Saturday, February 12, 2011

Murray Rothbard on Federalism

I don't always agree with the Murray Rothbard, the late libertarian-atheist-Thomist-natural law political philosopher. [The last two are a weird fit with the first two. "Thomist" refers to Thomas Aquinas, a Roman Catholic saint.]

But Rothbard never fails to delight, and I think he nails the Founding's understanding of what they were ratifying:

“And finally, does anyone seriously believe for one minute that any of the 13 states would have ratified the Constitution had they believed that it was a perpetual one-way Venus fly trap – a one-way ticket to sovereign suicide? The Constitution was barely ratified as it is!”

[From an essay on "Just War," also a recent topic here at American Creation.]


Mark D. said...


Jefferson and Madison opposed the Hartford Convention and efforts by New England States to leave the Union during the War of 1812. Madison contemplated raising and army and marching it through New England to suppress any attempt by those states to leave the Union. Madison had a little something to do with the Constitution, and probably knew a thing or two about the nature of the Union.

But, be that as it may, let's assume that the original Constitution did not preclude states unilaterally leaving the Union. That certainly is not the case after the 14th Amendment was added to it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Sorry, Mark, I don't quite follow. I'm not speaking of or advocating secession or even nullification. That was Mr. Makovi.

The Constitution gave what Jefferson called "the general government" only certain enumerated powers, the 9th and 10th Amendments reiterating that all other power was reserved to the states and people.

Madison wrote the Virginia Resolution, which explicitly cites that argument. In other words, to reject the authority of the "general government" on a certain area as being beyond its enumerated powers, isn't "nullification," but merely federalism.

Jefferson's Kentucky Resolve:

"Resolved, that the several States composing the United States of America, are not united on the principles of unlimited submission to their General Government; but that by compact under the style and title of a Constitution For the United States and of amendments thereto, they constituted a General Government for special purposes, delegated to that Government certain definite powers, reserving each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self Government; and that whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force..."

I do dimly recall that Madison took Jefferson back a notch on this stuff so as to not open "nullification," let alone secession, which Jefferson apparently favored in principle in other writings.

This seems interesting, although I don't vouch for it:

Mark D. said...


Glad to hear you are still in the Union camp! Rothbard is a favorite on Lew Rockwell and often is quoted by neo-Confederates and other "Lost Cause" types. That background information, combined with the actual words of the quote you posted, are what I was reacting to. Rothbard's characterization of the Union as a "one-way Venus fly trap" -- something you can enter into but not exit -- is inherently phrased to support the idea of a right of succession.

And that's the idea I was responding to, pointing out that the two founders most cited by those who support succession -- Madison and Jefferson -- actually took a Lincolnian position on the subject when they were in office and afterward.


Mark D. said...

There is no question that the Constitution created a limited federal government, reserving plenary powers for the states. I am completely in agreement with that idea. I also am in agreement with the notion that the courts have grossly under-emphasized and under-applied the 9th and 10th Amendments, leading to a dangerous imbalance between the state and federal governments. Further, this imbalance has been complicated by the removal of structural components in our system (via the 17th Amendment) that reinforced state influence on federal policies that affect the states as such. All of these things are, in my mind, very bad things. (Although I do want to note that I do not support repeal of the 17th Amendment -- that horse has left the barn.)

Daniel said...

There is a certain irony in an athiest identifying himself as a Thomist, with its namesake being a saint and the thought being primarily linked with Catholicism with some historical ties to Calvinism. But, I'm not sufficiently familiar with Rothbard to know, wouldn't it be just as accurate to refer him as an Aristotilian, understanding that Aristotilian thought has developed primarily through the Thomist line?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Good question, Daniel. It's in Aquinas' development of "natural law theory" that Rothbard's interested, as he uses it as the foundation for his libertarian ideas.

I did an excerpt from Rothbard here:

A taste:

"If belief in a systematic order of natural laws open to discovery by man's reason is per se anti-religious, then anti-religious also were St. Thomas and the later Scholastics, as well as the devout Protestant jurist Hugo Grotius. The statement that there is an order of natural law, in short, leaves open the problem of whether or not God has created that order; and the assertion of the viability of man's reason to discover the natural order leaves open the question of whether or not that reason was given to man by God. The assertion of an order of natural laws discoverable by reason is, by itself, neither pro- nor anti-religious.

Because this position is startling to most people today let us investigate this Thomistic position a little further..."

Brian said...

Rothbard's characterization of the Union as a "one-way Venus fly trap" -- something you can enter into but not exit -- is inherently phrased to support the idea of a right of succession.

Well, er, duh! It was phrased that way because it was part of his claim about attitudes during ratification. Why would he write a contradiction?

And... why would a bunch of rebels find secession distasteful? Plenty of time for that after they established their new order.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brian, you're correct about Rothbard and secession. I was taking that fragment and argument to a lesser degree---one I can agree with---applying it to federalism, the scheme of co-sovereignty with non-overlapping spheres of sovereignty.

Ratification won out, but as a result of consensus, those leaning toward anti-Federalism "bought off" with the Bill of Rights [which includes the 9th and 10th, just to restate what the Federalists said would go without stating, that the federal "general" gov't was invested with only its "enumerated" powers].

Thx for paying closer attention than I did.

Brian said...

Right on, I was with you all along Tom. I was just picking at Mark a bit. Rothbard is my guy... sometimes you can't help but get a bit defensive.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, I hope I'm not fighting with a new fan, Brian. I like Rothbard a lot even when I don't like his conclusions. I think he overshot when he said the states ratified the Constitution with an eye to it being a swinging door, easy in, easy out.

The fact is that Mr. Lincoln hadn't even been sworn in yet when So. Carolina initiated hostilities. Yes, they were quite right that Lincoln would fight them tooth and nail constitutionally, democratically and republican, against slavery. Lincoln was the nominee of the republican party, formed to combat slavery! Duh.

But the system was designed that way from the very first, the "poison pill" for slavery in the Constitution, Article One, Section Nine, banning the banning of the slave trade, but for only 20 years. That this great evil must someday be eradicated was understood by all.

But I think the Rothbard quote I cited applies quite comfortably to federalism, that the states did not ratify just to dissolve themselves.

JMS said...

I think you and Rothbard are missing the point. Of course the Constitution has its problems and defects. You should read Pauline Maier's latest book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. She is the first historian to plumb the depths of The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution published to date (21 volumes). As Jack Rakove noted, "one finally comes away from Maier’s story with a profound respect for the political enterprise and intellectual commitment that made ratification a sublime inaugural moment of American democratic politics."