The word “big” gets thrown around a lot in American politics.  People endlessly rail against “big government” programs while advocating in favor of smaller government which would purportedly give us more freedom and prosperity.  But do the typical proposed solutions of fewer programs, reduced regulations and reductions in the number of bureaucrats truly address the underlying problem of big government?

Perhaps the question of size is much simpler than we think it is.  Maybe instead of it being an issue of how many bureaucrats are running the federal government it is an issue of how many lives the federal government is running.  Could the problem with government in the United States be not that the government itself is too large, but rather that it is attempting to govern too many people spread out over too much geography?

This is the question raised in Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century, a book of essays edited by Donald Livingston, professor emeritus of philosophy at Emory University.  In it, seven essayists consider the tension between centralized power and freedom and explore the possibility that only a decentralized form of government can prevent the abrogation of the people’s rights.

All seven essays in the book are fascinating, coming from writers with divergent philosophical backgrounds, from Austrian economist Thomas DiLorenzo to “anti-globalization leftist” Kirkpatrick Sale to Vermont yak farmer Rob Williams and covering topics ranging from the constitutionality of secession to the history of centralization in the United States rapid decentralization in the former USSR in the early 1990s.

In the first essay, constitutional lawyer Kent Masterson Brown argues in favor of secession and nullification as constitutional protections of liberty deriving from the nature of the Constitution as a compact between sovereign states.  Masterson concludes that the states must “stand up to actions that invade the liberties of citizens and the reserved powers of the states by, first, nullifying the unconstitutional acts and then, if the federal government persists, seceding.”

DiLorenzo follows with an essay on the history of “constitutional subversion,” citing founding father Alexander Hamilton, Supreme Court justices John Marshall and Joseph Story, and congressman Daniel Webster as the key early figures in the steady stream of attacks on the Constitution.  DiLorenzo laments that the miseducation of Americans about their own history “serves to prop up the centralized, neo-mercantilist empire that Americans now slave under.”

Next comes a fascinating essay by political science professor Marshall DeRosa about the modern Tenth Amendment movement.  DeRosa notes that “Centralization was the primary concern for the framers because it provides the instruments of oppression that despots need.  The Tenth Amendment was intended to be the fallback position when (not if) institutional checks and balances and separation of powers fail.”

DeRosa chides some state politicians for believing that traditional federalism can be recaptured by appealing to the Supreme Court.  He notes that “The Tenth Amendment movement is up against an illegitimate imperial power with much to lose if it succeeds.”  In questions of this illegitimate imperial power he cautions that “the Supreme Court (functions) mainly as the agent of the imperialists” and is therefore unable to render unbiased judgments.  

DeRosa determines that if state politicians “are serious about restoring the original Tenth Amendment to its rightful place within the constitutional framework, they must be willing to assert genuine states’ rights, the U.S. Supreme Court be damned.”

Livington pens the book’s fourth essay which seeks to dispel the mythical advantages of centralized power.  He notes that the early Greek republics were largely decentralized and governed small groups of people, and this tradition was recaptured in the European political structure after the fall of the Roman Empire.  It was this tradition of local republican self-government, Livingston says, that was the guiding principle of the American Revolution.

Livingston’s primary argument is that the size and scope of the federal government is much too large to be accurately called a republic, much less to protect the liberties of the people.  While Livingston’s proposes secession or the restructuring of the Union as potential ways to curtail the size of the federal government, he notes that “if we retain any allegiance to the values of the republican tradition, we must at least revive the constitutionalism of state interposition and nullification.”

The final three essays, although less concerned with the history and philosophy of nullification and the Constitution, are no less fascinating.  Sale examines the implications of Aristotle’s famous maxim that “to the size of states there is a limit….”  Russian economist Yuri Maltsev explores the collapse of the Soviet Union and the problems of size that led to it.  Vermonter Rob Williams closes the book with a lively discussion of Vermont’s modern secession movement.

There are very few books that I would recommend more highly than Rethinking the American Union.  Its pages contains a fantastic overview of the philosophical superiority of federalism as well as an examination of the implications of centralized power.  These issues deserve much more attention in our political discourse and this book is a major contribution to that discussion.

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