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?