Posts tagged with: federalism

The Markets, Culture, and Ethics Project’s Third International Colloquium on Christian Humanism in Economics and Business, “Free Markets with Solidarity and Sustainability: Facing the Challenge” conference is coming up this October 22-23 at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC. Academic conferences do not necessarily strive to be attractive or inviting (13 word titles and 13 letter words aren’t really all that “catchy”). But I would encourage anyone who is in the area or who is willing to make the trip to seriously consider attending this one. But why this conference? (more…)

In this week’s commentary, I take a look at Calvin Coolidge and his views on government. Coolidge is important today for many reasons. Chiefly, he’s a striking contrast to our current culture of government and the bloated state.

Coolidge was sandwiched in between the progressive era and the rise of the New Dealers. And in his era of leadership, tyrannical leaders who preached the supremacy of the state rose to power abroad. Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini in Italy are two examples. Coolidge preached limited government and saw himself as a civic educator who wanted to remind America of its founding freedom.

In watching what just transpired with the recall election in Wisconsin and the debate over public sector unions, there is again a connection to Coolidge. His rise to national prominence came as governor of Massachusetts when he took on a public union. Coolidge’s firm stand against the Boston Police Strike of 1919 later led him to reflect saying, “The people will respond to the truth.” Coolidge famously declared during the strike that, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” Ronald Reagan would find inspiration from Coolidge’s hardline when he terminated the striking air traffic controllers in 1981 as president.

I have enjoyed reading through the speeches and biographies of Coolidge. I have read a lot of original sources such as Have Faith in Massachusetts, which is a collection of messages and speeches delivered by Coolidge during his political career in the Bay State. After reading through that, you get a picture of the depth of his conservative thought and how he was able to articulate it so well to the citizenry.

His most brilliant speech which is really a denunciation of the progressive era and a triumphant praise of America’s Founding is his remarkable address on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. If you don’t read anything else by Coolidge, that speech is a must read. Finally, keep the forthcoming Coolidge biography by Amity Shlaes on your radar.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Thursday, May 31, 2012

I recently finished the advanced copy of Os Guinness’s A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. I posted a previous excerpt on the topic of virtue in a free republic a couple of weeks ago.

In recent writing and speaking about President Calvin Coolidge, it is encouraging to study a leader who saw himself as a civic educator rather than an imperial president. We need a cultural change before we can ever expect reasonable change in the direction of our government. And let’s be honest, we need American people ready to think deeply about the direction of this country.

Guinness makes the case in his forthcoming book that the stakes are very high and self-government and sustainable freedom are at a precipice. Below is an excerpt from a A Free People’s Suicide on separation of powers and spheres of influence:

In short, the founders’ commitment to a separation of powers is more vital than ever today, and its current applications must go beyond a worn-out litany of clichés such as “limited government” and “get the government off our backs.” The rampant imperialism of the spheres must be reined in, and the citizens’ responsibility for the wider common good must be reinforced. Each sphere—business, law, education, entertainment and so on—must be reordered to serve the wider public good, and principles such as individual self-reliance, local self-government and state government must once again be given their proper roles. Not only must the latter be able to balance the dominance of federal government and provide a bulwark against the encroachments of bureaucratic overregulation, they must must also carry the robust human and ethical values that can prevent humanity being turned into a global supermarket where even souls are up for sale and profit is the measure of all things.

Unless America succeeds in such a reordering of the spheres, the present imperial hubris of the spheres will continue their runaway inflation, the tutelary state will expand its paternalistic smothering of individual freedom and and a politically and economically bloated America will resemble in its star-spangled obesity the enemies of freedom it has resisted so long and so heroically.

When it comes to the presidency, there are times when historians find the need to reevaluate a president. Often it is because of a crisis, war, or other current events. I can think of no other president that needs to be reassessed more than Calvin Coolidge. Thankfully, Amity Shlaes has written a new biography of Coolidge that will be available next month.

Coolidge preceded a progressive era and fought not just to shrink government, which he did successfully, but harnessed the office to educate Americans on civics and the foundational views of the American experiment.

