Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School is the latest collection of essays from Ralph Raico, published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Ralph was kind enough to send me a print copy.

The introductory, eponymous essay concerns the relationship between Austrianism as an economic methodology and classical liberalism as a political program or ideology. Raico disputes Mises’ contention that Austrian methodology (methodological individualism) is clearly separate from the normative claims of classical liberalism (2-3). Raico builds a persuasive case that Austrianism as traditionally understood is indeed naturally related to classical liberalism; however, I would argue that this implication is not entirely to the credit of traditional Austrianism.

First, let us take methodological individualism. Modern neoclassical economics is as thoroughly methodologically individualist as Austrianism ever was. But note that both neoclassical and Austrian economists depart from methodological individualism when convenient to do so, for instance when deploying the firm as a rational actor. The firm is a collective entity. Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia has a brilliant insight into when methodological individualism “might go wrong” (22):

If there is a filter that filters out (destroys) all non-P Q’s, then the explanation of why all Q’s are P’s (fit the pattern P) will refer to this filter. For each particular Q, there may be an explanation for why it is P, how it came to be P, what maintains it as P. But the explanation of why all Q’s are P will not be the conjunction of these individual explanations, even though these are all the Q’s there are, for that is part of what is to be explained… The methodological individualist position requires that there be no basic (unreduced) social filtering processes.

The filtering process for the firm is profit maximization. We can know that firms try to maximize profit even if we do not have a good explanation for why each individual firm tries to maximize profit, or why individuals have chosen so to organize themselves. The answers to the latter question were developed by Coase and Williamson, by the way (Chicagoites, not Austrians, though fully taken on board by contemporary Austrians).

Second, (more…)

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This post is about three books I’ve polished off recently, all quite different from one another:

  • Timothy Besley & Torsten Persson, Pillars of Prosperity: The Political Economy of Development Clusters – nothing to do with industrial districts or network externalities; this is a (mostly) theoretical exploration of the reasons why rulers might choose to invest in fiscal and legal capacity, generating a strong state and good conditions for economic development
  • Ralph Raico, Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Critique – an excoriation of wartime leaders beloved by those whom Rothbard called “court intellectuals”
  • Mark Pennington (our very own!), Robust Political Economy – a defense of classical liberalism as being more institutionally robust to imperfections in markets & governments than various alternatives

Besley & Persson‘s work is a dense slog, if you read the math. Its contribution should be seen as mostly theoretical, rather than empirical – although there are some simple empirics along the lines of demonstrating cross-national correlations. The central aim is to try to understand why GDP per capita tends to correlate positively with other things like tax take as a share of GDP, income tax and VAT take as a share of total tax take, years in external war, and executive constraints, and negatively with things like expropriation risk and years in civil war. The basic story is that there are three types of societies: common-good societies in which political leaders focus on providing collective goods to the entire population, long-run redistributive societies in which political leaders invest in fiscal capacity because they expect to be in power for a long time and want to redistribute funds to their favored constituencies, and kleptocratic societies in which political leaders steal as much as they can in a short period of time. In common-good societies, expected tenure in office is irrelevant to investments in fiscal and legal capacity: leaders invest whether or not they expect to stay in power, because they are interested in doing good things for their citizens. In long-run redistributive societies, leaders also invest in fiscal and legal capacity in order to grow the pie and their take from it. In kleptocratic societies, leaders’ pillaging keeps the economy in an underdeveloped state. Ethnic diversity is bad (in a sense) because it makes societies more redistributive (more internal rivalries), but this is not necessarily a critical failure so long as leader tenures remain long. External war is good (in a sense) because it brings people together and helps create a common-good society.

The book advances some new arguments, and the theoretical framework alone is impressive. However, I have at least two fundamental concerns as well. First, I question how many societies really fall into the “common good” category. In the strict economic sense, there are hardly true collective goods for an entire political society. National defense, for instance, is a collective bad for pacifists. The fact that external war correlates with tax take does not imply to me that war is good for bringing people together and fostering development, but that war is the health of the state, sharpening the competitive blade that pares away “inefficiencies” in governments’ extractive capacity. Second, the modeling of fiscal and legal capacity as simply being a matter of leaders’ past decisions to “invest” is so simple as to be a gross distortion. There’s no politics here, no grappling with influential prior arguments from North, Weingast, and others that leaders must be forced to limit their own power, because it is impossible for them to make credible commitments to private property rights on their own initiative.

Raico‘s book isn’t for the faint of heart or for someone looking for an impartial academic account of “great” historical figures like Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman. On the other hand, it is blood-pumping red meat to the contrarian libertarian, as Raico moves from exposing the bizarre authoritarian fantasies of Wilson and his cronies to calling Truman out as a war criminal and mass murderer of innocent men, women, and children in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (I’ve addressed in slightly more depth Raico’s criticisms of Churchill in these virtual pages.) Raico stands firmly in the Rothbardian tradition of focusing critical revisionism on the actions of one’s own government and its allies. I wouldn’t assign this work on its own to students; I would include alternative perspectives. Nevertheless, (more…)

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Few in power find it convenient to notice inconsistencies in their own conduct. Alas, but President Madison was no exception. Federalism and decentralization exist precisely because free constitutions should not depend on the good graces of those in office, but on the checks necessary to harry them back under the law.

Seeking the financial means to carry on his war, Madison did not appreciate New England’s opposition to his measures or her refusal to lend. As the enemy bore down from the north at various points along the Canadian border, Madison attempted to impose conditions on the New England militias, not trusting them, as he did the other states, to staff and command their own forces.

