Monthly Archives: April 2012

The United States or America?

I have long believed that one of the greatest strengths of our country is that we are the United States. Not America, a vast homogeneous nation, but a union of many states, reflecting unique geographical, economic, and cultural elements, united for a common purpose. We retain our national identity, but the states can be free to chart a course that best suits their individual circumstances. Our Founders saw the wisdom of this, and formulated a system in which each state is represented equally in the upper house of Congress, and the president is chosen by the states, not the people at large. The ninth and tenth amendments to the Constitution solidified the idea that our country is the United States of America. But, people being people, and politicians being politicians, it didn’t take long for those ensconced in Washington to seek to consolidate their power and relegate the state governments to second-class status.

Has the idea of individual states’ rights always produced the best results? Of course not. Early in our history, we struggled with the issue of slavery. As ridiculous as it seems to us today, there were many, in the culture of the time, that thought that this was acceptable. So it took nearly a century, and a civil war, to eradicate what we all now agree was an obvious evil. While I don’t claim to be able to fathom the mindset of the folks back then, look around, it persists today in some parts of the world. Think about the way women are treated in some Middle East nations. Same cultural mindset. And here at home, a hundred years after the end of slavery, there were still small majorities or powerful minorities in a few states that sought to deny some Americans the rights and dignity that are their natural due, by enforcing “Jim Crow” laws. It took the federal government to bring those states into line.

So, as someone who rails in favor of states’ rights, did I disagree with the federal government stepping in to change the laws and culture of some states? No, because civil rights became, admittedly much too slowly, an issue of national identity. While it happened too late for many innocent people, a true national consensus was finally reached. And so we move on.

Simple fact of life #1:  Consensus takes time. Often too much time.

What I see going on today is that many in the federal hierarchy assume that their opinion on a subject constitutes a national consensus, when none really exists. So they seek to impose nationwide laws about matters that have yet to be sorted out at the state level. They tell us what is proper, fair, and moral, but those are concepts that must be agreed upon by society as a whole, not by a few elites. And our nation is just too large, too diverse, to expect easy agreement on complex issues. But that’s OK. If our national identity has not been determined on an issue, then it’s perfectly fine for states to make laws according to their state identity. Even in matters of basic right or wrong, the rules can be very different in various parts of the country. If the constitution has no specific guidance, then the tenth amendment applies. If you don’t like what your state decided, you do have the right to move to a state where the rules are more attuned to your sensibilities. The best example I can come up with of this type of issue is abortion. As a nation, we have no idea where we stand, but people have strong opinions on both sides. The argument is framed in many ways, and the constitution is silent. So the federal government should butt out. If, for example, Nebraska wants to ban all abortions, and Kansas wants to allow them for any reason, I’m fine with both states’ laws. Should, in the future, a true national consensus be reached, then it will be time for Washington to step in and put the few remaining rouge states into line.

But a politician, being what he is, (power-crazed egomaniac) can’t stand the idea of letting other folks sort out their feelings. That would imply that he might not be the smartest person in whatever room he’s standing. And he can never admit that to himself, no matter what airs of humility he puts on for the morons (his constituents). And, to make things worse, our leaders have created a vast regulation industry, which employs countless bureaucrats who need to churn out a steady stream of new rules in order to justify their fat paychecks. They don’t need to know much about what they’re regulating, just how to write regulations. And how to make them stick.

Simple fact of life #2:  You can’t escape the Golden Rule. He who has the gold, makes the rules.

A while back, during the Nixon administration, if memory serves, a seemingly new, although rather old, concept was introduced. They called it “revenue sharing.” This was where the federal government would send money to state and local governments to help fund worthy projects. They could afford to do that at the time, since with Vietnam winding down, the feds didn’t have a major deficit problem, and I think they even balanced the budget one year. The state politicians thought it was a great idea. They had “free money” to spread around and buy votes without having to raise state taxes. And if federal taxes were too high, well, they could just shrug their shoulders. But of course there’s no such thing as free money. With the gold, comes the rules. And we became less like the “United States”, and more like “America.”

Simple fact of life #3:  Clothes on the one-size-fits-all rack seldom really fit anybody.

In the course of my work, more days than not I drive across at least one state line. Whenever you cross into a state, you will see several signs along the highway. The first will say something like “Welcome to Idaho” or wherever. There will also be a sign, usually the very next one, will inform you that you are required to wear seat belts. Is wearing seat belts a good idea? Sure, why not? But is it something that every state that I’ve driven through (that’s just about all of them) would find it necessary to worry about? Or was there something else going on? Well, I remember that in the Reagan administration, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole thought it would be a good idea if we all buckled up. But did she have the authority to make that a rule, even if the driver never left his home state. Probably not. So she merely asked the states to pass “click it or ticket” laws. And if they didn’t, fine, no problem.They would just lose their federal highway funding, that’s all. So now we have a bunch of cookie-cutter laws that some states didn’t really want, and no state really needed. “You are now leaving the United States.” “Welcome to America.” “Buckle Up.”

If our country is to avoid going the way of other bloated, bureaucratic societies, we need to get back to our founding principles. The federal government should deal with truly national issues, and allow the states to take care of their business without federal interference or federal money. This will require a new (but actually old) way of thinking at all levels of government, and some courageous leadership in the state. For some ideas on what states can do, check out Some of the solutions presented may seem a bit (pick your cliche)( outside the box, over the top, out there), but they are interesting and worthy of consideration.

I believe that the United States can survive and prosper. I’m not so sure that America can.