Wednesday, June 13, 2007

james madison and states rights

But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm... But what degree of madness could ever drive the federal government to such an extremity?

-- James Madison (Federalist No. 46, 29 January 1788)

Of course, Madison wrote (said?) this in a country that no longer exists, except in the sense of continuity of entity. The Southern states, having ratified the Constitution to enter the union, reasonably enough claimed that they had the right to de-ratify it and thereby secede. Lincoln disagreed and by means of the Civil War fundamentally changed the terms of states rights forever.

And many federal mandates today use the carrot-and-stick approach, so that states voluntarily cede their rights to set standards et al, in order to receive federal funding and grants, albeit not always in the areas covered by the mandate. (School officials just *love* unfunded federal mandates.)
How far we've come! Was it in the right direction? A friend of mine who is a major proponent of states rights and who favors a weak federal government acknowledges that, in a sense, the question is moot. But he also argues that it's a question we should be asking ourselves. (With the implication, I presume, that the answer is no, it was not.)
I'm not particularly wed to either a Republican or a Federalist view of government. You might as well ask if it's a good thing that today was overcast and threatened rain but none came until late in the evening. It's a thing that is neither good nor bad; it just is. Because it was overcast, the day was considerably cooler than it might otherwise have been ... but it also was darker, and therefore people didn't get the full ameliorative effects of a sunny day.
Same thing with the way our government and society have changed over the last two hundred years. Madison's view of big government was affected by his experiences under the British Crown, and that in turn was affected by King George's own bad ideas and the ill advice he received, and by the popular agitation toward rebellion by a number of the patriots in Boston and elsewhere.
I don't think Madison ever would have dreamed of things like tyranny by big business, nor could he see that a strong federal government would have the potential to protect its citizenry from that sort of tyranny. (Or make it worse, admittedly, but that gets into what I'm saying about the pros and cons.)
And a weak federal government didn't exactly do us great things under the Articles of Confederation, nor under a number of presidential administrations prior to Lincoln's that allowed the barbaric practice of slavery to continue. Buchanan's weak presidency and inability to exert any sort of federal authority did far more to make the nation ripe for civil war than Lincoln did.
I can't see any inherent advantage in a weak federal government, or in a strong one. Each depends on the decency of people to make it work, and relying overmuch on either one to mend society's ills (or blaming either one overmuch for society's ills) is a grave mistake and a gross abnegation of personal responsibility.

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