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Flashback Friday: Vincent Ostrom, “Can Federalism Make a Difference?”

Flashback Friday is an occasional feature in which we look back to noteworthy articles from the past.

In this 1973 article from Publius: The Journal of Federalism, Vincent Ostrom responds to William Riker’s assertions that federalism might not be worth keeping and that it does not make a difference in the way that people are governed. In this article, Ostrom contrasts Riker’s modern, rational, reductionist understanding of government with a more dynamic understanding of political systems. Riker’s understanding is grounded in the assumptions of materialism, reductionism, and linearity necessary for predictability, which justify his recommendations for clearly defined institutional roles and top-down governance. Ostrom favors a system based on irreducible and unpredictable human interactions that respect autonomy, allow for overlapping jurisdictions and competition, and result in unplanned order and organizations – in short, federalism. Which method of governance better protects freedom, and is more effective and efficient? Ostrom draws on theory, logic, and experience to argue that federalism does make a difference, and provides many advantages. Ostrom concludes, however, that federal systems are also susceptible to instability, stalemate, and conflict. Read more here.

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