Tuesday, January 10, 2006

More Ranting Reflections on Politics of Power

It has not been merely recently that the arm of government has stretched to encompass all aspects of society. Back when the American government was formed, the founding fathers were acutely aware of the potential for governments to stretch beyond their jurisdiction. That is why they designed the constitution in such a way as to strictly limit the power of federal government. Though English common law affirmed a network of inherited freedoms that provided an unwritten bracket on parliamentary powers, the founding father of America wanted a more explicit and unbendable safeguard of their freedoms. Hence, the American constitution.

The primary freedoms the constitution sought to preserve was the independence of the various American colonies or states. The federal government was not to subvert the responsibility of the respective states. Since the war against Britain was fought in order to preserve the self-government of the colonies, the last thing the colonies wished to do was to give away their hard-earned freedoms to a federal body. Hence, the title of the nation is not ‘America’ but ‘the United States of America.’ John Madison explained that federal activity would be confined almost exclusively to foreign affairs, while the actual governing of the country would be the province of the individual states.

Even so, many of the states were worried that the proposed American union would become an engine to override the autonomy of the state. That is why some of the states, while agreeing to accept the constitution, retained the right to secede from the Union if it ever began infringing upon their right to self-government. Thomas Jefferson said that a state could remain part of the Union and still nullify unconstitutional federal laws. Jefferson argued that it would be preferable for states to break away from the union rather than continue as part of something that might threaten their self-government. “[We should be] determined…to sever ourselves from the union we so much value rather than give up the rights of self-government…in which alone we see liberty, safety and happiness.” Even early American advocates of strong central government, like Alexander Hamilton, were clear that “the State governments will, in all possible contingencies, afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority.”

The tenth amendment of the constitution was written in order to make it completely impossible for the federal government to make laws infringing on the self-government of the states. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In other words, it is illegal for the federal government to exercise power in a state unless the constitution specifically gives the federal government that power. This was the reason why, in 1817, President Madison vetoed a bill authorizing federal expenditures to pay for roads and canals. In explanation, Madison said that although he personally thought it was a good idea to use federal money to finance these projects, the constitution had not actually given the federal government this authority. One can only wonder what Madison would have thought if he saw the situation today, where probably ninety-nine percent of the federal laws assume authority over areas not delegated to federal government by the constitution. Madison feared that if the federal government overstepped its constitutional jurisdiction, then

Congress…may appoint teachers in every state, country, and parish, and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may assume the provision for the poor; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, everything, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress.

Welcome to the America of today!

The man who authored the first draft of the constitution said, “The constitution is not an instrument for government to restrain the people but an instrument for the people to restrain the government, lest it come to dominate our lives and our interests and everything in our lives and our interests.” What would these men have thought if they could have foreseen the way lawmakers would so completely twist the constitution out of shape so as to become the justification for strong centralized control. Just consider how many desires are now being converted into rights in the name of the U.S. constitution. It is the constitution, we were told by a U.S. Court of Appeals, that prohibits states from allowing parents to interfere with what the government teaches their children about sex. It is because of the constitution that federal courts claimed the right to strike down Californian legislation that would have prevented the state giving away free services to illegal immigrants. The supreme court also decided that it was unconstitutional for states to prohibit partial birth abortion (apparently women have the constitutional right to have a partial birth abortion if they want to, but I’ve never found anything about that in the constitution). It is because of the constitution, we are told, that school teachers are prohibited from telling their students about the intelligent design theory in science class yet can teach them how to be a homosexual. It is now routine for the federal judiciary to strike down state legislation in the name of the U.S. constitution. Perhaps the most bizarre case was when the Clinton Justice Department filed a brief with a federal appeals court, citing the Fourteenth Amendment, which declared all Americans to be entitled to the equal protection of the laws, as an argument for giving special treatment to members of certain protected groups.

