Sunday, April 7, 2013

Federal Expressions

For some reason, I’ve found myself on more than one occasion in Finland forced to explain a certain fundamental concept of the United States, through the example of the humble driver’s license.

I have a Finnish driver’s license, which is valid until my birthday in the year 2026 – an all too scary-sounding date, to be sure. (I also briefly once had a Cook Islands license, but that is another story. They also had three-dollar bills there. It’s an odd place.)

But my non-American friends, mostly Finns and Brits, are often surprised to learn that, although I started driving in the US at the age of 15, I have never had a United States driver’s license. That’s because there is no such thing.

And this is where a fundamental concept of America – federalism – comes in. When I lived in the States, I drove on a Georgia license, not a US one. The decision on who can drive a car, like many other aspects in daily American life, are left up to Georgia and the other 49 individual US states. It’s federalism in a nutshell. Americans love government so much it seems that they’ll put up with at least three layers of it (national, state, county/city).

Finland, on the other hand, is a unitary state, with authority applied uniformly by the central government, which controls the amount of power that can be held by sub-divisions, like Finland’s 320 kuntia (counties).

The same is true for the United Kingdom – which is not the same as England, though for Americans it’s easy to conflate the two. Trust me, any Scotsman will bristle at being called “English”. Just try it.

While on this subject, I have had a recurring debate with some of my British friends over whether England is really a country. It’s a surprisingly touchy subject. Brits will often stress, in no uncertain terms, that the UK is made up of four separate countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

I contend that these are countries in name only, in reality no different from US states. Though I haven’t taken the time to research it completely, I suspect individual states in America have more actual power and sovereignty than the “countries” of England or Wales. Okay, Scotland does have its own money, but anyway the land of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce (love that name) seems determined to make the leap to real independence, eventually, so maybe it’s the exception. (And maybe I’m just being slightly pedantic about the meaning of “country”.)

Anyway, not even Scotland can issue its own driver’s licenses. Georgia can. Nor can Scotland (unless I’m badly mistaken) decide all by itself to allow same-sex marriage (as New Hampshire and eight other states do), or legalize recreational marijuana (as Colorado recently has), or legally put criminals to death (as Texas and Georgia still do).

It’s this degree of autonomy that sometime surprises people who are not familiar with the US federal system, where authority (and responsibility) over US citizens is divided between the national and the state governments. Washington can issue passports, but not driver’s licenses, and the reverse is true for Georgia.

It’s not always been so cut-and-dried. The question over the proper division of power has driven much of the politics throughout US history – at times even explosively so, literally explosively – even after the Constitution tried to settle the issue in 1789. There have been countless arguments over how much leeway individual states should have in making their own policies, even policies that allow their citizens to own human “property”, as inconceivable and wrong as that seems today. The argument over that barbaric "policy" was finally settled, but it took a horrible, blood-drenched war to do it.

The debate over the national-state share of power shows no sign of stopping even today. In fact, it’s been resurging in the last few years, as the “Tea Party” has gripped the Republican Party in a stranglehold of “states-rights” fervor. The election of Barack Obama as president probably had something to do with that.

Just this past week, some lawmakers in North Carolina decided that, using the excuse of "states rights", they could unilaterally declare that Christianity is the official religion of the state. Their proposal went nowhere. It would have never become law anyway since there are limits on state power and the establishment of a state religion is against the US Constitution, thank God.

Now it seems Georgia has begun to delve into foreign relations, an area I have always thought was the exclusive domain of the Federal government. It has to do with driver’s licenses, no less.

You can legally drive in America with a valid license from a foreign country. At least in most states, Georgia included. I’ve driven on my Finnish license in at least 15 states since my last Georgia license expired in 1998. Though it’s printed only in Finnish and Swedish (except for the two English words “Driving Licence”, it’s never been questioned at any rental-car counter. (Using it as an ID to cash personal checks at a small-town Wal-Mart is another matter, resulting in hilarious complications.)

Foreign motorists, however, who have lived in Georgia for more than a year have to apply for a Georgia license like everyone else. A recently proposed law would make that easier by allowing them to skip the normal driving exams, provided their home country and Georgia have reached a “reciprocal agreement”. This means the foreign country would extend the same courtesy to Georgians living abroad.

Maybe US states negotiate these kinds of one-to-one agreements with foreign governments all the time, bypassing the State Department. I’ve just never exactly heard of it.

Anyway, I’d be surprised if Finland ever agreed to such an arrangement. For one thing, it’s much harder to get a license here, since the standards are stricter than in Georgia (at least back when I got my first driving permit). I’m not sure the Finns would see it as an equal trade.

Also, I wonder whether Finland – over something as pedestrian as driver’s licenses – would want to go to the trouble of making similar, but separate, agreements with 50 individual states, all just because of the fragmented, and sometimes cumbersome, nature of American Federalism. 


  1. What a great essay! Americans love government so much they put up with three levels of it! If only all Americans were as educated and level-headed as you are.

    1. Thanks, Bob! That's really nice to hear (though I'm not sure I deserve the compliment). I gotta say though, America's love-hate relationship with government really does fascinate me and seems strange sometimes. You don't really see the same attitude here in Finland.

  2. Hehe, on the "country" thing... couple years ago I saw a beer coaster at a pub here in the UK saying "Support your country!" in the rugby league or cup. And at the bottom, there were four countries listed...
    I think the case is that historically, in the US the states evolved simultaneously and were (almost) always from the beginning, and willingly, part of the same bigger unit. Meanwhile in the UK, they were actually different countries, with different local languages, had their own government, and were often unwillingly joined. As for the authorities, I guess it varies all over the world how much local power a country's parts have, and it definitely evolves here in the UK continuously how much independence the parliaments/ assemblies have. Actually I think on the equal marriage question Scotland can decide on their own, it was in the news some time ago, but this varies from topic to topic. I could compare the governance of the two (US and UK) to two sets of twins with a bit exaggeration - the UK is a pair (quartet) of conjoined ones who have some limbs and organs in common, and people (politicians) question whether they could function if separated - this is the hot topic with Scotland, it's on the news almost every day now. While the US is more like a group of identical twins who can have very different personalities and maybe they aren't even identicals after all :) And meanwhile the former tries to separate or change things, the latter is contented with what they have.

    And the reason I read two or three books on US history was because I wanted to understand more of their strange relationship with authority (strange for a European anyways).

  3. I'm sure you're right that the strong identities of the UK "countries" is down to their history and background, and in that regard it seems perfectly understandable to call them countries. And I like the twins analogy -- spot on! I'm curious to see how far Scotland eventually goes toward independence.