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Something Borrowed–The Blue Version

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I was going to start writing today by bringing up my other Really Important item on the wish list, the one that goes like this:

2) I want us to establish, firmly and for the final time, that the nature of this country is democratic–that is, that all adult citizens are presumed to be capable of handling their own affairs unless substantively (and with full criminal due process) proved otherwise, and that they are equally capable of running their government.  I want the experts dethroned and politically castrated.   No more laws by  bureaucratic fiat.  No more experts trumping ordinary citizens about what rules we should all be living under.

This is, by the way, not a fundamentally libertarian idea–self government does not preclude the possibility of a public that passes laws to regulate private behavior. 

We’ve had lots of such laws in our history, including during periods when the experts were not yet ensconced in their departments, telling us all that we’re too fat, too stupid, and ingesting all the wrong substances because we’re all so addicted that we think that’s what we want.

During most of this country’s history,  states and municipalities have passed laws against gambling, “lewd” sexual practice (not just homosexuality, but often sex outside marriage), obscenity and dozens of other things. 

The difference between those laws and the “regulations” we have now is that those laws were democratically passed.  If we didn’t like them, we could try to get them repealed.  If we didn’t like the fact that our government had passed them, we could try to throw the bums out.

It has always seemed to me to be the single most important achievement of the American founding–this idea, going against the collected wisdom of Western Civilization, that people should be self-governing citizens and not dependent subjects of a ruling class that simply had to impose rules and restrictions because, “obviously,” ordinary people were just too stupid and weak to rule themselves.

I can hear a lot of you out there going, “but democracy won’t get you what you want!  people will still pass bad laws!  representatives will be bought out by big money or resort to demogoguery or God (or whatever) knows what.”

And, of course, it’s true.  There’s always that danger.

But there are other and greater dangers in rule by aristocracy, even if we label such an aristocracy “experts” and demand that people pay them homage as something demigods.

If there is one reason why I would never call myself a “progressive,” that’s it–the Progressive movements faith in and obeissance to “experts” is vast and unending, and continues even now.

And yes, I do know that lots of people are stupid, and lots of people are shortsighted, and all the rest of it–but you don’t make them less so by imposing a rule of experts on them and changing them from citizens to subjects.

And this brings me, oddly enough, to a place where I don’t know how to label what comes next. 

Is Federalism a big issue or a small one?

In my mind, it’s mostly a mechanism–there is no reason assume that all the people in a nation will agree on everything, and it makes sense to break the whole down to small units that will each make their own rules for their own communities, some of which will contract the rules made next door by other units.

A return to Federalism–real Federalism, not “you each get to make the rules Washington tells you to make”–is, I think, the only way in which we have a chance in hell of getting out from under the present culture wars, or worse.

I don’t know if we are capable of doing it.  Conservatives and liberals both want to impose their particular understanding of the good and right and proper on their fellow citizens.  Liberals want abortion legal even in states where it is widely opposed.  Conservatives want abortion illegal even in states where it is widel supported.

You can make the same kind of comparison for everything from public prayer to sex education.

I will say here as I’ve said before, that in a society with a democratic ethos and not much else–in a world where “the majority rules” is the only basis for accepting or rejecting any moral claim as true–

In such a society, the mere existence of a large body of people with opposing moral and political ideas is automatically threatening. 

It indicates that your own moral and political ideas might not be true, because “everybody” doesn’t agree with them.

And, worse, if it turns out there are more of them than there are of  you–well, then evil isn’t what you think it is, and neither is good, and you may end up with all your ideas branded beyond the pale and then be rightfully coerced into living otherwise.

It’s the “rightfully” that matters in that sentence.  Federalism is the system by which we accept the fact that, in order to be self-governing, we have to let people govern themselves.

By now, I can hear a whole chorus of people yelling–but they’ll deny people their rights! 

And all I can say is–define “rights.”

Rights as defined in the US Constitution are negative only–they are limitations on what government can do to you.

