rules.jpg

The 10th Amendment Rule: A Libertarian Prescription for a Conservative Revival

The United States is a nation populated by a diverse people, spanning and overflowing a continent. Americans live in the most successful country in the world; the fairest, most tolerant multi-ethnic society ever established. Our collective success is the fruit of a civil society made possible by individual liberty. Our natural rights are the unearned blessing of an Almighty God, safeguarded in this world by a constitutional system separating and limiting government power.

How then, in the setting of a uniquely liberty-loving people, are the statists advancing in their effort to supplant our federal republic with a monolithic central government?

Progressives first redefine individual liberty in terms of their latest goal and then paint conservatives as revanchist authoritarians. 

The game works like this: Seize a formerly local issue, nationalize it via the federal government, define the statist position as synonymous with individual liberty, and polarize the electorate. For easy examples, consider the “pro-choice” and “marriage equality” movements. Republicans can usually be counted on to follow the Democrats’ script by pushing back directly, playing into an unfair, deceptive, but ultimately effective caricature of right-wingers as freedom-hating ayatollahs. Occasionally, our guy will make a muddled attempt at strategy, agreeing with the liberal position in order to duck the otherwise inevitable fusillade of racist/sexist/homophobe projectiles. Unfortunately, even when initially successful, the longer-term effect is to drive a wedge into the conservative coalition, cleaving social conservatives from their fiscal and national security brethren. For our friends on the political left this situation is known as a “win-win.”

Why don’t Republicans refuse to play, opting instead for a game of their own?

One of the beauties of our great big continental republic is that states are different. Not just different in state motto, bird or weirdly colorful highway patrol uniforms, but in the way that civil society is organized and supported by local law and custom. The Constitution as written guarantees the perpetuation of these differences. Thus federalism allows diverse people living in separate states to share a single national identity.

But federalism of late is increasingly reduced to state control of marginal economic policy. Local voters get to choose between a 7% or 8% sales tax for their community, while the folks in Washington make all the important decisions in one-size-fits-all fashion.

The conservative answer to the Alinskyite play on gay marriage or abortion or the plight of the Siberian hamster should be, “Let the states decide.”

Here’s a possible slogan:  ”Celebrate diversity…for real this time.” 

GGB.jpgUnder the American system, individual citizens should be afforded the maximum degree of individual liberty. The best way to ensure this is to address political issues at the lowest possible level of government, thereby maximizing each citizen’s influence on the process. Federalism also permits individuals chafing in a personally unpalatable milieu to move, preserving and enhancing social harmony. Gays flock to San Francisco from more traditionally-minded locales for a reason; so, too, those of more puritan inclination may find themselves emigrating from the City by the Bay.

To keep our political candidates in line, why not mint ourselves a new Grover Norquist and urge adoption of a No New Federal Issues Pledge? Members of Team R would therefore be encouraged to address contentious social issues in principled fashion by advocating state empowerment as the route most likely to promote individual liberty and national tranquility.

Of course, this implementation of Mitch Daniels’ famous call for a truce on social issues leaves Republicans in the states free to advocate, campaign, and legislate as they determine best suits their local communities—that’s the whole point of the federalist system. But a 10th Amendment Rule would allow both fiscal conservatives from California and social conservatives from Louisiana to run for federal office without inevitably being locked in a media cage match courtesy of the latest well-timed War-on-Somebody-or-Other.

85mph.jpgThink this can’t work?  If you find yourself legally driving faster than 55 mph sometime this week, remember that Newt Gingrich devolved speed limit-setting back to the states as part of the federalism reforms passed by the 104th Congress.  During the 1970s, our sluglike national speed limit was justified as a fuel conservation measure. The limit survived the Reagan Revolution and first half of the 1990s, ostensibly as a boon to motorist safety.  Actually, the 55 mph limit just happened to work fairly well for decision-makers living in the congested Washington, DC area, very few of whom ever found themselves traversing the vastness of rural California or Nevada by automobile. But once successfully framed as a matter of federalism, the decades-old national speed limit went the way of the dodo.

