Tag Archives: federalism

How FDR Got Federalism Right

In Federalist No. 40, James Madison wrote that “the general powers (of the new federal government) are limited, and … the states in all unemumerated cases, are left in the enjoyment of their sovereign and independent jurisdiction.”  Madison wrote in Federalist No. 45 that “the States will retain under the proposed Constitution a very extensive portion of active sovereignty” and that the powers “which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite.”  Further, he wrote that “the powers delegated by the Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined” and that the “operations of the Federal Government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger” and “those of the State Governments, in times of peace and security.”  The states’ retention of sovereignty was crucial to the ratification of the Constitution.  It was important to the people that they retain local governmental control over the things that affect their lives the most.  In that vein, Madison wrote that “(t)he powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects, which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people; and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

As American government continues to move inextricably toward complete centralization in Washington D.C., our governance exhibits ever fewer indicia of the strong federalism intentionally established by our founders via the Constitution.  Like virtually every other manner in which our original Constitution has been deconstructed, the weakening of federalism began as an idea in the minds of the early progressives and was brought to life by the policy initiatives of the New Deal under FDR.  In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt complained that “the State’s rights fetish” was “effectively used…by both courts and Congress to block needed national legislation.”  But it was not until the 1930’s that Franklin Roosevelt was able to breach the Supreme Court’s constitutional sensibilities and usher in the era of big central government and diminished state authority which we have lived with ever since.  Interestingly, FDR didn’t come into the presidency as an outspoken advocate in favor of central government and against federalism.

James P. Warburg was one of FDR’s original economic advisors.  He was impressed by FDR’s first campaign for presidency, but quickly became disillusioned when he realized that FDR “has done a few things that he promised to do – more things that he promised not to do – and still more things that his Socialist opponent (Norman Thomas) promised to do.”  Warburg left the administration mid-way through FDR’s first term and wrote his book, Hell Bent For Election, in an effort to alert the country to the dangers of FDR’s policies or, as he put it, “to flag an express train before it reaches a broken culvert.”

Though only 78 pages and easily readable in a sitting or two, Hell Bent For Election provides meaningful insights from an FDR insider as to the changes in his attitudes toward governing once he came into office.  In assessing Roosevelt as the time came for the country to determine whether he deserved a second term, Warburg sought to answer a few seemingly simple questions, including: how have his actions since becoming president compared with his pre-election statements and promises?  Of particular relevance to federalism, Warburg quoted the following excerpts from an FDR speech delivered in March of 1930, almost exactly three years before he took the oath of office.  Though FDR’s comments in favor of state sovereignty in 1930 are curious when considered in the larger context of his presidency, they are no less true now than they were when originally spoken:

The preservation of this “Home Rule” by the States is not a cry of jealous Commonwealths seeking their own aggrandizement at the expense of sister States. It is a fundamental necessity if we are to remain a truly united country. The whole success of our democracy has not been that it is a democracy wherein the will of a bare majority of the total inhabitants is imposed upon the minority, but that it has been a democracy where through a division of government into units called States the rights and interests of the minority have been respected and have always been given a voice in the control of our affairs.…

Now, to bring about government by oligarchy masquerading as democracy, it is fundamentally essential that practically all authority and control be centralized in our National Government. The individual sovereignty of our States must first be destroyed, except in mere minor matters of legislation. We are safe from the danger of any such departure from the principles on which this country was founded just so long as the individual home rule of the States is scrupulously preserved and fought for whenever it seems in danger. Thus it will be seen that this “Home Rule” is a most important thing, a most vital thing, if we are to continue along the course on which we have so far progressed with such unprecedented success.…

Let us remember that from the very beginning differences in climate, soil, conditions, habits and modes of living in States separated by thousands of miles rendered it necessary to give the fullest individual latitude to the individual States. Let us further remember that the mining States of the Rockies, the fertile savannas of the South, the prairies of the West, and the rocky soil of the New England States created many problems and introduced many factors in each locality, which have no existence in others. It must be obvious that almost every new or old problem of government must be solved, if it is to be solved to the satisfaction of the people of the whole country, by each State in its own way….

So it was that FDR got federalism right – before he began his presidency, completely changed his position, and began the unconstitutional transition of power from the states to the federal government which continues to this day.

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The Common Core Debate’s Implications For A Return To Constitutionalism.

The grass roots effort to defeat the Common Core might be interpreted by many as a sign of hope.  In an age when federal overreach is routine and the centralization of governmental authority in Washington is widely accepted or even welcomed by the States, the media and a great portion of the citizenry, a proponent of decentralized government and constitutionalism might find the opposition to the Common Core a welcome reason for optimism.  Perhaps not since the advent of the Tea Party movement has there been an issue that coalesced individuals in a cause against centralized government on such a wide spread basis.

To be sure, the reasons for the movement against the Common Core are many.  Not all are motivated by concern over the potential for the centralization of education in Washington or the potential loss of local control over curricula.  Some are motivated by concern over the testing protocol, others by the collection and consolidation of personal information and privacy issues implicated thereby and still others by the perceived lack of rigor embodied in the standards. But it is clear that the “federalization” of education is among the primary concerns giving cause for the movement. For this reason, constitutionalists might be heard to breathe a sigh of relief.  Sadly, further reflection leads me to conclude the opposite—the grass roots movement to defeat the Common Core illustrates the magnitude of the centralization problem and the revelation is disheartening.

One would have a difficult time identifying an issue that could be more important to people than education.  The public apathy for political issues is widespread and obvious, but Americans still love their children and grandchildren and we still go to great lengths to plan their futures for the best and to manage their lives while they remain under our care.  During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, it occurred to me on many occasions that there are not many issues more personal and thus, of greater importance than health care.  It seems to me that maintaining the ability to influence public education is one such issue.

Unfortunately, the debate over the ACA became bogged down in the minutia over the efficacy and costs of the plan.  Rather than focus on the free market and constitutional principles involved and the implications for human liberty, the debate was too much based on the pragmatic; would the ACA improve healthcare, how much would it cost, and how would it be paid for.  Happily, it does seem that the debate over the Common Core may be developing somewhat more of a focus on the fundamental principles involved.  Certainly the proponents of Common Core would be happy if the debate could be made to focus on pragmatic issues.  Arguing about the supposed benefits of nationwide standards or a technical debate over the details of the standards themselves would suit their purpose.  If the debate can be made to be technical and obscure they know that most eyes will glaze over and they’ll be far more likely to get the result they want—people leave it to others to figure out the best approach and bow out of the debate.  As long as a substantial focus of the debate remains on the ability to affect decision making at the local level, the grass roots is more likely to remain interested and engaged.

For today, my sad point is this: If it is this difficult to gain sufficient widespread support to defeat Common Core, an issue which implicates our ability to influence and affect our children’s education, how far removed must we be from an age where constitutionalism and widely dispersed government are generally appreciated and ultimately demanded?  If Americans will not “wake up” in sufficient numbers to protect the free market in health care or demand a continued say in the education of their children, what will be required to awaken them to all the other benefits of constitutionalism?  The decades long trend of diminishing State sovereignty and federalism in favor of growing and centralized power in Washington must be broken if we are to enjoy the larger liberty, free markets and individual role in self government contemplated by the founders. That it is so difficult and effortful to engage sufficient numbers of Americans in the effort to ensure the continued local control of public education does not bode well for breaking that trend without some larger, likely terrible eventuality to trigger a national introspection on the slow decay of our first principles.

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