Lessons from the anti-federalists

Elliot Engstrom Lead Counsel, Civitas Institute
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The anti-federalists were some of the greatest libertarian-minded thinkers and writers in the history of our nation. They were extremely critical of attempts to unify the thirteen new states under a single Constitution, as they felt that government should be kept as close to home as possible. For example, the anonymous anti-federalist author “Montezuma” wrote an Oct. 17, 1787, article in the Independent Gazetteer titled “A Consolidated Government is a Tyranny,” which later became Antifederalist paper No. 9.

The pen names of the anti-federalists were often those of ancient Greeks or Romans who had been opposed to the expansion of their respective empires, as both these ancients and the anti-federalists noted that as nations grew, they became increasingly tyrannical and took less notice of the liberties and concerns of their individual citizens.

While the Constitution was eventually passed, it was the anti-federalists who ensured that it would eventually contain a Bill of Rights to protect individuals, as such Federalists and advocates of central government as Alexander Hamilton argued that a Bill of Rights was unnecessary. In Federalist Paper No. 84, Hamilton wrote that a Bill of Rights was superfluous, saying “Why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?”

However, the anti-federalists understood that government is a self-perpetuating institution. How right they were, considering that a mere decade later Hamilton himself was advocating for the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to criticize government officials.

The core philosophy at the heart of the anti-federalist criticisms of the Constitution was localism. The anti-federalists, who were thought by many to be fringe loons in their time, have been vindicated by history. The central government created by the Constitution has grown to a size that Alexander Hamilton, an avid apologist for central government, could probably not have predicted. And, with this increase in the size of our government, we have seen the erosion of our liberties, whether it be in the name of national security, societal good, or some other ambiguous phrase which can never be expressly identified, and which usually is never actually achieved.

Thus, it becomes necessary to do something in order to turn our government into a more honest institution that has the freedoms and rights of its citizens in mind. That something is localism. The most just government is one that is in fact held accountable by its empowering citizens. Which is easier to hold accountable – a government official in Washington with 3,000 bureaucrats between the citizen and him or her, or a state, country, or city official that can be contacted through more direct channels?

And yet, President Obama continues in the footsteps of President Bush, expanding the scope of the federal government to take on more and more local issues. While he may not always be doing this through specific legislation, the “stimulus” plan is using federal funds (which were created via inflation, not raised through an approved tax) to give more and more money to local communities. Aside from the fact that the devastation caused by the impending inflation from this plan will far outweigh the benefits received by local communities, there is another serious issue here – the federal government does not give away money for free.

Any organization funded by the federal government is de facto controlled by the federal government, as seen with the public education system in the mid-20th century and more recently with the banking and finance systems. (Of course, that ignores the fact that the banking and finance sectors were heavily government-involved already, but that is an issue for another day.)

If we really want governments that represent us and do so in a just way, we must keep them as close to home as possible. At the moment, it seems there is still some hope of doing this via the electoral process, as many localist candidates are entering political races all over the country. We must continue to push for localism through every possible channel, as it is this philosophy that can create a government whose incentive structure leads officials to act in the best interest of their constituents, rather than in the best interest of the government itself.

Elliot Engstrom is a senior French major at Wake Forest University, and aside from his schoolwork blogs for Young Americans for Liberty and writes at his own Web site, Rethinking the State.