NOTE: This article originally appeared on FEE.org, written by George Charles Roche III, March 1, 1967. It is one of four on the topic of American Federalism.
Roche, who has taught history and philosophy at the Colorado School of Mines, now is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education.
A society is free only to the extent that its individual members are free. In short, if men are to remain free, self-government being a very important freedom, they must scrupulously maintain control of government. That is the essence of the American tradition of federalism. The assumption that a good cause allows government to do anything needed and that the government should decide what constitutes a good cause is the totalitarian mentality in action.
When these totalitarians are well intended, they are no less dangerous. We are all to become equal, not in our traditional American equality of opportunity but in the new sense, featuring equality of condition. This is the essence of the new paternalism. In the words of Willmoore Kendall: “The equality of the Declaration is the equality to which, say, Abraham Lincoln was born — an equality that conferred upon him merely an equal right to compete with his fellow men in the race, as we run it here in America, for whatever prize he in his equality chose to go after. Not so the egalitarianism of the Liberals. It must pick Lincoln up at dawn in a yellow bus with flashing lights, so saving him shoe leather, whisk him off to a remote consolidated school (financed, in all probability by inflationary bonds), feed him a free lunch, educate him for democracy, protect him from so-called concentration of social and economic power, eke out his income by soaking the rich, doctor him, hospitalize him, and finally, social work him — if, as he probably will now, he turns into a juvenile delinquent. Equality, by offering him the rewards of self-reliance, encourages him to become, above all, self-reliant; egalitarianism encourages him to play the angles.”’
With remarkable foresight, Tocqueville foresaw the planner’s state which would leave no room for diversity, creativity, or individual difference; and he warned repeatedly that the only safeguards against such a road were free institutions and private and decentralized forms immune from the planner’s touch. He told a France soon to be ground beneath the heel of a Napoleon III that the local institutions he had seen in America were their last best hope. He warned that unlimited power is in itself a dangerous thing because God alone is competent to exercise such power. France did not listen; let us hope America will.
Then everything includes itself in power, Power into will, will into appetite.
In these words, Shakespeare describes the unenviable progression of human beings who would play God. The problems of power and appetite are indeed closely related to our situation in America. As Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention, a woman tugged on his sleeve and asked what system of government had been proposed for the American people. His famous reply remains timely after nearly two centuries: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Later amplifying his remarks, he predicted that the new nation would be well administered for a number of years, “but only end in despotism, as other forms have done before, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.”
The Appetite for Power
In the problem of power and appetite we have another of those chicken and egg difficulties. Does the excessive centralization of power produce such an appetite to be satisfied that all desire for self-help is destroyed? Or is it appetite that so weakens moral fiber as to make centralization of power inevitable? No matter which comes first, the individual citizens of this nation must make the moral choice to control appetite if the trend toward centralization is to be reversed. This is the problem posed by Irving Babbitt forty years ago in his book entitled Democracy and Leadership, when he warned that
“Americans must learn to talk less of their rights, more of their duties.”
Socialism-through-welfarism is much harder to combat because of its humanitarian and democratic vocabulary than is socialism through-nationalization, yet one is quite as deadly to liberty as the other. The collectivist, of course, takes full advantage of the misleading semantics available to the advocate of the welfare state, making his intent as innocuous as possible. Writing at the turn of the century, George Bernard Shaw emphasized this Fabian approach in his book, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism: “I also made it quite clear that under socialism you would not be allowed to be poor. You would be forcibly fed, clothed, lodged, taught, and employed, whether you liked it or not. If it were discovered that you had not character and industry enough to be worth this trouble, you might possibly be executed in a kindly manner; but whilst you were permitted to live, you would have to live well.”
All of the advocates of such a system seem to believe that human nature can be molded if the planner has enough control. A distinguished American historian has made the remark that “no man who is as well abreast of modern science as the Fathers were of eighteenth century science, believes any longer in unchanging human nature.” He goes on to say that the solution of modern problems, supposedly by “modern science,” must not be hampered by constitutional limitations.² Such men usually also place emphasis upon an exclusively “economic basis of politics” as the sole motivating force of man’s actions. They are fond of calling those who do not approve of their reforming schemes materialists, yet the true materialists are these men who see man only as a belly to be filled and in the process ignore the institutional and individual varieties of human nature that demonstrate man’s dignity. As has often been suggested, political life will tend to absolutize itself unless there are some values outside the system —values not subject to change according to man’s political whims.
A Need for Better Democracy
The answer given to all problems in our time is “more democracy.” The real problem, of course, will hardly be solved by more of the same, that is, more democracy, but might well be solved by better democracy. Better democracy would be defined not as a greater emphasis upon the lack of human dignity, but as re-emphasis of the concept of individual God-given integrity, dignity, and human variety, protected through man’s institutional framework, as, for example, in his right to private property.
