Commentary: Is federalism to blame for hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 deaths?

Is American-style federalism hazardous to our health? Is federalism responsible for thousands of COVID-19 deaths? That was the assertion in a recent column at, which usually does a pretty good job of covering state and local government issues.

I’ve written a lot about federalism over the years, and I remain a committed advocate for balanced federalism. I reject the column’s blanket indictment of federalism as a direct cause of sickness and deaths in the coronavirus pandemic. The blame is badly misplaced. 

The column headline is: “How American-Style Federalism is Hazardous to Our Health.” Provocative, but unfair.  If we had a 100% top-down, command-and-control federal government that dictated our every pandemic action, would we be healthier? Perhaps. But at what cost?

The column subhead was just as bad: “The U.S. could have done much better in battling COVID-19, preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths. But its decentralized system of governance failed to rise to the challenge.” The author noted that, “A British medical journal claimed that 40 percent of U.S. deaths were preventable, had the country followed the same course as other major industrialized nations.”

I concede that had the national government strictly mandated testing, masking and social distancing (lockdowns), with the U.S. military deployed on every street across America to enforce the decrees, with no local or state flexibility, then, yes, less sickness and death would have occurred. 

But it would have also caused total economic collapse, even more jobs lost, more mental health problems and suicides, and mass insurrection and rioting. Both Pres. Trump and Pres. Biden were wise to provide national coordination, recommendations and resources, but leave policy and execution to state and local governments.

We could solve a lot of other societal ills with a totalitarian federal government. We could force people to stop smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. They’d be a lot healthier, saving thousands of lives. We could have a national speed limit of 25 mph with cars built like tanks. That would eliminate all traffic fatalities. We could have a massive, federally-enforced crackdown on crime. That would reduce murders and shoplifting.

But this is America. We believe in maximum freedom and flexibility, even at the risk of society being a bit messier. Americans aren’t sheep. Wyoming is not Massachusetts. Rural Utah is not Manhattan. The United States isn’t Switzerland or the Netherlands, or even Australia or Canada.

And I believe that state and local governments, in their realms of responsibility, perform better and enjoy much more trust than the federal government. 

Certainly, all governments — national, state and local — could have done better in the pandemic. It’s easy to criticize in hindsight. And, yes, balanced federalism is a bit more chaotic than a top-down, command-and-control federal government. But, remember, the pandemic was unprecedented, at least in modern history. Government leaders were making it up as they went along. Plenty of early federal guidance was dead wrong.

The author does acknowledge that some “experimentation” at state and local levels produced good results. Seattle, for example, did very well after a rough start. But states and cities that were the most restrictive with onerous mandates didn’t necessarily perform better than states and cities that were more open. The states with the highest death rates per 100,000 people were New York (273), Massachusetts (258) and Rhode Island (255). The states with the lowest death rates were Hawaii (35), Vermont (41), and Alaska (50). Utah had the 6th lowest death rate, 71 people per 100,000 population.

The column blames Trump for “national government inaction” and for choosing to “deflect action to the states.” But I’m confident a top-down, command-and-control approach would have been much worse for America.