Do Federalism And Libertarianism Conflict?

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Tom Rogers
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Do Federalism And Libertarianism Conflict?

Post by Tom Rogers » Fri Jun 15, 2018 12:06 am

This is a continuation of a discussion than began on the metapolitics thread. The issue is whether, and to what extent, federalism and libertarianism conflict. This is in the context of the U.S. political system, but there is no reason why other countries and supranational entitles cannot be discussed.

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:
Merlin wrote:
Thu Jun 14, 2018 10:56 pm
Tom Rogers wrote:
Thu Jun 14, 2018 2:44 pm
Paradoxically, 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?
The 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?

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.
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.

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.
Last edited by Tom Rogers on Fri Jun 15, 2018 5:37 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Do Federalism And Libertarianism Conflict?

Post by Merlin » Fri Jun 15, 2018 12:33 am

Agreed on most counts. Federalism in the US does indeed appear to be a balance-of-power arrangement with power sliding more and more towards DC due to technological developments. This appears inexorable although we have recently seen other allegedly inexorable trends reverse.

Further, I agree that the practice of federalism is even more hollow than that, as indicated by the curious anomaly of most states veering to the left of DC, instead of adopting a uniform and symmetrical distribution of practices. It would appear that markedly different state practices in any field are only tolerated when to the left, not to the right of DC.

When the left is weak on an issue, it clamours for states rights to enact the reform of choice when it can (gun laws). When they are strong, they brush states rights ways and impose their pet project on everyone, states be damned (gay “marriage”). So, in practice federalism may be thought of as a sham to create a vanguard of the nation in the form of a few states who lead the way for the rest.

Finally, ill ad my own misgiving with regards to federalism: it creates a tragedy of the commons, where responsibility is shared between two entities and thus little gets done.

Still, taking all of this into consideration, I say that it would be maddens for a decent US administration to try to push for centralisation. Those vanguard states also serve as a warning to others, a function which California performs with excellence, and whatever inch of rightist or libertarian leeway one can get is to be welcomed.

The enemy is better at this game than we are, so we should delay playing it as much as we can. Eight years of increased de facto states rights would be welcome as a way to show that the US is indeed irreconcilable. Let the next administration then try to herd the diverse practices that may have emerged during this period into their straightjacket. They may not be able to.

Trump should (in my humble opinion) push hard for states right to deviate from federal practice in as many cases as possible. Give the left a mess they may well not be able to reform without violence later on.

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