Among the most serious threats to the continued health of the American republic is the extraordinarily low esteem in which the public holds the federal government. And who can blame them when Congress and President Obama seem locked in perpetual partisan warfare, even as millions of Americans have given up on finding jobs, the economy bounces along in the weakest recovery since the Great Depression and the national debt soars to previously unimagined heights.

What is to be done? A coalition of state-based conservative think tanks led by the Oklahoma-based Liberty Foundation is advancing an old idea that if implemented could revolutionize American governance. The idea is "competitive federalism," which the coalition defines as "the powerful harnessing of our tri-partite sovereignty system that allows states to compete with each other over a broad range of issues to provide citizens with the best value goods and services at the lowest cost." Think of the difference between having only one place to buy food versus having 50.

To illustrate, imagine two scenarios: In the first, Congress and the president decide that trillions of dollars must be spent on a centralized health care insurance program managed by Washington bureaucrats. In the second, Congress and the president instead decide to return to the states the hundreds of billions of tax dollars previously spent in this arena by Washington, along with encouragement to assume the related responsibilities for insuring care and coverage.

Now, if the first scenario results in a bureaucratic monstrosity in which health insurance costs skyrocket, doctor shortages spread and the quality of care plunges, everybody in the country will suffer. In the second scenario, there can be as many as 50 distinct approaches to health care insurance. In states with failing systems, residents can pressure their officials to adopt reforms along the lines of states with successful approaches.

Under which scenario are the smallest number of people likely to suffer? And which scenario would be the most responsive to demands for reform? Would more people receive quality health care under the first or second scenario? Most Americans would likely choose the second scenario in answer to all three questions. Lest anybody think these considerations are merely theoretical speculation, recall that the founders based the Constitution on the same concept. As Publius observed in the Federalist Papers, ours is "a federal, and not a national constitution." As a result, federal powers are "few and defined," while those of the states are "numerous and indefinite," encompassing "all the objects" that "concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people," Publius wrote.

To put it in the most practical possible terms, if Californians choose a system that provides poor quality, only the taxpayers in the Golden State have to pay for it, while residents of states that choose better systems only have to pay for theirs. When the federal government imposes a uniform solution like Obamacare, all 300 million Americans pay the cost. Expect to hear more competitive federalism thinking as the federal government staggers along on its present disastrous course.