In these efforts, the fourth president was roundly rebuffed by the governors and legislatures of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. They correctly pointed out that the Constitution reserved to each state the right of officering her state militias: The president could certainly call those units into service according to the constitutional powers that authorized Congress to declare war, but he could not reorganize those units without a state’s permission. Unable to get his way, Madison refused to mobilize New England’s forces and subsequently refused to pay any expenses for her defense.

Governor Caleb Strong of Massachusetts organized and raised his own force of some 10,000 men at a cost of 1 million dollars, which was a considerable sum in that day. Facing such staggering costs and outraged by what they considered to be the unconstitutional and dangerous manner in which their region had been treated, the New England states elected to protest in the same spirit as they had done against the embargo, but this time they went a step further: Coordinated state action.

Under the inspiration of Harrison Gray Otis and Theodore Dwight (the brother of Timothy Dwight of Yale), Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and several counties of New Hampshire and Vermont sent representatives to meet in Hartford Connecticut between December 15, 1814 and January 4, 1815. There they formed a list of grievances and a call for constitutional amendments, concluding with a threat to organize another convention should these proposals not be taken up by the other states in the Union.

The men who attended this gathering tried to moderate the more extreme elements calling for secession and outright resistance to the national government (see Justin Winsor, Narrative and Critical History of America, vol. VII, Houghton Mifflin, 1888, p. 321 and notes) but the prospect of a convention sent shivers through the administration. It is not difficult to see why.

In “A Short Account of the Hartford Convention to which is Added an Attested Copy of the Secret Journal of that Body” (1823), Theodore Lyman, noted that Massachusetts was quite open about her aims, and “the sense of her citizens was at that time well known, and in relation to the Hartford Convention, she adopted without delay that course of conduct, of which an eminent example had been given less than half a century before, and which, in this juncture of affairs, was especially judicious, from the vast magnitude of the subject and occasion.” (p.8) That example was Madison’s own call at the end of the Annapolis Convention for the convention that followed in Philadelphia, which of course ultimately put an end to the Articles of Confederation.

When the Hartford Convention got down to business on its second day, it considered, according to the Attested Copy of the Secret Journal, the two constitutional grounds of New England’s grievances just mentioned: “The [unconstitutional] powers claimed by the executive of the United States, to determine, conclusively, in respect to calling out the militia of the States into the service of the United States; and the dividing the United States into military districts with an officer of the army in each thereof, with discretionary authority from the executive of the United States, to call for the militia to be under the command of such officer.”

The second grievance followed immediately after: “The refusal of the executive of the United States to supply, or pay the militia of certain States…on the grounds of their not having been called out under the authority of the United States, or not having been…put under the command of the commander over the military district.” These two grievances then formed the basis of the final and more damning constitutional conclusion that the national government had failed to meet its obligation as stated in the preamble “to provide for the common defense.”

In their protest the members stood on solid textual grounds. It was true that Section Eight of the First Article gave Congress the power “To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States,” but it specifically reserved “to the states respectively the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

Did this “prescribed” discipline give Madison the right to reorganize the New England militias? It might have, but only if Congress had specifically formed such a policy, and had done so equally for all parts of the Union. The fact that President Madison asserted this as a matter of executive authority, and the fact that he applied that policy unequally to some of the states and not to all of them, violated both the spirit and the letter of the fundamental law. With these arguments before them, the delegates proposed their Constitutional remedies.

They called for consideration on the part of the states for amendments that would permit the state legislatures “some arrangement whereby the States may be enable[d] to retain a portion of the taxes levied by Congress, for purposes of self defence (sic), and for reimbursement of expenses already incurred, on account of the United States.” They then proceeded to request further consideration be given to certain other constitutional issues: To restrict Congress’ power to declare war; to restrain its power “to make new States, and admit them into this Union; to limit Congress’ power to impose embargoes and restrict commerce; to prohibit a president from the same state serving two consecutive terms; and finally, and perhaps most ominously of all, to eliminate the 3/5ths provisions of the Constitution “respecting slave representation, and slave taxation.”

This last provision underscored a growing cultural and political divide already evident between the northern and southern states. New Englanders had always felt aggrieved to some degree by the so-called 3/5ths compromises in the Philadelphia Convention. Already by this time, they saw it as a principal driver of western expansion, and the Southern states made little bones about their desire to move the peculiar institution westward, and to form an alliance with that region in opposition to New England.

Thus the Hartford delegates sought restrictions on admitting new states as well as the elimination of the South’s use of slaves in calculating her population numbers. It is interesting to note that at this point in time, the South’s rising star, J. C. Calhoun of South Carolina, was a strong nationalist defender of the War of 1812 and a proponent of a new national bank so that the general government could more easily finance such military ventures in the future. The irony of ironies is that this situation was about to change yet again.

As reported by Theodore Dwight, the Secretary of the Hartford Convention, in his later history of that meeting, the timing of the delegates’ report to Washington could not have been worse. It arrived just as news from England of the War’s end came along with the report of Andrew Jackson’s victory in New Orleans. While the war had not gone so well for America in general, the popular sense created by this juncture produced a patriotic fervor that was ill disposed to consider of the resolves of the Hartford delegates.

The commission attempted to quietly retire back to New England, but the popular reaction, especially among Madison’s Republican Party was to revile its proceedings as radical secessionism, and the reputation of that convention has labored under such a misapprehension ever since.

