28 March 2011

States' Rights = Limited Government? A historical note

An assumption underlying support for states' rights against the federal government is that the smaller the scale of government, the smaller its scope and the less intrusive it will be. It's taken almost for granted that individuals and their enterprises would be more free were the balance between state and federal power restored to something like what the Framers envisioned. The Framers themselves may have thought differently. Here's an intriguing observation from John Brooke's fascinating new book, Columbia Rising: Civil Life on the Upper Hudson from the Revolution to the Age of Jackson. By exploring the evolution of "civil society" on the home turf of Martin Van Buren, the main inventor of the Democratic party, Brooke promises to say something important about the envisioned role of parties in civil society. For now, here's Brooke on "states' rights" before the Constitution.
While the Clintonians [the "popular" and anti-federalist faction in 1780s New York] were suspicious of a powerful and activist national government, they believed in a powerful and activist state government, closely responsive and attentive to the needs of the people at large. To the end of a distributive improvement, the Clintonians in 1784 moved comprehensive legislation to rebuild roads and bridges, in 1786, after years of struggle over paper money, to establish a series of county loan offices that would make public loans on the model of colonial land banks, and in 1788 to pass a comprehensive restructuring of county and town governments....[I]n the post-Revolutionary decades the numbers of people looking to government for distribution, for improvement, and for police were hugely multiplied, to the extent that they might reasonably see a public good in their collective private interests. The republican structure of Clintonian governance worked to emphasize the collective over the private, turning the state's tradition of distributive politics to the purposes of a revolutionary settlement.(p 57-8; emphasis added)
If Clintonian New Yorkers opposed the "consolidation" of power in a stronger federal government, it was at least in part because they feared that the federal authority would not allow them to take many of the steps described above. It was the same in other states, especially in the north and especially when "popular" governments took steps to protect poor debtors from creditors or increase the money supply. From this perspective, it was the federal government that represented limited government because it constrained the states from taking many such steps. If perceptions have changed since then, that's probably because the states' rights position has been identified with the southern stance, according to which a state is ideally the guarantor of peculiar property rights or social customs, usually having to do with race, against the objections of a federal majority. But states themselves are conservative bulwarks of limited government only so long as parties favoring limited government, i.e. limited infringement upon perceived property rights, control them. When that's not the case, "conservatives" have looked to the federal government and especially the Supreme Court, as they did 100 years ago, when the Court could be depended upon to strike down state laws favoring workers against employers. Through American history, there's been no consistent equation of more local with more limited government. Instead, powerful interests have played state against federal, siding with one or the other depending on which level of government was most threatening. While the handful of ideologues advocating the "nullification amendment" I wrote about earlier this month assume that theirs is an inherently conservative measure in behalf of limited government, history teaches that they are probably wrong, and that their proposal, on the longshot chance that it becomes the supreme law of the land, could someday empower liberal or progressive states to overturn the dictates of a conservative Congress or President. Then you'll hear howls for federal supremacy just as you hear howls for state supremacy now, but in either case it's really a call for the supremacy of entrenched wealth by any means necessary.

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