by Frank Chodorov
The following article is from the May 1950 issue of analysis, vol. VI, no. 7, and was reprinted on LewRockwell.com
It is never too late to put up a fight for freedom. True, the prospect for such a venture at this time seems bleak indeed, what with the prevailing madness to push more power upon the political overseer so that he might the better regulate our lives. Recruits would be scarce. From the rank and file, those who under all circumstances are determined to be harnessed, little can be expected; they are too preoccupied with mere existence. And those who seem to have the necessary ingredients â€“ that is, those who have by their own initiative pushed themselves above the general level â€“ are equally fervent for a regulated and subsidized existence under an omnipotent State. Subvention has become everybody’s business.
The despair of those who still put a value on freedom is understandable. Perhaps, as they say, it is best to let the country have its fill of socialism â€“ or fascism or communism or any other pup from the litter of absolutism â€“ and be done with a quixotic struggle. After a century or two of that kind of existence, when human dignity shall have scraped bottom, a Moses will emerge from the bulrushes and gain a respectable following. By that time, they point out, the State shall have become emaciated from malnutrition, slaves being poor providers, and a handful of resolute men can push it over. It was ever thus. Every civilization we know of arose and flourished in the sunshine of freedom; political institutions attached themselves even at the beginning, but remained quiescent until an abundance of economic goods stimulated cupidity; then followed a period of increasing political predation until at long last the civilization disintegrated and became an historical or archeological curio. After a while, freedom germinates a new civilization. That is the inevitable cycle, and we can do nothing, they say, to prevent or retard it.
Maybe so; maybe our civilization is also doomed by the ineluctable forces of history; maybe it is in the decline right now. Nevertheless, men do what they are impelled by an inner urge to do, not what history dictates. The stars in the heavens tend to their eternal business while we transitory mortals travel within our own specific orbits. It was no historical imperative that directed the pens of those who signed the Declaration of Independence; it was the integrity of the signers. There were many at the time â€“ the Tories â€“ who deemed the venture foolhardy and undesirable, and they could have argued the historical uselessness of all revolutions. Nevertheless, the rebels (none of whom were driven to it by economic necessity) put their signatures to what at that time seemed to be their own death warrant. Why? For lack of better answer, let us say they were made of a particular kind of stuff and could not do otherwise.
Looking to history for causation, we find that man’s constantly recurring excursions in search of freedom are identified by their leadership. The logical inference is that when men of that stripe appear on the scene the cause of freedom is not neglected. If, for instance, those who now prate about “free enterprise” were willing to risk bankruptcy for it, as the men of the Declaration were willing to risk their necks for independence, the present drive for the collectivization of capital would not have such easy going. Assuming that they are fully aware of the implications in the phrase they espouse, and are sincere in their protestations, the fact that they are unwilling to suffer mortification of the flesh disqualifies them from leadership, and “free enterprise” remains merely a mouthing.
The present low estate of freedom in this country must be laid to lack of leadership. Whether or not leadership could have averted, or can still stop, the socialistic trend, may be open to question; that a glorious fight for freedom might yet enliven the American scene is not. And, if we can trust the historic pattern, the odds are that nature will give us, in her own good time and at her pleasure, the kind of men that can and will make the good fight.
A Block to Power
The American terrain, so to speak, is fortuitously favorable for the forces of freedom. Not only is there a strong supporting tradition, but the Constitutional form of government which grew out of this tradition is still in existence, though somewhat distorted, and could provide the favorable battle line. It must be remembered that from the very beginning of the country political power has been in bad repute; even though it is well on its way to religious status, political power in America still lacks the adulation that it receives from peoples long inured to submissiveness.
