The world’s most successful notion of free government arose from what was called “the principle of the sovereignty of the people.” This principle viewed government as a regrettable necessity. Individuals assented to follow rules not because collective political wisdom was the best means of directing life, but because selfish human beings cannot reasonably be expected to interact equitably without some “regulating force” maintaining uniform rules of interaction. On this theory, the purview of the local government extended only over the interactions between one citizen and another.
Americans extended this notion to the relationship of the township to the state and the state to the federal government. Each individual, each township, each state was the rightful arbiter of its own affairs, granting power to the next level up in the governmental hierarchy only insofar as necessity compelled them to do so — that is, only when the interests of multiple townships or multiple states were at stake.
While this ideal was never perfectly followed, it is an extraordinarily useful way of thinking about government. When the central government is thought of as the ultimate arbiter of all societal questions, even a fair and free election yields at best the tyranny of the majority.
Early Americans did not want this. They preferred a system in which nearly every man would personally approve of nearly every law that affected his life. To accomplish this, they sought to keep most laws as local laws. This led to an “inverted hierarchy” of power. The larger the region over which a political body ruled, the smaller the scope of the laws they were allowed to enact.
The result was the single best large republic in all history.
The inverted hierarchy that created this republic, however, did not fully survive the 20th century. There is little question today that the federal government has left behind the notion that it exists to act only on matters that individual states are incapable of dealing with. Some of this was the result of the need to pass the 14th Amendment, which grants the federal government some powers to police the morality of state laws.
But beyond the 14th Amendment, there has been a much broader shift in thinking — certainly in leftist areas like Penn — which fundamentally favors the centralization of all government power. Washington frequently leans left of center, and in the past, liberals often assumed that consolidated power would be wielded wisely to fight the manifold ills spawned by that quarter of America in the basket of deplorables.
Then Donald Trump was elected president.
Many, many students on campus sincerely expressed fear for themselves. For their families. For their private lives. This fear wasn’t (mostly) about the national economy, or inter-state trade or foreign policy. It was about centralized government falling into the hands of that very same basket of deplorables it was supposed to vigorously regulate.
Leftists, eager a few months ago to advocate federal agencies forcing racial and gender quotas on private companies, are now faced with such policies coming from the administration of a moderate member of the Alt-Right — a group whose political philosophy (insofar as it exists) is a sort of radical leftism for whites and men, which “prioritises the interests of their own demographic,” according to Breitbart News.
Many Penn students feel — quite legitimately — that Trump does not represent them (#NotMyPresident), but few seem to recall that the Founding Fathers had predicted that a centralized government would lead to this result — see Robert Yates’ first anti-Federalist paper, for instance. Trump simply dramatized the fact that when all important powers are centralized, the administration of the country will reflect — at best — the interests of the “51 percent.”
Leftists celebrate Roe v. Wade for spreading abortion across the continent, but the logic upon which it was promulgated could well ban abortion in like manner. Federal affirmative action may be praised for helping people of a particular race or gender, but Trump&Co will soon be deciding what races or genders need “affirming.”
Put bluntly, the problem with centralizing government power to manage “the deplorables” is that “the deplorables” may one day be managing you.
The only robust way to avoid this dilemma is to begin work on reconstructing, in the modern American context, a system that seeks to maximize the degree to which individuals directly compose and approve of all the laws that affect them personally. This inverted hierarchy of power might protect against the dangers of a system that indiscriminately heaps power into the hands of the wise men of Washington — and our next president, Mr. Trump.
JEREMIAH KEENAN is a College senior from China, studying mathematics and classical studies. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Keen on the Truth” usually appears every other Thursday.
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