Secession? No, try federalism

November 20, 2012

In the wake of the presidential election earlier this month, a lot of people expressed their disappointment with the results by submitting petitions for secession at the White House web site. Petitions were received from all 50 states, and there were several counter-petitions from progressives urging the government to let them go.

To be honest, and even though I signed South Carolina’s to support my friend Gay Patriot, I looked at these as just blowing off steam after a disappointing election loss, just as liberals fantasized about secession in 2004. I didn’t and don’t take them seriously.

My mistake, in at least one respect. As Prof. Glenn Reynolds points out in an op-ed in USA Today, petitions such as these and more serious secession movements in Scotland, Catalonia, and elsewhere arise from anger at a central government from which they feel alienated for various reasons. While the petitions themselves may not be serious, the resentment and irritation caused by being forced to obey one-size-fits-all laws you hate is very real. And, if left to fester, it can lead to more serious problems.

What’s the answer, if secession isn’t it? Reynolds looks back to the handiwork of a very smart group of men who came up with a solution suited to a large, diverse republic, and suggests we give federalism a try:

So what’s a solution? Let the central government do the things that only central governments can do — national defense, regulation of trade to keep the provinces from engaging in economic warfare with one another, protection of basic civil rights — and then let the provinces go their own way in most other issues. Don’t like the way things are run where you are? Move to a province that’s more to your taste. Meanwhile, approaches that work in individual provinces can, after some experimentation, be adopted by the central government, thus lowering the risk of adopting untested policies at the national level. You get the benefits of secession without seceding.

Sound good? It should. It’s called federalism (1), and it’s the approach chosen by the United States when it adopted the Constitution in 1789. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 45, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”

Surely Reynolds wrote this with a wink and a smile, for federalism is the way were are supposed to operate, and our problems have grown as the federal government has usurped more and more of the states’ proper role, turning gradually from a government of limited powers to Leviathan. Consider it another way: the more the federal government tries to do everything, the less it can do anything well.  The national economy and health care systems are too large and too diverse, and there’s too much information coming in, for them to be directed top-down by a few hundred (or even a few thousand) pols and bureaucrats in D.C. The needs of people differ in various parts of the country, and the resources needed to even try to manage everything nationally wind up being diverted from those things only the federal government can do well, such as national security.

The solution, as Reynolds writes, is to recognize those spheres of competence and respect them, something that’s happened less and less since the progressive era. This isn’t to say that the enumerated powers of Article 1, Section 8 are the end all and be all; the Founders themselves recognized that the Constitution would sometimes need amending (2) –including granting the federal government more power– and put in place procedures for doing just that. It’s through ignoring those limits and procedures that we’ve reached a point whereat so many think, with some justification, that the United States Government is becoming a threat to their liberty and prosperity.

Change won’t be easy, and the genie of the progressive administrative state probably can’t ever be wholly put back in the bottle. But for the health of our body politic we have to keep trying.

Footnotes:
(1) Also “states’ rights,” but that term was forever tainted thanks to defenders of slavery and Jim Crow hiding behind it, back in the day.
(2) And I do think several are needed to deal with the progressive-statist tendency to grab more and more power. Professor Randy Barnett’s Bill of Federalism is a great starting point for discussion. Oddly enough, in the wake of their defeat in 2004, progressives themselves were arguing for federalism. Bipartisanship!

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


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