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On the Philosophy of Federalism

Convenors

Michael Da Silva (University of Ottawa)
Daniel Weinstock (McGill University)


Philosophers once played a central role in the analysis and development of federalism. David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and J.S. Mill are just four central figures in the history of federalism. Yet modern studies of federalism are, with few (very good) exceptions (Will Kymlicka, Wayne Norman, etc.), conducted in political science or law. Empirical works in those fields identified key features of federal states for which any analysis of federalism should be able to account. Some works in legal and political theory (Richard Bellamy, Jacob Levy, etc.) clearly contribute to philosophy. Yet federalism remains peripheral in political philosophy.

This is curious where a majority of the world’s population arguably lives in federal states and claims about the ‘nature’ of federalism are central to ongoing political debates within and across states (e.g., the relationship between the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Scotland post-Brexit or federal, state, and municipal disagreements on immigration, gun control, and/or health care in the United States). Such appeals are common not only in politics, but also in theory and law. Indeed, ‘federalism’ is said to be a basic constitutional principle in Canada, but the nature of this principle remains opaque absent analytical scrutiny of what federalism entails.

Appeals to the nature or purpose of federalism rely on implicit assumptions about the purposes and necessary features of federalism that would benefit from analyst not only by theorists, but also by political philosophers. Consider, for instance, claims that ‘federalism’ is an idea, rather than a set of institutions, committed to a combination of unity and diversity or claims that federalism requires ‘co-operation’ between the constituent parts of a federal states. Whether these claims are (a) philosophically justifiable and (b) consonant with the empirical findings about federalism requires greater scrutiny. There is even reason to question whether ‘federalism’ is an ‘idea’ over and above a set of institutional arrangements or a descriptor for institutional arrangements. These issues may be primary over now more central institutional design questions. Whether institutions must be designed to promote a federal idea or are federal when sharing certain features regardless of their intended ends is key to evaluating institutional proposals.

The purpose of this workshop is to work on a modern philosophy of federalism. To this end, the contributors will examine whether there is a clear ‘idea’ of federalism that can explain the nstitutional forms that are often described as ‘federalist’ and whether that idea can serve as the basis of justifiable political arrangements. As part of this analysis, they will explore the potential ends of federalism, implicit commitments in the federal ‘idea’, and whether they can plausibly combine with each other and with the institutional arrangements found in federal states. If successful, this analysis should contribute to future debates on the institutions and processes of federal law and politics and help decision-makers better evaluate appeals to the federal idea.

We would appreciate if scholars interested in contributing to this workshop would submit abstracts prepared for anonymous review to manceptfederalism@gmail.com by 15 May 2021. Selected participants may be asked to submit a draft paper and must register prior to the event.