Thursday, November 8, 2007

what’s so great about local rule?

One of the most pervasive beliefs in conservative circles is the concept of "States' rights", and by extension, that of "local control". The idea here is that power, political and otherwise, ought to lie with the states, and the communities within those states. The Feds, nosy and pushy bastards they are, seem to make everything their business, and over the years, they've perverted the Commerce Clause and exploited the power of the purse to take control away from the states and communities.

One thing I won't dispute here, and that's the tendency of the federal government to usurp powers that were not intended for it by the framers of the Constitution. The Commerce Clause in particular has been "the clause for the cause" of unlimited federal involvement, as nowadays you are held to influence interstate commerce merely by growing your own plants in the backyard and selling them right on your curb to residents of your town. Government is only good at few things, but among those are self-justification and expansion, and the Hydra that is our Federal government has had more than two hundred years to grow some new heads.

That said, I have a bit of a problem with the whole concept of "States' rights". First of all, States (or any governments at any level) have no rights. States have powers. In a Constitutional Republic like ours, those powers are enumerated in the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment reads: "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."

The federal government has, at least in theory, a very specific range of powers granted to it by the Constitution. It's essentially a "You May" list addressed to the Feds, and if a power is not listed on that parchment as having been delegated to it, the government may not engage in it, because it's not authorized by the States and the people to exercise it. (The Bill of Rights, as an addition to the Constitution, is a "You May Not" list, enumerating a bunch of things the government may not ever do.) Both those documents are a restriction on government, not on private citizens.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle routinely mistake the Constitution as a "You May" list addressed to the citizens, and that misconception is shared by the population at large, which is why even a Supreme Court justice can publically state that 'there is no Constitutional right to an abortion' without being laughed off the bench. Technically, he is correct, but conceptually, he's completely off the mark—citizen rights are not limited by the Constitution at all, only government powers are, and there's not a thing on that parchment about the government having the power to either prohibit or allow abortions. (I bet someone could pull some reasoning out of the hat in order to make abortion subject to the Commerce Clause, since damn near everything else falls under it these days.)

So far, so good. If the Feds don't have the power, then the States have it, or the people respectively, right?

The problem here is that states, counties, or even towns are no wiser than the federal government, and that a state legislature, county sheriff, or city council can—and will—trample an individual's rights just as effectively as a federal government, and maybe even more so. Local governments have given us Eminent Domain abuses (remember that it was Kelo vs. City of New London, not Kelo vs. The United States of America), slavery, denial of civil rights through Jim Crow laws, wholesale population disarmament in places like D.C. and Chicago, and a host of other abrogations of individual freedom. In many cities, the Good Ol' Boys' Club runs the show, and it's virtually impossible to get even into local government without being a member. The same holds true for counties and states, and it makes me wonder why people put so much faith into local government when they have such distrust of the federal bureaucracy. Government is a toxic mix of fiscal irresponsibility, self-interest, power lust, incompetence, and mediocrity. The question is this: if you don't trust one government to run your life, why trust any government to run your life? They're all the same in concept and execution.

Now, one thing many folks on the Right and Left have in common (as much as they hate to admit any commonalities) is the belief that a local government can effectively legislate itself whatever kind of society it wants, and that the Constitution and its Amendments only apply to the federal government. In other words, the Feds may not infringe on the right to keep and bear arms, but if a locality decides that it wants to ban guns, that ought to be its right. Conversely, if a locality wants to establish school prayer, ban abortion, or bar non-Christians from public office, then that too should be its right.

Fortunately, Article Six of the Constitution specifies that it (the Constitution) is the supreme law of the land, and that states and localities are only free to pass laws that do not conflict with the Constitution. In other words, if our Constitution prohibits an infringement on the freedom of speech or the right to keep and bear arms, and a state or city passes a law that infringes on those rights, the Constitution takes precedence, and the local law is null and void. (Don't ask me how the gun bans in D.C. and Chicago have managed to remain in place without being challenged all the way to SCOTUS and dismissed by the Nine Bench-Wraiths…then again, I have a good idea as to why that is. See "government" and "toxic mix" above.)

The supremacy of the federal Constitution makes sense—it's the only thing that makes sense. If the Constitution exists to limit government and protect the rights of the individual citizen, then it makes no sense at all to say that "States rights" or local rule can trump it. Every last one of us (except the folks in D.C.) is resident of a state and a city or town, and if those entities can override and contradict the Constitution willy-nilly, then the parchment is completely worthless. It would be like signing a lease for a house, and then violating the terms of the lease at will, claiming that the contract only applies to the house as a whole, and not to the individual rooms therein.

Conversely, if you trust your neighbors, townsfolk, or same-staters to run your life, what difference does it make to trust the folks in Washington as well? After all, the states are all represented in both House and Senate. Some of your neighbors sit in the House on behalf of you, and two of them sit in the Senate to represent your state. If you object to federal dominion just because you only get a 2% say on the federal level, why is it that you agree with yet another neighbor having the same power just because he drives to the Capitol in Nashville, Augusta, Atlanta, or Concord instead of Washington?

No, friends and neighbors, a few hundred career civil servants in your State Capitol or City Hall can step on your rights and take your stuff just as efficiently as a few hundred in Washington, D.C., and the only difference between those two groups is the accent. In the end, they're all after the same things—staying in office, serving their own interests at the public expense, and taking money out of your pocket to give it to someone else in exchange for votes and influence.

No comments:

Post a Comment