Anti-Federalism is the New Federalism

Read John Schwenkler’s Culture11 piece about federalism. He is especially sharp on the unfortunate tendency to regard successful governors as future national figures, when conservatives ought to look at state governorship as a worthy object of political ambition in its own right.

Joe Carter has replied, claiming that conservatives ought to play harder for national stakes and insist upon national outcomes. I’m not convinced by either his empirical claims or his exhortation to care more about what Massachusetts does with its marriage laws, but check it out if you want to hear an argument against federalism from the right.

Advocates of federalism face an uphill battle. Nobody cares about it at the popular level. It’s inefficient, so the Hamiltonians and libertarians hate it. It’s understandably tainted by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow which, as Michael Greve (whom Joe cites in support of his own argument) pointed out once, is the most earnest and thorough application of federalism ever attempted in the US. Then there’s the Commerce Clause, as interpreted by successive courts. Even within The American Scene, opinions on federalism probably map onto the split between the dynamists and the paleos among us. What’s a would-be federalist to do?

Well, a good start is to quit thinking of Madison and Hamilton, awesome as they may be, as part of the solution. The US population and political apparatus no longer need to be convinced to come together in a strong, integrated state. The Constitution is a done deal. Recovering autonomy and initiative at the state level — being a federalist — requires brushing off the undemocratic, fuddy-duddy arguments of Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry and New York governor George ‘Atomick Dogge’ Clinton, the people who brought you the Bill of Rights.

Take it away, “Brutus:”

But what is meant is, that the legislature of the United States are vested with the great and uncontrollable powers of laying and collecting taxes, duties, imposts, and excises; of regulating trade, raising and supporting armies, organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, instituting courts, and other general powers; and are by this clause invested with the power of making all laws, proper and necessary, for carrying all these into execution; and they may so exercise this power as entirely to annihilate all the State governments, and reduce this country to one single government. And if they may do it, it is pretty certain they will; for it will be found that the power retained by individual States, small as it is, will be a clog upon the wheels of the government of the United States; the latter, therefore, will be naturally inclined to remove it out of the way. Besides, it is a truth confirmed by the unerring experience of ages, that every man, and every body of men, invested with power, are ever disposed to increase it, and to acquire a superiority over everything that stands in their way. This disposition, which is implanted in human nature, will operate in the Federal legislature to lessen and ultimately to subvert the State authority, and having such advantages, will most certainly succeed, if the Federal government succeeds at all.

(From Anti-Federalist No. 17 )