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Divided, We Stand

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Tags Free MarketsU.S. HistoryPolitical Theory

09/29/2011Wendy McElroy

One of the most destructive ideas in American history may be collapsing under its own unsupportable weight. Andrew Jackson stated the idea succinctly: "The people are the government …" In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln expanded, "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

Of the people means government consists of members drawn from the people, not from an elite or an invader. By the people means they are the ones in authority. For the people means those who govern are acting to benefit the people at large rather than vested interests or themselves. Today, the ruling elite are clearly just that — an elite. The average person knows he has no power over political decisions that are devastating his life and wealth. He knows those in power care nothing about his well-being.

There is a radical disconnect between "the street" and the government, leaving the street rebellious and cynical. If the mood leads Americans to question government rather than obey it, then, it will ultimately be a good thing.

"The people are the government" is a dangerous notion because it leads the people to trust their government and their elected officials. The belief that they are active and valued partners of the state makes people become less likely to question political motives or demand explanations. It also makes them more likely to obey the law however unjust it may be.

Active skepticism toward anyone in power is a powerful protection of freedom. Today, that skepticism may seem to be in overdrive. Democrats feel betrayed by Obama and hate the GOP; Republicans view the Obama administration as an occupying power; tea partiers think everyone else is selling America into slavery; libertarians — well, they are libertarians. Americans are no less divided on the issues, from abortion to taxes, from war to health care, from entitlements to the war in Iraq. But how much of the current skepticism is aimed at government itself and how much is merely directed toward a particular slate of politicians or issues?

Unless political rebellion is rooted in theory, history tells us that it will probably result in the rise of "strong leadership," not the deconstruction of power.

Can America return to freedom? The solution lies in the content of the ideas that arise and dominate during times of economic and political turmoil. Nothing is more powerful. Ideas pushed 13 colonies to confront the strongest empire in the world and flourish. Ideas drove a hungry and war-weary Russia to revolution and ruin. Ideas can make the world spin or stop.

A key obstacle to freedom is the ideas that oppose it, ideas that are now entrenched into society as a form of dogma. "We the People" is one of them.

Federalization and the Death of American Freedom

At its political birth (1776–1789), the United States were a league of separate states — a "league of friendship" — under the Articles of Confederation. The Articles stated, "each state maintains its own sovereignty and all rights to govern, except those rights specifically granted to Congress." A weak federal Congress did exist. The core right designated to that Congress was to conduct a common defense against enemies; thus, individual states could not have navies or standing armies — although militias were encouraged. Nor could a state declare war. Other modest powers for Congress were outlined. For example, Congress set a standard of weights and measures and was a final court of appeal for intrastate disputes.

No nonvoluntary government should be applauded. But not all such governments are to be equally despised. For example, under the Confederation's arrangement of limited power (especially regarding the ability to raise funds), Congress could not pursue foreign wars or empire. It could only invoke common defense against an invader.

Then, in 1787, the Constitutional Convention met. Its clearly announced purpose was to amend and solidify the Articles of Confederation. There was an explicit understanding that each change to the Articles had to be ratified by all states before it could be adopted.

Instead, the convention was commandeered and used to abandon the Articles in order to forge an entirely new model of government. In his book Toward An American Revolution, historian Gerald John Fresia wrote,

[T]he Framers defied these legal stipulations, abandoned their authorization to amend the Articles only, designed an entirely new centralized national government, and inserted in the Constitution that it should go into effect when ratified by only nine states.

Historian J.W. Burgess stated, what the Framers

actually did, stripped of all fiction and verbiage, was to assume constituent powers, ordain a constitution of government and liberty and demand a plebiscite thereon over the heads of all existing legally organized powers. Had Julius or Napoleon committed these acts, they would have been pronounced coup d'état.

In his book Empire As A Way of Life, historian William Appleman Williams added,

Under the leadership of Madison, the … convention of 1787 … produced (behind locked doors) the Constitution. Both in the mind of Madison and in its nature, the Constitution was an instrument of imperial government at home and abroad.

The Constitution was sufficiently unpopular within the convention itself that many compromises were needed for it to pass; one compromise was the three-fifths rule through which slaves counted as three-fifths of a human being for purposes of counting their owners' vote in elections. The Constitution was even less popular outside the convention, with the public. Without an appended Bill of Rights to guarantee individual liberties against federal intrusion, it is highly unlikely that the Constitution would have been ratified in enough states legislatures to become law.

The Constitution's ratification in 1789 established the federal auspice under which the states functioned then and now. America became a federal nation. The document announcing its birth opened, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union …"

Through a reluctantly appended Bill of Rights, the federal government assumed the mantle of protecting individual rights, such as due process. But appearances were illusory. Before so much as a decade had passed, Congress adopted the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), which suspended First Amendment rights; it became a crime to express "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or government officials or to stir up either sedition or opposition to the president and Congress.

