Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Community, Progressivism and the States

Woodrow Wilson advocated states' rights as part of his progressive philosphy. In his book Constitutional Government in the United States, first published in 1908 and still considered a classic in the political science field, Wilson argues for the importance of the states. The model of centralized federal authority was a product of the two Roosevelts, not of Wilson, despite his inadvertent contribution by creating both the income tax and the Federal Reserve Bank. Theodore Roosevelt, the most statist of all of our presidents, argued for integration of government and business. Franklin Roosevelt extended state power in numerous areas, most importantly by abolishing the gold standard.

Despite the twentieth century's centralization of power, Wilson understood the importance of local government to community. Excessive centralizaton overlooks the importance of community and so is anti-democratic. Since the primary thrust of the New Deal was such centralization, it was at odds with the progressive era's emphasis on democracy, or at least Wilson's version of it.

Wilson writes (pp. 50-1):

"Not only are the separate and independent powers of the states based upon real economic and social differences between section and section of an enormous country, differences which necessitate adaptations of law and of administrative policy such as only local authorities acting in real independence can intelligently effect; but the states are our great and permanent contrbiution to constitutional development. I call them a great contribution because they have given to the understandings upon which constitutional government is based an intimacy and detail, an adjustment to local circumstances, a national diversity, an immediate adaptation to the variety of the people themselves, such as a little country may perhaps dispense with but a great continent cannot...They have furnished us with an ideal means of integrating a vast and various population, adapting law to changing and temporary conditions, modulating development and permanently securing each item of progress. They have been an incomparable means of sensitive adjustment between popular thought and governmental method, and may yet afford the world itself the model of federation and liberty it may in God's providence come to seek...Constitutional government can exist only where there is actual community of interest and of purpose, and cannot, if it be also self-government, express the life of any body of people that does not consitute a veritable community. Are the United States a community? In some things yes, in most things no. How impossible it is to generalize about the United States."

Big business has likely pressed for centralization, and it is likely in the interest of big business to have consistent regulation and policy across the states. But big business has exited the nation. Manufacturing has moved to Asia and Mexico. The remaining large firms often do not pay high wages. Do the American people owe a favor to the firms that have not been interested in supporting them? Moreover, the problems that confronted big business in decades past have been modified, reduced and eliminated by technology. The coordination of separate regulatory, accounting and legal systems today is far from the problem that it was in the 1930s and 1940s. Integrated computer systems make compliance across diverse regulatory systems simple. Thus, large firms will suffer little from decentralization. Moreover, given the globalization of business and the eagerness with which firms have entered foreign countries with diverse regulatory systems, it is difficult to understand why adding more diversity will pose much of a problem to them, or given the eagerness with which firms have adjusted to diverse regulatory systems they can properly claim that they are an impediment here in the United States.

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