In my latest reading of Rick Perry’s Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington, Perry defends states’ rights against the charge that such a concept was used to uphold slavery and segregation, and he also makes other historical arguments.
Regarding slavery, Perry astutely notes that there were pro-slavery measures that assaulted states’ rights, such as the Fugitive Slave Law, which required Northern states to return slaves to their Southern masters. On segregation, Perry states on page 34 that the end of segregation resulted from the implementation of constitutional amendments to protect individual rights, but that federalism was also respected. Perry is rather nebulous about what he means here. Perhaps he is saying that the U.S. Constitution (specifically the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments) granted the federal government the authority to uphold the rights of African-Americans, and so its attempts to do so were not an unconstitutional federal usurpation of states’ rights or jurisdiction, in contrast to many federal programs, which violate the Tenth Amendment’s reservation of many powers to the states. Perry’s statement that the federal government respected federalism in its pursuit of civil rights reminded me of Dean Kotlowski’s argument in Nixon’s Civil Rights that President Richard Nixon often sought to work with rather than against the South in effecting desegregation (though there were also times when Nixon employed a more heavy-handed approach, as Kotlowski acknowledges).
Whenever I discuss the ills of capitalism with libertarians, they like to point out to me that the Robber Barons were supported by government funding, and so I cannot appeal to them as an example of why laissez-faire does not work. Perry, however, has a much more positive view on the Robber Barons than do my libertarian friends. Perry acknowledges that the government helped the Robber Barons out a little, but he praises their productivity, their creation of jobs and infrastructure, and the massive charitable giving by Carnegie and Rockefeller (which, in today’s dollars, would amount to hundreds of billions of dollars).
But what about the Robber Barons’ poor treatment of their workers? Was not the government right to impose regulations to correct that? Perry says on page 43 that Congress did not possess the constitutional authority to “make laws regarding manufacturing, unions, or minimum wages, because those activities occurred within the boundaries of states and were not part of the interstate commerce that the Constitution authorized Congress to regulate.” At the same time, on page 45, Perry criticizes the U.S. Supreme Court for the times that it struck down state laws regarding the minimum wage and “limits on hours worked”. Perry’s implication may be that the states can come up with progressive policies on their own.
I grant that there are times when federal violation of states’ rights contradicts what is progressive—-as when the Fugitive Slave Law told Northern states what to do, and when the Supreme Court struck down state laws that helped workers. At the same time, I would be very reluctant to say that this means states’ rights should be an absolute, for I believe that the federal government was correct to outlaw slavery and to counter segregation. Moreover, I agree with Noam Chomsky’s argument that state governments may be less likely to implement progressive policies that (say) protect the environment and workers, for these state governments want to keep businesses in their own states, and thus they’d be more likely to give big businesses what they want, even if it hurts people. The federal government, however, does not have that problem to the same extent (though, on the other hand, businesses can leave America and go overseas).