This is a segment in The Liberty Papers’ continuing “Point/Counterpoint” series. This post is the rebuttal to my co-contributor Michael Powell’s post here, making the point that “states’ rights” are an antiquated and poisoned concept.
When I saw Michael’s post this morning, I was a little bit surprised. I was expecting him to make the argument that States’ Rights don’t exist. In fact, I was waiting for one specific statement that I’ve heard from those who attack the notion of states’ rights many times over. Thankfully, two comments in, commenter John222 made the point:
States don’t have rights, individuals do. Better would be to say, “The interest of the State in protecting the rights of it’s citizens”.
This is a common statement among libertarians, and although I’ve probably used it in the past, there have been points where I’ve become troubled by it.
Michael made some very important points in his post, and these are points that must be answered. However, to begin, we must have an understanding of the origin, the nature, and the limitations of states’ rights. Only by setting this groundwork may I refute Michael. But first, a caveat. In order to make the points I must make, I must work with two critical assumptions:
- Natural rights of individuals exist.
- Constitutional democratic government is legitimate.
For those that have read my previous work, it should be understood that I believe neither of these assumptions. I am a philosophical anarchist, and while I can construct a non-theistic basis for natural rights theory, I view them as artificial constructs, not incontrovertible truths. However, we must work within the framework we have, and thus I will concede these points for the purposes of this post. For the purposes of discussion and comments, please try to take these two premises at true, and if you have a problem with the argument flowing from those premises, attack the argument.
Let’s start at the beginning:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Here’s the base. Natural rights are the area where we say to government: “Over this line you may not tread.”
Individuals have certain natural rights, and they empower governments to help them protect these rights. The statement that “States don’t have rights, only individuals do” does not account for what we consider the social contract. Individuals enter into an implicit contract with their government, offering to entrust some of the rights they hold in the “state of nature” to their government in order for cooperation and protection of those rights. Those governments do not gain *new* rights as governments, but they inherit the rights of those they are designed to protect.
Natural rights theory does not hold that individuals give up their rights to the government, the rights are retained. It is best to be understood as a legal contract — individuals freely, by exercise of their rights, create their government. They voluntarily empower their society — their government — to protect their rights. A government that reaches beyond the legitimate power of protection of those rights, as Jefferson himself states, deserves no longer our assent or our support. If said government treads beyond the lines defined above, that government has violated the social contract.
“Government”, of course, is not a singular entity. Governments are hierarchical, competitive, and numerous. In many cases, we are under the jurisdiction of several governments — entities within entities. In many cases, the governments we live under must make compacts with other governments outside our territory — treaties — in order to help complete the tasks which we have empowered them. Each of these agreements are contracts or compacts. Rights of the citizens of the government are not abridged, they are retained — at least if the government empowered to act on behalf of its inhabitants are legitimate.
How, then, do we describe the relationships between these levels of government or between competing governments? How do we define the lines over which they may not tread? Let’s take one example: borders. What are borders, other than the territorial lines defining the government which protects the rights of its inhabitants? What do we call a government’s relation to its borders? Territorial rights! Now, of course, these rights are not that of “the government”, but they are the territorial rights of which the individuals supporting that government have ceded to their government to protect.
Likewise, how do we define our US Government’s relationship to the United Nations and the nations of the world? We use the term sovereignty: the inviolability of our government to the others of the world — the statement that our government has “rights”, i.e. lines over which those other governments may not tread.
The nature of the United States Government and its relationship to its constituent States is a tricky one, historically. The United States Constitution — our governing document — is a compact between states, not a contract directly between the federal government and the people. Historically, the people of the several States entrusted their governments — the entities to which they had entrusted their rights for protection — to form a federal republic. One may support the claim — at least until 1865 — that the States retained sovereignty, and that they had contractual RIGHTS as constituent members of that federation.
These rights are not inherent to them, as States. These rights are the rights entrusted to them by their inhabitants, and the rights they are protecting are not the rights of the State as State, but a collective bargaining arrangement to protect the rights of their inhabitants. Regardless of how you define this, though, the rights exercised are contractual rights exercised by the States on behalf of their inhabitants. The States drew a line, and told the United States Government “over this line you may not cross.” For the United States Government to cross that line would allow the State, if it so chose, to exercise its sovereignty and break the contract — secede.
These rights are not without limit, though. We previously stated that government is created by individuals in order to secure their natural rights. But those rights are retained. A government which does not secure those rights — a government in fact which violates them, is not a legitimate government at all and may be disbanded. Likewise, federal governments or supra-national bodies do not have super-natural powers — they are still only as legitimate as the rights of their constituent states (and thus the rights of their constituent inhabitants). If the United States Government attempts to violate the sovereignty of the states in order to violate the natural rights of its constituent inhabitants, it is just as illegitimate as if the individual state takes that action…
…which finally brings me back to Michael’s post!
Specifically, this country is, and always has been, a work in progress. I said it was illegitimate for a federal government to violate the sovereignty of its constituent States and if a federal government were to do so, it would justify secession. However, while Michael says he wouldn’t cry crocodile tears if the South had been allowed to secede, the South’s secession would not have been justified under States’ Rights theory. Why? Because slavery — a State deliberately violating the natural rights of its inhabitants — is not a legitimate government, and thus the Southern States did not have true sovereignty. A government which violates the natural rights of its inhabitants as a matter of design cannot be granted the authority to act on behalf of its citizens.
The Fourteenth Amendment, in the wake of the Civil War, finally codified this statement. Prior to this, the United States Constitution did not have a method for the Federal government to impede the States from abridging the natural rights of its citizens. (Of course, one can infer from this that the Civil War was illegal, but the destruction of slavery in the South can hardly be described as immoral). It should be stated that Michael’s quote from George Wallace was not truly a defense of States Rights. Those rights of States to discriminate by law against their citizens had long been removed via the Fourteenth Amendment. If he truly believed that the right of the State was inviolable (I doubt this to be the case — I personally think it likely that “States’ Rights”, like patriotism, just happened to be the last refuge of a scoundrel), he was simply wrong.
Michael is correct, of course, that in the intervening century, the term “States’ Rights” was used by all manner of racists, supporters of Jim Crow, and people who are “defiant of settled law”. In American politics, terminology tends to have this problem — terms become appropriated by unsavory characters, and the terms themselves pick up unsavory connotations. We “libertarians” constantly bemoan the fact that our previous label, “liberal”, as appropriated by big-government Democrats. We had to abandon the term completely and build a new one. States’ Rights has some of that connotation, but by definition that doesn’t not negate the concept of those rights.
The term “States’ Rights” may, in fact, be coming into a renaissance. As Michael points out, individual states are fighting the Feds on medical marijuana, and California — the state where we both live — has a ballot measure in November to legalize marijuana entirely. This is in direct contravention of the Controlled Substances Act, but more importantly, this is a state protecting its citizens from the overreaches of Washington!
But again, look at the nature of government. A State government that violates the natural rights of its inhabitants is acting illegitimately. At the same time, a Federal government that violates the natural rights of its inhabitants is acting legitimately. In this case, it is right for the inhabitants of a State to pool to their rights collectively — using their States’ rights — to protect themselves from the Federal government on their behalf. Individuals often have little recourse against the Federal leviathan. They need all the help they can get.
Either way, I think that Michael did not prove, as I thought he would attempt, that states don’t have rights. He did make some valid points that the terminology of states rights had been hijacked for the last century by those State governments who wished to protect their racist fiefdoms. But he belied his own point by bringing up the fact that the very same terms are also being used by States to protect the liberty of their inhabitants from Federal overreach.