Is Federalism the Solution?

We thank Dalibor Rohac for his insightful commentary. He is correct in noting that mass killings can result both from the actions of large and powerful states like Maoist China or Stalin’s Soviet Union, and in the absence of a state.

Dalibor’s main substantive point concerns the importance of federalism. The promise of federalism—as outlined in Barry Weingast’s important work on market-preserving federalism—is that a federal state can obtain the best features of both centralization and decentralization. A federal state benefits from economies of scale and a large internal market while benefiting from decentralization at a local level.

We do not disagree with Dalibor on the prospective benefits of federalism. One message of Persecution and Toleration is that the historical process through which state formation takes place matters. In Britain and France the state building process resulted in highly centralized nation states. In Germany this process did not take place. When Germany was finally unified in the 19th century it was as a federal state. As a large part of our argument is focused on the rise of modern states in Western Europe, we did not dwell on federalism at any great length.

Moreover, the extent to which federalism will safeguard personal, social, and economic liberties depends on the character of the federal state. The Holy Roman Empire was a federal structure, but it did not safeguard individual liberties. In particular, our reading of the evidence suggests that it is critical that the federal state is market-preserving and that it enforces general rules.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Religion was central to premodern states. So why isn’t it central to the story of how modernity arose? Mark Koyama and Noel D. Johnson argue that it should be. They argue that states with greater capacity — that is, stronger states — could enforce social rules that were neither personal nor based on religious identity, but that could at least potentially treat all religious believers fairly. Religion, they write, is a cheap source of legitimacy for weak states. Strong states can paradoxically offer more freedom, they argue.

Response Essays

  • James A. Robinson looks at how European states enjoy, or suffer from, a unique relationship to monotheistic religion. The early modern English state did not distance itself from religion as a source of state authority. Rather, it tried to make religion more tractable — while keeping the glow of its authority. Robinson extends his argument with examples from Saudi Arabia and China.

  • Hans Eicholz characterizes Johnson and Koyama’s theory of religious liberty as stadial — and thus as similar to theories expounded by Hegel and Marx. He finds it not so immediately objectionable, however, and he subjects it to a careful critique. He argues that it was not stateness per se that caused toleration to emerge, but rather competition among states, and among the institutions of state power, that brought them to seek the tangible advantages of legal toleration.

  • Dalibor Rohac agrees with the claim that stronger states and more effective protections of individual liberty tend to be found together. While state capacity can often be used for evil, the lack of state capacity is not the option to choose in preference to it. Rather we should understand federalism as an important missing piece of the puzzle because it gives individuals multiple levels of authority to resort to in the pursuit of justice.