Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Yes to federalism, but...

Jim Manzi has a thought-provoking post at The Corner. I agree with his concluding paragraph, but am less enthused by some of what leads up to it. First, the conclusion:

We live in an imperfect world. Ironically, given the deeply anti-utopian orientation of Hayek and Popper, contemporary Libertarianism has veered off into increasingly utopian speculations disconnected from the practical realities that ought to animate it. At the same time, the Conservative movement has become increasingly ideological about enforcing moral norms. Both could learn a lot from re-engaging with one another.

Here's some of what comes earlier:

A central insight of Hayek, Popper & Co. was that our ignorance of human society runs deep. We need the experimentation of an open society not only because different people often want different things, but even more importantly because we’re never sure what works. I generally support, for example, a high degree of legal toleration of behavior that I find personally objectionable. I recognize, though, that others believe that what I think should be tolerated goes too far and threatens social cohesion, or what Buckley called morale. How do we resolve this impasse?

Here's where I become less convinced:

The best answer for conservatives or libertarians is federalism, or more precisely, subsidiarity – the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest competent authority. After all, a typical American lives in a state that is a huge political entity governing millions of people. As many decisions as possible ought to be made by counties, towns, neighborhoods and families (in which parents have significant coercive rights over children). In this way, not only can different preferences be met, but we can learn from experience how various social arrangements perform.

We shouldn't exalt the "smallest competent authority." I wouldn't want to live in a country where local sheriffs have significant power over, say, freedom of speech -- and where if you're not happy about the local gag rules, your recourse is to move to a more speech-friendly county or state. Federalism requires taking seriously the federal Bill of Rights.

Manzi writes:
Now, obviously, there are limits to this. What if some states want to allow human chattel slavery? Well, we had a civil war to rule that out of bounds. Further, this imposes trade-offs on people who happen to live in some family, town or state that limits behavior in some way that they find odious, and must therefore move to some other location or be repressed. But this is a trade-off, not a tyranny.
We'd better make sure the limits to subsidiarity stop way short of chattel slavery.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

Yes, I meant slavery as an extreme example. I agree that I also wouldn't want a town regulating political speech (though obviously towns regulate speech in the form of pronography zoning), but that's why there's a First Amendment.

Jim Manzi

Kenneth Silber said...

Thanks for the note. I think we agree on a lot about this topic.