Professor C. Northcote Parkinson, in The Evolution of Political Thought, has traced the direction of democracy throughout the world in the past 200 years toward such an extension of human appetite to be satisfied by political processes that the original democracy has turned to socialism, with its inevitable centralization ultimately resulting either in out-and-out dictatorship or in Hilaire Belloc’s “Servile State.” Professor Parkinson, however, admits that America, though it has not gone in a different direction than the rest of the world, has at least lagged behind on the disastrous timetable he describes. The very diversity, decentralization, and limitation of power inherent within the American tradition of federalism is precisely the reason that we have done as well as we have in resisting such a trend.
Equality by Force
A socialist has little to contribute in the realm of genuine political ideas. Instead, he often merely insists that the liberal notion of political equality present in democracy is meaningless unless coupled with an enforced economic equality. As soon as it is decided that economic equality must be enforced through political processes, socialism and the welfare state become two peas in a pod with centralization and a collective ethic as the central facts of both systems. Such assumptions soon lead to such preposterous distinctions as the attempt to draw the line between human rights and property rights. Of course, no such distinction can be made. The Founding Fathers grasped a fact that the modern collectivist apparently cannot see: A man without property rights is a man without the right to the product of his own labor and is therefore not a free man. Property rights are human rights. So, the welfare state assault upon property leaves man neither his material welfare nor his freedom. Governmental subsidies and interventions of every kind, no matter how wrapped in semantic nonsense about “democracy” and “humanitarianism,” are essentially coercive and therefore an assault upon voluntary actions of society and an assault upon freedom.
Ultimately, society’s loss of freedom becomes the individual’s loss. More and more, the conflict has become a struggle of the individual versus the state in an attempt to answer the question of whether the individual exists for the state or the state exists for the benefit of the individual.
Lessons We Might Learn from the Fall of Rome
Cyclical theories of history, of the rise and fall of civilizations, are popular in our time. The parallel is often made, with considerable validity, between the fall of the Roman Empire and what may prove to be the decline of our own civilization. It might be recalled that the greatest strength and vitality of the Roman Republic stemmed militarily, economically, and socially from the sturdy middle-class yeoman farmer who strongly valued his own dignity and the institutions surrounding it—above all, family and property. These are the men who made Rome’s legions unbeatable and Rome’s economy sound.
It is to state a truism to repeat the tale of Rome’s decline: the great absentee-owned estates centralizing all economic power in a few hands and driving the yeoman farmer from the soil, the vast bureaucracy and crushing taxation that literally destroyed the Roman middle class, the great mob of unemployed, without profession, dignity, or purpose, who filled the streets to clamor for bread and circuses. It is the very collapse of the old Roman character, the destruction of the sense of human dignity, the elimination of the middle class, and the tremendous centralization of economic and political power that produced these effects that ultimately destroyed one of the most enduring and successful experiments in government in the history of the world.
The destruction of human dignity and personal freedom brought about by centralized political control and the assault upon private property is hardly conducive to the variety and vitality of individual personality and private social institutions that are necessary to preserve a free society. The nameless, faceless, mass man increasingly produced by modern society is the greatest possible threat to purposeful human existence.
Screwtape gets the message across quite plainly: “You remember how one of the Greek dictators (they called them tyrants then) sent an envoy to another dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government. The second dictator led the envoy into a field of grain, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level. The moral was plain. Allow no pre-eminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser or better, or more famous, or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level: all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals. Thus tyrants could practice, in a sense, `democracy.’ But now ‘democracy’ can do the same work without any other tyranny than her own. No one need now go through the field with a cane. The little stalks will now of themselves bite the tops off the big ones. The big ones are beginning to bite off their own in their desire to Be Like Stalks.”3
Ample Warnings of Excesses Have Gone Unheeded
Standardized ciphers produced by such a system are scarcely qualified for the high degree of self-government required by the American tradition of federalism. Tocqueville warned that the quantity of information, interest, and discernment necessary to make our system work was great indeed, and warned that should that discernment ever languish, Americans would fall beneath the yoke of a centralized administration. We still have many freedoms and many individual and institutional differences left to us by our legacy. But, as David Hume once wrote, “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.”
Daniel Webster warned long ago that if this nation, with all of its unique opportunities, should ever prove unable to preserve representative government, then the world’s hope of achieving lasting liberty would be slight indeed. Half a century after Webster, Lord Acton speculated upon the possibility of maintaining a system of representative government and genuine liberty and found the key to that system in the limitation and diffusion, of power exemplified by American federalism.
