Friday, January 29, 2010

Conservative Populism

Glenn Beck can be both illuminating and infuriating. As an example of the latter, he recently made a statement on his radio show that the states have a right to institute universal health care, hand out free cars, etc. if the citizens of that state want such things. He stated that the federal government is barred from such actions, but the states are not. In other words, he is not opposed to violating individual rights; he just wants it done on a more local level.

This is a typical approach by conservatives. They do not oppose government power over the lives and property of individuals. They just want that power to be exercised by state and local governments. To these conservatives, universal health care, entitlement programs, and business regulation are perfectly acceptable, so long as they are implemented on the state level.

This unprincipled thinking is primarily why the Republicans have lost control of Congress. They occasionally oppose violations of individual rights on the federal level (and even then that opposition is precarious and inconsistent) but not on the local level. They do not challenge the premise that the individual must be forced to sacrifice for the "common good"--they merely want to argue over who will make that determination.

If the people want it, Beck said, then virtually anything goes on the state level. But why does he apply this only to the states, while denying such power to the federal government? Beck's answer is: The Constitution.

The Constitution limits the power of the federal government, but not the states. The Tenth Amendment reserves for the states those powers not specifically enumerated in the Constitution. According to Beck, while the federal government has limited powers, the state governments do not. This isn't a defense of individual rights; it is an invitation for the states to establish fifty separate tyrannies.

Beck is not opposed to government using coercion to implement the "will of the people". Whatever his good points (and there are many), Beck does not defend individual rights as a matter of principle. For all of his talk about honor and integrity, he is sadly lacking in rational principles.

Recently Beck has been attacking the Progressive Movement from the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as its current manifestations, and rightfully so. But ironically he shares some of that movement's basic premises. The Progressives, largely animated by German Idealism, argued that "the people" should have a greater voice in government. Beck, who is animated by religious mysticism, concurs, only he wants that voice to be expressed in the state capitols rather than in Washington.

Beck demonstrates why conservatives are losing the intellectual battle. They have accepted the same basic premises as the Left, and they just want to bicker over the details. They aren't opposed to slavery, they just want the masters to be closer to home.


Burgess Laughlin said...

> "Beck, who is animated by religious mysticism . . ."

Bravo for identifying the root of conservatism!"

My personal definition of conservatism is that it is an ideology which holds four highest values: God, Tradition, Nation, and Family.

There is nothing in those values which provides a nature-based foundation for individual rights.

Mo said...

I've been thinking recently, wouldn't a government of the people by the people or a government by the people's will be a democracy and hence mob rule?

Rational Education said...

My thoughts exactly.
Thanks for the post -it is illuminating.

Brian Phillips said...

Burgess--For a while I thought Beck might become more rational, but he has gone even further over to the dark side of mysticism. I suspect he is going to get much worse.

Mo--Yes, the "people's will" does mean democracy, i.e., mob rule. Beck talks a lot about the Founders, but he doesn't seem to have read their warnings about democracy.


Steve D said...

“This is a typical approach by conservatives.”

Not just conservatives but certainly some anarchists and liberals as well. Actually, in my experience more local governments are often more tyrannically than national governments. Certainly, they often seem to be more irrational. I’ve seen laws passed by city councils so ridiculous I could hardly believe the councilors were adults! A good example of this is the cruising law passed some years ago by the city of Lincoln, Nebraska.

From a theoretical standpoint there is really no fundamental difference between levels of government and over time they can certainly change when countries break up or large blocks come together.

Given the resources of the federal government they can pressure the state governments into passing what ever they want anyway. A good example is the age limit for buying alcohol. Every state has decided on 21?

The only practical advantage of more powerful state governments is the competition factor which may make them a bit slower to devolve into tyranny. Still, Europe is divided into much smaller states and that certainly hasn’t helped a lot.

Brian Phillips said...

Steve D-- Yes, local governments can be incredibly tyrannical. They are closest to "the people" and tend to be more responsive to the whim of the moment.

But I don't agree that there is a practical advantage to having 50 separate tyrannies. All that does is give us a choice of poison.

Josh Eboch said...


Thanks for your post. While I agree that Glenn Beck is often misguided, I do not think so in this case.

I have posted a response to your article at the Virginia Tenth Amendment Center, and I hope you'll take a moment to read and consider it.

Brian Phillips said...

Josh--I read your post and left a comment there.

Your position is that the states will compete to attract business and residents, and therefore, they will move towards more freedom to be more competitive. I beg to differ, and we need only look at the states today for evidence.

If your premise is true, why are the states enacting more and more regulations? Why aren't they competing today? Why isn't at least one state moving towards more freedom?

Josh Eboch said...


I would say that there are states that are more free and thus more successful than others.

For instance, while Texas is hardly an objectivist paradise, it certainly has more freedom-friendly policies (such as no income tax) than states like California, which are hemorrhaging money and residents.

The reason why we haven't seen more states acting like Texas in recent decades is quite simple: the federal government subsidizes the failure of state government policies (like wasteful entitlement spending) just as it subsidizes the failure of politically-connected businesses.

If the federal government were limited to its constitutional role, it could not afford to prop up bad policy on the state or national level, and thus bad policy (including government health care) would eventually become all but impossible.

That is why the 10th Amendment is so important. By refusing to allow the federal government to exercise undelegated powers, we the people can shrink it back down to its original constitutional footprint.

But the only way to do that is by using the state governments as vehicles to resist central tyranny. That is how they were used when America was first founded, and the same strategy can work again today.

Brian Phillips said...

Josh-- Yes, there are states that are freer than others. But all of them--Texas included--are enacting more controls and regulations.

