Stranger in a Strange Land, or, a Brief Case for Federalism

Today’s media and national politicians tend to characterize America as an amorphous mass of interchangeable pieces. Both speak and act as if there is some sort of universal moral code and common cause that unite us all. Whether we are “keeping our streets drug free”, “fighting radical terrorists”, or “protecting American workers”, those in power project values upon us and urge, if not force, us to act accordingly.

The problem, of course, is that concepts of morality and duty are not universal. Robert Heinlein touched on this concept brilliantly in his Hugo Award-winning novel Stranger in a Strange LandIn it, a human born on Mars (Valentine Michael Smith) is brought back to Earth. Gifted with incredible physical and mental powers, Smith soon questions almost every accepted tenet of mainstream culture. He considers monogamy, for example, to be outrageously selfish; he considers murder acceptable in many circumstances; he flips the concept of God entirely upside down.

At face, many of these moral discussions strike the reader as outrageous. Yet Heinlein, through his surrogate character Jubal Harshaw, makes logically sound cases for each claim. After an hours-long talk with the Martian, Harshaw notes:

A prude is a person who thinks that his own rules of propriety are natural laws. You are almost entirely free of this prevalent evil.

In other words, just because we as individuals hold certain beliefs, there is nothing that makes them inherently right or broadly applicable to others. It is, if anything, immoral to project our views on others.

Yet that is exactly what the national media and federal government attempt to do to us. In the case of the former, they forge the notion of a “common cause” through the airwaves. Pundits such as Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly are the most obvious: they directly advocate for collective action, be it to universalize health care or to invade remote desert territories. Strictly news programs, however, more subtly encourage a mass morality through their coverage and framing of “national” tragedies, or decrying “congressional gridlock”.

Federal politicians are even more to blame. They commonly make laws that assume the presence of national priorities and the authority to address them. Federal tax policy is the most obvious: Americans frequently pay for things that either violate their individual moral codes (wars, abortions, the war on drugs, etc.) or provide no benefit to them whatsoever (arts programs, fisheries in distant states, etc.). Outside of the tax code, the national government enforces a range of behaviors that millions of its citizens likely disagree with (drug prohibition, gay marriage bans, drinking age limits, speed limits, etc.).

The writer grants that the dual goals of appeasing every individual’s moral code completely and maintaining a workable state are mutually exclusive. Which is why the Framers invented the concept of federalism, and codified it in the 10th Amendment: with the exception of a few very limited and enumerated powers, all other laws are to be written by the states.

Federalism obviously doesn’t prevent states from making laws that an individual may not agree with. It still assumes some shared morals. But its a workable compromise, which, when actually enforced, leads to far less egregious enforcement of a collective good. When practiced, federalism allows a citizen to have a greater influence in shaping the laws under which they live: citizens have easier access to state legislators who are in turn more in touch with the concerns of their state. States are, theoretically, free to prioritize. Because a citizen can move, state taxes are more voluntary than federal taxes. Want to live in a highly taxed state with a plethora of public goods? California and the northeastern states are all yours. Prefer a minimalist government, low taxes, and less services? New Hampshire and North Dakota are calling your name.

Thus, I take issue with the calls of President Obama (and Bush before him) to “unify behind a common cause”, be it for the Affordable Care Act or the War On Terror. No, Mr. President, I do not want to pay for another man’s health insurance. (I’d rather donate money to hospitals directly.) No, Mr. Bush, I do not want to fund a war against regimes with less than a one in 75,000 chance of killing me. (I’d prefer to spend that money fighting cancer.) I’d vastly prefer to be left damn well alone and contribute to the moral causes that I see fit, without the threat of federal coercion.

Stranger in a strange land, perhaps I am.

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