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Charles O. Press, MSU Department of Political Science

MSU Debate Polls the Professors is an ongoing series where students from the MSU Debate Team interview professors and faculty at Michigan State to augment their yearly research. The year-long college debate resolution this year is “Resolved: The United States should legalize all or nearly all of one or more of the following in the United States: marihuana, online gambling, physician-assisted suicide, prostitution, the sale of human organs.” As part of the team’s research efforts, students ask questions pertaining to the topic of professors from Political Science, Philosophy, Criminal Justice, and Law.

Charles Press is a Professor Emeritus at Michigan State University. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he completed his B.J. at the University of Missouri in 1948, earned his M.A. in Political Science at the University of Minnesota in 1951, and his Ph.D. in 1953. Press joined the Michigan State University Department of Political Science as an Assistant Professor in 1954, was promoted to Associate Professor in 1956, and to Professor in 1965. He is author of over thirty books and monographs, as well as numerous journal articles. His coauthored books include Democracy in Urban America (1961), The American Political Process (1965, 1969), Governing Urban America (1968, 1977), American Politics Reappraised: The Enchantment of Camelot Dispelled (1973, 1974), State and Community Governments in the Federal System (1979, 1983), and American Policy Studies (1981). In addition to co-editing Democracy in Urban America: Readings on Government and Politics (1961) and Empathy and Ideology (1966), he is the sole author of American Politics and Journalists (1988), Democracy in the Fifty States (1966), and The Political Cartoon (1981). Press is a past president of the Midwest Political Science Association. He currently lives in East Lansing, Michigan.

MSU Debate:

  1. What would the implications to federalism be if the federal government legalized one of the areas in the topic (marijuana, physician assisted suicide, prostitution, online gambling and human organ sales) and left the issue for the states to decide?
  2. What are the issues that policy-makers need to be aware of when making decisions about what ought to be legal on a state and federal level? It seems like an issue fraught with state/federal balance concerns.
  3. On a more general level, what do you think about the states as “laboratories of democracy” argument that many make about U.S. federalism? What are the potential benefits or pitfalls to such a system? Do you see any benefits or pitfalls as it relates specifically to legalization issues?

CP: The three arrangements in federal systems are

  • Program administered solely by the national governmentSocial Security
  • Program administrated cooperatives between national and states or private group – The building of the interstates – The affordable care act – usually the national sets Standards and the states or private groups administer within the guidelines
  • Program developed and administered by the states or private groups

>> Reform groups prefer national programs with no exceptions, but may have to settle for cooperative federalism as with the Affordable care Act or even worse settle for individual state action as was the case with women suffrage! prohibition, legalizing drugs, abolishing the death penalty, etc

>> Some programs like building the interstates may have been considered too unwieldy for the national government to go it alone and there was the question of deciding the routes and the interchanges, something the locals had to be consulted on at the least.

Note that most of the programs on your list were by tradition settled at the state level alone and all states had in effect set a national policy with little significant variations.

The point is that a federal system allows both reform groups and those fighting reform, many strategies to choose from.

As to the programs themselves.

It seems to me our democracy is a system of regulated libertarianism.

Governments are one source of regulation but without others life would be difficult. To name some – the free market, religious values internalized, common sense, ettiquette, professionalism.

Why do we need regulations – because in any libertarian system some of the strong exploit the weak. Strong can be defined as having greater brute strength, more money, being of a privileged race, ethnic, religious, gender, etc group, not exercising self restraint,parenting, and you may think go others. I should have added some believe the unborn are exploited for the convenience of the born.

The problem occurs in part, because contrary to simple democratic theory, only a small part of the population is politically attentive. Unless an issue touches them directly or the exploitation becomes notorious as when that football player banged around his wife, they don’t take the trouble to be informed because they have other demands on their time – choir practice, children, etc. They like to think things are ok. Thus when you take a poll and ask whether blacks are being harassed by police, the responses between whites and blacks differ significantly.

When public opinion is aroused on an issue you get action as in the anti- smoking campaign – action by individuals, groups, cities, states, and the federal government. But don’t expect. Perfection. For political reasons the federal government still, I think! pays subsidies to tobacco growers. As Disraeli once observed, “England is not governed by logic, England is governed by Parliament.” One might add that the world is ruled by the fairly bright.

All but are regarded as unimportant matters may be regulated. There are no absolutes. Despite the ACLU even civil liberties are regulated. Lightly to be sure. Take freedom of religion. You can preach anything you want – but no government established religion, and certain practices are prohibited like human sacrifice or polygamy. But the Supreme Court and Congress are struggling with other regulation.

So the question is one of which action may justifiably be regulated and by whom?

The states are laboratories for experiments – some are democratic and some may in your view be anti-democratic and some, like trying a new way to pave roads, would be neither. The Good Government types were fond of saying that there was no Republican or Democratic way to pave a road, but they didn’t observe that there might be a difference in whose road gets paved.

I feel like I haven’t emphasized enough the prevalence of political compromise. Elizabeth Warren describes how when setting up the Consumer Protection body on financial dealings they had to leave out auto dealers. They recognized every congressman had a number in his district so opposition from the auto dealers might kill the bill.

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