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Rockefeller Begins Godkin Talks, Pays Tribute to 'The Federal Idea'

By Robert W. Gordon

"I am sure you are not surprised," the Godkin lecturer wryly commented last night, "that the Governor of a large state...elects to speak of the federal idea of political life." The Governor, Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, in fact delivered his first lecture in Sanders as a tribute to the "federal idea".

The object of his tribute he defined as more than "a mechanical or technical or abstract formula", or simply a balanced system of decentralized power. According to Rockefeller the federal idea is less a system than a process by which centers of "sovereign power, energy and creativity" (state governments) cooperate with the national government for the general good.

Developing his concept in contrast to that of a highly centralized state, he remarked that the Depression and World War II had engendered the argument that "this bloating of central government" was inevitable in America. Not so, Rockefeller asserted: despite Harold Laski's predictions of 1939, the federal idea is not obsolete, nor should it be.

As examples of the vitality of the idea, he cited the enormous increase in the expenditures of state governments against the relatively "modest" rise in the non-defensive outlays of the federal government. "If this be 'obsolescence', what, then, would be the size of growth?"

This growth, he implied, has been fortunate. For the federal system, in situations, where a "sweeping generalized edict from the national government might be futile or even fatuous", "recognizes diversity and achieves unity" through such devices as granting federal aid to the states. "It stimulates the states to action--and to higher standards of action--by offering matching funds on specific occasions."

State In Social Reform

Rockefeller pointed out that the individual state has played, and continues to play, an extremely important part in America's social history. Social reform movements like factory inspection, limitation of working hours, child and women's labor laws all originated in state legislatures.

"Those elements of the New Deal which failed"--he mentioned the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Act--"were largely in areas not tested by prior experience at state level."

"Erroneously," said the Governor, modern social history "has come to be exclusively asociated, in the mind of a generation, with the New Deal." Yet the leaders of the New Deal for all their "conscientious concern for human values...showed little or no awareness of the need to creat a climate for growth...vital to the achievement of full employment."

Having opposed federalism to etatism, Rockefeller went on to describe the conditions on which the federal idea depends. Most essentially, it depends on the "individual and collective responsibility" of the political community, which means "political participation...active working for one's party and standing for public office."

"Political Aloofness"

He attacked with visible annoyance the kind of "political aloofness" that subverts the federal idea. "The fashion has been to exalt the detached surveyor of the cluttered political scene untroubled by the noisy turmoil beneath him...uncontaminated by the touch of reality." The need to "sharpen the debate between parties and within the parties...is denied or evaded by a condescension or contempt for the political life."

Presumably because of the academic nature of the lectures, he did not attempt to distinguish between the Republican and Democratic parties. He did, however, attack the use of "conservative" and "liberal" labels as a damaging "distortion of political reality" and another threat to the federal idea.

Rockefeller's last condition (besides participation and the avoidance of false labels) for a thriving federal system was perhaps the most significant: the exercise of state leadership. He put the point bluntly: "if a state government lacks the political courage to meet the needs of its people by using its own taxing power, so it prefers the escape of letting the national government do the taxing and then return the money to the state, then the leadership of this state puts itself in an exceedingly poor position to weep over the growth of federal power."

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