Far from secessionism, however, the Hartford Convention presented yet another means of interposition through coordinated state action, and to the degree that such coordination gathered more sustained attention (even if in the negative) from the other states, to that degree it succeeded. With the war’s end, Hartford’s issues became moot, but one could easily imagine what might have developed had the exigencies of war persisted.

The next stage of development in the ideas of interposition, however, would raise the stake higher, actually attempting what Jefferson had contemplated in the Kentucky Resolves: Nullification. Interestingly, the author of this approach was our leading nationalist of the 1810s. Calhoun had been a student of Theodore Dwight’s brother about a decade earlier at Yale. Timothy Dwight shared his brothers’ attachment to the reserved rights and powers of the states. Calhoun had resisted such thinking as his student, but when the issue of tariffs touched his own state’s interests in the next decade, he began to avail himself of Dwight’s understanding, coming to a deeper appreciation of the need to constitutionally restrain centralized power, but he did so with an interesting and novel twist that would have a profound impact on the popular perception of state’s rights.

And Calhoun’s solution would prove perhaps the most difficult and cumbersome of all…

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When tensions with England finally began to degenerate into violent altercations, first on the western frontier in such places as Tippecanoe and later along the Great Lakes, the Madison administration decided the time had come to vindicate America’s claims of offended sovereignty. Unsurprisingly, these claims also happened to coincide with popular desires to expand into the Old Northwest and Canada. Those particular voices were especially powerful in the mid Atlantic and southern states. Two of the leading voices of those regions, Henry Clay and J.C. Calhoun were united at this point in their careers, generally supporting more vigorous forms of nationalism at home and abroad.

But Mr. Madison had let the charter of the first Bank of the United States expire in 1811, and when he turned to finance his war he had of necessity to turn to state banking institutions. These entities were comprised of various private and state banks who were generally quite willing to buy American treasury securities. There was one region, however, that was not quite so willing: the New England states and the banks that operated under their approval.

Already rocked by years of embargo, New Englanders were poised to suffer even more outrages in open war. Popular sentiment ran high against the conflict, and when the treasury presented its notes for sale to New England banks they received a cool reception. The vast majority of such paper was consequently sold to the south and west. Indeed, needing to purchase supplies in the north, the national government found this a particularly galling impediment. To remedy the situation, Madison’s administration not only borrowed from existing banks in the mid-Atlantic states, it actively promoted new ones, even over the existing laws of those states that had tended to restrict private unchartered banks.

From 1811 to 1815 the number of banks more than doubled, from 117 to 247, 35 of which were unincorporated. The result was a massive increase in circulating paper money–nearly three times the amount in circulation at the start of the war. Treasury certificates were used as, and encouraged to be considered backing for notes in the same fashion as gold or silver. But one difficulty was not anticipated. When the District of Columbia was burned by British marines on August 24, 1814, it quickly became apparent that certificates on the U.S. government might not be such a sound investment.

Runs the banks that very month demonstrated the insolvency of most of the new institutions, and in opposition to various state laws, the national government encouraged the mid-Atlantic and southern states to ignore or restrict bankruptcy proceedings against their offending banks, but allowed those very institutions to pursue such proceedings against their own debtors. All this was done, no less, while they continued to make new loans, adding yet even more to the already general inflation.

Only one region did not experience suspension of payments or bank runs: New England. For once in over six years, the New England states could boast a small economic indicator in their favor. In Federalist 10, Madison had argued that federalism might serve to insulate local evils from becoming universal, national ones. In this case, the evils of expansionism had been halted at the gates of Massachusetts, and New England’s representatives left little doubt about their sentiments in this regard.

In words that would later come back to him, a young Daniel Webster, then a representative of New Hampshire, declared in Congress on December 9, 1814, that the “operation of measures unconstitutional and illegal ought to be prevented by a resort to other measures which are both constitutional and legal. It will be the solemn duty of the State Governments to protect their own authority over their own militia, and to interpose between their citizens and arbitrary power. These are among the objects for which the State Governments exist, and their highest obligations bind them to the preservation of their own rights and the liberties of their people.”

Would it be too much to suspect that Webster both knew and approved of the New York statement of ratification? But even if he hadn’t, and that seems dubious, the words demonstrate just how deeply the sense of the states as checks to central power was engrained in the American mind. At this point in time, Webster was no Jeffersonian. He was a New England Federalist, and the home states were listening. On to Hartford.

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With the war in Europe between France and England intensifying, Americans found their rights as neutral traders regularly violated by both French and British navies, and French and British port restrictions further limited American opportunities for commerce. To make matters worse, on numerous occasions, English vessels had boarded American ships and “impressed” many of their crews into service as if they were British subjects. Such disregard for American sovereignty and rights was taken hard by the public, but America’s naval capacities were far from adequate to enforce a due respect on the high seas. Yet doing nothing was not a popular option.

President Jefferson attempted to draw a lesson from our colonial past and impose an embargo of American trade. The hope was that such an embargo would inconvenience European commerce to such a degree as to bring the powers, especially Britain, to that level of respect which American arms were insufficient to obtain. In 1807, the Embargo Act was imposed, interdicting all vessels from entering or exiting American ports. Trade was the life blood of New England, however, and the Embargo hit them especially hard. As weeks moved to months and months to a year, the suffering in the port cities became nearly unbearable. Numerous calls for lifting the interdiction were heard, but none of the offending powers seemed even remotely ready to bargain. Unwilling to surrender the point of honor or to risk outright war, Jefferson’s administration remained steadfast in its policy.