In our times, that system is under heavy attack. What makes this attack often doubly dangerous is presented in the words of Dean Inge: “History seems to show that the powers of evil have won their greatest triumphs by capturing the organizations which were formed to defeat them, and that when the devil has thus changed the contents of the bottles, he never alters the labels. The fort may have been captured by the enemy, but it still flies the flag of the defenders.”4 As a case in point, consider the misnomer of “Creative Federalism,” the label given to the grants-in-aid program, whereby centralized spending and centralized decision-making is undercutting state and local government. What such a system might be creating is open to discussion, but it surely isn’t federalism.
The Tradition Re-examined and Steps Toward Restoration
In the face of such semantic erosion, it is necessary to understand thoroughly our American tradition of federalism in all of its historical continuity. Such an understanding is the first step in the resuscitation of the tradition.
The second step is to realize the great vitality that the tradition retains in our time despite the attacks upon it. The electoral college, with its emphasis upon block voting for states, is clearly not in the nose-count pattern of democracy espoused today, yet the innumerable proposals for “reform” of the system have remained in the planning stage. Despite all the talk about direct, unlimited democracy, this nation has never in its entire history had a single direct all-national vote on any elected official or issue, not even on the adoption of the Constitution itself. American political parties continue to demonstrate the vitality of American federalism. Our parties are unique. Unlike the doctrinaire political parties of other nations, ours are extremely flexible and contain within their ranks room for all sorts of local and regional attitudes and interests in both the social and economic spheres.
Democratic reform is often best conducted on local or state levels, notwithstanding views to the contrary by the central planners (who apparently feel that nothing worthwhile ever gets done unless they do it). In the words of Felix Morley: “Indeed, one of the great virtues of federalism is the power given to the constituent units to adopt experimental measures in accordance with the wishes of local majorities, without imposing such developments on sections not ready or willing to go along… political democracy is thus localized or qualified, but in no sense denied under the American system.”5 This is what William Penn called keeping “the power in the people,” and encourages the individual citizen to exertions for his own sake without the stultifying effects of centralized control.
The can of beans which the grocer exchanges for the housewife’s thirty cents, because he would rather have the thirty cents and the housewife would rather have the can of beans, epitomizes the billions of transactions that constantly occur in this country without centralized planning or control. The multiplicity of such individualized decision-making in the economic and social realm reflects the genius of the typical American for running his own business better than the central planners can do it for him.
Signs of Strength and Recovery
Not only is there a lot of vitality left in the old system, but there are signs as well of a developing pressure for increased decentralization in American political life. In recent years, the state Chief Justices Conferences and the American Bar Association, both organizations of tremendous influence in American legal and political life, have been insisting with increasing intensity that the time has come for the Supreme Court to begin to exercise judicial restraint and to return to a more strict interpretation of Constitutional law. The value of the federal concept is becoming increasingly popular in other places as well. Peter Drucker, in his Concept of a Corporation, has demonstrated the tremendous success of the federal principle when it is applied in American big business. It seems that decentralization of decision-making and the growth of individual responsibility which this produces is a very effective way of getting things done in the business world. Well, it should be; Americans have a lot of experience with that approach. We’ve been doing it for 350 years. Another sign of the continuing vitality of the American tradition of federalism is the strong local and institutional loyalty which persists among the American people. Private schools, church organizations, geographic areas, and ethnic groupings have resisted the attempt to make one big “great society” out of them. Defining community as a “union of men, through love and common interest for the common welfare,” Russell Kirk has spoken in defense of such diversity: “Community and collectivism are at opposite poles. Community is the product of volition; collectivism of compulsion. Community stands for variety and intricacy; collectivism, for uniformity and arid simplicity.”6
Americans have also continued to insist that the church and not the state is the center of morality. It is one of the founding fathers of the modern totalitarian state, Nikolai Lenin, who regarded religion as “the opiate of the people,” but it is one of the founders of our American tradition of federalism, George Washington, who insisted that religion is the “indispensable support of political prosperity.” As T. S. Eliot succinctly phrased it in The Idea of a Christian Society, “Reject God and you might as well pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.” If William Penn’s warning that “man ultimately will be governed by God or by tyrants” is correct, the American insistence upon the continuing diversity and vitality of American religion suggests that the people of this nation are unwilling to accept the tyranny of centralized control.
Self-Discipline by Free Men
If the federal system is to stand as a barrier against the expansion of the state into more and more of American life, the self-discipline of free men must be exercised; and self-discipline is a moral question that depends upon the character of the individual. People ultimately get the government they deserve; and whether the control by the national government is the cause or the effect of a decline in the American belief in self-help, the best defense against a further extension of governmental authority and the best means of rolling back the tide is a reassertion of the individual moral ethic. In a word, if we would preserve liberty, let us begin at home. The point of the federal system, as the Founding Fathers, Tocqueville, and any number of other political thinkers have made clear, is the protection of the framework within which these individual choices may be made.
