In America today, for every problem, a national “solution” is proposed, regardless of how individual or local the issues are. Whether we consider housing, education, energy, transportation, finance, labor markets, the automobile industry or the current attempted takeover of the health care and insurance industries, we are overwhelmed with ever more “federal government knows best” policies and programs centralized in Washington. And what it does not mandate, the federal government manipulates with its ability to massively redistribute income.
For example, over a decade ago, the National Conference of State Legislatures estimated that compliance with federal requirements already absorbed one-fifth of state government spending. And in 2009, for the first time ever, federal aid exceeded the sales tax as the number one source of state revenue.
However, our founders did not envision the federal government as being involved in virtually any decision made by anyone, much less as the domineering senior partner for almost every decision made by everyone. For example, Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 17, wrote: “[A]ll those things, in short, which are proper to be provided by local legislation, can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction.” James Madison, wrote that “the new Constitution will, if established, be a federal, and not a national constitution,” in Federalist 39 and that “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government are few and defined…exercised principally on external objects,” in Federalist 45.
The extent of the current nationalization of every decision, and the concomitant evisceration of federalism and individual rights, is far beyond anything seen in America outside of mobilization for world war. And it is being accomplished without concern for the violation of the foundational Constitutional principle of limited, enumerated federal powers.
That is why it is useful that that 2009 is the 50th anniversary of one of the most insightful books ever written about how the centralization of government power eviscerates our liberties, that is, our ability to govern ourselves — Felix Morley’s Freedom and Federalism.
One commenter called Dr. Morley, Rhodes Scholar, Guggenheim Fellow, Pulitzer Prize winner, university president, and founder of Human Events, “a brilliant citizen-statesman in the spirit of the founding fathers.” Liberty Fund calls Freedom and Federalism “a pioneering achievement.”
In Publius, John Kincaid wrote that Morley “regarded federalism as being essential to the protection of individual freedom in the United States…limiting government, constraining the potential tyranny of a national majority, and reserving control over local affairs to local citizens.” And a 1960 Western Political Quarterly review by Louis Wasserman sounds eerily as if it was written today: “The author’s main theme…is that the past century has witnessed the erosion of American federalism (and consequently, freedom) through the unchecked usurpations of power by the national government.”
With half a century of further “progress” along the path Morley ominously laid out and an acceleration in the rate at which remaining tatters of federalism (which he called the distinctively American contribution to political art)” are being eviscerated, revisiting his insights is crucially important now. And his main focus is clear: “[C]onsider…the impact on individual liberty as centralized government takes more and more authority into its hands.”
Advantages of Federalism
“By the device of keeping certain government powers under strictly local control, people with great diversities may be encouraged to unite under one flag.”
“[With] citizens…competent to handle local problems…there is little doubt that federalism…serves admirably to foster freedom without the sacrifice of order.”
“[U]nless political power is centralized the popular will cannot be made nationally effective. Thus the dispersion of power simultaneously assists social, and hampers political, democracy.”
“[T]he founding fathers devised a balanced political structure, designed to protect minorities against the majority, right down to that minority of one, the individual…justified by the belief that men as individuals, and in their voluntary social combinations, are…worthy of freedom.”
“[I]n the United States…majority will is severely circumscribed, is binding only in the field of delegated powers, and even there is subject to many specific restrictions…”
“Jefferson favored federalism because a strongly centralized government is always likely to deprive men of the freedom which he thought…should be their birthright.”
“[T]he principle of federalism serves to maintain all the many advantages of majority rule while preventing its degeneracy into dictatorship…a federal system is by its very nature out of key with the domination of any ‘general will’ expressed in terms of national majorities or centralized interpretation.”
“Consolidation of power is the essence of the national system, as diffusion of power is the essence of the federal.”
“The essence of the Constitution, is, of course, the federal system which it established. Every provision of the organic law is based on the fundamental concept of these Unites States.”
“By its very nature a federal system is an impediment to that unrestricted triumph of the majority will which is the essence of political democracy. The distribution of power characteristic of a federation is an obstruction to any ‘general will’ in all matters reserved to the control of the autonomous localities. In the federation of the United States this obstruction is intensified, because the Constitution reserves certain specified rights to the people and prohibits any government infringement of these rights…”
“[P]olitical government cannot assure freedom of any kind, to anybody, without regimentation of those who would prefer to fend for themselves. It was to emphasize the importance of these individual immunities that the Bill of Rights was immediately added to the original Constitution and that the power reserved to the States were intended to include, in Madison’s words, ‘all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people’.”
Erosion of Federalism
“[T]he United States has now moved far from the original concept of federalism, and ever closer towards that of a centralized, unitary state.”
“[There is] a divergence between our actual constitutional law and the often wholly erroneous contemporary idea of the American political system.”
“[T]he state tends to encroach upon and diminish the areas controlled by society…”
“In times of unusual strain…the central government is likely either to evade its constitutional limitations, or be frustrated by them…to alter their character, in the direction of strongly centralized government,…that centralizing process is difficult to reverse, largely because of the vested interest in power which every governmental agency quickly establishes for itself unless continuously checked by those who pay for its support.”