Coolidge believed those that tried to improve upon America’s Founding principles did not a hold a progressive ideology but were in fact regressive. If you can only read one Coolidge speech, his address commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence is a must.

His personality and quirks are often lampooned but rarely is the power of his ideas attacked. It seems for a long time Silent Cal’s voice has been silenced. That is changing.

If you are in Grand Rapids on May 10, join me for Acton on Tap at Derby Station. I will share fun anecdotes, discuss Coolidge’s views on federalism, and why his views are so relevant today.

Here is a description of the event from the Facebook event page:

President Calvin Coolidge had strong views about self-government and federalism. Even for his time period he was often lampooned as old fashioned and “a throw back.” He tapped into the ideas of America’s Founding Principles and worked to elevate those ideas to the forefront of life. Coolidge popularized religious principles, thrift, limited government, and the rule of law. He also quipped shortly before his death, “I feel I no longer fit in with these times.” He was referring to the centralization of power in Washington. Coolidge believed in a free economy but always with the caveat of idealism over materialism. Some have said he was the last “Jeffersonian” president. Join Ray Nothstine to discuss Calvin Coolidge’s relevance today and what his ideas mean for America’s capability and capacity for self government.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Friday, February 3, 2012

James Madison has rightfully been forever identified as father of the U.S. Constitution, author of the Bill of Rights and coauthor of the Federalist Papers. In his new biography of America’s fourth president, Richard Brookhiser introduces us to Madison the politician. In many ways, Madison is the father of modern American politics, with all its partisanship, wheeling and dealing, vote getting, partisan media, and popular opinion polling.

Brookhiser helps us to see the early framers as they were, brilliant men, who more often than not, waded into petty partisan squabbling. They were not afraid to roll up their sleeves and unleash a sharp pen to advance power and their party’s ideas. Madison, who was quick to understand that political contention would reign in the new Republic, organized political coalitions and allies for the purpose of power.

Madison is also the architect of hyper partisan newspapers like the National Gazette in New York City. A publication that soon begins to slam Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and even Madison’s fellow Virginian George Washington. Like Jefferson, he was a Francophile to the extreme. Hamilton would counter that Jefferson and Madison “had a womanly attachment to France.” Jefferson and Madison would often write letters to their revolutionary heroes in France, and by the time those letters crossed the Atlantic, the intended recipients were already victims of the guillotine.

Over his political life, Madison could also be quick to change course, especially when it benefited him and his presidential administration. Long an opponent of many Federalist policies, when the nation needed sound fiscal policy and a strong military because of war, he simply reversed course, and implemented ideas he had once fervently opposed. At times, he favored a strong centralized government, and especially when Federalists were in power, he favored strong state governments.

Because of poor health, Madison had a premonition that he would die as a young man, but he outlived almost all of his contemporaries (1751-1836). Madison as elder statesmen spoke out strongly against nullification, an issue that has been resurrected today because of ObamaCare and other federal power grabs. He did not believe a single state could nullify a federal law. At the same time, he also made strong arguments for strict constructionist views of constitutional interpretation. He vetoed a transportation bill that would have funded roads and canals because it was not specifically enumerated and did not fall under the commerce clause. The U.S. Supreme Court would later declare that it did fall under the clause within Madison’s lifetime. Madison believed such legislation “would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation.”

Later in life he also worried that political parties were becoming too regional. “Parties . . . must always be expected in a government as free as ours. When the individuals belonging to them are intermingled in every part of the whole country, they strengthen the union of the whole, while they divide every part,” said Madison. He easily foresaw that the Missouri Compromise was spiraling toward dangerous disunion. Madison owned over 100 slaves and Brookhiser points out that unlike Jefferson, he did not offer lofty rhetoric concerning the evils of slavery. And unlike Washington, he did not free his slaves upon death. Later in life, Madison declared the whole bible to be against slavery and toyed with the idea of moving slaves to Liberia or out West, but offered no real feasible solutions on the issue.

