James Leroy Wilson's blog

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

What Are States' Rights? Or, The Meaning of "Or"

In one of his Mises talks (I think this one), Thomas DiLorenzo clarifies what is meant - at least, what he means - by States' Rights. To paraphrase, the doctrine of States' Rights is merely the right of the people to come together to oppose and resist federal tyranny. It does not mean that the state governments have a "right" to oppress the people.

I received a letter from someone who has an interesting take on the Tenth Amendment that sounds very plausible and is consistent with DiLorenzo's thinking.

Think of these statements:

1. "My pet Fido was a canine, meaning, he was a dog."

2. "My pet Fido was a canine, that is, a dog."

3. "My pet Fido was a canine, or, a dog."

All statements indicate clarify the meaning of "canine" to those who may not know what a canine is. In the third sentence, the word "or" means "meaning" or "that is."

The Tenth Amendment reads, " 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."

If "or" is used the same way as our canine/dog example, then "the States respectively" means "the people of each state."

If this interpretation is correct, The State is understood not as the government of a defined geographical area, but as the people of that area.

It seems that the common understanding of the Tenth Amendment is something like this: "Powers not delegated to the United States are thereby reserved to the State governments, and if the State governments don't exercise those powers, the people can have them to do as they wish; either way, the federal government isn't supposed to care one way or another." And this interpretation is distasteful to those who correctly assert that government's do not have the "right" to take away individual rights.

Does this new interpretation, in which "State" means "people" rather than "government," make any difference?

In one sense, it doesn't. Some will say that it still grants state governments the freedom to oppress if "the people" consent. But that's just a recognition that neither the other states nor the federal government has the right to govern them. Neither the state of Nebraska nor the federal government has the legitimate power to tell the people of South Dakota what to do or how to govern themselves. Similarly, neither the U.S. nor the United Nations have the legitimate power to tell the Canadian people what to do or how to govern themselves.

More significant is how the "United States" meant at the time the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written. I believe DiLorenzo along with probably several others have noted that when the preamble begins "We the People of the United States, in order to form a more Perfect Union" the meaning was not "we the people acting collectively as one nation" but rather "We the People of Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia . . ."

So why wasn't it written that way? Because
a) the collection of states was understood when people said "the United States." They didn't have to name them all. They'd say, "the United States are . . ." instead of "the United States is . . ."
b) writing all the states out is awkward, and
c) because there was a possibility that not all the states would ratify and become part of this supposedly "more perfect" Union.

In sum, the people of the States formed the Union; the "American people" did not form the Union, for the "American people" did not exist. The Union was formed by and for the States, not by and for the majority of the "American people." Power is to emanate from the people as individuals coming together within their respective states - not from "the American people" as a whole, not from the state capitols, and not from the federal government.

To be for "states rights" is not to assert the right of state governments to oppress. It is rather, the right of the people to be free from centralized, federal control.

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