You say that the states aren't competing because their failures are subsidized by the feds. But why aren't the people demanding different policies? Why aren't the people demanding more freedom? They continue to clamor for more controls and regulations, and that won't change just because the states can nullify federal laws.

If "we the people" really wanted more freedom, why aren't we voting in more pro-freedom politicians? The fact is, "we the people" don't want freedom.

Politics is the consequence of the dominant morality in the culture. And that is true on the state and federal level. Until the culture is dominated by a morality that recognizes the individual's right to his own life, politicians will continue to enact anti-freedom laws.

Brian Phillips said...

Josh--Let me add, in your first comment you said that Beck isn't wrong in this case.

As I showed, Beck is not adverse to state polices that violate individual rights. Are you saying that you agree with Beck's position--that the states should be able to violate rights if that is what the people want?

Josh Eboch said...


What I meant, and what I believe Beck meant, is that the states have the legal authority to enact such policies from a constitutional standpoint.

I certainly don't agree with those policies, and I doubt he does either, but it is important to be consistent when using the Constitution to define the powers of any level of government.

And, just as you might say that a junkie who throws their life away shooting heroin has a right to engage in such destructive behavior, so I would argue that people in certain states have the right to tax themselves into oblivion if that's what they want.

The key would be having states where those who do not want to be subjected to such looting could retreat. And, without federal bribes, states like Texas would have no incentive to adopt destructive policies to please their masters in D.C.

It's far from perfect, but competition is the best way we have to let people, ideas, or even governments succeed or fail based on their merits.

Brian Phillips said...

Josh-- Beck said that he had no problem with a state enacting universal health care if that is what "the people" want. You yourself say "people in certain states have the right to tax themselves into oblivion if that's what they want."

Neither of these positions is consistent with individual rights. Nobody has a right to vote away my judgment, my property, or my life. It doesn't matter how many people in my state want to do so. Individual rights are inviolate.

Josh Eboch said...

In the abstract, yes. Unfortunately, neither people nor politics are as rational as you and me.

Mo said...

Beck is indeed a conservative populist and a lot of such people like to talk about state rights. usually to cover up the violations of the state to the rights of its individuals.

some even think that a moral society should not let its weak members fall and that such a society should aid those people. they will say social democracy has failed lets try something else

junyah said...

When you have a President that doesn't believe in the constitution of the United States, and a congress that doesn't go with it either ,and a demcaratic party trying to take over the country, then we have treason..

Brian Phillips said...

Mo--Yesterday I caught a part of Beck's radio program and he was arguing that Populism and Progressivism are not the same. Historically, the Progressive movement grew out of the Populist movement, and they share basic premises. Beck argued that Populism is for the "little guy", and he implied that he is as well.

Junyah--I don't disagree, but try to get that charge to stick.

B. Johnson said...

With all due respect to Mr. Phillip's assertion that Mr. Beck's understanding of state sovereignty reflects unprincipled thinking, Mr. Beck is actually correct about what the Founders had decided for the states. Please consider the following.

To begin with, James Madison had suggested that the states make parts of the Bill of Rights applicable to the states when the states ratified the BoR. But the states ignored Mr. Madison's proposal!

At that point, yes, the states kept the door open for themselves to be tyrants; this is evidenced by slavery which existed before the federal government was established. And for additional evidence that the Constitution and the BoR didn't apply to the states, consider the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Chief Justice Marshall.

Let's start with Jefferson. Jefferson's writings show that the states could regulate our 1st A. freedoms regardless that the states had made the 1st A. to prohibit Congress from doing so.

"3. Resolved that it is true as a general principle and is also expressly declared by one of the amendments to the constitution that ‘the powers not delegated to the US. by the constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively or to the people’: and that no power over the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of the press being delegated to the US. by the constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, all lawful powers respecting the same did of right remain, & were reserved, to the states or the people..." --Thomas Jefferson, Kentucky Resolutions, 1798.

Next, Chief Justice Marshall, reflecting what Jefferson had written about the BoR’s limited scope, had made clear the following in Barron v. Baltimore (1833). That case tested the scope of the 5th A., specifically eminent domain. Justice Marshall clarified that, unless the states were expressly indicated in a constitutional prohibition on government power, the Constitution's restrictions on government power applied only to the federal government, not the states.

"The constitution was ordained and established by the people of the United States for themselves, for their own government, and not for the government of the individual states. [...] If these propositions be correct, the fifth amendment must be understood as restraining the power of the general government, not as applicable to the states." --Chief Justice Marshall, Barron v. Baltimore, 1833.

Barron v. Baltimore is important because John Bingham, the main author of Sec. 1 of the 14th A., had officially indicated that Sec. 1 was inspired in part by Barron. In fact, the congressional record shows that Bingham had lamented that the Founders had not made the BoR applicable to the states.

Note that the 14th A. now gives Congress the power to “force” the states to respect the privileges and immunities expressly protected by the Constitution.

Finally, to prevent the states from becoming tyrants again, I believe that we need both federal and state recall laws so that the voters can remove bad-apple lawmakers and judges, both federal and state, when the need arises. In fact, I would prefer that citizens use their voting power to prevent the states from limiting citizens’ freedoms, as opposed to having Congress use its 14th A. authority as an excuse to stick its big nose into state affairs.

Brian Phillips said...

Mr. Johnson--I don't believe that I questioned Beck's understanding of the Founders. My assertion was, and remains, that Beck is not opposed to tyranny by the states. He wants the federal government off his back, but is willing to allow the state government to do anything "the people" want.

Whether the Founders shared this view, or anything close to it, is irrelevant. If they did--which I doubt--they were wrong.

My point was that individual rights should not be violated by any government--federal, state, or local. Beck does not agree with this, because he is not an advocate of individual rights.