And those limitations, though very damned close to absolute, are broad rather than narrow and not infinite.

Yes, states must honor due process rights (I’d say in all cases, including child and family relations–but that’s just me), they must honor freedom of speech and of the press and of religion.

And in one very narrow case–African Americans–they must prevent ordinary people from “discriminating.”  The special case exists because slavery did exist, and slavery being an extreme violation of the rights of one segment of our people, requires extreme measures to repair the problem we created for ourselves.

Beyond that, however, I see no reason why we should stop states and municipalities from making the laws their citizens want.  Some states could recognize gay marriage while other states don’t (and the Federal government to recognize valid gay marriages while that is going on.) Some states could teach abstinence and others could teach comprehensive sex education.  Some states could allow–gasp!–prayer on the premises and others could not.  Some states could mandated the teaching of creationism or intelligent design and other states could ban it.  Some states could allow smoking in public buildings and others could not.

And before you start screaming about how allowing prayer or creationism would trample on the freedom of religion rights of atheists and secular people, or people of minority religions–it wouldn’t anywhere nearly as badly as the laws in places like Massachusetts which require all adoption agencies to place infants with gay and unwed couples as well as married ones.

Forget about the rights of things like Catholic Charities.  Think of one of my relatives who was and is very, very devoutly Catholic and who had a child out of wedlock at sixteen. 

Her major consideration in giving the child up for adoption was that it be placed with a traditionally orthodox and practicing Catholic couple.  Had she lived in Massachusetts under that law, her only choice would have been to refuse to allow the child to be adopted at all.

But under the kind of Federalism I’m talking about, I would have support Massachusetts’s right to pass such a law.  There would, after all, have been other states where my relative could have gone to have the baby and have it adopted, that would have different rules.

But none of this is possible if we have nothing on which to base our sense of morality and truth but “what the majority believes.” 

And at the moment, we don’t seem to have anything else. 

Even our self-reportedly religious believers, who say they rely on God, seem to see morality as a matter of polls and opinions, let the most popular win.

Written by janeh

April 17th, 2012 at 8:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Something Borrowed–The Blue Version'

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  1. Engineers have Murphy’s Law (if anything can go wrong, it will). Sociologists have The Law of Unintended Consequences (All human activities have unintended consequences). I suggest that these are arguments for Federalism. If you have one central source for laws or regulations, then when something goes wrong, all 300 million people in the US are damaged. If you have 50 sources of law, then the damage is limited to ond state and you have the results of other states to encourage change.


    17 Apr 12 at 3:02 pm

  2. So, we’re talking about repealing the entire “Progressive” era beginning roughly with the “Pure Food and Drug Act” and continuing through the “Affordable Health Care Act” with the exception of the LBJ “First and Second Civil Rights Acts” and reinstating the Tenth Amendment for good measure? Sounds good to me. I’d be very careful about the “preventing ordinary people from discriminating” exception, though: the tiny nose you let into the tent is attached to a HUGE camel. It permits exactly that presumption of malevolence and/or incompetence you dislike in other contexts, and it lets government agents sit in judgment on every action–buying, selling, hiring firing, where you set up a business or where you close one, who you let into your club adn who you exclude–and they get to do so ON THE BASIS OF MOTIVE. If I am unjustly accused of embezzlement, there are real books to audit. For murder, there is a real corpse. But you’re admitting a category of laws under which I may be judged for my thoughts. If I am unjustly accused, how do I defend myself? If you want to say the government may not force people to discriminate on the basis of race I’m with you–and that should better accomplish the end than having special classes of citizen protected by telepathic police.

    But it’s a paper drill. We got here by (more or less) legal and democratic procedures. It would take a “revolution in the hearts and minds of men” to take us where we both want to go, and the present system will collapse well before such a revolution could be effected.

    Yes, I know. I’m a real bundle of joy this afternoon.


    17 Apr 12 at 4:12 pm

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