At a certain point, the states began to question not only the efficacy of the measure, but its justice. Should not the risks of trade be borne by the traders themselves? Why a general restriction? If families and communities are ruined, is this not an indication of a policy gone too far? Indeed, so far that it might conflict with a vital principle of constitutional government? The national authority was to engage in defensive action in support of the states and their communities, not in their strangulation. If it could not live up to its military obligations, this was no excuse for an imposition of a total ban on trade, a power not contemplated in the original design.

In the earliest resolutions of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island the hue and cry was again heard. Massachusetts’ legislature, as Thomas Woods noted in his collection of sources, sought only formal political means, and counseled patience on the part of its citizenry as it pursued these avenues of redress. Rhode Island observed that it was “the duty of this general Assembly, while cautious not to infringe upon the constitution and delegated powers and rights of the General Government, to be vigilant in guarding from usurpation and violation, those powers and rights which the good people of this state have expressly reserved to themselves…” Here were the states as Sentinels calling out their warning.

But Connecticut, first through its governor and then its legislature went further still, openly and officially “declining to designate persons to carry into effect, by the aid of military power, the act of the United States, enforcing the Embargo.” And “that the persons holding executive offices under this state, are restrained by the duties which they owe this State, from affording any official aid or cooperation in the execution of the act aforesaid.”

This action went the further step of embracing the idea of non-cooperation, and its precedent went back to colonial legislatures that had refused to cooperate with the enforcement of the Imperial Stamp Act. No force would be applied directly to interdicting federal officials, but no cooperation would be accorded them either. They could do their work on their own, but in the absence of active assistance or support from state institutions, they would find that task far more difficult. No power of the federal government could compel action on the part of the states in this regard.

And here New England’s civil society operated in yet a further way to exert force against the centralized exercise of power, again, much like what had happened in earlier colonial protests. While not directly engaged in administering smuggling, the governments of New England gave tacit affirmation of private actions through their resolutions. New England’s merchants were long practiced in the arts of running goods around imperial restrictions. Now they would do the same with respect to national ones. And the general government found its resources stretched to the breaking point.

Remarkably, Jefferson himself later reflected on this opposition of local authorities. He recalled this episode as a powerful illustration of why local governance is so critically important to the maintenance of a free society! No longer president, he could reflect with some approval on the nature of the opposition he had then faced. (more…)

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I recently came across this interesting, five-year-old interview with law professor William Ian Miller on “talionic” law in the Middle Ages, which specified literal “eye for an eye” justice. Talionic law developed in societies that lacked stable state institutions, like Iceland and early England. As such, it was embedded in strong extended-family institutions that used tit-for-tat strategies to keep order.

The traditional understanding of “eye for an eye” justice is that it is retributive, that is, that its motivating principle is punishment of the wrongdoer, pure and simple. Miller, however, makes a persuasive case that such systems are actually restitutory, that is, aimed at making the victim whole. In that sense they are much more humane than much contemporary criminal law, which ignores the victim and unproductively locks away criminals. An excerpt that makes the argument in a nutshell:

Your book argues that we often use the term “eye for an eye” to describe a harsh kind of justice from the past. But talionic societies could be said to put a higher value on human life and the human body than we do. They were much more committed to finding the exact worth of body parts and lives. So, let’s say you poke out my eye…

Then, instantly, my eye becomes yours. To get the value exactly right, we say an eye is worth an eye. You have a right to my eye. Now you can say to me, “I’m going to take your eye.” Then I’m going to say, “Hey, what would you be willing to accept instead?” It becomes an initial bargaining position.

If you want victims to be more highly valued and you want real, adequate compensation, this is how to do it. Now if I offer you what some lousy insurance company says your eye is worth — say, $100,000 — you’ll say, “No way! I would never have let you take my eye for that.” Instead, you can be sure I’ll put the same value on not losing my eye that you would have put on yours, and I will pay you that amount to keep my own eye. How about $5 million? Let’s start there. And we’ll bargain it out.

The book mentioned is this.

So how about it – should we return to the lex talionis?

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Not long after the ratification of the Constitution, Madison came to have serious doubts about his former Federalist friends. Particularly, he came to suspect the sincerity of many who had asserted that the new government would possess only those powers specifically delegated to it.

The first disappointment came with Hamilton’s championing of the incorporation of the Bank of the United States in 1791. It sparked the formation of the first party system: Federalists who supported the bank versus Republicans (not the modern party by that name) who opposed it. Madison felt especially sensitive to this issue. He remembered that the power of incorporation had come up at the Philadelphia convention. Indeed, he remembered it so well because he had been the one to move for its approval. He also recalled that it had been roundly voted down.

To Madison’s thinking, the power to incorporate was a very particular and peculiar power. At the time he had proposed its inclusion in the Constitution, he was certain it could serve important national purposes, but having been voted down, he was just as certain that no such power had been given to the general government.

Hamilton took a different view. The bank, he argued, would be of such significant utility to the collection of taxes, the paying of obligations, the administration of finance, both public and private, and of the regulation of commerce and the value of coinage, that it achieved the level of an implied power. Its necessity was established by its usefulness, and as such, it was constitutional.

To Madison that way of thinking amounted to no limits at all. By such an assumption, anything deemed useful could be done by the federal government regardless of whether or not it had been specifically written down. Where then was the promise of reserved and delegated powers?

