We the States?

Perhaps the most commendable quality of the current race toward the GOP primary is the nearly universal assertion by all candidates that an excess of power is being vested in the federal government and that much of the solution to our nation’s ails lies in the lessening of the scope and scale of its controls. From taxation to regulation to healthcare and finance, the overreaching nature of the federal government in all areas is becoming a less controversial topic by the day. Where candidates, much like the voters supporting them, display varying degrees of intellectual consistency on the subject, they all profess a profound resentment for the ever-lengthening list of ways that national politics has entered the lives of American citizens. One would anticipate, in light of such adamant condemnations of federal power and in keeping with the individualist spirit which the Tea Party has brought onto the political stage, that candidates would be proposing, as an alternative, the return of those powers to private Americans on the grounds of freedom and individual rights. Tragically, ironically, that is not strictly the case.

Through the course of recent debates and campaign speeches, it has become an increasingly common, ever more comfortable position for candidates to advocate the return of control and decision-making in healthcare and other regulatory issues to the states. When Governor Romney defends his state healthcare plan in Massachusetts, he is quick to mention that, “The people of Massachusetts favored our plan by three to one. And states can make their own choices.” Governor Perry concurs, saying, “from a just purely (sic) states get to decide what they want to do, I agree with that.”# The political effect of such advocacy is to strike a chord with the vast contingent of American voters who are displeased with the current overarching power of the federal government. Such voters are rightly enthused and drawn to applause at hearing candidates’ suggestions of divesting the federal government of the ability to, for instance, deny the rights of healthcare providers and patients alike through a socialistic and unjust social welfare program. However, it is deserving of note that the relocation of power from the federal to the state governments does nothing to protect citizens from violations of their individual rights. Such proposals evade the fundamental ethical conflict of the issue and commit a heinous disservice to the voters who mistakenly support these candidates on the belief that they stand against government interventionism.

In order to illustrate the immorality of their positions, let us consider a hypothetical circumstance. Imagine that the federal government was to cede all of its regulatory authority to state governments— the regulation of industry, healthcare, education, communications, food, drugs, transportation, and environmental impact were retained as they stand today; all entitlement and social welfare programs were divided between the states according to the amount of their citizens’ contributions to the programs; nothing was changed save for the locus of power in our national political structure being reoriented from Washington D.C. to the fifty capitals. With all policies held constant, ultimately, the degree to which current laws and regulations violate the rights of private citizens and corporations would remain unchanged. In envisioning such a circumstance, the question which arises is this: if force is to be used to extract from individuals the products of their labor in order to contribute their wages and property to unjust aims, of what significance is it that the party that takes those wages is an agent of the state instead of the federal government? Naturally, not all of the states would maintain the degree of interventionism at work in our national government today, but the principle advocated by Governor Romney and, to a lesser extent, Governor Perry that one level of  government would somehow enjoy a greater right to such violations than another is no less a threat to individualism than Obamacare.

What the governors’ positions reveal is that they perceive the problem with such programs as being one of management and bureaucracy, not one of morality. They implicitly assert that if, as Governor Romney cited, three quarters of the population of a state is willing to vote away their own rights, then the life, labor, and property of the dissenters is subject to redistribution as well. This is precisely the sort of democratic injustice of which our Founding Fathers warned when they wrote that the majority will, “to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possesses their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression,” (Jefferson) and that in pure democracy, “there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual…such democracies…have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths” (Madison). Such unlimited majority rule, even on the state level, is a violation of individual rights and the foundations on which our republic was built.

Much of the error shared by the governors and their supporters stems from a misunderstanding of the purpose of our federal system as it is designed in the Constitution. That system’s establishment of a number of states joined by a federal government under a single Constitution was designed so as to create an order in which individuals could enjoy the responsiveness and accountability of a more localized government as well as the broader capacity of a national authority. It was both responsive and capable. However, what it was not was a design in which states were treated as the primary political entities for consideration. That honor was reserved for the individual. There is ample cause for why the preamble to the Constitution does not read “We the States”, but “We the People.” Ours was, in fact, the first governing document in human history to have fully recognized individual rights and instituted a system for their protection. According to the principles which underlie the Constitution, the state or federal government is merely considered to be an agent working on the behalf of many private persons. Any who attempt to misappropriate the Founding Fathers’ accomplishments and to invoke a Federalist spirit by advocating the rendition of oppressive regulatory power to state governments evade the primary purpose and ultimate beneficiary of our political system and risk the establishment of an alternative form of injustice as dangerous and immoral as the first.

It should be recognized, however, that the field of contenders in the GOP primary race is not entirely dim. In a striking contrast to the aforementioned candidates, at the CNN/Tea Party debate in Tampa, Representative Michele Bachmann commendably repudiated the notion of states attaining the regulatory leverage now enjoyed by federal bodies, stating that “[N]o state has the constitutional right to force a person as a condition of citizenship to buy a product or service against their will. It’s unconstitutional… whether it’s the state government or whether it’s the federal government… if you believe that states can have it and that it’s constitutional, you’re not committed. If you’ve implemented this in your state, you’re not committed.”# This is precisely the sort of argument which American citizens deserve and require if we are to be defended against the onslaught of violations currently being enacted by the federal government. As a nation, we must embrace the principle that no government at any level can be justly vested with the power to deny the rights of individual citizens with impunity. We must come to the realization that, to paraphrase a classic adage, when the government’s boot is on your throat, whether it is a state boot or a federal boot is of no consequence.

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