Saturday, June 28, 2008

Libertarians, Conservatives, and States' Rights: Distinction and Difference

I have been reading lots and lots of candidate web pages lately, and I am struck by how many times Libertarians and so-called "Ron Paul" Republicans take refuge in a States' Rights doctrine with respect to issues like gay marriage or abortion.

Here's one fairly representative example from the site of Chris Dyer, GOP candidate in Nevada's First Congressional District:

I believe that all human life is sacred. I believe matters regarding abortion, homicide, the death penalty and euthanasia should be handled by the voters of the states, not the federal government.

Let's add in a Libertarian for balance, Michael Benoit in California's 52nd Congressional District:

I can not find in the Constitution where the federal government has any authority in this area, and therefore conclude that it should be left to the states.

Please note: this is not a post about abortion. Truth in advertising: I unequivocally support abortion rights for women. I know that other Libertarians don't. This is a post about the use of States' Rights as an argument or blind by Libertarian candidates.

There are two issues to consider here. The first is the Constitutionalist argument that the 9th and 10th Amendments really should mean something, and that any reversion of right from the Federal government to the State governments moves power and authority closer to the people--which is a good thing. There is a certain merit in this position, but--strictly speaking--it's not a Libertarian position at all. Whether the State happens to be the State or the Federal government, or even your town council, if that entity is exercising aggressive power it is something that Libertarians should oppose.

It is also arguable that the state governments are, in many cases, potentially more oppressive and given to undue influence by special interest groups. In Delaware, for example, we actually have a proposed Constitutional amendment (proposed by one Democrat and one Republican--therefore bi-partisan)--to outlaw not only gay marriage but also civil unions. Thanks to heavy union influence we have a prevailing wage law for state construction that diverts millions of dollars each year from school construction alone. And because our corporations buy and sell local politicians for trivial amounts of money by Congressional standards, we have no virtually accountability for chemical plants to pollute groundwater.

Through the years I have come to realize that when most (I won't say all because there are exceptions) politicians want to relegate a sensitive social issue to the States, they really mean something closer to, I oppose this [if it's abortion rights or gay marriage], but I don't want to have to say it outright. Instead, I'm going to say it should be left to the states.

That's what Bob Barr has done on gay marriage, and that's one of the slimiest of his positions.

Because everybody really knows what he personally feels about those disgusting queers getting together with rings to destroy western civilization.

And that, unfortunately, is what a lot of "Ron Paul" Republicans and social conservatives say when they're trying to get votes from Libertarians who ought to hear alarm bells going off in their heads every single time.


Tyler Nixon said...

Good post, Steve.

I have found that the resort to "states' rights" has been more a creature of so-called "social conservatives" (e.g. pseudo-moral socialists).

Those who want to restrict and control individual rights according to their own selective ideology have long hit dead-ends under federal law and jurisprudence. To them, states' rights is about state government's having dubious autonomy to restrict and more narrowly-define civil rights to serve their social views.

You never hear these same types, for example, arguing that drug laws should be a state issue, because it is counter to their puritanical homogeneous social agenda.

In my mind states have constitutional autonomy only to the extent they expand and protect individual liberties, not restrict them over and above federally-enumerated rights.

The term "states' rights" is a cheap bastardization of the concept of federalism. Social collectivists looking to advance their agenda in any venue possible have little concern for the difference between federalism and an oxymoronic catch phrase like "states' rights".

If there is any valid argument to be made for "states' rights" it lies exclusively in the context of economic activity. The near-limitless expansion of the Commerce Clause is where legitimate "states' rights" have been devastated. This has been the single greatest assault on federalism, effectively giving us a unitary national government roughly since FDR.

As an aside to this state/federal power issue, the term "big government" doesn't have to mean a massive single organization. Big government is very much found in the layers upon layers of lesser governmental jurisdictions with overlapping voracious appetites and turf-staking, all the way down to abusive little town governments.

Big government in America is less about being under the thumb of a giant and more about being stampeded by a herd of pygmies. Those who argue for the "rights" of state governments to dictate social policy are just pettier, smaller-time tyrants.

Arthur Torrey said...

I agree - although it can go both ways - Federal candidates will talk about "it should be a states rights issue" - or state level candidates will try to blame it on the feds... Same things apply on the local level...

It is a very simple code, and translates to "I don't want to talk about this issue because I don't hold the popular view on it" or "I don't want to take any controversy on it" (especially if it's a divisive issue like abortion choice or GBLT rights, etc...) - buck it to a jurisdiction you aren't running for...

Depending on the issue, the real message can be either "I don't want to take the heat for my real position (but I figure the states will go the way I feel)" or just a dodge.

If you have an honest candidate, the response should be either "I believe in X", or POSSIBLY "This is a matter of other jurisdiction, so my opinion isn't useful, but I think X"

I will say as an elected Town Meeting Rep, there are frequently very awkward votes where we are FORCED by state or federal law to pass items, because failing to do so exposes the Town to legal / financial liability... (for instance funding special education programs, or enhancing the water treatment plant, etc)

These unfunded mandates aren't small change either, I would estimate that they make up between at least 25 and 30% of our entire town budget.

However, at the very least one can express unhappiness about them, and I regularly annoy the "rubber stampers" in Town Meeting by standing up to acknowledge that while we may have to pass the measure, we don't like it.

Elected Libertarian (Town Meeting Rep, Billerica, MA)

Chris Dyer for Congress said...

Perhaps you should check with the National Right to Life ( They send surveys to candidates about specific legislation regarding the right to life. If you want specific answers on that issue, that's the place to look. I filled one out and returned it. I don't just revert to "states rights" to dodge a question. It is my opinion that most issues that our federal government meddles in could be handled better at the state level. -Chris Dyer.

Bowly said...

The risk with getting the federal government involved is that the federal government might legislate on the issue in the wrong direction--see our current drug war as an example, or the previous disaster known as Prohibition.

If issues are driven closer to the people, at least SOME places will get it right. Prior to 1861, slavery wasn't legal everywhere, after all. And the Supreme Court might have overturned "separate but equal", but that's only because they're the ones who implemented it in the first place. Lots of places were integrated without their help.

Which produces the best outcome? Hard to say. I do agree that politicians should be held under scrutiny about their views and not be allowed to dodge. If Chris Dyer truly means what he says, then I would hope a Congressional bill outlawing abortion in these United States would be met with a no vote on his part.

Brian Miller said...

"States' rights" is both a scam and an irrelevancy. Libertarians support the rights of the individual, including the right to be free from coercion from government.

States are government. Cities are government. Counties are government. Federal authorities are government. Townships are government. Boroughs are government. World government is government.

Discussion of the so-called "rights" of various levels of government is a shell game. The reality is that if one supports the proposition that any sort of government has "rights" that trump the rights of the individual, he's supporting an unlibertarian proposition. Period.