July 23, 2010

Federal, that is Corporate, Usurpation (Hamilton’s Federalist #17)


We continue our critique of The Federalist with Hamilton’s #17.
He starts by claiming the federal government would never want to usurp what are properly State powers. However, his depiction already sounds dubious even given when he wrote it.

Allowing the utmost latitude to the love of power which any reasonable man can require, I confess I am at a loss to discover what temptation the persons intrusted with the administration of the general government could ever feel to divest the States of the authorities of that description. The regulation of the mere domestic police of a State appears to me to hold out slender allurements to ambition. Commerce, finance, negotiation, and war seem to comprehend all the objects which have charms for minds governed by that passion; and all the powers necessary to those objects ought, in the first instance, to be lodged in the national depository.

“Commerce, finance, negotiation, and war”. Oh, that’s all. (He even concedes that this federal government is likely to be filled with those minds are “charmed” and “allured” and “governed” by the lust for power. He just blithely claims that these greedy officials will somehow restrain themselves from what he’d consider usurpation. So even with Hamilton we see the extreme naivete of the “reformer”, assuming he really believes what he writes.) In other words, why would a body which is already such a massive depository of power want to usurp what meager powers it leaves to the states?

The administration of private justice between the citizens of the same State, the supervision of agriculture and of other concerns of a similar nature, all those things, in short, which are proper to be provided for by local legislation, can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction. It is therefore improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the powers with which they are connected; because the attempt to exercise those powers would be as troublesome as it would be nugatory; and the possession of them, for that reason, would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendor of the national government.

Since when have such drawbacks ever stopped anyone? Even in the 18th century, let alone today, those seeking power tended to care little for dignity or splendor if those got in the way.
In any event, we know that this prognostication has been proven false. The basic reason is that the powers Hamilton says are proper for the central government, if they’re exercised in a tyrannical way, are more than sufficient to subsume the powers of the states. So why would they ever need to directly usurp these?
As we’ve seen, the BP administrative zone, surrendered and enforced by the federal government, also subsumes all state powers under the general tyranny, which I imagine would be defended under the Commerce clause if they had to constitutionally defend it. (I haven’t actually seen anyone trying to defend the constitutionality of it; then again who other than a few Internet radicals are even asking the question? Certainly not the corporate media. My Internet search for “BP constitutionality” turned up endless squawking about the constitutionality of the $20 billion escrow fund. But looking through the first several pages, and some others selected at random, I found not one entry about the constitutionality of the government’s abdication of sovereignty in the Gulf. That’s quite a piece of data on our state of corporate tyranny right there.)
It’s unfortunate for Hamilton’s thesis that he singles out agriculture among “other concerns” as something which is definitely within the states’ authority, since the agriculture is one of the sectors which has seen corporate tyranny advance the furthest.
How is it within the federal purview according to Hamilton that the federal government is raiding small food producers? The answer of course is that it’s not. But then, neither was the central government’s policy of massive subsidies for industrial agriculture. But the assault on small producers is implicit in the support for massive corporate producers. Federal agriculture policy makes no sense from the point of view of the public interest and none from the federalist point of view. Indeed, as we just saw the arch-federalist Hamilton expressly rejects it.
Yet it makes perfect sense if the federal government has actually become a corporatist tyranny.
The three basic elements of corporatism are:
1. The government, in the American case mostly the federal government, relinquishes authority and thereby abdicates sovereignty. It abrogates all responsibility to restrain corporate rackets from larcenous and destructive behavior. Criminal behavior is either legalized de jure through the rigging of the law, or de facto through regulators and police refusing to enforce the law and the corruption of the courts.
2. The government steals public property by privatizing it for pennies on the dollar (or even letting corporations destroy it and then forcing taxpayers to pay for cleaning up the mess) and conveying taxpayer money to the gangsters in the form of corporate welfare.
3. The federal government as goon assaults any lower level of government, and any other group or individual, who acts in any way contrary to corporate aggrandizement.
If you look at what the federal government has done, I doubt you’ll find any example in recent decades which doesn’t embody one or more of these. I couldn’t think of any.
On the other hand, the features which aren’t corporatized, like Social Security, are older and are precisely the targets of the “austerity” assault.
So there again we see the progress of corporate tyranny, as I laid out in my recent series (parts one, two, three, and four). The Bailout, for example, is a fully corporatist policy, representing the basic logic and an escalation along the lines of the logic. Meanwhile the system must also purge whatever’s left of pre-corporatist policy. That’s a main goal of “austerity”, besides just moving on to the next stage of robbery.
But no, Hamilton thinks the State governments can restrain this federal monster. Indeed, he continues with his conceit that the real danger is to the federal government from the states.

