Centralization During Times of Crisis

Centralization During Times of Crisis
Crowd of depositors gather in the rain outside Bank of United States after its failure during the Great Depression of the 1930s. (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)
Gary L. Gregg

National emergencies have led to concentrations of power at the center and loss of influence and control on the periphery. The center is where the elite with money and power live, but most of us live on the periphery.

Since the American Revolution, it’s always been the same basic pattern. The troubles of a very decentralized system during the Revolution and under the Articles of Confederation led to the Constitutional Convention and the creation of a much more robust central government with taxing authority, and a “necessary and proper” clause that opponents argued would fuel the drive to even more centralization.

The Civil War was, at least in part, fought over questions of state sovereignty and whether one people really could break the bonds that connected them with another, to cite the Declaration of Independence. Yes, it was about slavery as well, but that evil institution isn’t my topic today. After 700,000 or so Americans died in the fight, the central government grew immensely stronger.

The Great Depression led to unprecedented levels of centralization. Perhaps at its most constitutionally ludicrous during that time, the Supreme Court even ruled that the federal government could regulate a family’s wheat crop that was grown on their land and for their own consumption. In that case (Wickard v. Filburn), the court said that even family production and consumption affected interstate commerce enough to trigger the power of Washington to regulate it.

World War II brought government control of even more of the economy, and the transition immediately to the Cold War and then to the War on Poverty and then to the War on Terror and now to the War on COVID-19, has meant the steady drive of centralization of power in Washington has barely abated.

Former President Ronald Reagan talked of a “new federalism,” Bill Clinton declared “the era of big government is over,” and Donald Trump has reversed many Obama-era regulations. Still, with every “war on” and every “crisis” seems to come more centralization of power.

This’s the natural course of things: Moments of crisis or great challenges lead to centralization of power that seldom returns to the status quo once the crisis passes.

And so, if we’re going to preserve what we have left of a decentralized political system where decisions are made as close to the people as possible, we must work toward it. Liberty, as Alexis de Tocqueville so powerfully taught us in his masterpiece “Democracy in America,” is a product of art, not nature.

Over the last few weeks, we have had several moments that have given me pause for concern.

One was Trump claiming in a press conference that he had the “ultimate authority” to reopen the U.S. economy. He even claimed the governors know it and will follow his orders because he’s president. This is as constitutionally lopsided as any statement ever made by a sitting president. According to the Constitution, the president executes laws passed by Congress and only those that are passed within the limits of the Constitution itself.

The states, or the people themselves, according to the 10th Amendment, reserve all powers to themselves that aren’t provided to the federal government in the Constitution. The president has absolutely no authority to force states to open economies that were shut by the states themselves.

Though this statement is constitutionally dubious, there are three silver linings. First, Trump said it in an off-the-cuff response to a reporter’s question and it wasn’t set down and asserted as official policy. Second, defenders of the Constitution immediately rose up and challenged the statement, even Republican supporters of the president. Third, the president listened and backed away from his claim by making it clear that the governors were in control and the federal government would be in an advisory role.

Though such a statement should never have been uttered by any president of a federal republic, it was handled as free people handle things. We objected, the constitutional order was defended, and the political leader changed course.

Of course, one can imagine Trump’s head spinning when he heard the outcry from the Democrats. For weeks, they’ve been beating a drum to the same rhythm: The president should exercise more power over the economy and force private businesses to produce goods the government determines essential. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo went from demanding federal power be used to assist his state and belittling the president for not acting more aggressively with his power, to crying out that “America does not have a king!”

In the aftermath of Trump’s assertion, it was good to see so many Democrats rediscovering the 10th Amendment and the federal basis of our constitutional order.

However, one fears their rediscovery won’t last long. Indeed, as I write this a news announcement came over the radio saying Cuomo was again asking the federal government to ramp up its exercise of authority in order to give more supplies to New York.

The fact is that whenever we have a national crisis—or the perception of one—the tendency is to centralize authority and concentrate power. Americans who value the constitutional order, those of us who believe in federalism, those of us who believe decisions are generally best made at the most local level possible, must step up to defend those values from whatever corner of our political world the threat might come.

And, never is that more to be applauded than when we challenge political leaders who we otherwise support. And, it’s never more necessary than during times of crisis when the natural tilt of the world is toward expertise, centralization, and bureaucracy and away from the local, the free, and the family.

Gary L. Gregg hosts the podcasts Vital Remnants and The McConnell Center Podcast, and is author or editor of a number of books on American politics.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Gary L. Gregg is director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville and editor of “Securing Democracy—Why We have an Electoral College.”
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