Advantages and Disadvantages of Federalism


Among the merits of federalism are that it promotes policy innovation and political participation and accommodates diversity of opinion. On the subject of policy innovation, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed in 1932 that “a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262 (1932). What Brandeis meant was that states could harness their constitutional authority to engage in policy innovations that might eventually be diffused to other states and at the national level. For example, a number of New Deal breakthroughs, such as child labor laws, were inspired by state policies. Prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, several states had already granted women the right to vote. California has led the way in establishing standards for fuel emissions and other environmental policies (Figure). Recently, the health insurance exchanges run by Connecticut, Kentucky, Rhode Island, and Washington have served as models for other states seeking to improve the performance of their exchanges.Christine Vestal and Michael Ollove, “Why some state-run health exchanges worked,” USA Today, 10 December 2013.

Image A shows the Golden Gate bridge with a moderate amount of traffic. Image B shows a sticker on a car that states “Access OK California clean air vehicle”. The sticker has the California state seal.
The California Air Resources Board was established in 1967, before passage of the federal Clean Air Act. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has adopted California emissions standards nationally, starting with the 2016 model year, and is working with California regulators to establish stricter national emissions standards going forward.(credit a: modification of work by Antti T. Nissinen; credit b: modification of work by Marcin Wichary)

Another advantage of federalism is that because our federal system creates two levels of government with the capacity to take action, failure to attain a desired policy goal at one level can be offset by successfully securing the support of elected representatives at another level. Thus, individuals, groups, and social movements are encouraged to actively participate and help shape public policy.

Federalism and Political Office

Thinking of running for elected office? Well, you have several options. As Table shows, there are a total of 510,682 elected offices at the federal, state, and local levels. Elected representatives in municipal and township governments account for a little more than half the total number of elected officials in the United States. Political careers rarely start at the national level. In fact, a very small share of politicians at the subnational level transition to the national stage as representatives, senators, vice presidents, or presidents.

Elected Officials at the Federal, State, and Local Levels
Number of Elective Bodies Number of Elected Officials
Federal Government 1
Executive branch 2
U.S. Senate 100
U.S. House of Representatives 435
State Government 50
State legislatures 7,382
Statewide offices 1,036
State boards 1,331
Local Government
County governments 3,034 58,818
Municipal governments 19,429 135,531
Town governments 16,504 126,958
School districts 13,506 95,000
Special districts 35,052 84,089
Total 87,576 510,682
This table lists the number of elected bodies and elected officials at the federal, state, and local levels.

If you are interested in serving the public as an elected official, there are more opportunities to do so at the local and state levels than at the national level. As an added incentive for setting your sights at the subnational stage, consider the following. Whereas only 28 percent of U.S. adults trusted Congress in 2014, about 62 percent trusted their state governments and 72 percent had confidence in their local governments.Justin McCarthy. 2014. “Americans Still Trust Local Government More Than State,” September 22. (June 24, 2015).

If you ran for public office, what problems would you most want to solve? What level of government would best enable you to solve them, and why?

The system of checks and balances in our political system often prevents the federal government from imposing uniform policies across the country. As a result, states and local communities have the latitude to address policy issues based on the specific needs and interests of their citizens. The diversity of public viewpoints across states is manifested by differences in the way states handle access to abortion, distribution of alcohol, gun control, and social welfare benefits, for example.