One of the more contentious issues in the history of the American political experiment has been the relationship between national and state governments. This debate dates back to the Founders, and is represented in our nation’s Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. It is the last of the original set included in the Bill of Rights, and–as with the others–helps give some insight into the concerns of their time even as it sets up ongoing debates within our society.
As written, the text states:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Whatever else the amendment means, it reminds us that the United States is a nation that was built upon the notion of divided powers. A covenant, at least initially, amongst the original thirteen states. From here my mind naturally drifts to the notions of “states’ rights,” i.e. that the individual states have a large degree of latitude and power both naturally and to protect themselves against the federal/national government if it oversteps its legal bounds.
The principle of shared centers of power on the national and state level makes a good deal of sense, and speaks to the fact that a host of governmental decisions might be better considered on a more localized level. A law like the Tenth Amendment also helps guarantee against unchecked dictatorial power waged by the center against the periphery, and for that concept we may be thankful. Though over time the balance in the United States has definitely shifted towards the federal government, there are still some important powers and protections reserved for the states.
This said, the concept of “states’ rights,” while a perfectly fine idea in principle, often leaves a bad taste in our mouths. Whatever it may mean in theory, it has most popularly been deployed in less-than-savory ways. Slavery. Secession. Segregation. The big three of the “states’ rights” crusade. Because these ideological (and states-based) crusades were defeated and are now heavily discredited, the governmental principle that went with them runs the risk of being completely thrown out as well. Since doing so further centralizes power and removes it from the hands of those who understand better how things work on the ground, this at some level is probably a mistake.
Imagine, though, if the Tenth Amendment had not been deployed in such distasteful ways. We would certainly have a less negative opinion of states’ rights, and many of us would likely be more willing to consider their place in American government than we do now. A possible result could be more liberty and increased constructive dialogue between the states and the federal government that keeps the latter from ever threatening with too much power. That’s the hope, at least. Or, conversely, might the same provincial outlooks that brought us segregation always force issues damaging or dissatisfying to the majority of the nation? Considering the tenor of our current political discourse, this is a pregnant possibility. Whatever our thoughts, these issues are worth considering on the day that some major portions of the Affordable Care Act begin even as the federal government shuts down.