The wisdom of the Founders never ceases to amaze. For a bunch of hate-filled, patriarchal old white guys, they sure knew their stuff.
Madison explains that if administrative centralization replaces local state governments, it will expand the prerogatives of the executive and render the people’s voice silenced and their consent reduced to a mere choice of administrators. He goes on to write that, though an administrative consolidation in the United States would be ruinous to liberty, the success of the federal republic depended on a consolidation of “interests and affections.” For the Founders, such common interests included the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence, signed by representatives from all the states, that imply a right to self-government and genuine consent. Moreover, such common affections are necessary, Madison writes, to “consolidate their defence of the public liberty.” So what is needed is a consolidation of interest in and affection for self-government, consent, and liberty — not greater efficiency through centralization.
We have had sufficient evidence during the last eight years that there is a growing divide and breakdown of common interests and affections in the United States. The left seems to have been quite successful at replacing the idea of a common good, especially justice, with the idea of identity politics and opposing goods with its concomitant form of “social” justice. We have also had sufficient evidence of the attempt to centralize everything from immigration to education to bathrooms in the hands of the executive branch. But it is only with this election that we now see proof of an actual desire from the left to do away with states completely and a belief that states as intermediary powers are not pillars of support to liberty but actually anachronistic obstructions to it.
Montesquieu first articulated the modern idea of federalism as a fortification for liberty, and his thoughts greatly influenced both sides of the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate. Less than fifty years after American founding, Alexis de Tocqueville described what administrative centralization — without the check of intermediary powers like states — had been doing to liberty in France and would certainly do in America also if allowed; he famously described the effect that it had on the citizenry as “soft” despotism. No matter how dear or how sweet greater efficiency may seem to the consolidationists, they can only be purchased at the price of the chains of bureaucracy and administrative slavery.
To the plethora of hindsight explanations for the recent election of Donald Trump, I will add mine. In the 1790s, Madison and other Democratic-Republicans worried that the American people were losing their ability to govern themselves and were instead being ruled by a cadre of Federalist elites. The election of Thomas Jefferson, the “Revolution of 1800,” put these fears largely to rest, along with the viable existence of the Federalists as a political party. Whether rightly or wrongly time will tell, but the American people have spoken in this election, and they have declared that they will not be ruled by an oligarchy of elitists and an administrative state that calls injustice justice. Donald Trump is no Thomas Jefferson, but we should take comfort in the fact that large portions of the American people are apparently as liberty-loving today as they were in 1800. A Trump presidency may prove to be just as prone to federal overreach as Obama’s, but one thing the left and the right need to understand is that a robust form of federalism is one of the best ways to limit the prerogatives of the executive by retaining to the states the powers granted to them by the Constitution.
Madison finishes “Consolidation” with a call for those who lean on either side of the confederate/national divide to work together “to maintain the various authorities established by our complicated system,” for he knew that liberty was in both of their interests. Writing in 1792, Madison proclaimed, “partitions and internal checks of power” can never be “the chief palladium of constitutional liberty.” The primary guardians of the republic must be the people, its authors, and “their eyes must be ever ready to mark, their voice to pronounce, and their arm to repel or repair aggressions on the authority of their constitutions.” As the people acted through their states to create the federal government, so also they must act through their states to control it.
There are some in the liberty movement who bash the Constitution as a flawed document because it supposedly “failed” to safeguard our rights and our freedom. I’ve always felt the failure was not in our Constitution but in ourselves. Gratified to see that Madison agreed with me on that.