Since the beginning of our republic there has been a great debate on the role and scope of the federal government and its relationship to the states. We did not begin as the United States of America, we began as 13 individual colonies each with their own unique socio-economic system and each wary of federal entanglement.
That federal entanglement has grown to a degree never imagined by our Founding Fathers and, safe to say, they likely would be appalled by how powerful and invasive the national government has become. The Constitution of the United States was developed not to empower the federal government, but rather to protect the rights of the several states and their inhabitants.
Before agreeing to ratify the Constitution, a number of states insisted on what has become known as the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments that more clearly and specifically protect the God-given rights of we the people and of our state governments. To put an exclamation point on the issue the framers added the tenth amendment which reads: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Excepting during the Civil War, presidents largely adhered to the limitations of the tenth amendment until the early part of the 20th century when America emerged as a global power. From that point on, the reverse has been true: the federal government has assumed those powers not specifically prohibited rather than those specifically delegated.
A parallel to the issue of states’ rights played out recently in the United Kingdom when Scotland entertained the notion of seceding from the union. In the end, the three century old United Kingdom survived – but not until the British version of a federal government agreed to grant sweeping new power and more autonomy to Scotland. Other parts of the kingdom, Wales and Northern Ireland and even England itself are eyeing more powers of self-governance.
In the run-up to the Scottish vote Reuters conducted a public opinion poll in this country and discovered an astounding 24% of Americans would like to see their state secede from the union. In the mid-Atlantic region, including Pennsylvania, 21% favor secession. Secession fever runs highest in the American southwest, where Texas – which generally considers itself to be a nation/state – particularly favors secession.
Secession has not been seriously entertained by any state since the Civil War, nor is it likely to at any point in the near future. But the Reuters analysis of their poll offered this conclusion: “By the evidence of the poll data as well as these anecdotal conversations, the sense of aggrievement is comprehensive, bipartisan, somewhat incoherent, but deeply felt.”
The analysis further explained that those favoring secession from the United States were entering a “protest” against “a recovery that has yet to produce jobs, against jobs that don’t pay, against mistreatment of veterans, against war, against deficits, against hyper-partisanship, against political corruption, against illegal immigration . . . against government in general – the president, Congress, the courts and both political parties.”
In short this is more evidence that federal government intrusion into virtually every aspect of Americans’ everyday lives has reached a point where it can no longer be controlled, effectively administered, or even be viewed as being for the public good. As a result, nearly one-quarter of all Americans believe they would be better off if their state seceded from the union and governed itself.
Rather than have states secede, we need to get back to two fundamental governing principles. First, the primacy of the tenth amendment must be restored and the federal government must be shorn of those functions not specifically designated to it by the constitution. In other words, we must pare down government to its essential public functions. Second, those tasks that are legitimately the function of government should be performed at the lowest governmental level possible.
Only by returning to these core principles can we right-size government, make it truly effective and efficient, and restore a public confidence which has clearly been lost.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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