Bench Memos

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The Perennial Publius, part 34


There are gems aplenty in Federalist No. 34, where Alexander Hamilton manages to touch on a remarkable range of arguments from a starting point in the apparently narrow issue of the concurrent taxing power of the federal government and the states.  He warns of “set[ting] up theory and supposition, against fact and reality.”  He condemns the “novel and absurd experiment in politics, of tying up the hands of government from offensive war, founded upon reasons of state.”  He more or less foresees the French Revolution a year and a half before the storming of the Bastille.

But perhaps we should glance at a passage that reminds us that for Hamilton, an energetic national government will also be a limited one, intruding on American civil society far less than the government we have become accustomed to in the last century:

“What are the chief sources of expence in every government? . . . The answer, plainly is, wars and rebellions—the support of those institutions which are necessary to guard the body politic, against these two most mortal diseases of society.  The expences arising from those institutions, which are relative to the mere domestic police of a state—to the support of its legislative, executive and judiciary departments, with their different appendages, and to the encouragement of agriculture and manufactures, (which will comprehend almost all the objects of state expenditure) are insignificant in comparison with those which relate to the national defence.”

By the standards of 1788, Alexander Hamilton was the “big government” guy in the argument.  Today, who knows where he’d be?  (Okay, maybe Rick Brookhiser knows!)  But it sure looks like he would regard the national government as bloated beyond its proper business, and maybe beyond its capacity to be effective at its proper business, when the national defense in wartime takes up less than half the national budget.

(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)

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