Good Feds, Bad States

I think most libertarians would agree that the gradual erosion of individual liberties in America has been linked to the expansion of the Federal government beyond its Constitutional bounds.  The growth of the central government, the story goes, has come at the expense of liberty, and to reclaim our liberties, we must resist this growth, restrain the Feds, and even consider seceding.

One of my intellectual projects of late has been to challenge this idea.  It began when I realized that many of the abuses that critics of government decry — police brutality, asset forfeiture, use of eminent domainoppressive occupational licensingresisting disruptive new business models*, bullying schoolchildren, and so on — are carried out by local and state governments, not the Feds.

My point is not that libertarians are wrong to be wary of an expanding Federal government.  The centralization is real, and a decentralized system has many advantages.  For one, if local governments are oppressive, it’s easier to move across county and state lines than across national borders.  Plus, there’s always the possibility, even if it’s an uphill battle, that the federal government will serve as a check on local tyranny, as illustrated by this recent case.

Which brings me to an important point: part of the problem with simplistic opposition to the Federal government is that, while it may recognize the first point I just mentioned in favor of decentralized government, it ignores the second.  More broadly, it ignores the fact the we *need* a check on local government, because local government is tyrannical.

What concerns me about all this is that people who take simplistic anti-central-government rhetoric too literally develop a theory of the relative roles central and local government play in oppressing us that is to some extent the inverse of the true ratio.  One potential consequence of this mistake is that it makes us complacent to a concrete danger while oversensitizing us to a hypothetical one.  But, more generally, and more detrimentally over the long run, it is simply an incorrect understanding of the world.

Many aren’t opposed to the expansion of the Federal government because they understand the value of a decentralized system of checks and balances, but because they believe that the Federal government is evil in a way that their state or local government is not.  Hence, for many, the appeal of secession.

I think the facts support the proposition that the majority of the oppression we experience in America continues to be perpetrated by local and state government, even as the Federal government grows into a greater threat.  To flesh out this view, I plan to contribute data points to this blog over time.  Consider the links I’ve included above my initial contribution.

*I could have gone with Uber in NYC, but that case doesn’t challenge anyone’s preconceptions.