Thursday, November 3, 2011

Taking Back The Articles of Confederation - Part 5

Introduction    Part 1    Part 2     Part 3    Part 4

Confederation, Community and Bodies Politic

   The anti-federalists saw the question of power from the bottom-up.  The Constitution would establish a government with too much power, too far away from the people.  They feared the return of aristocracy.  To set up one government in place of thirteen, and to endow that government with the law, the purse and the sword, would be to destroy democracy.  No matter the supposed guarantees, the states would eventually be reduced to the administrative agents of the central government.  Without the intermediation of the states, the power of the central government could be brought to bear directly on the individual.

   The anti-federalists therefore opposed establishing a “great” power.  Instead, they favored granting power in small pieces, close to what they held to be the only reliable check, the people.  In place of one preponderant national government, they wanted to preserve the division of government among the states.  The state legislatures, more accessible to the citizenry, more closely tied to local politics, and with membership in the hundreds, could better reproduce the full variety of local interests and opinion than could a handful of representatives in a national legislature.

   Those who supported the Articles tended to see the representative in the legislature as a delegate (or ambassador) - as someone bound to vote as his constituents would if they could be there - rather than as a trustee - who would be free to vote according to his own judgement.  The delegate model could not work in a national parliament because of the great size of the country and the correspondingly greater number of people each legislator would represent.

   The national congress envisioned by the federalists would not represent the views of the citizens but pass them through a chosen few who would end up doing whatever was to their own advantage.  The anti-federalist view of representation as a simple transmission of the wishes of constituents fitted with their reliance on state and local politics, where interests are more immediate, communication more direct and government more subject to majorities.

   The Articles were based upon the assumption that people live in communities that mean something to them and reflect what they hold in common.  They supposed, in other words, that the natural community of man is not a mass of competing individuals but real local groupings based upon shared activities and characteristics.  Such groupings were not abstractions but were well within the reach of each person, where he lived his everyday life in his town, village, city and region. 

   In building a national government based upon sovereign entities within the traditional sphere of life of their people, the Articles kept government from becoming a Leviathan confronting individuals as something above and beyond them.  Real politics took place at the local level.  What mattered, happened there, where people could see it and directly participate in the decisions affecting them.  If democracy works best when people actively participate in government, then keeping government as close to them as possible to facilitate participation would assist the development of democracy.

   One may argue that confederal government is less “efficient” than unitary government.  Under even the amended Articles, if a majority of the states resisted a particular requisition or other action proposed in Congress, nothing would happen.  If a majority of states agreed and complied with a congressional decision but a minority did not, there would ultimately be nothing beyond moral suasion to enforce compliance by the holdouts.  Thus an action that many might judge rational and necessary might fail to be adopted.  It might also be that a majority (or minority, for that matter) might desire a particular course of action with considerable intensity and feel corresponding frustration on being unable to gain collective agreement or compliance. 

   But in practice, confederal government may be, in its own way, more efficient by allowing a greater range of political spaces.  Based on the premise that the expression of self-interest is unavoidable, the confederal government embodied in the amended Articles would have allowed for cooperation at various points along a continuum of mutual commitment and judgement of interest.  Finding the right node for achieving consensus takes its place along side intensity of interest in resolving political issues.  All states might agree and actively participate in joint national-level decisions.  Or, a majority of states might decide to act anyway, either through bearing the costs of collective action unequally - i.e. by themselves - or by acting as a subgroup outside the mechanism of the national congress.  A minority might well decide to do the latter as well.  Politics would no doubt be dense, as states jostled for both advantage and, at least occasionally, to avoid being left out.  But in a flexible and fluid situation where there was more than “one game in town,” things that needed to get done would mostly likely get done and lone holdouts or interstate differences would not necessarily block all further action.  

   The Constitution of 1787 sought to ensure that the body politic would speak only when a sufficient number and diversity of interests had sufficiently checked-and-balanced each other to be able to say one thing.  As we now know quite well, this leaves the Leviathan either powerless or impelled by intensely interested minorities. 

   Confederation provides for many voices to be heard on many levels.  The Continental Congress was a forum for the states but the states could act outside that forum, in groups or singly.  The Articles also left entirely unregulated the political forms that might exist within states.  A confederal united states offered the possibility of a structure of multiple bodies politic.  Government or associations could exist at each level - local, state, regional, and national - to exercise authority on specific matters delegated to it from the level below.  This meant local approaches for local issues, regional for regional and national for national.  Local government, possessing the sovereignty of immediacy, would anchor a framework of legitimacy and decision-making built from the bottom up.

   In the continental-sized federal system that grew out of the Constitution of 1787, final authority - exercised in the name of the “people” - is far away from where the people actually live.  The government in Washington has understandably come to feel alien to many, who have been reduced to being political spectators assembled once every few years to cheer from the stands.   The states remain, but as political “backwaters” bypassed by the present constitution.

   Is it not, however, inevitable that as we become ever more immersed in the emerging global context, we will require more and more that government make sense of the resulting web of complexity?  And who will trust the government to do that if it seems more a part of the external environment rather than something that belongs to us?  And as the World Wide Web and economic globalization connects us in ever more complex ways, does a sovereign “central government” per se still play a necessary role?

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