies adopted by the people of the several States according to their own conditions, needs, and desires. In the search for enlightened public policy, individual States and communities are free to experiment with a variety of approaches to public issues.

VII. Acts of the national government—whether legislative, executive, or judicial in nature— that exceed the enumerated powers of that government under the Constitution violate the principle of federalism established by the Founders.

VIII. Polices of the national government should recognize the responsibility of—and should encourage opportunities for—individuals, families, neighborhoods, local governments and private associations to achieve their personal, social, and economic objectives through cooperative effort.

IX. In the absence of clear constitutional or statutory authority, the presumption of sovereignty should rest with the individual States. Uncertainties regarding the legitimate authority of the national government should be resolved against regulation at the national level.

X. These principles should guide the departments and agencies of the national government in the formulation and implementation of policies and regulations.