The way to downsize the federal government is to reduce the scope of its activities, not whittle away at this or that budget item. Why not, for starters, employ the 10th Amendment Rule to wrest the high ground of individual liberty from our political opponents on the issues of gay marriage, recreational drug use, health care reform, and a host of other issues? 

  1. Lavaux

    “How then, in the setting of a uniquely liberty-loving people, are the statists advancing in their effort to supplant our federal republic with a monolithic central government?”

    Most voters are low-info slobs. They don’t know enough to self-govern. As a result, their votes are for sale to the statists, who use the state’s money to buy them. How do limited government types compete with that? They can’t, and Romney spoke true regarding Obama’s gifts and the 47% No point trashing him because we can’t or won’t accept the truth. 

    Low-info slobs vote for conservatives when they believe they can achieve their desires and for statists when they believe only the rich can. Ergo, perhaps Romney sold himself a bit too well, and maybe Obama doesn’t want the economy to recover. It follows that the Reagan-Carter paradigm no longer applies.

    Therefore, conservatism is going to have to go populist to win, and this populism must be directed against aggregations of power, influence and public money, at every level focused on stripping the same from the next higher level. A 10th Amendment movement would conduce very well.

  2. Scott R

    Yes. Most especially this is the most effective way to defuse the abortion debate (while saving babies, too).

     Crazy as it may seem, most Americans don’t understand that an overturning of Roe wouldn’t ban abortion but just turn the issue over to the states — which is to say, the Republican solution to the national abortion war is the less divisive, more accommodating one.

  3. kesbar

    So, the default position is:

    “This is a State issue.  Let the States decide/pay for/regulate/ban/promote this.  The Federal Government can’t possibly have a solution that works for every man, woman and child in this great country that doesn’t cost us more than a local one.”

    Then go after all the existing bloat with this argument.  Relentlessly.  Unapologetic.   With righteous indignation.

  4. George Savage
    kesbar: So, the default position is:

    “This is a State issue.  Let the States decide/pay for/regulate/ban/promote this.  The Federal Government can’t possibly have a solution that works for every man, woman and child in this great country that doesn’t cost us more than a local one.”

    Then go after all the existing bloat with this argument.  Relentlessly.  Unapologetic.   With righteous indignation. · 2 minutes ago

    Exactly.  I imagine the following response on a Sunday morning news program:  

    My personal position on gay marriage is irrelevant.  I favor federalism and personal freedom.  The federal government has no business under our Constitution deciding this matter for the states.  Citizens of our great country should be able to get the policy that best fits their area.  This is not a federal case.  Now let’s talk about the federal issue staring us in the face, one that threatens our very survival as a nation:  I refer, of course, to our out-of-control current budget deficit and unfunded entitlement liabilities, which together total tens of trillions of dollars…

  5. Crow
    George Savage: Why not, for starters, employ the 10th Amendment Rule to wrest the high ground of individual liberty from our political opponents on the issues of gay marriage, recreational drug use, health care reform, and a host of other issues?  · · 10 hours ago

    Couldn’t agree more, George. 

    People at the local level, both the politicians elected there and the people participating in the issues, have a more direct knowledge of the possible impacts of any given policy–not only does this mean that they get a chance to exercise their civic agency which produces a kind of “muscle memory” and will make them less willing to give up their freedom, but it means they will be less distant from the issues affecting them and less likely to turn every matter of public policy into an ideological crusade. This applies to both sides of the aisle: it makes all citizens more engaged, more reasonable, and allows far greater diversity and competition.

    Reinvigorating the 10th Amendment isn’t a panacea–there are some issues that must be handled at the national level (defense, foreign policy, etc), but it is a hellova good start.

  6. Rightfromthestart

    As a child I would hear regular people in arguments use the expression ‘Lets’s not  make a federal case out of it’ . I haven’t heard it in years probably because most people think everything is already a ‘federal case’ Most people including and especially our woefully uneducated press corps have no idea of the limits of federal power.

