Bench Memos

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The Perennial Publius, part 16


Thanks to Byron York at The Corner, we learn that just in time for our continuing tour of The Federalist, Gar Alperovitz of the University of Maryland has written an op-ed in today’s New York Times claiming that the United States has become too big to govern democratically. Call his idea “regional devolution,” as Alperovitz does, or some form of creeping secession, but he really doesn’t present any evidence for this claim that lies at its foundation. Perhaps we should be grateful when a leftist becomes concerned with centralization of political power and the growth of the modern administrative state. But of course Alperovitz doesn’t step up to defend the framers’ understanding of federalism—that the Constitution would leave to the states those matters most immediately affecting citizens, and turn over to the national government those matters best regulated on behalf of the nation as a whole (more on that distinction in our next entry in this series). Instead he would reverse the framers’ priorities, “devolving” truly national policy questions to the states—while he has nothing to say about, for instance, the mayhem the Supreme Court has committed against state and local self-government on education, social policy, and criminal justice.

Alperovitz thinks that Gov. Schwarzenegger in California is taking steps to “shake up America’s fundamental political structure.” This is not likely, actually. As Hamilton points out in Federalist No. 16, the laws of a real national government will “not require the intervention of the state legislatures” or any other state-level public officials in order for their execution to be achieved. Therefore a state could not “interrupt their progress without an open and violent exertion of an unconstitutional power.” This kind of “direct and active resistance” to national policies takes more nerve than the governor of California has, “Terminator” or no. In fact, it hasn’t been seriously attempted since the late unpleasantness that began at Fort Sumter.

No, instead Schwarzenegger combines absurd pride and worse history with a California-dreamin’ free-rider attitude. Alperovitz quotes him thus: “We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta . . . We have the economic strength, we have the population and the technological force of a nation-state.”

Umm, governor, as Alexander Hamilton could remind you if you picked up Federalist No. 9, those “ancient city-states” were “the wretched nurseries of unceasing discord and the miserable objects of universal pity or contempt.” As for puffing yourself up as equivalent to a nation-state, let’s talk just as soon as you are ready to cut loose from the protection of the United States Army, Air Force, and Navy.

Tags: Franck


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