Madison summarized his concern poignantly on the floor of the House: “With all this evidence of the sense in which the con (more…)

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New York was Hamilton’s great project. So closely divided was the state, that at various moments, he despaired of its coming into the union.

At one point the Antifederalists offered a compromise. They would support a conditional ratification dependent on the passage of certain key amendments, including the all important construction of delegated and reserved powers, or what eventually would become the Tenth Amendment. Hamilton wrote Madison for his opinion of the proposed compromise, and the response was unyielding: New York could “not be received on that plan.” It must be, Madison elaborated, “an adoption in toto, and forever.” Hamilton read the letter aloud to the Convention and it is reputed to have steeled the nerves of the Federalists for resistance. Rather than read, “on condition,” New York’s statement of ratification was amended to say, “in confidence.” The statement ran thus:

“Under these impressions, and declaring that the rights aforesaid cannot be abridged or violated, and that the explanations aforesaid are consistent with the said Constitution, and in confidence that the amendments which shall have been proposed to the said Constitution will receive an early and mature consideration, — We, the said delegates, in the name and in the behalf of the people of the state of New York, do, by these presents, assent to and ratify the said Constitution.” (Emphasis added)

In his America’s Constitution, A Biography (2005) p. 38, Ahkil Reed Amar concludes that this wording cinched the case against conditional ratification based upon powers reserved to the people of the states. Amar’s particular aim was to put any idea of legal secession to rest, but he also went on to implicate other forms of interposition as well.

Not so fast.

Amar stopped his reading at a point altogether too convenient for his thesis. Here is what the rest of the paragraph said:

“In full confidence, nevertheless, that, until a convention shall be called and convened for proposing amendments to the said Constitution, the militia of this state will not be continued in service out of this state for a longer term than six weeks, without the consent of the legislature thereof; that the Congress will not make or alter any regulation in this state, respecting the times, places, and manner, of holding elections for senators or representatives, unless the legislature of this state shall neglect or refuse to make laws or regulations for the purpose, or from any circumstance be incapable of making the same; and that, in those cases, such power will only be exercised until the legislature of this state shall make provision in the premises; that no excise will be imposed on any article of the growth, production, or manufacture of the United States, or any of them, within this state, ardent spirits excepted; and the Congress will not lay direct taxes within this state, but when the moneys arising from the impost and excise shall be insufficient for the public exigencies, nor then, until Congress shall first have made a requisition upon this state to assess, levy, and pay, the amount of such requisition, made agreeably to the census fixed in the said Constitution, in such way and manner as the legislature of this state shall judge best; but that in such case, if the state shall neglect or refuse to pay its proportion, pursuant to such requisition, then the Congress may assess and levy this state’s proportion, together with interest, at the rate of six per centum per annum, from the time at which the same was required to be paid.”

Here the representatives of the people of the state of New York fairly put the new government on notice in no uncertain terms that they reserved certain powers to their own legislature. (more…)

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The Real Churchill

I just finished reading Ralph Raico’s total evisceration of Winston Churchill. According to Raico, Churchill was throughout his life dedicated to two ends: his own power and the making of war. Every other principle he “ultimately betrayed.” Among Churchill’s sins are accounted the following: violating the international laws of war in blockading food and medicine from German civilians during World War I, setting merchant shipping policies that led to the sinking of the Lusitania (if not actually arranging for its sinking directly), returning Britain to the gold-exchange standard at prewar parity (thus destroying the British economy and setting the stage for the disastrous series of events that plunged the world into the Great Depression), attempting to crush the Indian independence movement, and more.

Even Churchill’s early opposition to Nazi Germany was tainted, for Churchill also took a hard line against Weimar Germany’s attempts to ease its heavy burden of reparations – policies that ultimately led to the rise of Hitler in the first place. In the end, Churchill’s real value lay in his rhetoric and the way in which he boosted British morale during the dark days of 1940. In the end, one achieves historic greatness more by what one says than by what one does, it seems.

HT: Brian Doherty

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Among the defenders of the Constitution, a great deal was said about the states as a check to the power of the national government that informed the first ideas about interposition. 

Madison’s contention in Federalist 39 is well-known. Our union was to be “partly federal and partly national.” Among the premier federal attributes were such provisions as the equal representation of the states in the Senate by senators appointed through state legislatures, portions of the Electoral College, portions of the amendment process, and the very means of ratification through conventions of the sovereign peoples of the various states.

This last attribute is often not given the attention that is due to it, but James Madison made this point repeatedly in other venues as well. He noted it in various letters and in the state ratification convention in Virginia. It is a major part of the argument against the notion put forward by his critics that the Constitution would establish a consolidating government.

Here is what Madison’s Publius said: “[T]his assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent states to which they respectively belong. It is to be the assent and ratification of the several states, derived from the supreme authority in each state…the authority of the people themselves. The act, therefore, establishing the constitution, will not be a national, but a federal act.”

This point was repeated again in Virginia’s ratifying convention. The reason was to assure the Constitution’s critics that the sovereign power of the people of the states was not being usurped. If a simple national majority, he reasoned, were all that was required to form the union, then the majority of all the people of America could bind Virginia or Rhode Island even if they had voted in the negative. This was not the case he assured his opponents.

But beyond ratification, did this conception of sovereign power have any other constitutional implications for the states? What exactly is the relationship between the people of the states and the national government? What if there is a dispute between them? This is where Publius becomes more ambiguous, and it is from here that much of the controversy concerning Madison himself originates.

