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Book Review: Grassroots Tyranny


Grassroots Tyranny: The Limits of Federalism
by Clint Bolick (Washington, D.C.: The Cato Institute, 1993); 195 pages; $21.95 (cloth); $12.95 (paper).

In his book The Vanishing Rights of the States (1926), former Solicitor General of the United States, James M. Beck, pointed out that “unhappily a written form of government is not a Gibraltar that can resist the waves, but a sandy beach, which, while it seems to beat back the devouring waters, is always losing in the struggle. Each decade sees some principle of the Constitution either weakened or nullified, and the difficulty is that the people are only sensible of their peril after the principle is destroyed, and when it is too late to restore it.”

One such eroded principle is the federal nature of the American republic. More and more over the decades, the state governments have lost their sovereign quality and become administrative units subservient to and increasingly dominated by the national government in Washington. The trend can be seen, for example, in the subtle change in the grammatical usage when referring to the country. Throughout most of the 19th century, the phrasing would be, “The United States are . . . .” In our own century, the proper phrasing has become, “The United States is . . . .”

Thus, in our language we have come to think of the United States of America, not as a compact among the peoples of a plurality of sovereign states who have delegated certain enumerated and limited functions to a national government for the common welfare of those people, but as a unitary state possessing paramount authority in setting the parameters in which the state legislatures and their citizens may decide and act in various ways.

Yet, in realizing that Washington has increasingly encroached upon the traditional rights and autonomy of the states and local governments within those states, it would be a mistake to assume that a respect for states’ rights and local government “close to the people” necessarily means the absence of political abuse or denials of personal freedom. And it is the danger of such local infringements upon individual liberty that is the theme of Clint Bolick’s recent book, Grassroots Tyranny: The Limits of Federalism .

Indeed, Mr. Bolick despairs that “the most notable aspect of the contemporary debate over federalism, on both ends of the political spectrum, is the almost total absence of serious discussion about individual liberty.” Through most of this century, modern liberals have viewed states’ rights as a barrier to their desire to impose their own social engineering designs upon the entire nation from the halls of power in Washington. They have wanted to weaken or eliminate the notion of state sovereignty when it has stood in the way of their grand plans for remaking social and economic relationships in their own collectivist image.

On the other hand, conservatives have frequently defended the autonomy of the individual states and local governments in opposition to this trend towards national socialism and welfare statism. Nevertheless, conservatives have been quite willing to permit legislative discretion and majoritarian rule at the state and local levels for the enforcement of their own preferred agendas for social and cultural collectivism, in violation of the liberties of the individuals at these levels of government. As Mr. Bolick expresses it, “The difference between the conservative view . . . and the liberal view . . . lies not in one or the other’s consistent support for individual liberty, but in their respective preferences for which level of government may with impunity compromise that liberty. . . . Either way, liberty stands unprotected in all but passing rhetoric.”

For this reason, Mr. Bolick believes that the views of both conservatives and modern liberals are inconsistent with the spirit of the Founding Fathers who framed the American system of government. They were suspicious of all violations of human liberty, regardless of the level of government at which they occurred, and wished no level of political power-national, state or local-to have the ability to threaten the freedom of those in whose name they were supposed to rule.

And continuing a theme developed in his earlier book, Unfinished Business: A Civil Rights Strategy for America’s Third Century , he argues that the post-Civil War Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was designed precisely to balance the powers of the national and state governments in such a way that the latter could not deny individuals their right to life, liberty and property, while at the same time assuring that the national government was still constrained in not having the power to threaten the liberty of the people from Washington.

In a series of chapters, Mr. Bolick discusses the manner in which state and local political authorities have often violated and sometimes completely denied individual liberty in the areas of private property, free exchange and contract, freedom of speech and cultural autonomy. And he argues that these local denials of personal freedom and economic liberty are often far more pervasive than the myriad of controls from Washington, and, indeed, in many ways are more of a daily threat to the spirit of individualism in America than those dangers that emanate from the District of Columbia.

It is to the original premises of the Founding Fathers to which we must move if freedom is to be recaptured in these United States. “State governments are neither constitutionally irrelevant, as some would argue,” Mr. Bolick states, “nor are they constitutionally glorified as if they were ends in themselves. Adherence to the core values of federalism means a preference for decentralized government, primarily as a means of protecting individual liberty.”

The tragedy and the danger we face in America today is that collectivism on the installment plan-the incremental manner by which statism has grown in our country-has not only slowly worn away the constitutional restraints on governmental power, but has also eaten away at the memory of what freedom is supposed to mean. Rare is the individual who can conceive of what a really free society should look like and why it is a desirable social order. Can it be recaptured, or is it too late, as James Beck feared it might become?

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).