Matt has one obvious rejoinder to David Brooks’s pean to the mediocre character actor and undistinguished one-term+ Senator who seems to be the GOP’s New Fresh Hope for ’08. So instead I’ll take issue with Brooks praising Thompson because “[h]e’s going back to Madison and Jefferson and the decentralized federalism of the founders, at least as channeled through Goldwater.” My first response is, how on earth could it be an ipso good thing to go back to a conception of federalism designed for a predominantly agrarian 18th century society? You really need a make a further argument here. So let’s try that.
Advocates of a strong “federalism” are fond of discussing Madison’s argument that federalism is a “double security” for liberty. Unless you place a higher value on such freedoms as the right to ship goods made with child labor than I do, however, it’s not clear how well this has worked in American history. Much more prescient was Madison’s insight in Federalist #10 that smaller, homogeneous polities are much more likely to oppress minorities than larger, heterogeneous polities. Goldwater’s slightly updated beliefs about federalism have, for good reason, been utterly discredited. I suppose it’s nice in a narrow way that Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act on principled federalist grounds (unlike the vast, vast majority of the CRA’s opponents, who opposed desegregation at the federal, state and local level, whether it was done be legislatures or courts, etc.) But the effect of his principle was…to oppose the Civil Rights Act, which can be seen as a net positive for freedom only under the most blinkered and formal conception of what freedom means. Similarly, very few people value the “freedom” gained by prohibiting the federal government from providing guaranteed pensions. And so on.
Given this history, it’s telling that Brooks manages to avoid explaining exactly what powers he wants devolved to the states and speaks entirely in terms of pleasant abstractions. Presumably, to Brooks this doesn’t include entirely dismantling the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act and the New Deal regulatory state, but this just demonstrates once again that arguments about “federalism” don’t do any real work in most arguments. Saying that something should be “left to the states” is normally just another way of saying you don’t think a federally protected right or federal government power is very important. There are a few seriously principled “federalists,” but logically applying their beliefs wouldn’t fly in 1964 (let alone 2008), and for very good reason. Minority rights need federal protection, and the regulation of a complex, interdependent 21st century economy requires federal regulation.