The size of empire

I have decided that the United States is too big a country. How many countries in history have had as large a population as the United States? Various civilizations might come to mind that at least oversaw comparable stretches of territory, such as China or the Roman Empire, but a defining characteristic of those former empires is that they were empires. They did not even theoretically embrace the ideal of freedom.

In order to avoid these prior tyrannical outcomes, our Founding Fathers refused to fashion the United States as a single country. Rather, the United States was supposed to be a federation of numerous different countries, kind of like the Federation in Star Trek. These thirteen different countries (“states”) united only in order to perform jointly a limited number of specifically enumerated tasks. These tasks included building a military, coining money, eliminating interstate tariffs, and enacting foreign policy. Just to make extra sure that the federal government would only perform these specific tasks, the Congress passed the Tenth Amendment shortly afterward — to clarify the original intention.

But we do not particularly care about their original intention anymore, so we have become an empire. The states are no longer sovereign in any genuine sense of the word. Rather, Congress is all-powerful. And whereas you can move among state lines, there is no escaping the reach of Congress. The erosion of state power began with the Civil War, which established the precedent that states were no longer authorized to withdraw from the American federation. At the close of the Civil War, the national government also forced the Southern states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which significantly expanded federal power to (supposedly) protect the privileges and immunities of state citizens.

But even with these new restrictions on the states, the states and their citizens remained largely free and independent. The states remained free  because the state governments got to choose the makeup of the Senate. Without the Senate’s approval, the national government could do nothing further to erode state sovereignty and oppress the people. Specifically, under the original setup, the various state legislatures got to vote for the senators that they liked, and the citizens had only an indirect role in the process — in that they got to vote for the state legislators. Under this setup, a senator could not survive to brag about it if he ever defied the wishes of his state government — such as by imposing congressional mandates on the states (funded or unfunded), or even passing laws which preempted entire fields that were previously considered to be within the authority of the individual states (e.g., setting up a government healthcare system).

It was not until the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, which required the direct election of senators, that the republic finally crumbled. At that point, the state governments had no more authority to fight back against Congress, and one of the key checks and balances of the original republic — namely, federalism — was gone. After that point, the United States became just another enormous state (singular) ruled primarily by a central government.

In fact, it took less than twenty years after the ratification of the Seveneenth Amendment before the rise to power of the first genuinely leftist demogogue in the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt with his “New Deal.” (The Deal was “New” in the sense that it consisted of change the voters could believe in.)

Of course, the conservative justices on the Supreme Court can still offer some limited protection for federalism, but the courts typically hate to get intricately involved in “political questions.” Likewise, a few committed individual voters may vote for their senators based on federalist principles, but generally speaking they will not. Now that we have abandoned the original constitutional order, the voters will generally elect whichever senator has the most charisma and the most money for commercials. Unlike the state legislators, these voters have no direct stake in the matter. Rather, the voters will elect whoever pledges to do a good job, regardless of whether that supposedly good job would fall within the constitutional authority of Congress. Because state legislators no longer have the power to protect their turf, federalism has been lost.

Perhaps even more problematically, the voters tend not to be informed about their senators. For one thing, people have short memories. Even though we abolished the states’ power to elect senators, we retained their six-year terms. How can anyone expect the ordinary citizen to vote against a senator for a bad vote that he made three or four years prior? Ilíon wrote about this problem of ignorance a little while back, summing up the issue as follows:

And . . . so long as [the Senator] can continue to convince hundreds of thousands (or millions) of voters, that is, people who do not know him and have no contact with him, that he’s “doing a good job,” rather than the relative handful of other politicians in his State, who do know him and his capabilities, because they’ve worked with him for years, then he’s pretty much set for life.

As a consequence of these developments, Congress’s power has grown enormously. Since Federalism no longer exists, Congress can basically do whatever it wants. The United States went from a limited union of numerous little countries that worked together for specific purposes, to one BIG empire run from the top down. We went from being the United Federation of Planets to being the Borg Collective. At the time, most people probably did not notice the change, but the change nonetheless occurred and its effects are significant.

One of my friends commented on Facebook that he could not understand why some conservatives were advocating repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. He found it confusing that a populist movement would advocate a course of action which directly curtailed its own voting rights. But my friend evidently missed the main goal of the position. By restoring the Constitutional system of federalism, we would be dividing the nation back into fifty separate countries.

My friend’s confusion merely evidenced a general ignorance in today’s society about the virtue of small societies. Leftists tend to appreciate these developments and cannot understand why anyone would reject making America into one gigantic society, or why anyone would oppose letting Congress have unrestricted powers. In their mind, the fact that the voters get to elect their representatives constitutes enough of a check on congressional power. But common sense tells us that the more gigantic the society, the more impersonal government will become. If I know that no matter how loudly I shout, I will never convince a majority of Americans (i.e., 150 million people) to accept my views, it simply discourages me from speaking out at all.

Everyone knows at least one lazy slacker who neglects his duty to vote and whines that the individual vote does not matter. Dividing the country into smaller, sovereign states would help address this criticism, because individual choices matter more in smaller elections. At the very least, it would make his vote worth about fifty times as much as before.

All other things being equal, a person is simply freer in a small country than he is in a big country. In a small community, you can effect change by talking to your neighbors and reasoning with them. Moreover, you can become actively involved in the culture itself, shaping society by culture and not merely by politics. In a gigantic empire, no matter how much you talk or how much money you invest in television advertising, there is only an extremely limited amount that you can accomplish. In a small country, if your leadership is corrupt then you can move away. In a gigantic empire, no one can escape. With numerous small societies, each society can implement laws that reflect that society’s morals, and then the societies with the best morals and best systems can flourish while the more corrupt societies can learn the error of their ways. In a gigantic empire, the enormous size of the population only offers more targets for the Leftist leeches to attack before they eventually run out of the empire’s money altogether.


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