Editorial Foreword: This essay by Bruce P. Frohnen is the first installment of a new Nomocracy in Politics symposium, “Evaluating the Current Union of States.” The symposium will examine the various costs and benefits that Americans and others incur as a result of our current Union of States–a.k.a., the United States of America. The symposium will progress gradually over a period of weeks.
Essay: A symposium devoted to “evaluating the current union of the states” may sound designed to institute reconsideration of the issues and grievances precipitating and resulting from the Civil War. Perhaps in part because I was born and raised (mostly) in the West, I have no emotional investment in such a debate. Moreover, it seems to me that there is plenty of fault on both sides in relation to that war, and that the airing of grievances in terms of a conflict 150 years gone, while certainly of continuing intellectual interest, can be of little practical use in considering where we currently stand, and where we should go as Americans. That said, I find it highly interesting and of significant importance for Americans to re-think the value of their union. This is no less the case because most Americans today no longer think of themselves as citizens of a state within that union, but rather as citizens of a nation containing fifty (or more) administrative sub-units. Indeed, perhaps the central question we face as a people is how consolidation of our federal republic into a national government of general, in principle limitless power and authority affects our ability to lead good, decent lives.
Issues raised by America’s consolidation into a vast, powerful nation range from the most concrete to the most seemingly abstract. At the most concrete level is a question that has preoccupied students of politics for several generations, namely that concerning power. Have we benefitted as individuals and as a society from the power of our mighty nation? To break down this question somewhat, are we safer as part of a world-spanning empire? Are we more virtuous? Is ordered liberty more secure?
There is a related set of questions also of great interest to students of politics. These concern the consolidation of domestic power in the hands of the national government. Stated in summary terms, given the loss of any truly independent status for states and localities, is a nation of the size and population of the United States better able to provide for the material, cultural, and spiritual needs of its people, or has the very scale of our country encouraged consolidation of our political, economic, and cultural life in a way that harms our ability to lead fruitful, virtuous lives?
Finally, and most importantly, it seems to me, is the more general, cultural question concerning the costs and benefits of cosmopolitanism itself. Are we better off living as cosmo-Americans, frequently moving from one state and region to another in pursuit of money and career advancement, or merely a more conducive climate? I myself have lived in 13 different states across the country—twice in several states, and in several cities in more than one. Is my life better, and am I a better person, because of this?
Beginning, then, with the question of power. It often has been said that America would have ceased to exist, even suffering re-conquest form Europe, had it not avoided the splintering of interests fomented under the Articles of Confederation, or threatened by Southern Secession, or promoted by claims of states’ rights during various eras of conflict in the United States. These may be fair points for a debate over our original constitutional design and even the wisdom of northern opposition to secession. But do they answer questions concerning the current state of our nation? I think not, for what we live in today is not a compound, federal republic presenting a relatively unified front to outside forces. Rather, to judge by the policies of recent decades, ours is a nation that seeks military supremacy on the international stage. Obviously, the exigencies of the Cold War influenced these developments (though some, such as Senator Robert Taft, pointed to less extreme possibilities in carrying out that conflict as well). But our current position, with troops in literally dozens of foreign countries, “nation building” in opposition to much of the native population, hardly was forced upon us. Rather, this position is one of choice, of the determination to make the world over in our own image. Is it good to “share” one’s way of life at the point of a gun? Have we purchased safety with the lives of our brave soldiers? One need not condone the barbarism of the 9/11 attackers and other terrorists to arrive at the considered judgment that overextension of our forces has not made us safer as a people. The expense of our empire in terms of money, manpower, and increasing concentration of power in the hands of Presidents who riffle through our electronic files at will seems hardly worth the increase in pride and influence that takes us away from our more fundamental duties to faith and family.
A chief means by which the national government achieved the power it currently exercises in foreign and military affairs was consolidation of the armed forces themselves. Until well into the 20th Century, troops were raised from localities and states. That is, a set of troops would not simply be “the 25th infantry,” but rather “the 25th Pennsylvania” and so on. In the interests of military efficiency in time of World War, this practice of recruiting and managing the military as an extension of the state militia was eradicated.
As Robert Nisbet most famously pointed out, war leads to the consolidation of power, not just in the military, but in the central government more generally. We have had many wars in the United States, particularly during the 20th Century, going well beyond the needs of foreign policy. From the War on Poverty to the War on Drugs, to the series of administrative wars intending to stamp out various forms of discrimination, the national government has solidified its control over political, economic, and social life throughout the United States.
Again, proponents of consolidation have claimed that the alternative would be chaos—or worse. The very real depredations of racial hatred (to which our Southern friends hardly own the rights, given the plethora of discriminatory laws deeply embedded in most other states and regions) have been used, along with the siren’s call of “efficiency,” as a kind of general apology for all forms of nationalization. From a federal power to regulate, not just commerce, but all forms of manufacturing, agriculture, and even subsistence farming, to the final institutionalization of social democracy in the form of Obamacare, national policies have been implemented with only the barest recognition that the states exist as anything more than administrative units of the central government.