“A strongly centralized government is aided by political ignorance and apathy…But the docile acceptance of paternalism spells morbidity for a federal system…So there is cause for concern in the fact that so many Americans have come to regard their Federal Republic as a centralized democracy.”
“[A]ction by the misnamed federal government, in behalf of an alleged general will, is…made to appear appropriate to the American system of government, which it frequently is not. Federal Aid to Education, for instance is actually anti-federal, since it threatens to deprive the localities of one of their constitutional functions, vesting it in the central government. But it is argued that this should be done, regardless of constitutionality, if it can be demonstrated that a national majority wants the development.”
“The more sacrosanct the allegedly popular desire, the more authoritarian must be the power of those in a position to give it realization. A single, unified popular will obviously implies a single, unified governmental direction, to make the will effective.”
“Because the American system is so clearly and positively anti-socialist few Americans are willing to admit to that political affiliation, but prefer to seek the same end of centralized and unified governmental power under more euphonious labels.”
“[C]entralization of power…tends to destroy that local self-government which is what most Americans have in mind when they acclaim democracy.”
“Where political power is concentrated and unlimited, as it must be under the theory of the general will, the unscrupulous are always likely to rise to the top. The true liberal, who recognizes and cherishes the infinite variety of human nature, is by that fact alone stopped from issuing glib commands in the name of ‘the people’.”
“There is a point at which conciliation between the advocates of federalism and those of nationalistic democracy becomes impossible.”
“[F]ederalism and democracy…do not become opposites until the advocates of centralization demand it in the name of democracy…”
“[T]o obtain this centralization of power in a political federation, the national government must prevail on people to surrender their individual and State rights on the plea of national necessity.”
“[M]ore centralized taxation is imposed to return to the States and people, under controls, a part of what has been taken from them!”
“[T]he ‘true democrat’—as soon as his thinking becomes national rather than parochial—is drawn inexorably towards paternalism. The majority of people can always be said to need assistance of some kind and there is no question that a powerful central government can for a time do much to furnish those needs. And since majority opinion—by democratic definition—is all that counts it follows that it is proper as well as expedient to increase the power of the central government so that it can meet the real or fancied wants of the majority. The fact that such centralization must undermine the federal structure of this Republic is secondary to the fiction of the general will.”
“[R]eformers all but invariably argue that there ‘oughta be a law.’ To prevent abuse of power, superior power should be concentrated in some government agency—an argument which strangely assumes that men become more moral when they serve the unmoral instrumentality of the state…The average reformer…does not usually invoke the word with the intention of making the bureaucracy all-powerful. He merely equates the general will with his own particular opinion. But the easiest way to make the particularist viewpoint dominant is to call upon the power of government, especially centralized government, in its behalf.”
“In spirit, American political philosophy altered enormously between 1933 and 1945. The conception of government as a service agency then for the first time took firm hold on American thinking. As a necessary corollary, the principles of federalism were severely subordinated to those of a centralized Service State.”
“[S]ocial power, in the broad sense of the word, was taken from the localities and concentrated in the new network of alphabetical agencies.”
“[A] ‘general will’ must be formulated into concrete terms by somebody … There lies the tremendous danger. For the executive, though a mere finite man…is by democratic theory virtually compelled to formulate the general will as he sees best.”
“[M]any who talk eloquently in terms of ‘the people’ obviously favor nationalized social services, with local participation limited to the unquestioning payment of ‘federal’ taxes.”
“All American energies are therefore being increasingly concentrated by centralized government, at the expense of the American tradition…”
“It is commonly asserted that the more democratic a system of government, the more free will be those whom it governs. The assumption is baseless. If democracy is at variance with federalism, and if federalism is conducive to freedom, it would follow that, far from maintaining freedom, democracy is inimical to it.”
“[P]olitical democracy provides the ideal formula for converting a federal republic into a centralized empire.”
“[T]he concept of the general will is…fundamentally, and in practice ruthlessly, opposed to that faith in the potential of the individual on which the government of the United States is founded.”
“[T]his process of centralization…adds emphasis to the importance of our written Constitution, as a last bulwark for the liberty of the individual…”
“[T]he value of federalism, in preventing the prostitution of freedom, becomes more clear….blocking the thoughtless extension of national power…the founding fathers put restraints on government so that the governed might be free.”
One of the most appalling facts about American life is that power is increasingly being centralized in the federal government, at the expense of individual and local self-government. Federalizing everything, including plainly private and local choices, is not benefitting or unifying America, as clearly indicated by the intensity of the battles to control what is to be imposed on everyone. We need to resurrect the federalism of the Constitution again, leaving people to make their own decisions outside of those very few areas where their choices need to be in common nationwide.
If America is to re-establish federalism and the liberties it protects, Felix Morley’s Freedom and Federalism is a great place to begin. As its cover summarized, “In Morley’s eyes, a government of free men is like a strong-standing arch. The solid stones of which it is built is called freedom. Neither the building blocks of individual liberty nor the arch of freedom will stand secure without the keystone of federalism. It is federalism that holds up the arch. It is federalism that makes possible the preservation of both liberty and freedom.”