His strict interpretive views of the Constitution made him an early opponent of the need for a Bill of Rights. Madison feared that listing rights in the Constitution might ultimately void the rights that were not specifically mentioned. Ultimately, he would be a champion of the Bill of Rights and had already heavily influenced them in his previous work in drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Madison challenged George Mason who wanted a clause about tolerating religion. Brookhiser wonderfully explains Madison’s contribution to religious liberty:

Madison, half Mason’s age, improved his language, proposing a crucial change to the clause on religious liberty. Mason’s draft, reflecting a hundred years of liberal thought going back to John Locke, called for “the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” Yet this did not seem liberal enough for Madison. Toleration implies those who tolerate: superiors who grant freedom to others. But who can be trusted to pass judgments, even if the judgment is to live and let live? Judges may change their minds. The Anglican establishment of Virginia, compared with established churches in other colonies, had been fairly tolerant – except when it hadn’t, and then it made water in Baptists’ faces. So Madison prepared an amendment. “All men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise” of religion. No one could be said to allow men to worship as they wished; they worshipped as they wished because it was their right as men. Madison’s language shifted the ground of religious liberty from a tolerant society or state, to human nature, and lifted the Declaration of Rights from an event in Virginia history to a landmark of world intellectual history (23, 24).

For much of Madison’s political career he plotted behind the scenes with his friend and mentor Thomas Jefferson to destroy their political rivals. Madison often carried out the dirtier work of politics so Jefferson could appear above the fray as a man of the people. He was instrumental in creating a young republic that was ruled by Virginians in Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe. Republicans accused Federalists of trying to create a ruling faction, but the Virginian statesmen were even more adept in creating a political dynasty. But Brookhiser also helps to bring to life a snippet of the beautiful correspondence between two lifelong friends and Virginians in Jefferson and Madison. Jefferson also entrusted Madison as the guardian of his legacy in America and as an overseer of the continued flourishing of the University of Virginia.

While this book is a good introduction to Madison, it is perhaps woefully short at 250 pages for a complete study of the fourth president and founding statesmen. Brookhiser’s strength lies in deconstructing Madison and unveiling his flaws and partisanship, and his political genius as well.

Some on the political right or some classical liberals say we need to go back to the Founding period or we need to follow America’s Founders as if they were all of one accord. They forget even the Founders trampled on the constitution with measures like the Alien and Sedition Acts or the Louisiana Purchase when it suited them. Brookhiser concludes that while politics has changed, it has not to the degree that “would make it unrecognizable” to Madison.

“His intelligence and his knowledge of history showed him how this tension between different political spheres could be built into the Constitution as a bulwark of liberty, though he came to believe that appealing to popular opinion through the arts of argument and politics was a bulwark at least as strong.” says Brookhiser. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” said Madison. That we do have a government that has lasted for 225 years is a testament to this great man. And he would be the first to say it could be improved and fight for that improvement.

Religion & Liberty’s summer issue featuring an interview with Metropolitan Jonah (Orthodox Church in America) is now available online. Metropolitan Jonah talks asceticism and consumerism and says about secularism, “Faith cannot be dismissed as a compartmentalized influence on either our lives or on society.”

Mark Summers, a historian in Virginia, offers a superb analysis of religion during the American Civil War in his focus on the revival in the Confederate Army. 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest conflict. With all the added attention the conflict is receiving, a piece focusing on faith is especially poignant. “The Great Harvest” by Summers notes that the revival was “homespun,” meaning one that was organic in nature and spread among the common soldier.

I offer a review of Darren Dochuk’s new book From Bible Belt to Sunbelt. Dochuk tells the tale of the great migration from the American South to Southern California. This development ultimately transformed evangelicalism and national politics. It also helped in wedding many religious conservatives to economic conservatism.

“The Separation of Church and Art” is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art by Abraham Kuyper. Available for the first time in English, Christian’s Library Press will publish Kuyper’s work in November. The Acton Institute has played a tremendous role in the translation project. You can find out more about that role here.

The “In The Liberal Tradition” figure is American Founder Oliver Ellsworth. Ellsworth, a strong proponent of federalism was instrumental in the shaping of our Republic. American President John Adams called Ellsworth “the firmest pillar” of the federal government during its earliest years. In a new biography about Ellworth, author Michael C. Toth argues that Ellsworth’s Reformed faith not only shaped his personal life but the model of federalism he supported also had deeply religious roots within Connecticut.

