I’ve learned a few things from my past two posts, which I hope to overcome in this one. Firstly, I have a tendency to ramble, so I’ll try to keep this post short and sweet. Secondly, I haven’t put anything I’ve said in much historical context to this point, so it looks like I’m just talking directly out of my ass. One particular commenter drew a parallel between my vision and the very weak central government we had under the Articles of Confederation. If you remember high school history class, you’ll remember the name of this important document, the few paragraphs your text book likely used to describe its failure within only a few years, and its later revision into the Constitution. But it was an incredibly important experiment in shaping our nation’s current form of government. The Founders reacted largely based on the negative results the AoC produced when creating the Constitution we have today.
So here goes my attempt at explaining why what I’m advocating is not a return to the Articles of Confederation or the creation of a new Constitution, but simply a new, slightly different interpretation of our excellent existing Constitution.
What were the failures of the AoC?
Let’s start with not creating a federal executive or judicial branch, and instead giving all powers to Congress, which had no real way to enforce the laws they created. As I’ve already pointed out, Congress’s approval ratings are really bad historically, and the idea of all power being vested in them scares the willies out of me. There has to be one clear head of the federal government, not hundreds. There also has to be a strong judiciary that is (ideally) not as susceptible to petty short-term politics.
Then there was the inability to regulate commerce, either among the states, or between states and other nations. States levied tariffs against other states’ goods, and made their own treaties with foreign nations. This created unhealthy economic policies between the states, and made arranging trade agreements and treaties on a national level next to impossible. Again: there has to be a united front to foreign policy, and the federal government has a responsibility to regulate the states. My assertion is just that this involvement has far exceeded the Constitution’s original intent.
Probably the biggest failure of the AoC was the inability of Congress to levy taxes or draft armies. It forced them to beg the states for money, troops, and supplies, which they were hesitant to provide, to say the least. Shays’ Rebellion threatened to destabilize Massachusetts. Why? Mostly because ex-soldiers hadn’t been paid by the Continental Congress for their contributions during the Revolutionary War. It was also difficult to put down, because there was no strong national army that had any interests in fighting Massachusetts’ battles for them.
Did anything good come of the AoC?
Actually, yeah. Under the AoC, we set up the policies for future Western expansion, and determined that Western states would not be slave states. But the most important part was that after dealing with the failures of the AoC for a mere 8 years, a delegation came together to revise the document, where they realized that it would be a better idea to scrap it and write the Constitution we’ve had for over 200 years. That’s what I call a successful iteration in government!
Every problem with the AoC I listed above has been fixed by granting more powers to the federal government through the Constitution. The Founders originally wanted to have their cake (complete state sovereignty and autonomy) and eat it too (benefits of having a strong, unified national government), without paying for it (because of an inability to raise money except through begging). It failed, they wrote a new document, and things have been pretty good ever since. I deeply respect their prescient vision and ability to quickly admit failure.
What are the lessons to be learned?
First, there has to be a unified executive branch. Second, the federal government needs the ability to direct foreign policy. Third, it needs the ability to regulate the states’ relationships with one another. Finally, there has to be some way for the federal government to raise money from the states when necessary. You’ll find all of these things alive and well in my philosophy. They even work pretty well with my little metaphor that I’ve developed. There is still a CEO. That CEO is in charge of the incubator, and maintaining order internally and externally. However, that CEO is decidedly not in the business of micromanaging each start-up within the incubator. In turn, the start-ups in that incubator have a responsibility not to try to hurt other start-ups, or to sabotage the incubator. There is also (usually) a mechanism for the incubator to get paid back at least partially by the start-ups for their help.
This great quote from James Madison sums up why the Constitution is such a great document: “The constitutional reallocation of powers created a new form of government, unprecedented under the sun. Every previous national authority either had been centralized or else had been a confederation of sovereign states. The new American system was neither one nor the other; it was a mixture of both.”
All I’m saying is this: let’s change that mixture up a little bit, by re-evaluating what it is that we think the federal government 1) can do and 2) should do.