In the beginning, the Founding Fathers recognized the need of government in organized society, but were ever jealous of its powers. They knew that political authority is constitutionally incapable of moral inhibitions. It is force, and, like physical force, can be held in check only by an equal and contrary force. For that reason, when they came to organize a government to replace the one they had thrown out, they put into its pattern provision for a series of counterbalancing forces. Not only did they aim to keep the central government weak by a division of authority, but also pitted against it the governments of the component states. Freedom was to be preserved by keeping political power decentralized and off balance. The scheme worked well for a time, but no Constitution can of itself constrain the inherent tendency of power to expand; only constant surveillance and opposition can do that, and since the primary concern of man is the business of living, political power makes its way unnoticed. The present condition of freedom in this country is due entirely to the breakdown of the strictures laid upon the government by the Founding Fathers, most particularly the one providing for the dual form; the powers of the central government have been enhanced at the expense of the state governments. Hence, any campaign to restore freedom in this country must begin with an effort to reverse that process.
The virtue in the juxtaposition of local and federal governments is demonstrated in reverse by the careers of tyrannies. In no country where a totalitarian regime established itself did it have to contend with the dual system that obtains in this country. When Hitler came along there was still some semblance of the local autonomy that Bismarck had broken through, but it was too attenuated to stay the path of the conqueror; he had to meet nothing like our sovereign state governments, legally entrenched and supported by a tradition of voluntary association. Mussolini’s march on Rome was likewise facilitated by the structural consolidation begun by Cavour, and the Czars had long ago effected all the centralization that Lenin needed. Again, for centuries the seat of ultimate authority had been London when the socialists took over: home government in England is merely an administrative agency.
When the trend toward centralization in this country took definite shape under the New Deal, its leaders ran head on into the impediment of divided authority. They set out to remove it. They went so far as to draw up a blueprint for a new political setup, one that would circumvent, if not obliterate, the troublesome state lines. In 1940 the National Resources Committee, in a report called Regional Factors in National Planning, proposed to divide the country into a dozen regional areas, as a basis for national planning and the coordination of federal administrative services. It was a proposal so violative of the spirit of the Constitution, if not the letter, that the committee made haste to give assurance; the regional organization, they said, “should not be considered as a new form of sovereignty, even in embryo.” It would have been foolhardy to say anything else, especially since the consolidation of the states into a national unit requires, under Constitutional procedure, the joint action of Congress and the state legislatures. Nevertheless, the committee insisted that the “division of Constitutional powers” handicapped any program of national design; the report left no doubt of the necessity of overcoming this division as a condition for the federal solution of “otherwise insolvable problems.” It was clearly a bid for a nationalized system; and in the propaganda of the day the prediction that the states are “finished” was uninhibited.
Thus, the proponents of planning, with its correlative of restrictions on individual initiative, are on record as to their strategic campaign. The separate states must be either wiped out or reduced to parish status. It is impossible to effect complete control over the individual of divided allegiance; he must have only one god. History is on their side; no political power ever achieved absolutism where the subjects were permitted to indulge more than one loyalty; the Caesars persecuted the Christians because, despite the homage they rendered Rome, they worshipped God.
Pending the organic consolidation of the states, the planners adopted a policy of conquest by purchase. Armed with the enormous revenues from the unlimited income tax, they have to all intents and purposes penetrated and almost obliterated state lines. All was done, is being done, in the name of “public welfare,” but the political effect of flood control, public housing projects, farm subsidies, federal control of banks, loans and subventions of all sorts, has been to win public support for the central government and to discredit home government. The loyalty as well as the integrity of the citizenry is purchased by gratuities derived from its own substance, while bribery and blackmail reduce the petty local politician to subservience. For a brief tenure of office the sovereignty of the states is bartered away; such areas of independent action as are left to them are those the federal government has not yet chosen to absorb, like patrolling the streets or real estate taxation. Washington has thus become the American Mecca and, if not stopped by vigorous and uncompromising opposition, will become its Moscow.
The Origin of States’ Rights
The forces of centralization, then, have selected the “front,” the line of battle, and there is nothing for the opposition to do but to meet them at this line. The issue is again the matter of states’ rights, but this time vitalized with the issue of freedom. Specifically, it is the original American issue, before it became sullied with sectionalism and racialism; it is the problem that confronted the Founding Fathers.