Arthur Sinclair was an early American who did glimpse where things might lead. Sinclair fought in the American war of independence and was one of the early American presidents under the articles of confederation. Sinclair eventually rejected his American citizenship because he believed that the U.S. constitution, with its emphasis on rights, would be the undoing of the great experiment in liberty. “I foresee the day,” he said, “when rights will subsume responsibilities, where the poor and the despised will become wage slaves of the elite and the mercantilism that we have fought against, and the tyranny that we have stood against, will be swallowed by the average American citizen and they will call that freedom.”

Sinclair’s fears have, of course, been realized to the letter. Freedom no longer means responsible self-government, but the right – even the constitutional right - to do whatever I want to do. Freedom also means that the federal government can do whatever it wants to do, as it rides roughshod over the constitution and the statutory sovereignty of each state. This is not true freedom or responsibility, but bondage.

As central governments – not just the USA government, but all Western governments - continued to assume more and more responsibility over individuals and over previously autonomous units of state and local government, people gradually stopped perceiving themselves in relation to their communities. Instead, people perceived themselves in relation to the nation state to which they belonged. According to George Grant, it has only been recently that patriotism was in reference to a political unit. Patriotism and nationality used to be conceived in relation to communities and cultures rather than geo-political institutions. This meant that people didn’t think of themselves as being British but as being Kentish or Londoners or from the North country, etc. To be sure, a person would also see themselves as belonging to larger groupings, like Christendom, and these larger groupings would depend on common faith and shared culture, not institutional boundaries. Political boundaries tended to proceed out of these deeper connections that were interpersonal rather than organisational.

In the 19th century, all this began to change. It is revealing that in 1908, the New English Dictionary stated that the old meaning of nationality envisioned little more than an ethnic unit, whereas now, they write, nationality refers to a political unity. This new way of looking at things is known as the philosophy of nationalism. Understanding the philosophy of nationalism is crucial to understanding why people think of government in the way they do today. It has only been since the growth of nationalism that phrases such as state, policy, federal government, or even nation, have come into common usage. In his book Nations and Nationalism, E. J. Hobsbawm defines nationalism as the philosophy that says the nation is the same as the government of that nation and that it is not possible to understand the nation or its culture apart from its organizational apparatus.

Nationalism has become so ingrained in our thinking that we find it hard to conceive that prior to the 19th century, there was no such thing as Spain, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, and many other nations that we take for granted. Spain, for example, used to be fourteen separate kingdoms. Prior to the American, so called ‘civil war’, the states in the American south thought of themselves as being a collection of independent states that took part in the federal nation only by voluntary consent. The countries of Europe, as well as the modern American ‘Union’, have all been modern constructs of the nationalist philosophy. Before the innovation of nationalism, these unions didn’t exist except in the minds of a few politicians.

The effect of these developments has meant that people now tend to derive their corporate identity from politics and state power rather than voluntary ethnic and interpersonal relations. Thus, local communities become eroded on every level, even on the level of the family, as the nation state becomes the new reference point. The nation state is, in fact, becoming the reference point for everything, as seen in the fact that every discussion, whether it is family values or abortion or trade or health care or economics, usually becomes transformed into a political discussion. The giant leviathan of Statecraft is slowly but effectively subsuming all things within its tentacles.

We have seen that the American founding fathers were not unaware of this potential. Speaking of the federal judiciary, Thomas Jefferson once said, “[It is] working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped from the states, and the government of all be consolidated into one.” This process was perhaps completed when the supreme court ruled that it is unconstitutional for states to outlaw partial birth abortion.

It was because they were aware of this potential for politics to become all-consuming, that the founding fathers of America sought to keep politics on the periphery of public life. How different this is from the contemporary notion of the good citizen as one who stays informed on all the political issues and takes an active interest. George Grant tells us that the American founding fathers expected ordinary citizens to pretty much forget about politics except during election time. As Patrick Henry put it, “Liberty necessitates the diminutization of political ambition and concern. Liberty necessitates concentration on other matters than mere civil government.”
To contact me, email largerhope @ tiscali.co.uk
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