Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Humanitarian Danger of States' Rights

When conservatives oppose the rights of homosexuals to marry whomever they choose or to adopt children, they will often claim that they aren't homophobic, but rather that these are simply matters best left to the jurisdictions of the states.

When they oppose health care reform measures that would guarantee every American citizen the economic right (as articulated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1944) "to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health," they will often argue that such matters are best left to the jurisdictions of the states.

When they assert that children shouldn't be spared from being preached religiously-motivated junk science in their school curricula, or that the poor and unemployed shouldn't receive benefits from economic stimulus legislation intended to ameliorate their suffering and help them find stable work, or that Latinos shouldn't be protected from being pulled over and investigated solely because of their race... they will claim that they oppose these things not because they are hateful individuals, motivated by theological dogmatism or elitism or homophobia or xenophobia. No, they are simply advocates of "states' rights" and, as such, feel that the federal government shouldn't be establishing policies that infringe on state sovereignty. Indeed, they espouse a specific philosophy of government that actually sounds quite reasonable. It usually sounds a little bit like this:

... the States have the right to "regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States"... A state is supreme, with regard to the regulations of its own government, so long as there is no conflict with the Federal Constitution...

That isn't so bad, right?

Of course, it may help if I showed you what came after that quote:

... and the people have a perfect right to permit or refuse negro suffrage
(i.e., the right to vote), to make a distinction of shade, allowing for the saddle color to vote, to make property qualification or make any other regulations of that character that they deem advisable.

The passages you just read came from an editorial written by political columnist Moses Beach on May 9, 1865, less than a month after the end of the Civil War. Because emancipation had stigmatized overt racism, he knew it would be unwise to directly advocate the disenfranchisement of black citizens. As such, he fell back on an argument that smacked of libertarianism - that is, the belief that the sovereignty of local governments should have greater authority than federal power - and asserted that, while he didn't necessarily want blacks to be denied the right to vote, it would clearly be unjust, even tyrannical, if a group of politicians from faraway Washington were able to impose their will on the people rather than allow them to decide for themselves how they should be governed. Using that logic, he managed to place Republicans (who at that time supported universal black suffrage) and Democrats (who at that time wished to deny black suffrage) on the same moral and Constitutional level:

The radicals claim that every negro, from saddle color to ebony, shall be entitled to the same rights, with respect to voting, that white citizens enjoy... On the other hand the "conservatives" contend that unrestricted negro franchise would be productive of great social evils and that it would be highly pernicious to the interests of the South. Now the truth is, that neither party takes the right view of the question.

It may or may not be relevant that Moses Beard was a Democrat.

Either way, there was one fatal error in his thinking:

Even though his argument rested on the assumption that protecting states' rights was the equivalent of protecting individual liberty, in this specific situation many of the states themselves were actually working to infringe upon, rather than advance, the liberty and basic human rights of their individual citizens (i.e., of blacks to vote). As such, granting more power to the states on this particular issue worked AGAINST, rather than in favor of, the cause of freedom. Only having the federal government create laws that overrode the sovereignty of the states when it came to black suffrage would be consistent with the cause of liberty.

Unfortunately, decades passed after the Civil War during which the states' rights argument held a great deal of undeserved sway when it came to black suffrage and a host of other civil rights issues. Even when the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866 guaranteed that race could not be used to prevent individuals from voting, the claim that states had a right to have complete control over their own "peculiar institutions" was so strong that the federal government dared not use its power to enforce that amendment on an unwilling South. As a result, it wasn't until nearly a century had passed that an additional law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was passed that absolutely banned all methods previously used to deny black people their right to the ballot.

Naturally, when that law was being debated in Congress, its opponents rarely used directly racist rhetoric in their arguments. Their only concern was "states' rights."

Am I bringing this up to argue that today's practitioners of "states' rights" theory are racist?

Absolutely not. Those who claim that "states' rights" matter more than the rights of homosexuals aren't motivated by racism, but by homophobia, just as those who brandish the "states' rights" mantra on the issue of creationism are motivated by religious dogmatism, and the ones who use it for health care reform and economic stimulus are motivated by a belief in a plutocratic economic philosophy, and those who use it to defend Arizona's draconian anti-immigration laws are motivated by xenophobia (although in that case some actually are also motivated by racism).

The point I'm making is that states' rights is only tantamount to the cause of individual liberty when state governments aren't trying to infringe on the freedoms of its citizens. When, on the other hand, a state government is posing a threat to the basic rights of those who live under its domain, then it is the absence of federal intervention, not its presence, that becomes the threat to freedom.

Conservatives may be able to throw up a convoluted entanglement of jurisprudential gobbledygook to support their position, but liberals on this issue have something even better on their side - history.

No comments: