"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, February 08, 2016

A Hamiltonian defense of returning power to the States

Walter Russell Mead provides an argument for such over at The American Interest. As somebody who is more sympathetic with Hamiltonianism as opposed to Jeffersonianism, I heartily concur with the article's points. First, for the Hamiltonian there is an embrace of realism about the need for a strong and active federal government. Instead of adhering to a rigid ideology of decentralization, the Hamiltonian approach is a prudential one, that seeks to apply the wisdom of localism tempered by an acknowledgment of the needs of the nation. As the article linked above puts it:
I have enough Hamiltonianism in my political DNA to believe that the United States needs a strong federal government.  Providing for the national defense, managing the country’s international engagements and commitments, supporting economic development through the provision of a sound national currency and the prudent (but not innovation-suppressing) regulation of financial markets, and the regulation of interstate commerce are all big assignments and they cannot be fulfilled without a strong national state.  In addition, the federal government has a special historical responsibility to assure African-Americans equal treatment under the law.  This responsibility, given to the federal government by the Civil War-era amendments to the Constitution and renewed by the Civil Rights movement, requires the federal government to monitor a range of practices in the private sector and in state and local governments across the land.  In a perfect world, the federal government would not need these powers, but with almost 400 years of history behind us on this issue, federal action remains necessary as we struggle to defeat the lingering after-effects of the great national curse of race prejudice.
But that strong, active federal government doesn't, in a Hamiltonian world, mean that the federal government should be omnipresent or have delusions of omnicompetence:
Even so, I believe that the time has come when we urgently need to move power and policy from the federal level back to the states and localities — not to weaken or undermine the strong federal government that we need, but to improve and defend it.  Vermont and Utah are very different places with very different ideas about social, educational and economic policy.  They have different needs and different priorities.  Only rarely can the federal government make the people in both states happy; more usually, the compromises built into federal policy and programs will irritate the residents of both states.  Left to themselves, the people in Utah and Vermont would develop very different policies on matters ranging from drug use to abortion to gay rights to education.  Within some very broad limits (and with special attention to race given its special constitutional status) I don’t see why, they shouldn’t be free to do so.
Hamilton generally gets a bad rap when it comes to questions of the proper scope of government power. Many libertarians, and not a few conservatives, tend to view Hamilton as an early example of a modern liberal -- somebody who thought that federal power should be essentially unlimited.  A fair and balanced reading of Hamilton's writings and his career would indicate that such a view of Hamilton is mistaken.  While Hamilton believed in an energetic and active federal government, he believed that such a government should be limited in its powers and scope.  Not hobbled to the point of impotence, but not omnipotent over the States and local communities either.  It's a vision that is worth exploring and not dismissing, particularly as our nation grapples with problems that call not for universal solutions but ones that are local and regional in character.

1 comment:

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