Sunday, June 13, 2004

Classic Ramble: From Democracy to Tyranny

The Collapse of a Republic

"It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory, otherwise it cannot long subsist. In a large republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are trusts too great to be placed in any single subject; he has interest of his own; he soon begins to think he may be happy, great and glorious, by oppressing his fellow citizens; and that he may raise himself to garandeur on the ruins of his country. In a large republic, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interests of the public is easier percieved, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses are of less extent, and of corse are less protected." Baron de Montesquieu, Spirit of Laws, chap. xvi. vol I, qyoted from "Brutus" I, new York Journal, Oct 18, 1787, in the book: The Debate on the Constitution, Vol. I. edited by Bernard Bailyn.

If there is any statement about our form of government that could be considered prophetic, the first sentence of the underlined section is it. For the greatest complaint about our government, by those who bother to complain, is that we can't seem to control our upward spiraling debt. The reason for this is that every interest that has the power to do so clamours for government money, while the people typically clamour for lower taxes. Our government is ruled by both, and so we end up with the paradoxical, and self-destructive, behaviour of barely controllable spending that consistantly outstrips the money provided for these purposes.

Even in recent years, with a fantastically robust economy, and a people much more tolerant of taxation, the government barely manages to get by without borrowing further; the accumulated debt remains untouched. What will happen when the inevitable economic crash, or at least recession, occurrs? Or what will we do in the event of an unanticipated emergency of a truely national scale, a major war or something, and our credit is already streatched to the limit? Or have we become so arrogant that we believe we can anticipate everything?

"Brutus" predicted, in 1898 when the Constitution had been written, but had yet to be adopted, a number of things. The one that stands out most were his reservations on the granting of the rights of taxation entirely to the federal government. He speculated that this power would eventually allow the Federal government to absorb all the powers of the states. Because the laws of the United States are supreme, the States must ultimately be second in line for the public revenue. As "Brutus" put it: "No state can emit paper money, lay or imposts on imports, or exports, but by consent of the Congress; and then the net produce shall be for the benefit of the United States. The only means therefore left, for any state to support it's government and discharge it's debts, is by direct taxation; and the United States have also power to lay and collect taxes, in any way they please. Every one who has thought on the subject, must be convinced that but small sums of money can be collected in any country, by direct taxes, when the federal government begins to excercise the rights of taxation in all it's parts, the legislatures of the several states will find it impossible to raise monies to support their governments. Without money they cannot be supported, and they must dwindle away, and, as before observed, their powers absorbed in that of the general government."

Let's look at what's actually happened. The federal government engages in constitutionally questionable activites. The purpose of this government is to do those things the several states cannot do themselves, due to a possible conflict of interests between the several states.

These things include foreign relations; we can't have New York signing an alliance with one nation, South Carolina with another, possily resulting in civil war when the two nations go to war. They include intersate road systems, and especially rail, lest we end up with Austrailia's problem of mismatching rails. They include duties, imposts, tarrifs, since if any one state has lower import taxes than another, goods will simply flow in through the state with the lower tarrif, and then across state borders.

It could include a national system of driver licensing, since a more urban state might have higher expectations in licensing requirements than a less urban one, yet the Constituition expressly requires one state to respect the "Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State" (Constitution, Article IV, Section 1), resulting in a conflict. Internet regulation (while I find such a concept personally distasteful) would fall under this, for the same reason the regulation of commerce and taation of trade is restricted to the federal government.

Road speed regulation should not. Why should the citizens of California care how people are allowed to drive in Montana? The issue is potential loss of life and damage of property, and the risk of this is determined by local conditions. Let California have a 55 MPH maximum, and Montana have it's Montanabaugn. It's a matter of local conditions, not national interest. And yet, there was a time when we had a nationally mandated speed limit.

The methods and content of education are also not properly a matter of national interest. Why should the citizens of one stae care how the children of another state are educated? The only possible excuse is religeous and/or philosophical intolerance, a disagreement on what should or should not be taught. And the state with the best school system only benefits, gaining the best educated and potentially productive citizens. The state with the worst is the one that suffers, but the citizens of that state got what they voted for. Indeed, this is just the sort of competition that induces improvement, as one system proves to be superior to another and one state follows the lead of another. And yet, the federal government is heavily involved in the education of our children.

In both cases, it wasn't a case where Congress passed a law, the president saw that it was enforced, and that was the end of it. Rather, there was an existing law which provided money to the states for as specific purpose (the construction and maintenance of a national road system in the former case, some educational provision in the later; I'm not terribly familiar with the history of national education). They then passed a new law requiering that a new condition be observed in order for the several states to qualify for the grant, the passing of a 55 MPH maximum statewide speed limit, in the former case. This is a constitutionally questionable act, but where exists the mechanism by which to oppose it?

Typically, the constitutionality of a law is challenged in court. A citizen violates the law, challenges it's constitutionality in court, the Supreme Court makes a ruling, and, if found unconstitutional, it is overturned.

If a citizen opposes the speed law, they break not the questionable federal act, but the perfectly legitimate state law (which the state was essentially blackmailed into passing). The citizen has no standing on this issue. I can't see any way a state may oppose such an act, since, after all, it is the federal government's money, though I could well be mistaken. The only option that remains is simply to decline to accept the money, but then, in order to do what needs doing their way, they must collect taxes on top of what the feds collect, which is, short of an extreme revulsion of the federal government, a political impossibility.

This flaw in our system gives the federal government potentially unlimited power over the internal policies of the several states. This power is presently limited only by the political will of the people at the ballot box, which, due to the size of our republic, is "sacrificed to a thousand views," as Brutus mentioned earilier. The lawmakers of the several states have essentially no say in what goes on in Congress, any more than the avarage citizen does. This was not always the case.

At the adoption of the Constitution, the states had one direct link into the federal government. Senators were chosen "by the Legislatures (of the states) therof, for six years." An attempt by Congress to blackmail the several states passing specific laws would result in the several states rejecting their Senators next term around. the People at large won't do this, since nobody wants to vote against their own program, but the legislatures, which ultimately have to cope with the results of such an act, might react differently, particularly in cases where a new requirement is enacted, without providing the money to actually carry it out (which has been the case several times in the past).

With senators elected by legislatures, the several states had a voice in the federal government. However, in 1913, the 17th amendment was ratified, which transferred this power from the legislatures to the people at large. This was hailed as a victory for Democracy, but also had the unintended (or perhaps intended? there have always been those who despised the federal system, preferring a unitary one) consequence of stripping the states of their last remaining shred of soverignty. What authority remains to them exists purely at the pleasure of the federal government.

As I said before, the federal government has it's uses. It is necessary to ensure that commerce can continue and that we can resist the encroachments of foreign nations. However, there are also things which are best handled by the states, for the reasons put forth by baron de Montesquieu. Given the chance, the federal government will ursup these duties, as history has proven. If we are to retain our liberty, this must be prevented. To this end, I suggest we repeal the seventeenth amendment. Since the Sentate, presently dependent on the whims of a million voices, is unlikely to give it's independent and less accountable nature, perhaps it is time for our state legislatures to excercise a power never before excercised. Perhaps it is time to call a Convention.

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