The Social Capital Argument for Federalism

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In debating the continued usefulness of a federal system of government, courts and commentators have identified the economic and public policy rationales for federalism, the possible democratic benefits of a dual system of government, and the role of federalism in protecting individual rights. But one important aspect of federalism has so far been overlooked in these debates. This Article argues that federalism also promotes the kinds of social relationships that allow citizens to overcome collective action problems and get things done. That is, federalism has value because it promotes social capital: features of social organization such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated action. Federalism promotes social capital because dividing power between the national government and the states provides greater opportunities for citizen groups to influence politics and for individual citizens to participate in public life. Ongoing struggles between the federal government and the states over the appropriate division of political power enhance these social capital benefits of federalism. Accordingly, this Article challenges the view that the benefits of federalism are merely the benefits of decentralized government, and also challenges modern skepticism about the continued relevance of the states. This Article calls for further empirical research on the relationships between federalism and social capital in order to inform debates about the continued usefulness of a federalist system of government.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)27-62
Number of pages36
JournalSouthern California interdisciplinary law journal
StatePublished - 2001


  • Federalism
  • social capital
  • consitutional design
  • federalist system
  • government structure


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