It will always be far more easy for the State governments to encroach upon the national authorities than for the national government to encroach upon the State authorities…..

The superiority of influence in favor of the particular governments would result partly from the diffusive construction of the national government, but chiefly from the nature of the objects to which the attention of the State administrations would be directed.

It is a known fact in human nature, that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object. Upon the same principle that a man is more attached to his family than to his neighborhood, to his neighborhood than to the community at large, the people of each State would be apt to feel a stronger bias towards their local governments than towards the government of the Union; unless the force of that principle should be destroyed by a much better administration of the latter.

Or simply that the force of the latter destroys the power of the former.
(I should also mention how the states have become dependent upon federal largess. So the feds have not only bullied and usurped the state power but bought it as well. Hamilton doesn’t seem to anticipate this either.)
Although it’s secondary to the discussion at hand, within the course of claiming State power will be sufficient to restrain and even to overcome federal power, Hamilton gives another creepy paean to government power as such which I’d like to quote.

There is one transcendant advantage belonging to the province of the State governments, which alone suffices to place the matter in a clear and satisfactory light, — I mean the ordinary administration of criminal and civil justice. This, of all others, is the most powerful, most universal, and most attractive source of popular obedience and attachment. It is that which, being the immediate and visible guardian of life and property, having its benefits and its terrors in constant activity before the public eye, regulating all those personal interests and familiar concerns to which the sensibility of individuals is more immediately awake, contributes, more than any other circumstance, to impressing upon the minds of the people, affection, esteem, and reverence towards the government. This great cement of society, which will diffuse itself almost wholly through the channels of the particular governments, independent of all other causes of influence, would insure them so decided an empire over their respective citizens as to render them at all times a complete counterpoise, and, not unfrequently, dangerous rivals to the power of the Union.

Even aside from how we know that this proved to be false, which is the subject of our discussion, this provides an insight into the statist, imperial intent of Hamilton in everything he advocated. Democracy was repugnant to him not primarily because it allegedly couldn’t provide a stable, peaceful society, but because it couldn’t sustain and wouldn’t countenance his imperial lusts. To this day that remains the main reason for opposition to true, decentralized, positive, participatory democracy: Because it would reject empire and tyranny.


  1. Russ, tippy from Baseline here. I am interested in your opinion of Warren Mosler. He is running to fill Chris Dodd’s place in the Connecticut senate race. Mosler is a self-described Tea Party Democrat who gets respect from Ritholtz, Bill Black, James Galbraith … and even Fox Business News (?)


    Link to his proposals: http://moslereconomics.com/proposals/


    Comment by tippygolden — July 25, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  2. Hi Tippy,

    I like any outsider running based upon outsider ideas, just on the principle that it’s an attempt to open up the political space.

    As for Mosler’s specific idea, I think MMT has lots of promise as part of a transformative package of ideas. It needs a better name, though. Citizen Money or Prosperity Money or something like that.

    Comment by Russ — July 26, 2010 @ 4:06 am

    • Thanks Russ,

      “I like any outsider running based upon outsider ideas, just on the principle that it’s an attempt to open up the political space.”

      Well said!

      Comment by tippygolden press — July 27, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

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