The people of the recently liberated British colonies had had their fill of government from afar, of impersonal government, of government by decree. If they were going to have any government at all they wanted one they could keep their eyes on and, if need be, put their hands on. They were for Union, to be sure, for by such cooperation they had rid themselves of a foreign tyrant, but they recognized that under the Articles of Confederation the Union was imperfect; it was to correct these imperfections that they sent delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, not to draw up a new Constitution. They accepted the Constitution rather grudgingly, even though it left to the several states almost as much autonomy as they had had; in internal matters the only material limitations on their authority was in imposing interstate tariffs and in the matter of issuing currency; in the important fiscal powers, with the exception of import tariffs, the states gave up nothing, merely allowing the federal government to share with them the right to levy excise taxes. Direct taxation, on land and on incomes, remained the exclusive prerogative of the states. And, while the Constitution did not touch on the subject, the opinion prevailed that withdrawal from the Union was permissible, an opinion that found expression first in the 1815 Hartford convention called for the purpose of exploring the possibility of secession of the New England states. The first loyalty of the early American was to his local government, and for good reason.
There is no vice in the government of a large nation that cannot be duplicated in the government of a small nation or of any political sub-division. Even the Greek city-states had their tyrants. Our state and city establishments have proven themselves susceptible to the ubiquitous malady of corruption, and the rights of citizens have not been immune to the power-complex of county sheriffs. If we were divided into forty-eight nations, each independent of the other, the case for freedom would hardly be better; it could be worse. But, where power is diffused, as was contemplated in the original Union, and the citizen can play one authority against another, his inherent rights are less likely to be infringed upon. That political fact was taken for granted, or rather sensed, by those who drafted, ratified or opposed the Constitution; the arguments in the Convention, the pleading for ratification in the Federalist and the warnings of anti-ratificationist pamphleteers all bear evidence to a general distrust of centralized power. Except for a handful who urged the monarchial form of government, everybody was for local authority at least equal in scope to that of the new national authority.
Freedom Is a Fight
Freedom is a personal experience; a free society is an association of free individuals, nothing else. Freedom consists simply in the absence of external restraints on thought and behavior. Yet, because the individual, in his efforts to improve upon his circumstances, not infrequently transgresses the equal freedom of his fellow man, restraint becomes a necessary condition of social living; it is the means of maintaining an equilibrium, or justice. But, the administrators of justice are themselves men, possessed of the frail ties common to all men, and in the exercise of the powers of restraint vested in them are not immune from temptation. Power over men is itself a satisfaction, besides providing opportunity to better one’s circumstances with a minimum of exertion. Hence, the lust for power increases with its enjoyment and restraint is added to restraint. The government instituted to prevent men from transgressing one another’s equal rights thus tends to become a transgressor of the rights of all. The injustice is far more oppressive than any one man can do unto another, and the interests of freedom can be served only by restraint of government.
The fight is unending. Man being what he is, government is necessary; but government being subject to its own perversions, must be kept in line by constant surveillance and opposition. At times, as during the present, political power gets the upper hand and seems well on the way to reduce the individual to animal status; but because of man’s innate urge for self-expression, which is the essence of freedom, the struggle flares up again and again. Between man and political power there is never peace, only a temporary truce.
On this basic premise a states’ rights movement can build an appealing program. If it promises freedom, with decentralization as a means only, it will speak to the hearts of men. The romantic appeal of government by neighbors, of non-interference from outsiders, of the preservation of cherished local customs, of the pride of belonging to one’s home environment â€“ all this will have its contributory effect; but far more fetching will be the expectation of greater freedom, economic as well as political. That is the goal men have always striven for.
And the promise must be implemented with specific objectives; ideals alone will not do. Its platform must offer relief from all the interventions in human affairs that the federal government, under the guise of humanitarianism, has possessed itself of and without compromise. Going to the tap-root of its present overweaning power, repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment should be the keystone of a states’ rights program. The power to tax the earnings of men is a denial of private property, the one right without which man is reduced to subject-status. Our entire Bill of Rights became a dead letter when the right to keep and enjoy the product of oneâ€™s labor was taken from us; for human dignity cannot be divorced from the sense of ownership. Once the political establishment acquired a proper lien on everything produced, it had the means to undertake ventures for which it has no competence in theory or practice, ventures which are properly in the domain of individual initiative. It acquired the means of becoming the Monopoly State Capitalist. Nor is there any power left to prevent its achievement of that goal. For its enormous economic resources enable it to maintain the machinery for the repression of opposition.
