Today’s federalist nations share the business of government differently between central and local levels (e.g., The U.S., Canada, Australia). Why not follow the template of the Antonine Dynasty of the Roman Empire (96–192)? In that very successful reign the central government was responsible for defense, common currency and foreign affairs. States were responsible for everything else. Religion, the arts, business, morals, infrastructure and all other government business were financed and administered at the state level. This is an historical simplification, obviously, but the reach of Roman central government was much reduced over what is common in all modern federalist nations.
What has changed in 2,000 years to justify the vast expansion of the central government’s share?
What has changed in 2,000 years to justify the vast expansion of the central government’s role? Not much, perhaps a half dozen innovations. Examples include:
- Greater demand for protection of individual liberties. We care, as a nation, for the liberty of the individual as impinged upon by national or state governments. Or even by private individuals / corporations. So we put in place many layers of organizational and bureaucratic protection: separation of powers, appeals courts, mechanisms for oversight, multiple levels of police enforcement, antitrust legislation, etc. The federal government acts as a separate sovereign state with a mandate to protect the liberties of individuals within its member states.
- Greater recognition of economic strength as crucial to military strength. Wars are won by the side with the technology and the economic depth to withstand wars of attrition. You must grow the overall national economy, hence the need for centralized attention to patent protection, robust research capabilities, open markets, stimulation of national economic productivity, etc. Common defense requires common economic prosperity.
- Increased incidents of rush-to-the-bottom (beggar-thy-neighbor) and take-the-money-and-run (cheat and leave) behaviors by individual and corporations. Powerful private interests and criminals can overwhelm the resources of individual states, and therefore a more powerful interest, the central government, steps in to protect the interests of individual states.
- Greater appreciation for the scope of insurance. States better weather storms jointly than alone. Together we are stronger in the face of all catastrophes, not just those triggered by acts of war by hostile neighbors.
There is increased recognition for many other social ‘needs’. For example, it is often argued that pollution respects no boundaries. However, the numbered innovations above can be generally agreed across ideologies to require overarching powers-that-be. We seek to answer the question of how small a central government could be tolerated in a modern society. It could be argued that numbers 3 and 4 above could be met through close cooperation among states in lieu of establishing a role for central government.
In practical terms we need only add the following roles to our Antonine Dynasty:
- Policing of cross-border crimes
- Policing of government corruption
- Establishing a federal judiciary
- Providing for common catastrophe mitigation
- Enforcing infrastructure and engineering standards
- Ensuring open markets and patent protection
- Stimulating national economic productivity
- Shared funding of ‘national heritage sites’
- Coordinating ‘best practices’ across state governments
States can be held responsible for everything else. For the Federal government in the U.S. the following bureaucracies are (partially) retained: DOD, DOS, DOJ, DOT, DOI, DOC, VA, Treasury, CIA, DNI, FCC, FDIC, FTC, GSA, and the SSA. The 100 or so other government offices are mostly disbanded (e.g., USDA, ED, HHS, DHS, HUD, DOL and most of the agencies listed at http://www.usa.gov/Agencies/Federal/Independent.shtml ₪).