Freedom of speech was suspended largely because of a war, albeit an undeclared one: the Quasi War with France. Although far from a "war for empire," the Quasi War did establish the precedent of the federal government severely breaching the Bill of Rights in time of crisis, even as it invoked other aspects of the Constitution for its authority. Wars of empire predictably followed. Arguably, the pivotal point was the War of 1812, which was driven by a desire to expand into northwest territories. By the Spanish-American War (1898) — through which America acquired control of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and Cuba (temporarily) — the federal government was engaged in empire.

"We the People" and the Civil War

Talk of secession had inhabited America since the Articles of Confederation; indeed, the American Revolution could be viewed as an act of secession. But the Civil War was the historical watershed.

Before the Civil War (1861–1865), the United States was spoken of in the plural. For example, it was most common for books and newspapers to use the phrasing "These United States are …"1

It took the death of 620,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians to change the syntax to singular: "The United States is …"

The change was not only conceptual but political. Whatever other factors occasioned the Civil War, it was undeniably an expression of the ultimate state right against federal power: the right to secede. In 1860 and 1861, eleven southern states separated from the United States and united independently as the Confederate States of America. Historian Maury Klein summarized the main question of the Civil War in his book Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War. He wrote,

Was the Republic a unified nation in which the individual states had merged their sovereign rights and identities forever, or was it a federation of sovereign states joined together for specific purposes from which they could withdraw at any time?

The North asserted that America was a unified nation forever; it fought in the name of "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union …" Although slavery is commonly viewed as the cause of the Civil War — and its importance should not be underestimated — then-President Lincoln clearly stated in a letter (August 22, 1862) to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune,

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.

In 1865, the North won the "debate" over secession. Four years later, in Texas v. White, the Supreme Court declared secession to be "null" and illegal. The majority decision was delivered by Chief Justice Salmon Chase who had been a cabinet member under Lincoln. He wrote,

When … Texas became one of the United States, she entered into an indissoluble relation. All the obligations of perpetual union, and all the guaranties of republican government in the Union, attached at once to the State. The act which consummated her admission into the Union was something more than a compact; it was the incorporation of a new member into the political body. And it was final.

Decentralization, the New Secession?

Decentralization is the moderate's form of secession.

Decentralization is the process by which a political system that is uniform and centralized is converted into one that is diversified and decentralized. In the current context, this means shifting power from the federal level down to the state or local ones. Among the presumed advantages: authorities will be more responsive and accountable to those they "serve" if those people are neighbors. That is the theory.

Decentralization is a commonly stated libertarian goal or, rather, a step in the right direction. The Libertarian Party platforms often include decentralization. The one adopted by Vermont in 1998 stated, "We recognize that one of the first steps towards achieving a free society is the decentralization of government."

Section 8, "Police," of the California platform (adopted 1998) reads, "We … call for decentralization of police protection to the neighborhood level whenever full privatization is not possible."

More cautious voices observe that decentralization does not guarantee individual rights. Sometimes it just brings government into your own back yard where it can oppress you on a first-name basis. Nevertheless, libertarian theory is more hospitable to decentralization than to centralization.

Libertarian theory leans toward decentralization in several ways.

The social theorist Friedrich A. Hayek vigorously opposed what he called "constructivist rationalists." These are advocated of centralized authority who consider society to be the result of social engineering and design. Hayek was specifically arguing against the socialist, Marxist ideal of society. He argued, instead, that societies grew "from the free efforts of millions of individuals."

Because society resulted from human action but not from human design, Hayek rejected attempts to engineer society, to centrally plan and coordinate its institutions. One reason: it was a practical impossibility to acquire enough knowledge of the present, let alone the future, to do so. In his book Nation, State, and Economy (1919), the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises analyzed the disastrous consequences of trying to implement the impossible.

Throughout their writings, Hayek and Mises presented two concepts that favored decentralization:

  1. methodological individualism; and
  2. spontaneous order.

In his magnum opus Human Action, Mises described methodological individualism:

First we must realize that all actions are performed by individuals.… If we scrutinize the meaning of the various actions performed by individuals we must necessarily learn everything about the actions of the collective whole.

Language was one example used to illustrate spontaneous order that emerges from the uncoordinated actions of individuals. No central authority invented human speech, let alone designed a specific language. Individuals did so to facilitate getting what they wanted from each other and, so, language evolved. Indeed, the more centralized authority becomes, the more it blocks spontaneous order.


From a radical libertarian perspective, however, the main problem with decentralization is the same problem that haunts secession; it never seems to go far enough. Carried to its proper and logical extreme, decentralization should result in government of the individual, by the individual, for the individual, and not merely in acquiring a better master. Equally, secession should allow not merely states or cities to withdraw from a centralized government but also the individual.

In either case, the concept of "We the People" is a powerful obstacle to both secession and decentralization. Until the concept is thoroughly discredited and disgraced, the US government will draw upon the legitimacy being transmitted by the concept. It will pretend to be in a partnership with "the people" who will render to it obedience and respect. Under "We the People," true political change cannot occur.

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