Progressives are stuck in the past. Delightfully ironic, isn’t it? States rights once were used to justify secession and segregation, so progressives think the idea, rather than its misuse, was the problem. But it’s just part of the larger idea of the separation of powers. Should every political decision really be made at the national level? Of course not … and the Founders knew it, though we seem to have forgotten it. Must a useful idea necessarily be forever condemned because it has been abused in the past?
Our Founding Fathers created a “federal” system, i.e., a sphere in which the national government takes precedence and a sphere in which the state governments take precedence. There is much more overlap now than earlier as the national government has gotten into the business of giving money to the states for all sorts of things and, in the aftermath of the Great Depression and New Deal, Americans have gotten used to the national government being dominant. But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. States are not obsolete so states rights, therefore, should be worthy of consideration.
This does not mean that the states are “sovereign.” We often have misused the word “sovereignty” with regard to individual states but, except for Texas and Hawaii, no state has ever been sovereign though several have claimed that status. Only those two ever existed as sovereign entities; Texas as a republic from 1836-45 and Hawaii as a kingdom, 1795-1893, then as a makeshift republic, 1894-98.
Certainly, none of America’s original 13 states were ever sovereign but rather were dependent colonies of Great Britain prior to achieving sovereignty as constituent parts of the sovereign United States. As for Texas and Hawaii, each gave up any claim to sovereignty on being accepted as states within the United States.
So what rights do states have?
They were intended to, and indeed must, play a very large role in all aspects of government that are not clearly national in scope. And therein lies the problem that goes back to the very idea of America as a country.
Under the Articles of Confederation state supremacy was the norm. It quickly became apparent, however, that this simply didn’t work. America could not function as a nation if the central government required permission from each state to conduct its business. Thus, the eventual adoption of a Constitution that was more clear and specific about who had power over what and was more balanced in the division of that power. The Tenth Amendment served as a kind of exclamation point to the idea that states, while still very important, would no longer be able to easily veto federal government actions.
The states were, and still should be, laboratories for trying different policies. Liberals say they value diversity; our differences make us strong and all that. Up to a point, that’s true but liberals nonetheless hate that states might be able to do something without the permission of the feds.
They want not diversity, but conformity. And they assume that a national policy must automatically be preferable to individual state policies in areas such as insurance, education, medical care, gun laws, you name it. By “progressive” definitions, the feds should rule because, if left to the states, some will be better than others and we can’t have that kind of diversity. Liberals don’t understand that the simple fact of differences among the states does not justify effectively erasing all the borders.
There’s no reason why we cannot reasonably and intelligently restrict the scope of national institutions that need to be restricted (the Department of Education comes quickly to mind). And we might want to consider repealing the 17th amendment and go back to having the states select senators.
In any case, states should not be supreme but neither should they revert to the status of dependent colonies; this time colonies of Washington, DC instead of Great Britain.