The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people —The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.
When Republican governors like Bobby Jindal, Haley Barbour, and Sarah Palin voiced reservations about their states’ participation in the federal stimulus package this spring, they were accused of placing political ideology over the best interests of their constituents. A prominent attack ad currently running against Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell cites his opposition to stimulus funding for Virginia as evidence of his lack of concern for hardworking families. For many people, the idea that a governor would turn down “free” money from Uncle Sam in order to protect the economic solvency and political independence of their state is completely foreign, if not downright laughable. As the central government continues to grow and amass power, however, perhaps now is the time to begin a thoughtful public discussion about the proper constitutional role of state governments in a federalist system.
It is impossible to watch TV, listen to the radio, or surf the Internet these days without being reminded that our nation is experiencing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. No one is fonder of reminding us of this alarming state of affairs than our President and his supporters in Congress. The rhetoric of crisis makes it easy for politicians to convince the people that bold actions were, and continue to be, necessary in order to salvage our flagging economy. And of course, the only entity capable of taking on the gargantuan responsibility of saving America from the consequences of its own selfishness and greed is the federal government.
In the name of remediating this crisis, the American government has presided over the most drastic expansion of its size and scope of influence in our nation’s history. In the name of “recovery and reinvestment,” this Administration has catapulted the irresponsible fiscal policies begun under the Bush administration to new levels, spending unimaginable sums of taxpayer money to nationalize or quasi-nationalize vast segments of the American marketplace. There’s no telling what segment of our economy will fall next into the crosshairs of Uncle Sam’s benevolent bailout apparatus.
How will the federal government fund the bailout mania that appears to have no end in sight? Simple. Bureaucrats will work day and night to find creative ways to extract more and more money from the people. Of course, when there is more money flowing into Uncle Sam’s coffers, there is less money circulating in households and in communities. That translates into an ever-growing dependence on the federal government for the performance of functions that should rightly rest with individuals and their respective state governments. Indeed, the bloated visage of the federal government has become so fixed in the nation’s psyche that effective challenges to its legitimacy seem utterly futile, if not downright impossible. Political constructs like “universal health care,” “free education for all” and “a hybrid in every driveway” are now viewed as unassailable moral dictates of the American creed to be mandated, managed, and administered by bureaucratic elites in Washington, D.C. Those who would dispute the legitimacy of this statist dogma are no longer invited to have a seat at the table.
History teaches us, however, that this massive government growth and consolidation of power at the national level cannot continue without detrimental consequences for the American people. Thankfully, some are beginning to reexamine the role that the states should be playing in these issues. A review of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution reminds us that the federal government was never intended to have the power it now possesses. The bounds of its authority and its role in America’s political system are explicitly enumerated, while the bulk and remainder of governmental authority is allocated to the states. In addition to the system of checks and balances put in place to ensure stability among the three branches of the central government, we have a federal system by which the states are to exercise power and check the abuse of power by the central government.
Alexis de Tocqueville considered the powers vested in the individual American states to be key to the long-term viability of the nation as a whole. His eloquent assessment of America’s federal system in 1830 could be read as a prophetic admonition of our nation’s current state of affairs:
“One cannot imagine to what extent this division of sovereignty serves the well-being of each of the states of which the Union is composed…. As the sovereignty of the Union is hindered and incomplete, the use of that sovereignty is not dangerous for freedom. Neither does it excite those immoderate desires for attention that are so fatal to great republics. As everything does not necessarily converge at a common center, neither does one see vast metropolises, or immense wealth, or great misery, or sudden revolutions there. Political passions, instead of spreading in an instant over the whole area of the country like a sheet of flames, break against the individual interests and passions of each state.”
Modern day disciples of Tocqueville who wish to resurrect a robust role for the states’ constitutionally delegated authority must, nevertheless, overcome an unwholesome legacy. Too often in America’s history, the states attempted to exert their sovereignty at the expense of individual rights. Who can forget the states’ rights justification used to defend the extension of slavery into U.S. territories prior to the Civil War, the shameful phenomenon of antebellum Jim Crow laws, or the image of Alabama governor George Wallace barring the schoolhouse door in protest against federally-mandated desegregation in public schools? These ill-conceived assertions of state authority cast a pall over the doctrine of states’ rights. Having lost moral legitimacy in the public square, the concept atrophied through decades. In the meantime, people have been conditioned to look to the federal government to meet their wants and needs.
But times have changed. The American people are now faced with the opposite phenomenon: a central government that is abusing its amassed powers to dismantle the federalist tradition and all it stands for. The rights of the states and the rights of individual citizens are being trampled upon in the name of the common good. The states must not shy away from their constitutional responsibility to defend themselves from this federal onslaught. Moreover, individual citizens have a role to play in educating themselves about the republican model of our federalist system so that they can participate in a meaningful public discussion about the proper relationship between the central government and the states. If we don’t have this conversation, and soon, we might as well say goodbye to the United States of America and embrace our country for what it’s fast becoming: the United State.