The early history of the United States can be seen as a paradox: how could the nation moved away from the Articles of Confederation toward the Constitution, in order to have a somewhat stronger central government for purposes of military self-defense and coherent foreign policy, while at the same time preserving individual liberties and independent state governments. It was with this tension that Madison and others wrestled. He noted that
In explaining my sentiments on this subject it may be asked, What raised us to the present happy state? How did we accomplish the Revolution? How remedy the defects of the first instrument of our Union, by infusing into the National Government sufficient power for national purposes, without impairing the just rights of the States or affecting those of individuals? How sustain and pass with glory through the late war? The Government has been in the hands of the people. To the people, therefore, and to the faithful and able depositaries of their trust is the credit due. Had the eople of the United States been educated in different principles had they been less intelligent, less independent, or less virtuous can it be believed that we should have maintained the same steady and consistent career or been blessed with the same success? While, then, the constituent body retains its present sound and healthful state everything will be safe. They will choose competent and faithful representatives for every department. It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising the sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin. Let us, then, look to the great cause, and endeavor to preserve it in full force. Let us by all wise and constitutional measures promote intelligence among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties.
Almost two hundred years later, this same tension continues to make itself felt in American politics. The rights of the individual, and the self-determination of each of the fifty states, stands across from the need for a centralized government which is strong enough to militarily defend our interests and to present to the world a coherent foreign policy. Historian Laura Ingraham writes:
So our federal government has two big problems. One, our country is too large and diverse to be adequately covered by a single set of policies. Two, because the country is so big, it is very difficult to even for members of the House to adequately represent the people who elect them. Neither of these problems is going away anytime soon. Certainly the country is not going to get smaller. And I don't think anyone really believes we should have thousands of members in the House of Representatives - talk about "big government." The congressional dining room would become a drive-through and C-SPAN would constitute half of your cable lineup. In light of these facts, how can we truly give "Power to the People"?
Like James Madison, Laura Ingraham considers John Locke's principle that the sovereignty - the legitimacy - of a government is derived from the consent of the governed. "Power to the People," as the slogan goes, is also "Power from the People." Power is given to citizens when it is recognized that it is they who lend power to the government. Locke's principle is most effectively implemented by smaller local governments, which are more flexible to respond to regional conditions, and which are easier for the individual citizen to access. It's easier for a citizen's expressions and communications to impact his city council than his national Congress.
Federalism is a big part of the answer. In general, it is far better that issues be decided by a town council than a state legislature, and better that issues be decided by a state legislature than the federal government. Each step up that ladder takes governmental power farther away from the people it's meant to serve and puts more power in unreachable government bureaucracies.
When we compare the national government in Washington with state, county, and city governments, we note that the national government piles up ever-larger amounts of debt quickly, while most local governments have enacted rules which prevent them from having debt at all; the national government increases taxes often and significantly; local governments are more likely to concentrate on ways to keep taxes as low as possible. By definition, local governments can more accurately reflect the cultures of those in their territories, while the large national must choose a course which corresponds to the views of a very small segment of the nation's citizens.