Monday, November 26, 2007

Ron Paul vs. James Madison

It's been my experience that libertarian supporters of Ron Paul assume something like the following: weakening the power of the federal government and expanding the (potential) power of the state governments will (in fact) increase individual liberty.

I take it that this statement, or something very much like it, is at the heart of the libertarian's support for Ron Paul. Let us call it the devolution thesis, since its subject is the devolution of power from one level of government to another, lower level of government.

The devolution thesis can be understood in at least two ways. First, it can be understood as a thesis about democratic efficiency. For example, some people may think they have greater chance for representation at the state level than at the federal level. So a state legislature will produce their will more readily than a federal legislature. In other words, if I want X, a state legislature will likely give me X more reliably than a federal legislature, where X is some policy.

I think this is a mistaken, overly democratic picture of political power, one most libertarians would reject. Unlike democrats, libertarians do not think that the freedom to make public policy -- basically the freedom to tell other people what to do -- is an extremely valuable kind of liberty, and certainly not intrinsically valuable. As such, let's move on to the second way the devolution thesis can be understood.

The devolution thesis can also be understood as a thesis about government inefficiency. The argument goes like this: the federal government wields a bigger stick than any particular state government. Thus, the fed can do more to restrict personal freedom than any single state could ever hope to do. For example, since it controls the military, the federal government can seal the borders and not let anyone out of the country. In contrast, if a state like South Carolina restricts liberty in an objectionable way, its citizens can always move to some other state.

Now the interesting thing is that in Federalist 10, James Madison clearly sees that state governments have the potential to be very democratically efficient -- which is exactly why he thinks the federal government ought to have more power (i.e. than it did under the Articles of Confederation.) Madison, a genius, argued that because the federal government must encompass a wide variety of competing factions, it will be difficult for any one of those factions to gain control of the fed's admittedly big stick. To quote Madison:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.
Any single state will necessarily contain fewer factions, increasing the chances of one of those factions gaining control of that state's much smaller stick, and using it against the other factions in that state. Notice: the size of the stick doesn't matter that much. A big stick that can be used to restrict the liberty of a whole lot of people is not necessarily worse than a smaller stick that almost certainly will be used to restrict the liberty of a smaller group of people.

Especially not when we're not talking about one small stick, but fifty of them.

This article is a case in point. A pro-choice organization suggests that at least 30 states would ban abortion if Roe v. Wade were reversed. South Dakota is already on track to totally ban abortion. Even Ohio and Michigan, nominally blue states, would likely ban abortion, according to the organization's report. That's a hell of a lot of individual liberty lost. Without quoting wacky conspiracy theories about the fed's use of black helicopters, I would like someone to tell me how this almost certain loss of liberty can be justified.

Does Ron Paul want to overturn Roe v. Wade? He thinks it was "wrongly decided." Indeed, in the linked piece, he clearly espouses an interpretation of the devolution thesis akin to the first one I outlined, the one I think libertarians do and should reject. "Surely people on both sides of the abortion debate realize that it's far easier to influence government at the state and local level," he claims.

And he's probably right, too. From the perspective of individual liberty, that's exactly the problem.

This is not to say that the devolution thesis is always false, but it is not obviously true, either. I tend to think that, on the whole, the federal government has been a force for increasing the freedom of the individual. At least, this is so if you don't think income taxes are the sine quo non of restrictions on liberty.

[Edited to add a quotation from Madison, who was in fact a genius.]


Molly said...

Interesting to know.

Anonymous said...

You speak of overturning "Roe v. Wade" as a loss of liberty. Of whose liberty are you speaking of? If I recall correctly (and I know I do) the Constitution states that no person's life will be taken without due process. In what way does this Supreme Court ruling allow for due process to the unborn? The basis for “Roe v. Wade” is found in “Griswold v. Connecticut” under a pretense of a penumbral right to privacy, as stated by Justice Douglas. But this is the same Justice Douglas who could not find this “penumbral right to privacy” in “Wickard v. Filburn” and instead stated you do not have a right to grow wheat for your own personal use without the government getting involved. All this judicial activism, as result of FDR’s coercion of the court (The Switch in Time That Saved Nine), has done nothing except to undermine the Supreme Court’s legitimacy in current law. But I digress…

Your argument lacks potential in developing a sound comparison of Ron Paul and James Madison through the devolution thesis. You argue that the Federal Government has a larger stick than that of the states; I would argue this was never intended through our Social Contract (also known as the "United States Constitution") with the Federal Government. It was James Madison who stated in Federalist Paper #45, "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite." So your idea of who is supposed to have the larger stick is faulty, and as such makes your use of Madison’s words in Federalist Paper #10 a misrepresentation of what he intended.

So unless I was to allow your cherry picking of Federalist Paper #10 to go on, your concept of the Federal Government wielding a larger stick than the states is poorly concluded. The restrictions upon the States through the Constitution are very few, whereas the Federal Government is limited (or is supposed to be limited as determined by the social contact) to only those things which are enumerated. The purpose of the U.S. Constitution was to limit the Federal Government's powers, not expand them.

The Federal Government obtains its legitimization through the Constitution. Ignoring the principals contained within this document will only equate to the U.S. Government becoming an illegitimate bastardized essence of what it should be (Madison's words not mine).

In conclusion, your thought process is faulty.


Jo Beth said...

I would argue your thought process is faulty, according to the 14th Amendment. You would rather see individual liberties usurped by any free-weilding state legislature. Especially when you have NO idea when life begins.