Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Anti-federalists on our Financial Crisis

Taking a longer view, we can find some instructive thoughts on the current financial crisis from a number of the original opponents to the Constitution. Many will recall we last heard from these so-called "Anti-federalists" nearly 220 years ago, when they expressed what were then thought to be overheated concerns about "consolidation" that would be effected gradually under the proposed Constitution. "Consolidation pervades the whole constitution" wrote Pennsylvania's opposition in the ratification debates. Over and over, its opponents saw the grant of powers that promised eventual consolidation of power to the center, and the evisceration of the place of the States and robust local diversity. "The convention appears to have proposed the partial consolidation evidently with a view to collect all powers ultimately, in the United States into one entire government," warned "The Federal Farmer." The lever by which power would ultimately be accrued was the use of powers not necessarily then required, but granted for future possible use as would be "necessary and proper." Wrote the Pennsylvania minority, "the legislature of the United States are vested with great and uncontroulable powers, of laying and collecting taxes, duties, imposts, and excises; of regulating trade, raising and supporting armies, organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, instituting courts and other general powers.... And if they may do it , it is pretty certain that they will; for it will be found that the power retained by the original states, small as it is, will be a clog upon the wheels of government of the United States; the latter, therefore, will be naturally inclined to remove it out of its way."

They saw that the particular way that this consolidation was being effected was by the hurried response to a crisis, and the willingness of a populace to acquiesce to a grant of power to the center in an effort to contain not just such a crisis, but the uncertainty it aroused - especially financial anxieties. The Federal Farmer expressed his concerns - striking in their familiarity: "Though I have long apprehended that fraudulent debtors, and embarrassed men, on the one hand, and men, on the other, unfriendly to republican equality, would produce an uneasiness among the people, and prepare the way not for cool and deliberate reforms in the governments, but for changes calculated to promote the interests of particular orders of men." Charges of exigency, born of the financial and political crises induced by debt and concerns of creditors (the life blood of the capitalist system), led to a call for "stability and firmness" even at the cost of local and historical liberty.

Perhaps what we witness here is a logic of modernity: as financial and political systems expand, crises cannot be contained, and enlargement and consolidation of powers is deemed to be the only solution. A system inaugurated theoretically with the aim to shrink government to small and legitimate size has been the driver of the most massive expansion of public, financial, police and military power in the history of humanity (as I've recommended before, see Bertrand de Jouvenel's book On Power for a penetrating history of modernity's comparatively awesome accumulation of public power). Periodic crises and disruptions - beginning shortly after the Revolution with the perceived inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation, continuing through the New Deal until our current crisis, all point to the need for greater consolidation and coordination of centralized systems of response. Our demand for security results in its purchase at the cost of greater scale and concentration, which in turn sets up the likelihood of a greater future crisis that requires even larger expansion of centralized power - an outcome we welcome in the name of liberty.

One result of the current crisis - perhaps now momentarily muted amid the hue and cry of our shrinking 401K's (revealing our deep implication in a global nexus in which our literal future is bound to its success) - is near-positive glee on the part of agents of "globalization," particularly those who wish to achieve greater scope and scale of international consolidation and coordination. One consequence of this crisis is the evaporation of Bush's sometimes ham-handed unilateralism, lost amid the scramble to participate in a worldwide response to what has become a worldwide crisis. With the near-certain likelihood of an Obama presidency, one likely outcome of our decades-long investment in the creation of a global financial system will be a concerted effort to set into motion the creation of new international institutions and organizations that will almost as surely have a propensity to accumulate power to the center as that same propensity was perceived by the Anti-federalists. Just as surely, we are likely to see calls for a new global system that can respond to what are now de facto global crises; corresponding power and consolidation at the center. And just as surely, the people who will guide us through these crises - people who have the acumen and savvy, the education and credentials to navigate from the center - will bring to bear the particular values they have learned from the culture and its institutions of higher learning, above all, ethics of extraction, mobility, abstraction, meritocracy, and economic materialism. Views that are deemed backwards or insufficiently progressed - even if popularly supported - will be summarily excluded, although it will be claimed that such exclusion will be done in the name of "democracy." Excluded still - following the concerns of over 200 years ago - will be "every order of men in the community ... - professional men, merchants, traders, mechanics, etc.," who will enlarge the sorts of concerns and commitments that are undertaken in the name of the common good. Adding to the ledger these voices, the New York Anti-federalist Melancton Smith hoped, would ensure that certain virtues would be heeded. Against Hamilton - who favored rule by the highly placed great men of the society - Smith declared, "Those in the middling circumstances have less temptation – they are inclined by habit and the company with whom they associate, to set bounds to their passions and appetites – if this is not sufficient, they also want the means to gratify them – and they are obliged to employ their time in their respective callings. Hence, the yeomanry of the country are more temperate, of better morals, and less ambition than the great.”

Writing in 1787, Brutus questioned what sort of regime the Constitution would make, what trajectory it would set us upon. If the Constitution preserved the liberties of the populace, "you may solace yourselves with the idea that society, in this favoured land, will fast advance to the highest point of perfection; the human mind will expand in knowledge and virtue, and the golden age be, in some measure, realised." However, he warned "if, on the other hand, this form of government contains principles that will lead to the subversion of liberty - if it tends to establish despotism, or what is worse, a tyrannic aristocracy; then if you adopt it, this only remaining assylum for liberty will be shut up..."

As we witness the ever-greater consolidation to the center - not only now to Washington, but Brussels, Moscow, Beijing - we might rightly wonder what future has arrived, and where, if at all, "the remaining assylum of liberty" remains.

No comments: