A coherent analysis of the relationship between federalism and public policy in the U.S.

American Federalism and Public Policy

How the System Works

Search the full text of this book

Thomas Anton

Best book on federalism and intergovernmental relations published at least ten years ago that has made a lasting contribution awarded by Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations, 2003

This is a study of the ways in which the federal, state, and local governments share responsibility for policies, producing a system that combines uniformity and diversity. While numerous empirical studies in recent years have detailed particular examples of reforms in federalism, there has been no widely accepted theory by which to evaluate the significance of those details. Thomas Anton synthesizes the particulars to discover what is true in general about the state of American Federalism. He uses a "benefits coalition" conceptual framework on which to organize his discussion.

The author sees the purpose of American government as the creation and distribution of benefits to designated populations. He identifies three main types of benefits, which are directed toward individuals both outside and within government: (1) economic—the improvement of economic well-being; (2) juridical—assigning rights and obligations, as in determining eligibility to vote; and (3) symbolic—for example, in designating holidays and in fostering public activities that promote pride in and support for the system.

Because of their profound affect on the quality of our lives as well as their increasing cost, the policies and programs jointly pursued by American governments are the focus of reform proposals that now occupy a prominent position on the national agenda. For these and other reasons, Anton's analytical and broadly defined discussion of American Federalism is especially timely.



"Because the Constitution is so vague in allocating responsibilities among different levels of government, all efforts to define the distribution of authority among governments have been unsuccessful. Efforts to impose some alternative intellectual order on this large and diverse group of governments have exposed the enormous difficulty of stating generalizations that are not subject to endless qualification—except, of course, for the truism that politics and policy "differ from state to state." Some scholars have reacted to the size and complexity of our system by rejecting the existence of comprehensible patterns of activity that can be defined, described, and understood. For them, federal politics is so varied that patterns seldom emerge, or if they do, they seldom last long enough to explain very much. From this scholarly perspective, American Federalism is a "wilderness of single instance," comprehensible only through close examination of individual cases and events.

"This book proceeds from a different approach. Although federal politics and policies are difficult to understand, patterns do exist and they can be described. Understanding these patterns requires a dual strategy. First, we should focus our attention on the behavior of public officials. Too many studies go astray by accepting political or legal rhetoric as a basis for analysis. Political formulations are always available, since federalism is a recurring issue, but the exaggerations of political debate seldom bring us very close to reality. Focusing on official behavior offers the possibility of discovering patterns of action, where they exist, as well as the possibility of relating such patterns to the attitudes and opinions that shape action.

"Second, observation of behavior must be guided by analytic concepts appropriate to the task of discovering behavioral patterns within masses of particular details. Concepts identify and define fragments of social life that we consider important and by doing so call attention to specific aspects of action. For example, we might believe political party identification to be important in explaining some policy. By carefully defining the concepts "party identification" and "policy," we might then attempt to match them against observed behavior in an effort to discover the significance of party identification for the policy outcome in question. Note that in this case we focus on a single presumed cause—party identification—and exclude other plausible causes of policy outcomes, such as ideology, education, gender, age, and so on. Other plausible causes could have been considered, singly or in combination, but defining one significant concept has the effect of excluding other possible factors. Stating a concept, in other words, not only tells us what to look for, but in doing so excludes other aspects of behavior from consideration. Developing useful concepts is thus an important first step in any study of social life."

—From Chapter 2: Analytic Approaches to Federalism



1. The Federalism Issue
2. Analytic Approaches to Federalism
3. The Distribution of Federal Benefits
4. Federal Coalitions for Federal Programs
5. Dynamics of System Behavior
6. Financing the Intergovernmental System
7. Third-Party Federalism
8. Regulating the System
9. System Change and the Politics of Reform


About the Author(s)

Thomas Anton is Professor of Political Science and Director of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions at Brown University.

Subject Categories

Political Science and Public Policy



© 2017 Temple University. All Rights Reserved. This page: http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/616_reg.html