Constitutional scholar and co-author of The Origins of the Necessary and Proper Clause and The Original Constitution Rob Natelson has written an article based on information from newly re-published essays by founder Tench Coxe about some limitations on federal power that were known and spelled out by the founding fathers.
Judging by the promises of presidential candidates, you might think the federal government is designed to fix whatever ails us: health care, education, crime, infrastructure, the common cold.
But the Constitution doesn’t grant the federal government such unlimited authority. And neither Congress nor the presidency nor the courts were created to exercise it.
The Constitution fashioned the federal government to address a limited number of activities, contained in the document’s “enumerated powers.” The remainder were exclusively the domain of state and local government and the private sector. This system of divided authority is called “federalism.”
…Despite the Constitution’s federal structure, many in the founding generation didn’t think it limited the central government sufficiently. They wanted to be able to govern themselves in their own states and local communities. They didn’t want Congress or federal judges or officials imposing uniform policies on the entire country.
These members of the founding generation had good reasons for fearing centralized power. They knew their history: Concentrated power usually grows into oligarchy or dictatorship. They questioned whether Congress would have the information or judgment necessary to tailor laws for every nook and cranny in the nation. They recognized that when government remained local, citizens enjoyed more say in how it was run. If someone was severely disaffected with state policies, he always could move to a different state.
This option of moving away is a vital safety valve. Without it, there is no practical way to vent anger among persistent political losers. Anger gives rise to hate: Hate fosters divisiveness and repression and, and in extreme cases, civil war.
Indeed, modern federal efforts to impose uniform “solutions” on the entire nation may be a leading cause of today’s toxic political environment.
…Coxe’s essays itemize many of the activities over which the Constitution granted the federal government little or no jurisdiction. Among them were social services (i.e., care for the poor and health care), education, religion, real estate, local businesses, most roads and other infrastructure, nearly all criminal law matters, and most civil court cases.
When people believed government should regulate those areas, the Constitution mandated that they turn to state and local government. No fleeting national coalition would be permitted to dictate to the entire country…