There is more content in this issue. Past issues of Religion & Liberty are also available online.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Last week I wrote a commentary titled the “The Folly of More Centralized Power,” making the case against ceding anymore power to Washington and returning back to the fundamental principles of federalism.

Rep. Amash (R-Mich.), a member of the freshmen class in Congress, made that case as well. Amash was asked about his Washington experience so far in an interview and declared,

When I was in the state government, I thought things were dysfunctional there in my opinion. Now I’ve discovered things in Congress are much worse than in state government and the state government runs fairly smoothly by comparison.

In speeches and townhalls, Rep. Amash has stated that the federal government has enumerated powers and it is not supposed to expand beyond that specific scope. I quoted the Virginia Constitution in my commentary. The line I cited was originally from the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. It reads, “That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My commentary this week addresses the importance of federalism and our fundamental founding principles in relation to the problems that plague the nation. There was once plenty of commentary and finger pointing in regards to setting a new tone of political and civil discourse in the nation. However, the more the Washington power structure is threatened by those unsatisfied with where the leadership is taking us, the more those demanding a return to first principles will be splattered with, at times, revolting words and admonishment from those who think they know best. The commentary is printed below:

The Folly of More Centralized Power

by Ray Nothstine

Americans’ satisfaction and feeling of connection with Washington has dwindled to an all time low. According to a recent Rasmussen survey, only 17 percent of likely voters believe that the federal government has the consent of the governed. The numbers are hardly surprising. Congress recently cut a deal to saddle Americans with trillions of dollars in more debt. Shortly thereafter, one congressional member lashed out at a town hall last weekend demanding the tea party, which has been pushing back against big government, “go straight to hell.”

President Barack Obama, whose approval has sunk to a new low, is trying to recast himself as a Washington outsider as he heaps more blame on Congress, which is not exactly winning any popularity contests these days either. In The Washington Post, a political strategist offered this assessment: “The best place for a politician to be in 2012 is not on the ballot.”

Disenchantment with Washington is of course nothing new, but many Americans have grown weary of leaders calling for added federal spending and demands for shared sacrifice by way of tax increases. Washington’s inability to balance budgets and restore fiscal responsibility, a problem magnified by a crippled economy, has also bankrupted the public trust. Citizens who take summer vacations to the nation’s capital can easily connect the dots as they observe a Washington Beltway that is booming with jobs and opportunity as tax dollars siphon into the region, even while their own communities are ravaged by job loss and businesses struggle under regulatory burdens.

Earlier this month Salon Magazine ran a piece titled “The Real Confidence Crisis,” which proclaims that the solution to a broken government buried in debt by entitlements, runaway spending, and disorder is — more government. In other words, government must only be managed properly to work for us again.

Similarly, Time Magazine in 2010 published an article asserting that Washington was ineffective because bills were written to pass Congress, not to be effective. The problem solvers of our national ills only need to convince people that government can be competent again. All that America needs is a new generation of skilled technocrats to babysit the federal bureaucracy.

In contrast to this solution, in Federalist No. 45, James Madison declared, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite.” Madison further articulated the case against the centralization of power not specifically enumerated to the federal government by saying, “The powers reserved to the several states will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the state.”

The Acton Institute’s Principles for Budget Reform make the point that in order to solve the debt crisis and political crises that plague us, “it is incumbent to ask again the basic questions about the role of government, at federal as well as state and local levels.” Madison, the architect of the U.S. Constitution, also had a role in the development of Virginia’s Constitution. Included in that document are the lines, “That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

Furthermore, those looking to the federal government to solve the nation’s ills and meet their needs will continue to be disappointed. People feel disconnected from their federal government not only because they are separated geographically, culturally, ideologically, but also because they believe that their access to the political process has been severed. They doubt whether their representatives actually have the best interests of the nation in mind.