While deciding where we go from here, we might also recall that the collective idea has suffered its reversals as well in modern times. The economic and political troubles plaguing the Marxists have persisted now for enough years to alert the world that there might be something wrong with such a system. Here in our own country no American politician with any serious ambition for public office would dare to call himself a socialist. The Constitution with its balance of powers and interests remains very much on the books; the concept of private property is so strong among the American people that even the most ardent collectivist is careful always to phrase his attacks on that institution in the most misleading and innocuous terms. And we remain a religious nation and a nation with considerable sense of respect for the institution of the family.
Look to More Freedom, Not Less
Our problem then, is not the creation of a genuine rule of the people, but a conservation of the institutions and ideas that are already deeply rooted among us. If the problem of slavery and its latter-day offshoot, civil rights, together with some of the adjustments that have been brought about by industrial capitalism, have placed strains upon this traditional system, at least the system remains in operation with a federal union and a wide range of personal and institutional liberty that has produced a greater social mobility and wider material prosperity than any other system in the history of the world.
Throughout American history our people have maintained a constant suspicion toward power encroachment on the part of the state. And while crises such as war and depression, or some sort of sectional, class, or racial strife, have tended to centralize power, we have met these crises and still retain much of that healthy American prejudice against unlimited governmental power. If our system has had problems, we might speculate as to how a greater faith in individual liberty could have solved them. For example, is it possible that the free market might have averted the Civil War? If the abolitionist do-gooders had not built political pressure into war, might not slavery have become such a costly anachronism in an increasingly industrialized America as to have died a natural death?
Similarly, a persuasive case by such men as Professor Benjamin Rogge and Professor Milton Friedman has been made to suggest that the free market could well provide the best answer in the solution of racial prejudice. They have been making quite clear the negative, repressive effects of coercive political interventions, interventions which have their most destructive effect on the very elements within society they are supposedly designed to help. If the Negro can’t get a job, he owes much of his difficulty to minimum wage legislation and to the monopoly situation produced by the labor legislation now on the books in this country. If the Negro can’t get a place to live, he owes much of his difficulty to the whims of urban renewal. It is not the free society that has hurt the Negro, but rather the political interventions interfering with the free society.
Faith in Ourselves
Our political heritage should have taught us by now that some problems of society are not capable of solution by the mere passage of a law; the greater the diversity allowed within the system to let problems work themselves out, the more likely it is that the solution will fit the problem.
If we need faith in our system to allow it to work, we also need faith in ourselves to be able to say “No!” If the states would come to understand how expensive a Federal handout proves to be, they could say “No!” If Congress, as the branch of the national government most representative of the diversity of American interests, really comes to understand the dangers inherent in centralization of all power within the executive branch, it can say “No!” most effectively to the presidency and the bureaucracy. Federal programs without congressionally appropriated funds to operate them are nothing more than castles in the sand. Above all, the individual American in the exercise of his political franchise, as well as in his economic and social decisions, still has the power to come up with the biggest “No!” of all.
It is the totalitarian thinker who prides himself upon being “monolithic.” But Stephen Spender has remarked: “They are congratulating themselves on being dead: and it is for us to see that they do not turn the whole world into their cemetery.”
A Vital and Honorable Heritage to Be Preserved
Our tradition of American federalism has a long and honorable heritage and is perhaps the greatest success story in the world’s history. It retains great vitality in our own times and the means are readily available to Americans to further invigorate the concept. As Lincoln suggested in his Cooper Union address: “Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored —contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong.” That insistence upon choosing between right and wrong is a matter ultimately of individual moral responsibility. And as this nation and its heritage constitute freedom’s last, best hope, the necessity for individual moral responsibility was never greater. It is as true today as when Dante said it centuries ago: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintained their neutrality.”
1 Willmoore Kendall, The Conservative Affirmation (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1963), pp. 17-18.
2 Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made it (New York: Vintage Books, 1948), p. 16.
3 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan Co., 1962), p. 165.
4 Dean Inge, Christian Ethics and Modern Problems (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930), p. 138.
5 Felix Morley, Freedom and Federalism (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1959), p. 54.
6 Russell Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1956), p. 129.
The greatest enemies of democracy, the most violent reactionaries, are those who have lost faith in the capacity of a free people to manage their own affairs and wish to set up the government as a political and social guardian, running their business and making their decisions for them.
George Charles Roche III (1935 – 2006) was the 11th president of Hillsdale College, serving from 1971 to 1999.