In the same essay, Madison went on to argue that national supremacy meant that a national tribunal must determine the legitimacy of national laws, at least “so long as they are objects of lawful government.” Setting aside for a moment what is meant by “lawful,” he asserted, “It is true, that in controversies relating to the boundary between the two jurisdictions [state and national], the tribunal which is ultimately to decide is to be established under the general government.” This is necessary, he believed in order “to prevent an appeal to the sword, and a dissolution of the compact.” Really?

Where then resides the hoped for check to centralization? Here it rests on the impartiality of the judges of the court, for whom “all the usual and most effectual precautions are taken to secure this impartiality.” The difficulty is that the very contest presumes an illegality. A state would not contest a national act unless it thought the act to be unlawful; that is to say, not permitted by the Constitution. Is it then reasonable to conclude that they will rely upon the judgment of a national court? (more…)

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A rumble can be heard emanating from assemblies and governor’s mansions across these fruited plains. It is a sound reminiscent of by-gone days that echo down through centuries of constitutional thought. Prompted by everything from unfunded Congressional mandates to the new omnibus healthcare bill, (See here and here) these reverberations strike cords of distant legal memory that are, for most of us, only imperfectly recalled.

For many, talk of state’s rights, interposition, and even nullification brings forth unsavory recollections of illiberal and tyrannical state and local institutions of chattel slavery, Jim Crow and the color bar. That association is understandable given the prevailing interpretation presented in classrooms, but very unfortunate if we stop there.

One of the most essential roles of states in any federal system is to act as counterweights to centralization. For this reason all power is not assigned to the national authority. In the original constitutional design of the American federation, what was not given was reserved to the states or to the people thereof, and it is from this perspective that the check to central power, the bite of Federalism, was to be derived in its most essential forms.

The idea of states as checks to national concentration pushes the bounds of constitutionalism, but it was understood that however approached, and by whatever means undertaken, this role was not to be pursued for light or transient reasons.

The idea of interposition took many forms. It could embrace official expressions of disapproval by the legislature or governor of a state. It might entail simple, non-cooperation with federal authorities, such as a refusal to enforce a federal law, or acknowledge a mandate. Or, it might take the form of an unofficial understanding on the part of local groups and institutions, usually operating under the tacit approval of the state, not to comply with federal measures.  In its most extreme form, interposition could assert the right to interdict the enforcement of an offending provision through an act of outright nullification. How far a state might go in pursuit of this last line of interposing itself is a question of some delicacy.

Preventing by official policy or action the enforcement of a federal measure stresses the limits of constitutionality. If either of the contending powers moves from peaceful toleration or acquiescence to violence, the episode takes us from the realm of the legal to the revolutionary. For this reason, nullification has always been the most dangerous and the most controversial form of interposition.

The basis for the authority of all these options, however, remains rooted in the constitutional ideal itself. It was not the product of a mean or unnecessary political expediency. On the contrary, the idea of interposition was an attempt to sort out a vital constitutional principle and was first articulated, not to defend slavery, but to support free speech, free trade, peace and the liberty of fugitive slaves.

Federalism in all its various forms can be an instrument for good as well as ill. Like any political order, its quality is determined by the people who compose it. To really understand why the states are again making noises of interposition, we need to understand something of the history of our federal structure of government. The reason new life is breathed into old thoughts has everything to do with what rests at the center of our political existence.

Why do we have states? Lincoln made the claim that the Union preceded the states. What he could not say, however, was that the federal government as constituted in 1787 preceded them, because clearly it had not. The main thrust of Lincoln’s reasoning was that the Revolution and the move for independence began as a united effort. The implications of that claim are still debated and one need only recall the exchanges between Mel Bradford and Harry Jaffa on this point. What is certain, however, is that the federal government did not create the states. What then is the role of states in our federal order?

The authors and advocates of the Constitution, whatever they may have thought privately, were not free to assert any desired construction, but had to contend for the support of the peoples of their various former colonies. They needed to address directly the concerns of liberty that had animated the move to independence, and more specifically they had to allay the fears raised by their critics, the Antifederalists. In this way, whatever hidden motives might have existed, it is the stated intentions of the Federalist advocates that must bear legal weight.

Among the primary objects of the Revolution was to secure the liberty of the colonies to determine the disposition of their own properties, free from arbitrary imperial commands. American anxieties of the late eighteenth century grew in direct proportion to the growth of imperial designs by King and Parliament.

The Antifederalists are often called the old revolutionaries as much for their actual age as for their adherence to older ideas about colonial liberties. The list of such advocates is long and venerable: Brutus, Federal Farmer, Cato and Centinel. My favorite, however, is one not so generally recognized, but to my mind, gave the reasons for decentralization and the existence of states most succinctly and eloquently: Maryland Farmer. He took a long range perspective based on some very ancient precedents.

Edward Gibbon’s first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire came out in 1776, and like other important works of its time, Americans were eager to read it. By the time of the Constitution, Maryland Farmer had imbibed its central lessons and recognized how closely its themes complimented American experience. He disputed the charge often heard that the states, if not united under one supreme head, would soon be at each others throats. No, he said, citing Gibbon, real terror is to be found where there is no hope of escape, no exit.

Anticipating the role of competing jurisdictions, Maryland Farmer cautioned against rejecting the Articles of Confederation, observing that “In small independent States contiguous to each other, the people run away and leave despotism to wreak its vengeance on itself; and thus it is that moderation becomes with them the law of self preservation.”