Now more than ever, as Washington multiplies our country’s ailments instead of curing them, politicians will continue to attempt to shift the blame for a financially and morally broken government in their effort to cling to power. The fight for Washington to surrender power will produce an epic conflict, however. It’s not just the vitriolic rhetoric that evidences the upcoming battle; centralized power is now so sacred that, against any proposals to limit the powers of the state, some professional clergy stand guard, ready to encircle the bureaucracy in prayer and offer their bodies for arrest.

Some in our churches and in government may disparage the tea party, and even wish its members a speedy banishment to Hell. But the tea party might be the powerful reminder we need to remind us that Washington can’t create Heaven on Earth. The sooner we take that advice seriously, and get our house in order, the better off we’ll all be.

Blog author: kspence
posted by on Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Director of Research Samuel Gregg has a piece in Public Discourse today as part of a series on the 2012 presidential election. “Fix America’s Economy: Two Principles for Reform” explains why limited government is better government, and how the principle of subsidiarity can guide regulation that governments undertake. From the essay:

The economist Arthur Brooks is exactly right when he notes that the end-game of America’s free enterprise culture is not the endless acquisition of wealth. The goal is human flourishing.

In much of Europe, a contrary attitude has long been characteristic of its economic culture: that if people are to lead fulfilling lives, they need to be given things and protected from risk. In policy and institutional terms, this translates squarely into the European social model, which is presently collapsing before our very eyes throughout the Old Continent.

Ironically, however, there is a scarcity of evidence that such policies actually help make people happy. Why? Because people who are always given things know that they have not earned what they have. As evidence, Brooks points to studies that underscore correlations between unearned income and dissatisfaction with life. These illustrate, for example, that welfare recipients are generally less happy than those who earn the same income through employment.

Still, there is a need for governmental regulation of free economic activity—for exceptions to the rule of non-intervention:

But how do we prevent the exceptions from becoming the rule and thus a rationalization for endless economic intervention by the government? Part of the answer lies in a second principle: the much-misunderstood idea of subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity may be summarized in the idea that “higher” organizations (such as governments) should normally not directly intervene in the life of “lower” communities (such as families, businesses, and churches).  Intervention by higher bodies is permitted, however, when (1) a “lower” community has proved itself manifestly incapable of addressing problems that properly fall within its sphere of responsibility; and (2) other communities closer to the problem are unable to resolve the difficulty.

Subsidiarity consequently tells us that in normal circumstances, the function of child-raising is properly performed by families. It also tells us that when a family proves incapable of addressing particular problems associated with child-raising, non-governmental actors such as churches should usually be the first to render assistance.

As Gregg writes in his conclusion, because the principles of economic freedom and subsidiarity both stem from our human nature, successful government cannot ignore them.

If the economy features as the biggest single issue in the 2012 election, defenders of the market should be willing to supplement empirical economic arguments with full-bodied contentions about the nature of human happiness and how we realize it. To do so would not only be consistent with the very best of the American Founders’ vision; it would also breathe new life into America’s great and ongoing experiment of ordered liberty.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Monday, August 8, 2011

A recent Rasmussen poll reflects what many are feeling in this country, a deep disconnect with Washington and its leaders. According to the polling firm,

The number of voters who feel the government has the consent of the governed – a foundational principle, contained in the Declaration of Independence – is down from 23% in early May and has fallen to its lowest level measured yet.

Seventeen percent of likely U.S. voters think the government has the consent of the governed and Congress has a record low approval rating with only 6 percent ranking their performance as “excellent” or “good.”

The problem is exacerbated by the massive concentration of power in the Beltway. The model of federalism put forth by the Founders seems like a dim memory. Former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neil famously declared “All politics is local.” The quote has a wide breadth of meaning for elected officials at all levels of government. But concentrated power is raising the partisan stakes as the jostling for entrenched power gets uglier. So much so, that politicians are now calling concerned citizens sounding the alarm on federal spending “terrorists.” Not only is the virtue of self-restraint dismissed when it comes to spending, but it is similarly dismissed when it comes to rhetoric.

Below is an August 1 clip that aired on ABC World News Tonight that speaks to this disconnect, especially felt by middle America or as some dismiss simply as “Flyover Country.” It is making the famous quip by William F. Buckley that “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than I would be by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University” all the more relevant.