States’ Rights: A Cause that Can Unite Right and Left

I wanted to let you know about my new book, coming out June 30th.  In it, I make the case for states’ rights.

I know, I know: “states’ rights” is one of those taboo phrases in today’s politics. If you ask Americans about states’ rights, the reaction you get is typically negative – slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation. And yet, Americans happily embrace notions that are intimately related to states’ rights, such as federalism, community-based politics, responsive politics, home rule, local control, and “think globally, act locally.” In poll after poll, Americans trust their state and local governments far more than they trust Washington.

Why the disconnect? Over the past few decades, especially since the civil rights movement, states’ rights has been unfairly portrayed as a smokescreen for racist repression. It is a convenient way to demonize “small government” conservatives and tar them with the brush of segregation.

 In my book – A LESS PERFECT UNION: The Case for States Rights – I aim to set the record straight. First, I show that states rights is not a vehicle for any particular ideological agenda, including segregation. Rather, states’ rights is the right of every state to exercise all of the powers that have not been specifically entrusted to the federal government. States’ rights is based on a fundamental individual right: the right of every American to enjoy local self-government.

And yet, no political doctrine this side of fascism has been more thoroughly demonized than states’ rights. A July 2013 New York Times essay by Michael C. Dawson, a professor at the University of Chicago, pretty much sums up the ivory tower’s view of states’ rights with his cocksure allegation that “since the nation’s founding, ‘states’ rights’ has been a rallying cry for those who wished to systematically disenfranchise and exploit large segments of their population.”

As I show in my book, states’ rights has been an honorable tradition-a necessary component of constitutional government and a protector of American freedoms from the birth of our nation. In fact, states’ rights has historically been the “rallying cry” for just about every cause progressives hold dear: the abolition of slavery, union rights, workplace safety, social welfare entitlements, and opposition to war.

The first half of the book offers a much-needed (IMHO) history of states’ rights, from the Constitutional Convention through the Civil War, and the New Deal to today. The founders fought hard to keep power in the hands of the states. Although law professors and other alleged experts like to portray the Bill of Rights as a gift from a benevolent federal government, the reality is just the opposite. The Bill of Rights was a charter of states’ rights – demanded by the state ratifying conventions as the price of establishing this “more perfect union.” The concept of states’ rights is most famously captured in the Tenth Amendment:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

During the nineteenth century, states’ rights played an important role as a weapon against slavery and against war. Every landmark progressive reform – antitrust law, food and drug regulation, child labor restrictions, etc. – was pioneered by the states. It was often federal power – including federal judicial power – that blocked progressive state reforms. When the federal government got into the reform game, it almost always played catch up, and it almost always relied on state governments to implement federal standards. The same is true, more recently, of environmental protection. The states, for example, enacted wetlands protections decades before the federal government.

The second half of the book makes the case for reviving states’ rights today. I argue that a return to states rights will promote:

  • Liberty (as we move away from the tyranny of 300,000+ federal crimes)
  • Democracy (as we push decisions to more state and local elected leaders, rather than unelected federal bureaucrats)
  • Diversity (as communities can set their own taxing and spending priorities, instead of submitting to one-size-fits-all federal policies)
  • Competence (as decisions are made by local administrators with more accurate information)
  • Peace (as National Guard units become true state militias, rather than additional fodder for overseas wars).

I believe that a return to states’ rights is the only way to check the tyranny of federal overreach, take power out of the hands of the special interests and crony capitalists in Washington, and realize the Founders’ vision of freedom. Although it is not a panacea, states’ rights offers us an achievable goal of setting communities free to address the health, safety, and economic well-being of their citizens without federal coercion and crippling red tape

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