The premise behind most arguments about Obamacare, and other programs is that it's a "Federal" vs "State" rights issue.

I come from a corporate business background, and it seems to me that if enough states support a certain policy, if that policy is adopted at the federal level, it becomes "an economy of scale", and therefore cost less.

Most of the Republican proposals argue that government is too big, and in my line of thinking their argument reduces efficiency, and effectiveness.


Regardless of the particular policy at hand (unless it can be abstracted into a manageable partitionable concept), why should I care about most arguments about policy residing at the State vs Federal level?

I'm asking so I can make the most out of my time, listening to the arguments of both sides, and ignoring the theatrics that distract from policy


6 Answers 6


Practically, two main advantages to state level policies:

  • Not all states have the same basic conditions. In California, with a sizeable Hispanic minority, it may make sense printing government forms both in English and Spanish. In Alaska, maybe not so much. A Federal law would either ignore one of the realities, or add at least a complexity level (if worded like "States with more than X% of Spanish speaking population must provide government forms both in Spanish and English"), and complexity is very bad in laws and opens the way for a lot of headaches (how is the % calculated? how often? should it include illegal aliens? etc.)

  • Related to the last point, it gives citizens more investment in the government. A vote for the POTUS/Congress is one between 200.000.000 (aprox), a vote for any state legislature is way more representative.

  • Makes the lawmakers more invested. If Congress debates a law that affects, say, winemaking, probably congressmen from states with not wineries will not be invested in it, yet their vote will count. How would they vote? Following party lines, even if they do not understand what is at stake? Selling his vote if someone offers some "pork" to their states?

Against, there are:

  • the issue of "externalities" (or when one state bad legislation causes issues to people in other states). Maybe lawmakers in Texas want to get rid of pollution controls, because that will allow more industrial production and the employment and taxes will rise. But that polution will end in the neighbouring states and/or other countries, so even if Texans are willing to stand it it makes sense a Federal law imposing controls. In the gun control example, it can be said that lax controls in gun sales in a state allows people living in other states to purchase weapons they could not access to otherwise.

  • The need to facilitate people and goods movement. Different electrical plug model for different states measn that you cannot sell the same appliance across the states. A state level medicare, in which you will lose medical benefits if you move/travel to another state, is not that useful. An state social security fund, were you have to work 20 years in the same state to qualifiy, penalizes people moving to other states, etc.


There are different levels of this:

  1. The simplest answer is that when a policy is at the state level, people who don't like that policy can choose to live in a state which has a different policy. If someone strongly values ability to carry a concealed weapon, they are likely to choose to live in a state with CC law. If you want to get drunk a lot, you move away from Utah.

    When a policy is at federal level, you're forced to live with it even if you strongly oppose it and are majorly harmed by it.

    The locality of policies ensures that a slight majority cannot make life miserable for a large minority of population. E.g. if during some election, 55% of the country elected Democrats to the office, any policy at the Federal level will be forced down the throats of 45% of the country who voted against Democrats. If that policy is on a state level, people have an option to move to a state controlled by the party (and presumably, enacting policies) of their liking.

  2. On a more conceptual level, the idea of a strong federal government is contrary to how this country was founded. Federalist #45 is one of good sources of the arguments.

  3. On a more functional level, having multiple competing local policies ensures what any competition always promotes: that bad policies are compared to good policies in practice, and based on evidence the former can be rejected. A bad policy on Federal level cannot be rejected because it has no control to experiment with, and thus is much harder to empirically show it's not the best policy.

    This is one of the reasons we have - on a corporate level - antitrust law and general anti-monopolist sentiment.

  4. By the way, your assertion that magically, a national policy would be better than state policy based on some magical "an economy of scale", only has a chance to work if the subject is something that CAN be scaled economically; AND has large costs that are scalable.

    E.g., there is no space for economy of scale on drug prohibition policy. It costs basically the same to prohibit it federally as on state level, even if you try to use DEA enforcement costs as a yardstick.

    Of course, even if you can economize a specific policy on scale (e.g. negotiating medical costs visavi Obamacare, in theory), that still runs smack into the other downsides of having a federal policy, both #1 (you impose Obamacare on ~50% of the country that hates it by force); and #3 (if Obamacare is a bad policy, there's no way to easily tell because it's not like we have a duplicate USA that doesn't run Obamacare and serves as a control group for an experiment).

