In the first response he gives to opponents of the Constitution who worry that it will create a too-powerful national government that will “absorb” all the powers of the states and destroy local self-government, Alexander Hamilton writes in Federalist No. 17 that it is “improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the powers of the states.” Thinking perhaps of what interests himself, Hamilton says he is “at a loss to discover that temptations” would draw national public officials to meddle in the “mere domestic police of a state,” which “hold[s] out slender allurements to ambition.” Service in the national government, after all, will satisfy ambition by involving men in the really interesting stuff of politics: “[c]ommerce, finance, negociation, and war.”
Here Publius seems to be counting on self-aggrandizing political men to be self-limiting as well, content with the duties that would naturally attract the noblest of human beings. This may have been too sanguine an expectation. In the lifetime of the oldest Americans with us today, small-souled men, busybodies, and ideologues have woven the tendrils of federal power, like an unkillable kudzu, into more and more of the political decision-making that properly belongs at the state and local level (if it should be done at all, and not left to private civil society altogether).
But Hamilton argues that the danger all lies in the opposite direction: “It will always be far more easy for the state governments to encroach upon the national authorities, than for the national government to encroach upon the state authorities.” The reason can be found in our passions, our immediate self-interest, and our reliance on what we know and understood best: “It is a known fact in human nature that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object.” Hence the states, where “the ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice” is carried out and visible to all, will be where our strongest bonds will be formed—unless there is a “much better administration” of the national government.
Hamilton’s argument held true for about a century. Even the Civil War did not fundamentally alter the popular prejudice in favor of state power over federal power. Only new ideas of government that rejected the principles of the framers could do that. And the inroads of the Progressive and New Deal agendas—animated by such new ideas and claiming if not proving “much better administration” from the center—make Publius’s prediction look quaintly, faintly ridiculous.
But you can’t fault a man whose prediction of the future is borne out for a century after his death.
(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)