Washington DC’s Imperial Power Over the States

In an article published by the Mises Wire, Jeff Deist wrote something quite profound.

“D.C. is very much an imperial power with respect to the fifty states, not just in the Middle East.”

Britannica defines imperialism as “the state policy, practice, or advocacy of extending power and dominion, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control of other territories and peoples.”

We tend to equate American imperialism with its aggressive foreign policy and unconstitutional wars. But as Deist correctly points out, the central government in D.C. has exercised imperial policies over the 50 states for decades. It hasn’t used bombs to project power, but its domination of America’s 50 sovereign political societies has been every bit as complete as its domination of Iraq.

Most people think of America as a singular “nation,” but that was not how the U.S. political system was designed. The “nation” was not intended to exercise political supremacy in the federal system. The states were supposed to do that. In other words, the states are sovereign.

When we use the term “state sovereignty” we don’t really mean the territory within its borders is sovereign. We don’t mean the state government is sovereign. We mean the political society formed by the people of that state is sovereign.

Madison explained this concept in his Report of 1800 defending the Virginia Resolutions of 1798. These resolutions asserted the states’ right and duty to “interpose” “in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the [Constitution].”

The other position involved in this branch of the resolution, namely, “that the states are parties to the Constitution or compact,” is, in the judgment of the committee, equally free from objection. It is indeed true, that the term “states,” is sometimes used in a vague sense, and sometimes in different senses, according to the subject to which it is applied. Thus, it sometimes means the separate sections of territory occupied by the political societies within each; sometimes the particular governments, established by those societies; sometimes those societies as organized into those particular governments; and, lastly, it means the people composing those political societies, in their highest sovereign capacity. Although it might be wished that the perfection of language admitted less diversity in the signification of the same words, yet little inconveniency is produced by it, where the true sense can be collected with certainty from the different applications. In the present instance, whatever different constructions of the term “states,” in the resolution, may have been entertained, all will at least concur in that last mentioned; because, in that sense, the Constitution was submitted to the “states,” in that sense the “states” ratified it; and, in that sense of the term “states,” they are consequently parties to the compact, from which the powers of the federal government result.

When we understand that the people of the states ratified the Constitution, not “one people” as a “nation,” it follows that the states retain their nature as sovereign political societies in the constitutional system, only relinquishing the authority and power specifically delegated to the general government. In all other areas, the states retain their independent, sovereign character.

Over the years, the federal government has usurped state authority. Over time, the central government in Washington D.C. came to completely dominate the states.

The federal government’s power over Florida, California, Montana and the other states is every bit as illegitimate as its domination of Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. It represents a soft form of imperialism.

The founding generation used the term “consolidation” to describe a centralized government with vast power and control, and many founders warned of its danger. For instance, during the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Patrick Henry issued a stark warning:

“Dangers are to be apprehended in whatever manner we proceed; but those of a consolidation are the most destructive.”

He went on to warn that consolidation would, “end in the destruction of our liberties.”

July 25, 1788, William Davie told the North Carolina Ratifying Convention that “so extensive a country as this can never be managed by one consolidated government.”

Thomas Jefferson also warned about the problem of consolidation as a practical matter in an 1800 letter to Gideon Granger, wisely observing that the United States were too large to be governed by a central authority.

“Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government. public servants at such a distance, & from under the eye of their constituents, will, from the circumstance of distance, be unable to administer & overlook all the details necessary for the good government of the citizen; and the same circumstance by rendering detection impossible to their constituents, will invite the public agents to corruption, plunder & waste.”

A few politicians and bureaucrats simply cannot competently deal with local issues thousands of miles away – try as they might. And yet Americans have rushed headlong into “consolidation” — to their detriment.

Deist highlights the end result of consolidation.

“We know the federal government can’t manage COVID. It can’t manage Afghanistan. It can’t manage debt, or the dollar, or spending, or entitlements. It can’t even run federal elections, for God’s sake, much less provide security or justice or social cohesion.”

Washington D.C. imperialism has been an utter failure, both abroad and at home. And as Patrick Henry warned, it is destroying our liberties.