Happy birthday, Colorado. Last Thursday marked the beginning of the one hundred thirty-seventh year for the Centennial State, so perhaps we should take the occasion to ask ourselves a simple question: Why should there be states?
The answer isn’t as simple as one might imagine. When one considers tradition — states formed from colonies were the first large-scale political entities in America — and accounts for the differences in culture among the colonials and those who followed, the great distances and primitive transportation systems with which our first congressmen and senators had to contend, and even regional jealousies and jingoism, there are a myriad of subtle reasons the founders preferred a federal republic for the new United States.
James Madison voiced some of these arguments in the Federalist Papers, most notably in number 39, although he touched on the question of states and their relationship with the federal government in numbers 10 and 51 as well. He makes it quite clear that a crucial role of state governments — as he puts it, the “federal principle,” is to protect the rights of the individual against the possibility of tyranny either directly by the central government, or by what he termed “interested combinations of the majority” — what we might today call special interests. By their very multiplicity and diversity, states acted as a brake on the centralizing and authoritarian tendencies of a national government.
States were also what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis termed “a laboratory of democracy,” offering up novel — and sometimes extreme — solutions to shared problems, without threatening the stability of the whole nation. And because the residents of Arizona faced different challenges than those of Indiana, state governments could respond to local conditions with better and more specific remedies. Or residents could leave in search of more effective solutions elsewhere.
This balanced “dual sovereignty” began to die with the advent of progressivism, a movement springing from, and still clinging to, the idea that government can make us all “better.” Or else.
Achieving the “or else” part of the Progressive vision required sweeping away obstacles to federal power so that by capturing the national government, we could all be pressured to drive smaller automobiles; to stop using legal products like tobacco, or large sodas; to buy health insurance; to cut back on electricity use; to think a certain way; to speak a certain way; to sit down, shut up and pay up; and to never, ever question the motives of those who rule our lives. Because it’s for our own good.
The first step in this process was to smash the independent authority of the states. This began with the 17th Amendment and accelerated under Presidents Roosevelt, Johnson and Nixon, reaching a culmination with the current resident of the White House, who shows real enthusiasm for using the federal apparatus against states which challenge his authority. Again, think Arizona.
This siphoning away of power was accompanied by a rapid buildup of Federal authority: the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, Energy, Veterans’ Affairs, Housing and Urban Development are all part of this process, as are a laundry list of independent agencies, from the Millennium Challenge Corporation to the Environmental Protection Agency. Note that each of these is a creature of the Executive Branch, which has recently shown a disturbing appetite for direct rule through rule-making, selective enforcement of laws and through appointment of like-minded cronies to positions of power. No messy concerns about people’s rights involved — they have good to do …
We should ask ourselves if we want to continue down this road, which will inevitably end in a national government, without alternative sources of power or authority. Before answering, we should remind ourselves of the inefficiencies, abuses, usurpations and ruinous extravagances such an unchecked government will engender, not to mention its unchecked ability to threaten liberty. Examples are many, from the former Soviet Union to much of Africa and Latin America. These argue for prudence, caution and even a reversal of course.
Is such a reverse possible? Yes, but only if we steel ourselves for a long and bitter fight. The principles of federalism are abstract and diffuse; the benefits to those who profit from an unrestricted national government are immediate, personal and concrete. An argument in favor of the former will not be easy to win.
There are also those who will reject the argument out of smug assurance that their interests will continue to be served by a centralizing national government, whatever the results of the present wrecking. They should remember that profound changes often bring about unforeseen – and unpleasant — results, and that when all possible opposition has been smashed, there will be nowhere to flee for protection when the Devil turns his unsympathetic gaze on them.
Morgan Liddick lives in Summit County and pens a weekly column for the Summit Daily.