This is a post in our continuing “Point/Counterpoint” series, where TLP contributors and/or guest posters debate a topic. In this installment, Michael Powell argues against the existence of “states’ rights”. Tomorrow, Brad Warbiany will defend states’ rights, and his post can now be found here.
During the twentieth century, there were several confrontations between federal authorities and those proclaiming “state’s rights.” The most notable were those of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, in 1967, who called on his state’s National Guard to block several African American youths from attending high school and Alabama Governor George Wallace, who literally stood in the way of troops sent by the Kennedy Administration to escort students Vivian Malone and James Hood (both instances being unforgivable offenses in the Deep South) in 1963. The state was blatantly violating not only individual rights of its citizens but also the legal authority of the U.S. Supreme Court and the executive branch.
The “right” for the state to discriminate against the individual in defiance of federal law (and human decency, which is another matter and not a concept that is very popular in Alabama or other deep southern states) was precisely what George Wallace cited explicitly in his speech at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963:
The unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the Central Government offers frightful example of the oppression of the rights, privileges and sovereignty of this State by officers of the Federal Government. This intrusion results solely from force, or threat of force, undignified by any reasonable application of the principle of law, reason and justice. It is important that the people of this State and nation understand that this action is in violation of rights reserved to the State by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Alabama. While some few may applaud these acts, millions of Americans will gaze in sorrow upon the situation existing at this great institution of learning.
Personally, I would not cry crocodile tears if the South had been let go during the Civil War. My ancestors fought in the Confederate Army but my personal life has been filled with people of color. The South has not simply been racist; it has been the closest region in the Western World to pre-industrial feudalism. Its ugly history of public executions, terrorism, exclusion from employment and education of massive portions of the population (including not just people of color but poor whites, women and those who stood against the Southern Christian traditionalist grain), intellectual rejection, ethno-nationalism, proud ignorance and aggressive religiosity is more reflective of the worst regimes in the Middle East than the enlightened industrial democracies of Western Europe, North America and Asia. Just as is the case with the Middle East, the rich natural resources of the South have been the primary reason for keeping the impoverished backwater area in the sphere of the United States.
If it hadn’t been for slavery, racism and the South, the “state’s rights” argument may have more standing validity. Unfortunately, for those who bring back its spectre it brings to mind Jim Crow laws, lynchings, segregation and war. Just as the swastika, which actually has a relevance to Buddhist philosophy, has been defiled by the actions of German National Socialism, “state’s rights” has been defiled by the actions of Southern political actors.
For issues in which “state’s rights” would be a logical defense, especially regarding marijuana, where states like California seek to protect the individual rights of drug users in defiance of prohibitionist federal intervention, I have to beg the question: Why is it an issue of state governance and not simply the right of the individual to do as he wishes?
This isn’t simply a historical, theoretical argument either. States are still today violating individual rights, with the federal government acting as an intervening force of justice. Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070, which effectively legislated racial profiling and declared war on undocumented workers who are critical to the American economy, is being set upon by the Obama administration’s Justice Department.
I have worked in Latin American foreign policy, so I would like to add that, while I stand in firm opposition to SB 1070, I understand completely why it was implemented. We are in really bad economic shape, as I surely don’t have to inform anyone here. That is exacerbated by the perception by people that don’t understand economics that Hispanic immigrants are “stealing” their jobs and the horrendous mob violence that has been implemented on the border by drug cartels. I reject Kantian ethics that proclaim motivations to paramount to results, however, and a mob of fearful people hardly ever makes the right decision. In American history, “state’s rights” has been a flag that has often been waved by populist demagogues while “individual rights” has been waved by judges and executives with a better grasp of the law. “State’s rights” is a misnomer which is usually used to defend defiance of settled law. It doesn’t deserve or necessitate revival in our political discourse.