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Federalism and Libertarianism

Differences and Similarities.

by James Leroy Wilson
June 12, 2003

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Federalism and Libertarianism_James Leroy Wilson-Differences and Similarities. Author's note: the following is a slightly modified response to a question on an e-mail list I receive: "How does federalism compare to libertarianism?"

Federalism is the position that, by the Declaration of Independence, the states are "free and independent," that is, possessing the same rights and powers of sovereign nations - that they are sovereign nations. The Continental Congress that presided over the Revolutionary War, and the Articles of Confederation that followed, held to this interpretation. It was a league of independent states speaking through one military and diplomatic voice, but all domestic policies, including trade and taxation, remained internal in each state.

The Constitution of 1787 was ratified by state conventions, i.e., the "people" in each state. Understood was that powers not delegated to the Union were retained by the states. Also understood was that, while the Constitution became operational after nine states ratified the Constitution, the new union would be made up only of those states that ratified. Rhode Island, for instance, was an "independent state" during the first couple of years of Constitutional federal government; George Washington was President and Congress convened, but Rhode Island was neither represented in it nor governed by it.

Two problems emerged in the ratification debates within the states in 1787-88. One was that the Constitution didn't have a Bill of Rights. A second was that, if a Bill of Rights was indeed created, that it would confuse the very nature of the Constitution: why would it need a Bill of Rights when the new federal government isn't empowered by the Constituiton to violate individual rights in the first place?

The resolution to both problems came with the Bill of Rights as now stated. The first eight amendments would outlaw Congress and the federal government from violating our rights, as understood based on precedents of the English Parliament and English Common Law. But then the Ninth Amendment also held that the federal government couldn't violate any other
rights either - meaning, that it could do nothing more than exercise the powers delegated to it and could not assume any more. And the Tenth Amendment further clarified the matter by explicitly retaining the sovereignty and independece of the states in all matters except those delegated to the new federal government. A federalist is one who wants to hold the federal government to only those powers explicitly delegated to it under the Constitution - a federalist respects the entire Bill of Rights including the Ninth and Tenth Amendments.

Libertarianism, on the other hand, is the position that "That government is best which governs least" leading to the conclusion by some that "The best government is one which governs not at all." Libertarians are fellow-travlers with federalists, because returning to Constitutional government in our lifetime would be a tremendous victory for freedom. Nevertheless, libertarianism philosophically is anti-government, whereas federalism is essentially a conservative, patriotic allegience to the Constitution and its "limited" government.

Almost nobody thinks of himself as a "federalist," yet they are all around us. They are people who believe in self-rule, state sovereignty, and limited government. But they are dispersed throughout several fringe parties, who are all "fringe" because cynical Republican politicians have duped many of their would-be members into voting for the "Grand Old Party" instead.

For instance, I became a Libertarian Party member initially because I was a federalist, and the Libertarians were the only Party that would roll back the federal government to its Constitutionally-delegated functions. I did this not initially out of a love of personal liberty but out of a political and
historical judgment: if we betray the Constitution in some things, we will soon violate it in all things. And then we will have no means to stop another Hitler or Stalin in our very midst, someone we may have freely

And history over the past seventy years especially will confirm the matter, and indicate that the new ways by which the Bush regime is attacking our freedoms, do not constitute a "break" from the past but are the logical fulfillment of previous internment camps, fraudulent excuses for war, undeclared wars, and attacks on personal liberty and property. The Constitution is most often ignored. Or, such as the case of abortion, or of the recitation of the Pledge of Allegience in the state's public schools, the Constitution is invoked precisely where it doesn't apply at all - by violating the sovereignty of the states. The Constitution is in trouble, and America is indeed on the course to totalitarianism. I'm not saying that totalitarianism is inevitable, only that America must reverse course to avoid it.

Most federalists are sympathetic to libertarianism, and all libetertarians would rather be ruled by federalists than by the socialist tyrants of the Democrat and Republican Parties. That's why I support congressman Dr. Ron Paul (R-TX) for President. He doesn't go as far as capitalist Hans-Hermann Hoppe on the libertarian right, nor as far as the individualist feminist Wendy McElroy on the libertarian left. Both Hoppe and McElroy are anarchists who don't believe in giving the state any sort of legitimacy, especially by affirming the political process through voting in it. While I personally agree with these "extremes" that even matters of national defense and criminal punishment are beyond civil government's competence, I also believe that Dr. Paul can rally the disaffected freedom-loving, Constitution-respecting American of any party, and that Dr. Paul's candidacy would most likely force needed changes in the political landscape that would actually cause the country to reverse course and return to Constitutional government and, better yet, freedom.

Comments (2)

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Scott C. Haley from Sacramento writes:
May 31, 2004
I enjoy your articles immensely, but this one has a glaring error. The Federalists, led by Hamilton, were for a broad interpretation of the Constitution which included giving the central govt. more implied power. It was the Democratic-Republican (original name), led by Jefferson, which sought to limit the powers of the central govt. They were the ones who supported a strict interpretation of the Constitution, especially relative to the various states.

Krout, John A. United States to 1877, Barnes & Noble, 1971. Page 62.


Scott Haley

James Leroy Wilson writes:
June 1, 2004
My article referred to contemporary political realities. I am aware that the Federalists were in favor of a more energetic federal government for the time, yet they still created a Constitution of limited, expressly-defined powers, which is what modern-day self-described federalists endorse.

In other words, compared to today, both Hamilton's Federalists and Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans would both considered extreme and in basic agreement on 95% of today's issues.

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