Friday, June 4, 2010

Federalist 15: Do today's Tea Partiers know about this?

I had thought I'd be taking these Federalist chapters in big chunks, rather than one-by-one, but it turns out there's a lot to think about in all of these. So we're going to have to go slowly.

You might remember that I said -- somewhat near the outset of this project -- that I expected some of the context of the Federalist would reveal itself as we proceeded through the papers. I wasn't entirely wrong, because we're now at Federalist 15, and Publius is ready to start telling us why the Articles of Confederation stink.

Not, of course, that he needs to make the case. From what I can tell skimming through the Antifederalist Papers, there's no great love for the Articles among any huge segment of the nascent American society. And Publius -- Alexander Hamilton in this particular chapter -- acknowledges as much.
The point next in order to be examined is the "insufficiency of the present Confederation to the preservation of the Union." It may perhaps be asked what need there is of reasoning or proof to illustrate a position which is not either controverted or doubted, to which the understandings and feelings of all classes of men assent, and which in substance is admitted by the opponents as well as the friends of the new Constitution.
So what's the problem here, exactly?

Well, as Hamilton puts it, the antifederalists know the Confederation doesn't work -- but they're unwilling to countenance a government strong enough to overcome the Confederation's problems.
While they admit that the government of the United States is destitute of energy, they contend against conferring upon it those powers which are requisite to supply that energy. They seem still to aim at things repugnant and irreconcilable; at an augmentation of federal authority, without a diminution of State authority; at sovereignty in the Union, and complete independence in the members.
Hmmm. Let me say right here I'm not trying to score any political points. But I've increasingly suspected -- reading the Federalist Papers and skimming over the Antifederalist Papers -- that today's Tea Party/GOP/conservative crowd might be heir more to the antifederalist tradition rather than the federalists. I'm not ready to mount a definitive case here -- I've not done enough reading, and in any case I've already suggested that Alexander Hamilton may not be the most reliable narrator -- but this passage here adds to my sense of things. Because it sure sounds like Hamilton is describing the kind of schizophrenia that characterizes a movement that roots on a president who breaks wiretapping and torture laws while decrying slightly higher marginal tax rates as "tyranny."

But I might be overreading things. I'm not ready to make the case. So let's move on.

Because of the antifederalist bipolar approach, Hamilton says, he's going to have to show how the Confederation really doesn't work. And he starts off with the biggest problem: The national government has too little power, while the states have too much. That means the states can -- and do -- ignore the laws made by the national government. It's an untenable situation.
The United States has an indefinite discretion to make requisitions for men and money; but they have no authority to raise either, by regulation extending to the individual citizens of America. The consequence of this is, that though in theory their resolutions concerning those objects are laws, constitutionally binding on the members fo the Union, yet in practice they are mere recommendations which the States observe or disregard at their option.
Up till now, Publius has talked long and hard about the need for the United States to remain, well, united. Now he takes a different tack: It would be better for the states to exist as separate nations -- though allied, like the NATO alliance -- rather than allow the national government to continue in such an emasculated state. Otherwise, Hamilton writes, it's time to give a national government the power to enforce the laws it makes -- even over the objections of the states.
Government implies the power of making laws. It is essential to the idea of a law that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience. If there be no penalty annexed to disobedience, the resolutions or commands which pretend to be laws will, in fact, amount to nothing more than advice or recommendation.
He continues:
There was a time when we were told that breaches, by the States, of the regulations of the federal authority were not to be expected; that a sense of common interest would perside over the conduct of the respective members, and would beget a full compliance with all the constitutional requisitions of the Union. ... In our case, the concurrence of thirteen distinct sovereign wills is requisite, under the Confederation, to the complete execution of every important measure that proceeds from the Union. It has happened as was to have been forseen. The measures of the Union have not been executed; the delinquencies of the states have, step by step, matured themselves to an extreme, which has, at length, arrested all the wheels of the national government, and brought them to an awful stand.
And here again, I'm thinking of today's Tea Party/conservative/GOP folks who regularly assert the rights of states to nullify federal laws. (Take a look at the states attorneys general bringing legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act.) They claim to be acting in the traditions of the Founders; yet the Founders really did act to centralize power -- take it away from the states -- instead of distributing power to the states.

I have no doubt I'll come up against a flaw in this theory -- or that somebody will point it out to me -- as I continue reading. But so far, I'm finding it harder to avoid this idea: Today's Tea Partiers might actually be heirs to folks who wanted nothing to do with the Constitution. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, assuming I'm right. But it might cast a very different flavor to our modern debates.


RobbL said...

"It would be better for the states to exist as separate nations -- though allied, like the NATO alliance -- rather than allow the national government to continue in such an emasculated state."

I'm sold. When do we proceed?

Joel said...

Gonna need a time machine...

emawkc said...

Couple of points:

You wrote "...a movement that roots on a president who breaks wiretapping and torture laws ..." and I presume that you are referring to the "Tea Party/conservative/GOP" (as you seem to broadly label those who disagree with you).

However, I assume you label your political adversaries this way because you didn't know (or chose to forget) that Obama himself voted for the FISA ("domestic spying") Act AND that Omaba himself has ordered the assassination of a U.S. citizen without a trial.

Secondly, whether intentional or not, you are employing the logical fallacy of the false dichotomy. The fact that someone thinks our current central government exercise too much power, power not granted to it by the constitution, doesn't necessarily mean they believe there should be no central government.

Similarly, your post doesn't support the conclusion that because Hamilton disagreed with the Confederation of his time he would be totally supportive of the grossly bloated Federal bureaucracy of or our time.

Joel said...

Emaw: Labels are always tricky, and always imprecise.

In fact, I entirely agree with you about Obama, FISA and assassination. I need to be louder about that unhappiness, and I take your challenge accordingly.

That said: You're right, what Hamilton is making a case for is not exactly the government we've ended up with today. BUT: To the extent I understand and have read the antifederalist case against Hamilton, et al, they ARE saying that a huge centralized, tyrannical tax-happy government is going to be the end result of the scheme put forward by Hamilton and the others.

And, uh, who's to say they're wrong?

Finally, point taken about false dichotomies. What I'm hoping I'll learn -- as I move forward through the Federalist and Antifederalist Papers -- is to get a better sense of where "Publius" actually was on the whole centralization v. decentralization spectrum by the lights of our time.

I'm still learning here, in other words, and all judgments are provisional until I get to the end. Keep smacking me around, though. Seriously.

KhabaLox said...

"I'm sold. When do we proceed?"

Wouldn't moving from the United States to a NATO-like alliance necessitate moving through a EU-type arrangement? I wouldn't think you (or other conservatives/libertarians) would support such a solution. Am I wrong?

RobbL said...

K: Well, since NATO preceded the EU by several decades, I'd say your premise is flawed. No, you wouldn't need an EU-type economic union to come to agreement about mutual defense.

That said, I'd certainly favor an EU-type arrangement over the current configuration. But that's probably only because the EU hasn't (yet) succeeded in gaining as much power over its member states as the U.S. government gained between the ratification of the Constitution and the consolidation of power secured in the civil war.

RobbL said...

K: Re-reading your post, perhaps you were saying to get from "here" to "there" we'd need something EU-like in between. That is probably true, unless the union is destroyed by some economic or other disaster. And in that case, all bets are off as to how reconfiguration would look.

Unfortunately, the death of America due to economic, social, or military disaster (or some combination) is certainly much more likely than any fundamental realignment through peaceful means. It's sad, but unfortunately large empires rarely dissolve peacefully.