  • 3
    I was going to use drugs as an example for #1, but that's way too hairy given the current federal vs. state tag of war on the topic.
    – user4012
    Nov 12, 2015 at 3:58
  • Apropos nothing, Edmond Dantes was definitely NOT the "Strong Federal Power supporter" type of character :)
    – user4012
    Nov 12, 2015 at 4:00
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    @Avi actually I find the continuous references to "the Founding Fathers" and similar from people in the USA astonishing; they may have been the most brilliant people from their country in their time, but that was a lot of time ago. How can you use as a moral compass people who were mostly ok with slavery, would laugh at you if you told about not discriminating against women, etc. They were products of they era, and blindly referencing them is as wrong as blindly referencing say, Martin Luther (anti-semitic) or Aristotle (pro-slavery), or marrying children because John Smith did.
    – SJuan76
    Nov 12, 2015 at 8:32
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    @SJuan76 I'm not endorsing the views of the founders on this issue, Juan. In fact, I think they got the fundamental notions behind federalism backwards (states are more at risk of tyranny, not less risk than a national government). Rather, I simply think that the answers to this question should, in order to remove subjectivity or personal opinion, cite arguments that are widely respected.
    – Publius
    Nov 12, 2015 at 8:47
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    @SJuan76 An answer shouldn't argue in favor of states rights, or indeed against it. If that were the answer the question required, the question should be closed as "too opinion based". The question asked "Why should I care?"; an answer should present reasons a person might care, without passing judgment on those reasons. Making the argument would be passing judgment. Referencing it and noting that it is either foundational or widely respected is not.
    – Publius
    Nov 12, 2015 at 8:54

Some of the various moral theories provide different reasons that you should (or should not) care about federal or state's rights.


Aritotle's ethical theory says that a person should develop excellence in community affairs and philosophical reasoning. This is the highest (and most natural) good that a person can aspire to. To be the best that you can be, you should pay attention and think critically about political affairs.

So you should care about state and federal rights because it is an important political conflict in the American system, and a good person pays attention to that stuff.


Existential theory places a high value on authenticity - being whatever it is that you are. There is no intrinsic value to the state vs federal rights debate, however you are free to imbue it with meaning if you like. Kierkegaard would call this a "leap of faith" and Sartre would call it "radical freedom", but in either case it is up to you decide what is important to you and act accordingly.


Burke's theory of conservatism suggests that the government should be rooted in the historical and cultural values of its citizens. In America, we have a general tradition of state control over many issues. Governments which do not respect this tradition harm their citizens (Burke was fond of using the French revolution as an example).


Self-determination is the value placed on decision-making for one's self. State control provides more avenues for self-determination than does federal control, because there are considerably fewer people in a state than the nation (so you can have more control over the outcome).


Utilitarianism bases moral decisions on the benefits or costs that decision imposes on people. Under utilitarian theory, you should care about the state vs federal rights issue because the state and federal government will provide different costs (or benefits) to people.

Many of the other answers use this line of reasoning.

Social Contract

Social contract theory generally says that morality is governed by agreements. Fulfilling your agreement is always good, and breaking your agreement is (nearly) always bad. If you view the Constitution as an agreement between the states which outlines what the federal government may do, you should care about states' rights because the federal government is over-stepping its agreement (which is by definition bad).

  • I'm not downvoting, but there is too much name dropping and jargon for my taste.
    – Sjoerd
    Apr 27, 2017 at 23:39
  • 1
    @Sjoerd - That is part of backing up an answer appropriately. In a political theory question, important elements of an answer should be referenced to notable works and authors. In this case, there are a lot of names because is a broad answer drawing on many bodies of theory. Apr 27, 2017 at 23:50

Regardless of the particular policy at hand (unless it can be abstracted into a manageable partitionable concept), why should I care about most arguments about policy residing at the State vs Federal level?

Rationally speaking, some policies only work if everyone is doing them. Take, for example, CO2 emissions from gas turbines. If that stuff is outlawed in one state, the generators will just be moved to a neighboring state and the power exported back to the first state and nothing has been accomplished. This is because significant infrastructure exists to move electricity from point A to point B, and CO2 emission is equally harmful wherever it is done.

Other policies can be highly local, for example, health coverage could easily be done on a state or even county level without an easy way for the policies to be circumvented - sure, people can move to a different state/county but what counts as a policy in this case is the obligation residents have to pay in to the system and what their benefits are from it, so moving from state to state would not subvert the policies, it just changes the number of people subject to these policies.

Some argue that something should only be a federal policy if it could otherwise be circumvented, and there's certainly a point to be made there since all of the enumerated powers in the original Constitution have this property. On the other hand, Obamacare survived a constitutional challenge, and insurance has the property that it gets cheaper if everybody buys it so there's some justification that can be made.


it becomes "an economy of scale", and therefore cost less.

only if everything else is equal - and everything else is typically not equal: bureaucracy, political agenda, spending other people's money, ..., all means wasteful spending.

putting aside constitutional arguments, your logic can be easily shown force by extension: to maximize economy of scale, we could bind all of our income / spending together and everything will cost less.

that's the basic concept behind socialism / communism. and we have decades of experiments and billions of lives to show how poorly it panned out.


Sometimes the federal government tries to impose bad policies, and some states oppose it. Sometimes the federal government tries to impose good policies, and some states oppose it.

Centralized power is good if used well, for example to prevent rebels to block good proposals. Centralized power is bad if used wrong, for example to impose bad proposals.

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