Phony Federalism

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The latest in a string of editorials coming out of the so-called "libertarian" Cato Institute praising Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign is an article in TSCdaily.com on Sept. 13 entitled "FREDeralism!, by Chris Edwards, Cato’s director of tax policy studies. Thompson supports the war in Iraq and almost all of the gross civil liberties abuses championed by his fellow neocons. But he has included in his political rhetoric a few statements about cutting government spending, and that is apparently enough to generate great enthusiasm for him at Cato.

As far as I know, no one at Cato has publicly expressed any enthusiasm at all for the only real libertarian in the presidential race, Congressman Ron Paul. Edwards briefly mentions him in his gushy endorsement of Fred Thompson, but only to deliver a rather backhanded (and totally incorrect) criticism of him. Ron Paul "has been mainly occupied by the war and hasn’t focused his campaign on cutting domestic spending," he writes. Nonsense. During the GOP debates Ron Paul has called for the abolition of the IRS and the Fed, and almost all of the unconstitutional government programs that they finance. On The Daily Show with John Stewart he answered affirmatively to more than a dozen questions by Stewart along the lines of, "Would you eliminate Social Security? Medicare?, etc, etc. Anyone who has paid any attention to the Ron Paul campaign would know this.

The source of Edwards’ ecstatic praise for Fred Thompson is a rather lame statement that Thompson made about how "centralized government is not the solution to all our problems . . . this was among the great insights of 1787." Breathtaking, isn’t it? The central government may solve a lot of our problems for us — perhaps most — but not all of them. One wonders just how many "problems" centralized government is the solution to, according to Thompson. (Incidentally, Cato is itself highly centralized, so it is reasonable to assume that articles such as the one by Edwards constitute official Institute pronouncements).

Edwards also praises Thompson for his political rhetoric (not his record as a U.S. Senator) in favor of "federalism." But Edwards doesn’t seem to have much of an understanding of what federalism is (nor does Thompson). He praises the Republican Congress of the 1990s, for example, for "briefly" reviving federalism by allowing some of the states to reform their welfare programs (under the strict direction and supervision of the federal government, of course, which still supplied almost all of the funding for the programs). He also thinks it was a victory for "federalism" that President Reagan reduced the number of programs (but not the total amount of spending) that sent tax dollars from Washington to state governments.

Like all other Cato scholars, Edwards is delighted that Thompson invoked the founding fathers — well, sort of — by mentioning the date 1787, the year of the constitutional convention. But Jefferson, Madison, and the other founders would not recognize "federalism" as it is thought of by Cato scholars or Fred Thompson. To the founders federalism meant, first and foremost, that the citizens of the states were sovereign over the central government, which was created to be their agent and to serve their purposes. This meant that they had the right to nullify federal laws which they believed were unconstitutional decisions, and that it would be an abomination and a surrender to tyranny to allow such decisions to be made largely by agents of the central government. St. George Tucker, who authored "the" book on the Jeffersonian interpretation of the Constitution (A View of the Constitution of the United States) thought that it would be a complete absurdity to have fought a revolution for liberty, and then place everyone’s liberty in the hands of five or six government lawyers with lifetime tenure (i.e., Supreme Court justices).

The Cato Institute, on the other hand, is known for championing the cause of giving even more power to the federal judiciary under the mistaken belief that our black-robed deities can somehow be transformed into libertarians (like Fred Thompson, for instance?! Or perhaps Iraq war/Bush regime apologist Randy Barnett?). Roger Pilon is the best-known Cato scholar who has made this argument, and the Institute has published several books by Clint Bolick that make the same case for giving more power to the central government’s judiciary. This is how to return to federalism?

The founders were also secessionists, having fought a war of secession against the British empire. Massachusetts senator Timothy Pickering, who was George Washington’s adjutant general during the American Revolution and who later served Washington and John Adams as secretary of state and secretary of war, once said that secession was "the" principle of the Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson was the author of America’s first Declaration of Secession (a.k.a., The Declaration of Independence). The Sage of Monticello, who believed that the Tenth Amendment (and states’ rights) was the most important element of the Constitution and its attempt to preserve liberty, continued to support the right of secession for the rest of his life. For example, in a January 29, 1804 letter to Dr. Joseph Priestly Jefferson wrote: "Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children and descendants as those of the eastern, and I feel myself as much identified with that country, in future time, as with this . . ." It would never have entered Jefferson’s mind to promise "bloodshed" and "military invasion" if any state seceded, as Abraham Lincoln did in his first inaugural address.

Cato scholars are fond of quoting Jefferson, but this is one quote that one would not expect them to recognize or even acknowledge. On the issue of secession, about which much has been written by myself, Professors Clyde Wilson, Don Livingston, and others — especially the scholars who co-authored the book Secession, State and Liberty, edited by David Gordon — the Cato Institute has been silent. But to the founders, federalism, and the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution (which Edwards also praises), had little meaning without the right of secession, which was merely an acknowledgment of citizen sovereignty.

The Jeffersonians understood that the only way the Constitution could be enforced was if the citizens could organize in political communities at the state and local levels and compel their representatives in the nation’s capitol to adhere to it. The central government could never be trusted to enforce limits on its own powers. That’s why they believed that the principles of nullification and secession were indispensable.

Contrary to Edwards’ incorrect criticism of him, Ron Paul has in fact made very powerful statements about returning to the principles of federalism — much more powerful than Fred Thompson’s empty and ill-informed slogans that seem to cause so much excitement at the Cato Institute. The abolition of the Fed and the income tax would eliminate the two features of government that have done as much as anything (next to Lincoln’s war) to centralize power in Washington, D.C. These — along with the Seventeenth Amendment that requires the direct election of U.S. Senators — all of which came into being in 1913 — were the final nails in the "coffin" of states’ rights or true federalism, as the founders understood it. As Frank Chodorov wrote in The Income Tax: Root of All Evil:

[T]he Sixteenth Amendment corroded the American concept of natural right; ultimately reduced the American citizen to a status of subject, so much so that he is not aware of it; enhanced Executive power to the point of reducing Congress to innocuity; and enabled the central government to bribe the states, once independent units, into subservience.

This is an unquestionably true statement, but not the kind of language that one would use — or even cite — if one’s major goal is to be acceptable to the Washington establishment. The same can be said of all of the true principles of federalism or states’ rights (i.e., nullification, interposition, secession), as understood by the founders, for the purpose of those principles was to arm the American public with political weapons with which they could slay the federal Leviathan, if necessary. These "weapons" were all but destroyed in 1865, and finished off for good during the "Revolution of 1913."

Reductions in federal grants to state governments is really a ludicrous definition of "federalism." It is a definition that could only be espoused by someone — like Fred Thompson — who has no idea of what he is talking about when he uses the term.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His latest book is Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe (Crown Forum/Random House).

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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