The referenced passages of Gibbon illustrated that understanding nicely. Noting the ease with which a person onerous to power could escape in the Europe of his day to the safety of a rival state, Gibbon pointed to the very different reality of the ancient empire: Rome, he observed, came to fill the world, “and when that empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies.”

Maryland Farmer took that point to heart and asked Americans, who had just fought a war to resist the imperial designs of England, was it all simply to consolidate power in your own hands? He hoped not.

So strong were these sentiments in favor of decentralization, Federalists had no choice but to address them. Some of the most eloquent passages of the Federalist Papers were set out with the explicit aim of refuting the consolidationist claims of the nature of the Constitution. Indeed, more than one of those pieces by Publius was penned by that arch purveyor of centralized authority himself, Alexander Hamilton. In the next part we will examine how Publius attempted to negotiate the question of a federal check to national power, and look at the roots of interposition as they were presented by the supporters of the Constitution.

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The first of a series will begin tomorrow, the Ides of March (the 15th), an appropriate time to initiate an investigation of interposition and federalism in America. On that date in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar was slain for his offences against the Roman Republic. It was a futile act of desperation. The empire was not defeated, but the event remained a symbol for millennia of resistance to tyranny and concentrated power. This series will attempt to investigate the spirit of that resistance as it relates to our federal system of states as counter or makeweights to centralization through the instrument of interposition: what is its history and constitutional forms, and whither should it go now?

 In a recent spate of books, attention has been given to the place of the states in our federal union. More particularly, the subject of nullification has been the focus of Thomas Woods’ latest works, one of which is specifically by that name. In that book, Woods delves into certain key aspects of America’s constitutional history, but quickly focuses on what is a fairly specific subset of a much larger category of constitutional ideas embraced by the term, interposition.

Interposition is where a state or other organs of local governance and/or civil society attempt to intercede between the people and an act of the federal government that is deemed unjust or unconstitutional. This can take many forms, moving from the merely declaratory and/or uncooperative to the more extreme modes of obstruction or even interdiction. Nullification occupies the last of these categories. It is the outer edge of the continuum. It attempts to provide legal grounding for a state to directly obstruct enforcement of an offending federal measure, and is of all the instruments available to a state or people, the most dangerous and problematic. (more…)

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This post concludes a series of posts on the topic of “American exceptionalism.” In my last look at the topic several weeks ago, I argued that one conception of American exceptionalism among conservatives – the idea that the United States is uniquely free or has a particularly small government due to its culture – is mostly mistaken. In fact, while the U.S. does have a relatively small government by high-income democratic standards, that relative smallness can be explained more or less entirely by its fiscal-federal institutions, which are also shared by Canada and Switzerland (and Switzerland has a much smaller government than the U.S.). In this post, I take aim at a conception of American exceptionalism more widespread on the left, the idea that the U.S. is uniquely sinful in its degree of inequality. To a significant degree this premise on the left mirrors the premise on the right of uniquely small government: the cost of that small government, it is argued, is more inequality.

The problem with the claim is simple: comparing the U.S. to Europe on inequality is inappropriate because (more…)

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In prepared remarks, Michele Bachmann said this:

Joe Biden liked to tell audiences this election cycle that, quote, “This is not your father’s Republican Party.” Well, for once he was right. It’s a lot closer to being our Founding Fathers’ Republican Party. (emphasis added)


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For the American right, the United States is exceptional for its political commitment to freedom. For the American left, the U.S. is exceptional as an outlier of injustice and inequality relative to other advanced democracies. In a four-part series, I will investigate these claims of American exceptionalism and argue that both have some element of truth but are largely overstated.

In this post I take on the American right. Does the U.S. really stand out as a beacon of individual freedom in the world? We have to distinguish between America’s “core political tradition” and the present-day reality. The Declaration of Independence is a masterful statement of classical liberal principles and citizens’ inalienable right to resist arbitrary power. I also agree with Frederick Douglass’ claim that the U.S. Constitution is overall “a glorious liberty document,” especially when compared with virtually every other constitution in the world. (The problem is that Congress and the courts have colluded to amend the Constitution unconstitutionally over the past 70-odd years.) There is certainly an anti-authoritarian streak in the American political consciousness that dates back to Roger Williams, if not to the libertarian self-governance of most Native tribes. In some sense, that American political spirit has never been more worthy of admiration than it is today, scrubbed clean of the fatal scum of slavery, religious persecution, and Manifest Destiny.

The problem is that hardly anyone believes it anymore, not even the conservatives who pay it lip service. (more…)

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Whenever I’m at a loss for blog material, I can just check out the latest Krugman column. This Sunday’s pleasure was entitled “1938 in 2010,” and I’ll just quote the silliest bit:

From an economic point of view World War II was, above all, a burst of deficit-financed government spending, on a scale that would never have been approved otherwise… But guess what? Deficit spending created an economic boom — and the boom laid the foundation for long-run prosperity.

But the GDP figures during World War II were essentially made up, being based substantially on administratively determined “prices.” It turns out that Americans’ living standards were at best flat during the war (and that’s not counting the soldiers, of course). Someone, please let Dr. Krugman know about Robert Higgs’ research (here and here).

UPDATE: The myth of World War 2′s economic benefits is of course bipartisan, as evidenced in today’s vituperative post on rightist site Redstate.com.

