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February 11, 2007
The Liberal Case For Strict Constructionism?

Imagine my surprise when the New York Times ran an op-ed yesterday on the evils of an overly large federal government and the wisdom of following the Constitutional framework for sovereign states united in common defense. Gar Alperovitz writes approvingly of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest speech comparing California to the nation-states of Athens and Sparta, and warns that America is getting too big to be a "functional democracy", recommending regional interstate alliances on such issues as health care and environmentalism:

SOMETHING interesting is happening in California. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to have grasped the essential truth that no nation — not even the United States — can be managed successfully from the center once it reaches a certain scale. Moreover, the bold proposals that Mr. Schwarzenegger is now making for everything from universal health care to global warming point to the kind of decentralization of power which, once started, could easily shake up America’s fundamental political structure.

Governor Schwarzenegger is quite clear that California is not simply another state. “We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta,” he recently declared. “We have the economic strength, we have the population and the technological force of a nation-state.” In his inaugural address, Mr. Schwarzenegger proclaimed, “We are a good and global commonwealth.”

Political rhetoric? Maybe. But California’s governor has also put his finger on a little discussed flaw in America’s constitutional formula. The United States is almost certainly too big to be a meaningful democracy. What does “participatory democracy” mean in a continent? Sooner or later, a profound, probably regional, decentralization of the federal system may be all but inevitable.

A recent study by the economists Alberto Alesina of Harvard and Enrico Spolaore of Tufts demonstrates that the bigger the nation, the harder it becomes for the government to meet the needs of its dispersed population. Regions that don’t feel well served by the government’s distribution of goods and services then have an incentive to take independent action, the economists note.

Scale also determines who has privileged access to the country’s news media and who can shape its political discourse. In very large nations, television and other forms of political communication are extremely costly. President Bush alone spent $345 million in his 2004 election campaign. This gives added leverage to elites, who have better corporate connections and greater resources than non-elites. The priorities of those elites often differ from state and regional priorities.

If this sounds familiar, it should -- to anyone who studied American history. The structure of the United States has from its beginnings mistrusted a large central government, and not just in terms of its impact on individual liberty. The notion that a government situated in a central position hundreds of miles from most of its citizens could understand and address their needs was as ludicrous then as it is today, actually even more so considering the speed of communications.

James Madison understood this, although Alperovitz focuses more on Madison's concern over the size of a nation as regards its geographical size instead of the size of its government. He quotes Madison as saying that an overly large nation would allow its central government to divide and conquer the citizenry and impose tyranny. In fact, his Constitutional model was intended to ensure that didn't happen regardless of the geographic footprint the nation would eventually assume, and the concern was over the size of the center, not the physical boundaries of the nation.

Consider the model Madison created. Each state retained its sovereignty, except in a few key areas. The federal government had the responsibility to provide for the common defense, to provide a common currency, conduct foreign policy, and regulate interstate commerce. The states retained the ability to govern in all other areas, and nothing in the Constitution prohibited them from working in concert on anything except that which the Constitution proscribed the states from doing individually. Amendments to the Constitution allowed the federal government the responsibility to enforce the Constitutional prohibitions against civil-rights violations in the Bill of Rights and the 13th-16th Amendments, but that is the extent of federal power ... at least as enumerated in the Constitution.

The problems pointed out by Alperovitz all spring from an impulse to grow the federal government to address issues where the states have resisted change. The interstate commerce clause has been repeatedly abused, mostly in the 20th century, as an excuse to grant federal jurisdiction where Madison never dreamed. Health care, education, welfare, and all sorts of programs became federal programs instead of under the control of the local communities as Madison intended -- and the result has been in each case a bloated federal bureaucracy that loses touch with the communities they supposedly serve.

It makes little difference what size the nation is; it's the size of the center that creates the problems. And the Constitution isn't the problem, it's the solution.

What Alperovitz proposes is nothing new. He describes nothing more than a return to federalism as Madison envisioned it. The "devolution" of power that he notes in other countries, notably Britain, would be a simple return to Constitutional structure in the US. All of the ills he describes in this piece are easily solved by that solution. End all of the federal programs that exist outside the powers granted to the central government in the Constitution and force the states to assume responsibility for them instead. The money saved in federal taxes would assuredly get captured by the states, where individual citizens have more power to determine how the money gets spent. That will allow the sovereign states to make their own decisions on environmental issues, health care, welfare -- just as Alperovitz recommends.

It's amazing, but I think we've just heard the liberal case for strict constructionism.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 11, 2007 8:53 AM

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Ed Morrissey writes:Imagine my surprise when the New York Times ran an op-ed yesterday on the evils of an overly large federal government and the wisdom of following the Constitutional framework for sovereign states united in common defense.Given the t... [Read More]

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» The Liberal Case For Strict Constructionism? from Gulf Coast Pundit
This could be a flying pig moment. Imagine my surprise when the New York Times ran an op-ed yesterday on the evils of an overly large federal government and the wisdom of following the Constitutional framework for sovereign states united in common def... [Read More]

Tracked on February 12, 2007 12:12 AM


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