Monday, August 18, 2008

Hamilton on the Limits of Decentralization

Federalism has always meant a partnership among the states and between the states and the federal government. Just as there are certain public goods that are indivisible so that individuals cannot purchase them and so devolve upon government, so there are federal goods that the states cannot divide and pay for individually and so must devolve upon the federal government. Defense and foreign policy are indivisible not only among individuals but also among the states. In an economy with an enhanced level of decentralization as existed in the late 18th and 19th centuries it is beneficial for defense and foreign policy to be handled by the federal government. In the Federalist Papers No. 25 Hamilton wrote this:

"It happens that some States, from local situation, are more directly exposed. New York is of this class. Upon the plan of separate provisions (of defense), New York would have to sustain the whole weight of the establishments requisite to her immediate safety, and to the mediate or ultimate protection of her neighbors. This would neither be equitable as it respected New York, nor safe as it respected the other States. Various inconveniences would attend such a system. The States, to whose lot it might fall to support the necessary establishments, would be as little able as willing for a considerable time to come to bear the burden of competent provisions. The security of all would thus be subjected to the parsimony, improvidence or inability of a part. If the resources of such part becoming more abundant and extensive, its provisions should be proportionally enlarged, the other States would quickly take the alarm at seeing the whole military force of the Union in the hands of two or three of its members...Reasons have been already given to induce a supposition that the State governments will too naturally be prone to a rivalship with that of the Union, the foundation of which will be the love of power; and that in any contest between the federal head and one of its members, the people will be most apt to unite with their local government..."

Thinking of subsequent events, the Civil War and 9/11 for instance, Hamilton's vision was accurate, not just about federalism but about New York as well.

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