Has this consolidation of power improved our lives and our characters? The total breakdown of the rule of law under this and the previous administration, in which wholesale waivers from national programs are used to prop up nonsensical education and healthcare policies that are so unwieldy that no amount of administrative fiat can make them work hardly seems an improvement. Many, of course, welcome these new structures, confident that, in time, administrative agencies will gain sufficient power, money, and staff to regularize their control. Yet it hardly seems clear that a people is better off as wards of a seamless, cradle-to-grave nanny state than as free citizens. Moreover, if that nanny state is to attempt to care for 350 million people in a land as vast as ours, the costs, as we already are seeing, will be so high as to break the back of the economy and even of leviathan itself.
But, we are told, America as a nation is a kinder, gentler, more humane and just society. We should, on this view, welcome consolidation as the price one pays for virtue. The counter, or rather scare example provided is that of racist small towns in which lynching is a part of daily life. More generally, the argument is that people are better, as people, if they are cosmopolitan “citizens of the world,” rather than citizens of localities and face-to-face communities where, presumably, they define anyone they do not know as less than human.
Putting calumny to one side, for the moment, let us consider the value of the cosmopolitan “lifestyle.” What does the lack of persistent, personal ties add to the human character that is good? The near-universal answer is openness to diversity, in a word, tolerance—the polar opposite of prejudice. If by “prejudice” we mean racial animus, and by “tolerance” we mean the lack of racial animus, we have a clear, morally significant distinction. But hatred, whether based on race, class, religion, or political affiliation, is no moral virtue. To take the obviously most relevant example, such hatred is specifically, repeatedly condemned in Christian teaching. And “prejudice,” as Edmund Burke pointed out, means simply unexamined beliefs, including, for most people most of the time, beliefs undergirding moral structures. Tolerance, on the other hand, while recognizing the moral importance of all persons (something recognized by Christianity and, indeed, almost all moral and religious systems) rests on an impulse far different from, and inferior to, that undergirding the local life it condemns. Where localism fosters communal standards of care and stewardship, cosmopolitanism is a creed of self-indulgence rooted in the mistaken notion that ignoring other people constitutes virtue.
Tolerance certainly has its virtue—it does not require that we embrace conduct our religious beliefs tell us are offensive. But this makes it a distinctly limited good, allowing us to go about our own business in ignorance of the moral state of others—the classic lifestyle of the upper-middle-class urban professional seeking pleasures-of-the-moment when not earning the money to pay for them. Tolerance does not, of course, provide the ethical, emotional, and practical (habitual) grounds for a life lived in communion with others—for suffering with the poor rather than paying taxes to give them government assistance, for example. It is a creed of self-involvement. Moreover, as an empty creed, providing no basis for commonality, it serves only as the grounds for abstract “caring” in the form of ideological programs (e.g. the “war on global warming” in which we currently are engaged). And these programs only further feed into the ever-growing centralized state.
In the end, as we already are seeing, toleration gives way to a determination to stamp out “discrimination,” now defined as any opinion or way of life eschewing cosmopolitanism. What we have, then, is contempt for real communities in which people share habits of the heart by sharing circumstances and ways of life. And this contempt has very real consequences in a nation dominated by a government with the power to legislate on everything, provided it makes a formulaic bow to interstate commerce and the rights of individuals to behave in a manner offensive to the local community.
Thus, on every level—moral, economic, and political—our current union of states is an absolute failure. It harms our character and way of life. A union of states was a good idea. Sadly, it has long since been abandoned. None who value genuine, organic communities can be sanguine about a future under our current, consolidated regime. Nor can any who value ordered liberty be sanguine, given the drive to use a supposedly neutral state to eliminate “wrong” individual choices, along with the diverse ways of life communities naturally develop for themselves.
Our current situation is untenable over the long haul. It would seem that it would resolve itself in one of two ways: either we all will become “cosmo-Americans,” abandoning the dead shells of our communities in favor of life as free-floating wards of the state, or the national government will finish running itself into bankruptcy, spurring a mass inflation or a simple crumbling of national institutions and programs, before the process of nationalism is completed. Neither prospect is a happy one. Nonetheless, it is important that those who value ordered liberty as well as community make a clear assessment of our current union and its likely future so that we may lower our expectations accordingly and better defend such pockets of community and independence as can be salvaged.
Bruce P. Frohnen is currently Charles Evans Hughes Professor of Jurisprudence at Colgate University. Professor Frohnen is also on the faculty at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law, and he is a Nomocracy in Politics Contributor.