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Contra some critics of “multiculturalism” (an ill-defined term to begin with), the diversity of the human race enriches us all, and human dignity is better served when individuals can possess multiple, overlapping sources of identity rather than having to face life as a tiny, lonely piece in a huge, undifferentiated mass of humanity.

Nationalism generally predicates itself on cultural attributes, but it often destroys the rich diversity of culture that was the legacy of premodern societies. Nationalism, in turn, was a response to the development of the modern, direct-rule state that swept away local autonomies and particularities. One small example of how this trend is still playing out in the world today can be found in an Economist story about Yemen’s vanishing Jews. These Jewish Arabs no longer find their identity recognized in either Yemen or Israel:

The last hundred or so Yemeni Jews are set to leave after more than two millennia in the country. A century ago some 50,000 of them lived more or less peacefully alongside the Muslim majority, now numbering 23m. Life became harder for them after the creation of Israel in 1948, with outbreaks of violence against Jews. Most were spirited out over the next few years in Operation Magic Carpet on American aircraft. A second, much smaller wave of around 1,200 of them were resettled in the early 1990s.


Elsewhere in the Arab world most Jewish communities have shrivelled. In Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad (where Jews were once the largest single community) numbers have shrunk to a handful of old folk keeping a nervously low profile. Yemen’s few hundred Jews were some of the last who preserved their synagogues and continued to conduct ceremonies in them. Zion Ozeri, a Jewish photographer of Yemeni descent who has documented the last of Yemen’s Jews, says that, for those who settle in Israel, there are “negative undertones” attached to being an Arab Jew. “In Israel or the diaspora, hardly any Jew considers himself of Arab culture.”

The descendants of Arabic-speaking Jews who leave for Israel or the United States will speak Hebrew or English, and the identity will eventually disappear, amalgamated into broad, generic identities politically supported by the states that now depend on nationalist sentiment to help field armies and keep the taxes paid.

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Lately I’ve been reading One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark by Dartmouth history professor Colin G. Calloway. On some level I had always known that the conquest of the Americas had been brutal in the extreme, but passages like the following tend to numb one:

General Cardenas, however, claimed to know nothing of the peace and adhered to his orders to take no prisoners. He ordered stakes driven into the ground at which to burn the Indians. Seeing the fate in store for them, the Indians fought desperately to escape. Spanish infantry drove them off, and Spanish cavalry rode them down. Castaneda said there were two hundred prisoners; other sources suggest the figure was closer to eighty. At any rate, “none escaped alive except a few who had remained concealed in the pueblo and who fled that night.” (p. 139)

The conquistadors retaliated with brutality: at a pueblo called Puaray Espejo had thirty Indians burned alive when the villagers refused to feed his troops. (p. 144)

Males over age twenty-five… were sentenced to twenty-five years in slavery and were to have their right foot amputated… Two Hopis, visitors to Acoma at the time of the assault, had their right hands amputated and were sent home as living examples of the punishment meted out to those who resisted Spanish power. Such “theater of terror” was familiar to Spaniards and Moors but new and shocking to Pueblos. (p. 149)

In 1655 Fray Salvador de Guerra caught a Hopi named Juan Cuna in “an act of idolatry.” The priest whipped him until he was “bathed in blood,” then drenched him in burning turpentine. (p. 170)

Whatever hold the Franciscans had over the Pueblos, their authority eroded in bickering with Spanish civil authorities… Governors accused friars of abusing their positions, whipping Indians who refused to attend mass and raping Indian girls even as they insisted that Indians follow strict new codes of sexual behavior.  (p. 171)

The French and English weren’t much better (see also “pitchcapping“).

Hopelessly outnumbered…, the Foxes offered to surrender. They dropped more than three hundred children over the palisades in an effort to touch the hearts of the Indians in the besieging force, “calling out to them that since they hungered after their own flesh that all they had to do was eat of it and quench their thirst with the blood of their close relatives, although they were innocent of the offenses that their fathers had committed.” The besieging Indians received the children “with open arms,” and the Sauks provided safe refuge for them, but the French ended further communications by keeping up a continuous fire on the fort… The French were determined to exterminate the Foxes.

A week later…, the Foxes attempted a desperate breakout under cover of darkness during a violent thunderstorm. The cries of their children alerted French sentries, and the French and their Indian allies easily caught up with them the next day… Two hundred Fox warriors and three hundred women and children died in the slaughter. Captured warriors were tortured and burned at the stake. (pp. 323-4)

The English-American colonists used similar tactics to exterminate their enemies (see Pequot War).

We have come a long way. The U.S. government does torture people, but burning people alive is truly of a different order than waterboarding. Nor do most European governments today use genocidal strategies such as exterminating whole tribes and mass rape (but see Bosnian War).

What the history of the American conquest reveals is that ideas of liberalism and toleration are more endogenous to institutions and development than the latter are endogenous to ideas. Western ideas remained barbaric and inhuman, at least relative to those of the Indian “savages,” up until quite recently. (I am not giving any quarter to romantic “noble savage” myths either; Indians were quite capable of bloody warfare both against Europeans and among themselves.) The rapid economic development of western Europe and the neo-Europes had more to do with the fact that Europe was politically divided, both among several polities, and internally between church and state, than with any pre-existing ideas of liberalism. Liberalism came about because of the openings created by regime incoherence and competition, as well as the smoothing effects of trade. Materialist explanations of civilizational change seem to have much more going for them than idealist explanations.


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