A states’ rights movement that did not encompass repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment would be meaningless. For the autonomy of the state government was inevitably doomed when the incomes of the people became the incidence of federal taxation. In the first place, loyalty of the citizen, who before that had been primarily a citizen of his state, and only secondarily of the nation, was transferred to the authority that takes his wealth; he became a subject of the government controlling his economy. And then, with these funds at its disposal, the federal government was in position to bring the local governments to heel, mainly through the process of bribery. It is now clear that when the states ratified this amendment they signed the death warrant of their own sovereignty.
Secession and Nullification
With that plank as a beginning, the platform should tear into every device of centralization, always exposing it as a threat to freedom, regardless of the promise with which it is eased into our lives. Let us take the Federal Reserve System as an example. This was in the beginning a quasi-public organization, or a private organization under the aegis of the government; its function was to move money from banks with an excess of it to banks that had a need of it for sound purposes. However, through its monopoly privilege of making money and issuing bonds, the government has reduced this organization to subservience; it is now an arm of the government, willy-nilly. As a consequence, the local bank, which once served the commercial life of its community, is an obedient secretary of the U. S. Treasury. Since sixty percent of its assets are in the hands of the government, the bank’s interest in the local merchant and industrialist is only forty percent. The banker is hardly the servicer of the society of which he was a part, but has been fitted into the “foreign” bureaucracy. Not only is his freedom being whittled away, but the freedom of the citizen he once served is being limited by the rules and regulations of the super-banker, the government. A states’ rights movement must not only point out how the liquidation of private banking came about, to the discouragement of private initiative, but should advocate a system of state-chartered banks as free as possible from federal entanglement.
But, whether it is against the banking system, or flood control boards with authority superseding that of the states, or the multitudinous lending and spending agencies that everywhere demote civic management to secondary importance, the attacks should be made with the purpose of laying upon the federal government the odium of a “foreign” government. One could make a strong case for the proposition that the disabilities put upon the colonials by George III compare favorably with the disabilities we suffer under the Washington bureaucracy; the indictment of that monarch in the Declaration of Independence needs little change to fit it to the Trojan horse named “Welfare State.” It must be the business of a states’ rights movement to point out that freedom can be bartered away as well as taken away. The result is the same.
Important as is this ideological program, the movement must attach to itself an economic interest. This is essential. In 1815, the movement got up a head of steam only because “Mr. Madison’s War” was playing havoc with the merchants and individualists of New England, and it was the economic difficulties of the South that germinated interest in nullification and secession. No political movement travels on ideals alone; it must be fueled by economics. Through the intelligent use of the fiscal powers of the states, it is possible to induce capital to engage in intra-state ventures; the current attacks of big government on “big business” should favor such decentralization, and the graduated income tax will in time make the per-dollar return from a small investment more attractive than possible earnings from a large undertaking. Farming freed from local taxation should prove more profitable, and infinitely more dignified, than subsidized and regulated farming. The exemption of buildings from local levies would long ago have overcome the housing shortage, upon which the bureaucracy has waxed fat, and would have started a wage boom of proportions. In numerous ways, the states individually or through voluntary agreements could go in for encouraging local industry, to the disparagement of federal methods.
In short, a states’ rights movement should take the form of the secession from Washington, not from the Union, and nullification of the directives issuing from bureaucracies. It would be revolutionary in character but legal in form, because the autonomy of the state governments is inherent in the Constitution. Besides, there is no way for the federal government to indict the state governments, and revolution is always legal when it is successful.
Frank Chodorov (1887-1966), one of the great libertarians of the Old Right, was the founder of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists and author of such books as The Income Tax: Root of All Evil. Here he is on “Taxation Is Robbery.”