by Michael Maharrey
Even the most compelling argument quickly unravels when based on a faulty premise. A mathematician can meticulously work a complicated algebra problem, flawlessly executing each step in solving the equation. She can follow every rule in a perfectly proper sequence, but if she assumed 2+2=5 in the first step, the answer would inevitably come out wrong.
Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum illustrated this tendency during the Republican debate last Thursday night.
“We have Ron Paul saying, ‘Oh, whatever the states want to do under the Tenth Amendment is fine.’ So if the states want to pass polygamy, that’s fine. If the states want to impose sterilization, that’s fine. No! Our country is based on moral laws, ladies and gentleman. There are things the states can’t do. Abraham Lincoln said, ‘The states do not have the right to do wrong.’ I respect the Tenth Amendment, but we are a nation that has values. We are a nation that was built on a moral enterprise. And states don’t have the right to tramp over those because of the Tenth Amendment.”
In the first place, Santorum completely ignores the federalist system our founders created. The federal government was never intended to enforce a moral enterprise. That role was left to the states and the people. That’s why we don’t generally have federal laws against murder. Utah Tenth Amendment Center state chapter coordinator Connor Boyack does a fantastic job of pointing this out in an article you can read here.
Beyond not understanding, or simply ignoring, the division of powers between state and federal governments in the U.S. system, Santorum’s comment reveals a deeper, more basic fallacy.
Like many Americans, he makes the erroneous assumption that the federal government will protect the interests of the people, while state governments will trample rights and abuse its citizens. In fact, Santorum sets the feds up as the defender of the people against states planning mass sterilization campaigns.
Seriously, how does this make any sense?
When you stop for a moment and think about it, you will quickly realize it’s a ludicrous notion. No government enjoys innate superiority over another. All governments operate subject to identical forces of human nature, a flawed nature that leads people to abuse power and seek their own self-interest if left unchecked.
Political philosopher Frederick Bastiat observed:
But there is also another tendency that is common among people. When they can, they wish to live and prosper at the expense of others. This is no rash accusation. Nor does it come from a gloomy and uncharitable spirit. The annals of history bear witness to the truth of it: the incessant wars, mass migrations, religious persecutions, universal slavery, dishonesty in commerce and monopolies. This fatal desire has its origin in the very nature of man – – in that primitive, universal and insuppressible instinct that impels him to satisfy his desires with the least possible pain.
Apparently, Santorum assumes a mysterious substance in the D.C. water supply makes federal officials more benevolent and moral than the men and women who frequent our 50 state capitols. Or perhaps mutations in the DNA of federal bureaucrats make them superior to state workers. Maybe he believes something in the air along the Potomac somehow negates basic human nature, making federal officials altruistic and dedicated to serving American citizens.
A quote often attributed to George Washington sums up the danger of government power. ANY government power.
“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”
Even if the first president never uttered the words, they ring no less true.
And concentrated power becomes ever more dangerous. As Lord Acton observed, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When we step back and look at the nature of government, it becomes clear that placing all authority in Washington D.C. poses a much greater threat to the people than allowing states to exercise their powers individually.
Let’s take Santorum’s ridiculous assertion at face value. Let’s say the state of Kentucky passes a law mandating castration for every male over the age of 30. How long do you think it would take for the mass exodus to begin? I guarantee; the population of males over the age of 30 in Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and the other bordering states would skyrocket within hours of the passage of that legislation. And you’d likely find the guys that didn’t care to leave on the steps of the capitol, shotguns in hand
But what if the federal government passed such a law? Where would we go? How easy is it to leave the United States? What escape or recourse do we have?
Santorum supporters might assert, “Well, the federal government would never do that.” Really? Can you guarantee that? Have you ever heard of Tuskegee? And if you can be so sure the federal government wouldn’t pass such a draconian law, how can you stand there with a straight face and argue that we need the federal government violating the Constitution to protect citizens from states passing such ridiculous laws?
The fact is governments do bad things. Local governments. State governments. National governments. The question becomes, how can we the people best control them?
Clearly, citizens have more control over local and state government. I know where my state representative works. I can walk there in about 15 minutes, knock on his door and sit down and chat. I’ve done it before. And I know where he grocery shops. I chat with him on Facebook on a regular basis. I used to babysit my state senator’s kids.
Tracking down my congressman, Rep. Ben Chandler, is kind of like a real-life version of Where’s Waldo. He excels at hiding from constituents. I certainly can’t just waltz into his office unannounced and expect him to hang out and shoot the breeze. And do you really think Pres. Obama cares a wit about what I think?
The founders limited federal authority for a reason. They feared concentrated power. They had just ended a bloody war to escape the inevitable tyranny of unchecked power. The framers created a republican system with checks and balances, delegating a few specific roles to the general government, reserving the rest to the states and the people.
I agree with Rick. State governments can do some pretty nasty things. But the feds my protector? No thanks. I’ve seen how the U.S. protects civilians in Libya. Not impressed. And I’ve stood in line at the airport in my socks watching a woman get groped. I’ve watched video footage of armed federal agents raiding stores for the heinous crime of selling whole milk. I’ve seen photos of Japanese-American kids staring through barbed-wire inside internment camps during WWII.
Yeah. The more I think about it Rick, I’ll just stick with the Constitution.
Latest posts by Mike Maharrey (see all)
- Another History Professor Good at Politics, Bad at History - February 8, 2015
- Anti-Commandeering: The Legal Basis for Refusing to Participate - February 3, 2015
- Nullification Season: 200 State Bills and Counting - February 1, 2015