  7. Crow

    I also think this would be an issue that we could convince reasonable people in the Democratic party at the state level to work with us on.

    Take Obama’s much-vaunted infrastructure agenda. Controlling such projects from DC invites all kinds of regulatory capture and pork-barrel projects and misallocated resources. The infrastructure needs of Wyoming, Idaho, the Dakotas and Montana are vastly different than the needs of the Boston-Washington DC corridor. 

    So, regionalize the problem: if liberals want high speed trains, the the market where they’d be most likely to succeed in the United States is in the congested northeast–not the midwest, west and south where we already have the world’s premier freight rail system. Convince that region that it can be done and use that regions resources from the state and local level to accomplish it.

  8. Brass Bancroft

    If such a move would empower states to save our country from a federal government gone mad, I’m all for it.

  9. Skarv

    This looks like a brilliant idea to me. I would vote for candidates that consistently follow the constitution.

  10. Fricosis Guy

    Sounds great!  But George, you’re describing what may be a lost world. 

    The attempt to scalp Clinton drew all the attention back to Washington, then Bushism and 9/11 kept it there.  Unfortunately, a lot of conservatives of all stripes have become comfortable with rent-seeking or magical thinking (e.g., that SCOTUS would strike down offensive law x).  We have a lot of soul-searching to do.

  11. Ignatius J. Reilly

    The executive is too powerful.  This is a fantasy post.

  12. BrentB67

    I think this is a great strategy. Will the republicans have the courage to adopt it? Governor Perry is the most credible on the topic of the 10th Amendment and Federalism.

  13. Cutlass

    Also, the pot issue makes it difficult for the left to argue against federalism.

    An interesting take on this in The Atlantic recently: The Past is Gone: Why Liberals Should Rethink States Rights

  14. Babci
    Ignatius J. Reilly: The executive is too powerful.  This is a fantasy post. · 41 minutes ago

    Oh, you are so wrong, my favorite Dunce!  The executive is only as powerful as we allow it to be.  VA just nullified NDAA and touched on interposition…MI is right behind them; 12 states are working on nullifying Obamacare;  CO, CA and WA seem to be succeeding in their recent nullifications of federal drug laws…oh, you are so wrong…watch TN and TX in the next 6 months…not fantasy…FANTASTIC!

  15. kesbar

    I would take it one step further.

    Give the States the sole power to tax the individuals in their state.    Let the States control remittance of revenues to the Federal Government so that they have a chip to bargain with.

    One can dream, no?

  16. Zafar

    [Why not, for starters, employ the 10th Amendment Rule to wrest the high ground of individual liberty from our political opponents on the issues of gay marriage, recreational drug use, health care reform, and a host of other issues? ]

    Because people are not so keen to accept other people’s freedom of choice?

  17. LowcountryJoe
    kesbar: I would take it one step further.

    Give the States the sole power to tax the individuals in their state.    Let the States control remittance of revenues to the Federal Government so that they have a chip to bargain with.

    One can dream, no? · 3 hours ago

    I very much like that idea!

  18. Mark Lewis

    10th amendment issues also bring out the fundamental difference between

    - the leftist impulse to centralize power because you don’t trust that local solutions will match your ideal solution, and 

    - the conservative impulse to distrust centralized decision-making and to put more faith in local decision-making.

    Remember, left-liberal thought  assumes that people who disagree with me are stupid or evil (or bought off by evil people). You don’t want to trust local decision-making, because they are stupid. The whole point of liberal policy is to take decision-making power away from the stupid/evil people who disagree with us.

  19. Babci
    kesbar: I would take it one step further.

    Give the States the sole power to tax the individuals in their state.    Let the States control remittance of revenues to the Federal Government so that they have a chip to bargain with.

    One can dream, no? · 17 hours ago

    You’ll like a  fabulous (old) article on “Reverse Revenue Sharing” by Dwight R. Lee, The CATO Journal Vol. 14 No. 1.  Makes so much sense!

  20. Misthiocracy

    Hear! Hear!