It seems to me that part of the answer goes back to how federalism works practically. In theory, federalism is the evolution of power from one political level to another, which allows implicitly for the devolution of power back to its base: an arrangement that should be friendly to liberty. The problem in practice is that federal systems end up as just a re-arrangement of the loci of power - unitary systems in all but name - with the centre agreeing to reserve powers to the lower tiers, a reversal of what was intended.
Another, related, question to consider is which of the major philosophies of government in the United States' history of political thought is preferable from a libertarian perspective: Jeffersonian or Hamiltonian? At first blush, one would think Jeffersonian, but I would question that. Here I ask whether there is a case for a New Hamiltonianism as a means of reinvigorating not federalism, but political individualism in the name of an American Liberal Order. I have not fleshed out the case, however.
Below is my response to Merlin:
This is true, but I don't regard the U.S. federal system as anything more than a 'balance of power' arrangement that has veered towards something resembling a unitary state in practice. Federalism seems chimeric so far as it applies in the United States. The federal government is massive, and as a centre of gravity it seems to suck in everything. It's for this reason that I always smile when I hear or read Americans sneer at what they call 'socialism' in Britain or Europe. The United States is one of the most statist and centralised countries in the world, with (among other things) a massive welfare state and perhaps the highest prison population in proportionate terms. States are supposed to be nations unto themselves, but as far as I can see they are not sovereign in anything more than a formal sense. Some knowledgeable Americans call for a re-invigoration of federalism, but this may have the opposite result to that intended: for one thing, states such as California seem very keen on open border policies and are high-spending and ultra-statist, and the effect of such policies can and must reverberate beyond that state into the rest of the United States.Merlin wrote: ↑Thu Jun 14, 2018 10:56 pmThe issue with taking that road is that today’s federal government may be a tad more liberal, but tomorrow’s may not be. Heck, it will not be. If given further powers at the expense of states, who knows what these newfound powers shall be used for in the future?Tom Rogers wrote: ↑Thu Jun 14, 2018 2:44 pmParadoxically, if you wanted more political freedom in America in today's climate, you would need to revert to some sort of Hamiltonian system, with a strong federal government that reigned state and local government in, asset-stripped their bureaucracies and put a stop to their social-democratic inclinations. Maybe that's Trump's tacit agenda?
If that is indeed Trump's agenda, then the usual suspects would do well do leave him alone for two full terms, after which he would have handed them a centralised behemoth for them to abuse at their pleasure. Only Nixon could go to China and all that.
American intellectuals assume that Jeffersonian philosophy answers this problem by instituting diversity between states. The eminent U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia (now deceased) once made this point in a different context - a discussion in which he defended originalism and his judicial conservatism. He argued that the federal system could be the basis of true diversity: each state (and, in some policy areas, each county or district within states) is a nation unto itself. The idea is that you could have one state, like California, being social-democratic and socially-liberal, etc., while another state, like say, Colorado, could be libertarian, and you might have Southern states that are conservative, and so on. I'm not convinced. For one thing, that more truer type of federalism once existed - as recently as the 1960s, Southern states practiced racial segregation - but it didn't hold under pressure from an expansive federal government.
I do like aspects of Jefferson's philosophy, and I accept that anybody who is concerned with liberty and tradition in an American context must pay heed to Jefferson, but Jeffersonianism is not strictly libertarian, it merely boosts the power of states at the expense of the federal government. He emphasised states rights as his praxis, and I do not see that this is axiomatically pro-liberty. There is at least an argument that under present circumstances some modification of Hamilton's approach is preferable in which the federal government interprets its powers as expansively as possible in order to reform the state governments, either to make them fit for the restoration of states' rights along the lines envisaged by Jefferson, or as part of a new constitutional settlement in which there is maximal liberty for the individual within a Celtic-Anglo-Saxon-Germanic political community, as was the original intention.