Salter: Liberty forgotten and the Article of Confederation – LubbockOnline.com

Posted: September 1, 2021 at 12:09 am

ALEXANDER SALTER| Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

The heart of Americas political tradition is liberty. But our freedom means much more than rugged individualism or cowboy capitalism. American liberty is ordered liberty. Ours is not the liberty of license, nor is it the order of obstruction. Americans demand freedom so they can be the best version of themselves. Libertarianism carries forward this honorable tradition into the 21st century.

Liberty flourishes where government is strictly limited in scale and scope. The essence of government is violence. Sometimes that violence is used for good purposes, as when a police officer stops a robbery. But it is violence nonetheless. Because government power is so easily abused, its a very good idea to keep the state on a tight leash. Government is not reason, it is not eloquence--it is force! said George Washington. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. President Washington understood well the nature of government.

We need conscious constitutional craftsmanship to preserve freedom. Alexander Hamilton said it best: it is up to Americans to show the world whether mankind can establish good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. Tradition is good. Folkways are good. But by themselves, they cannot guarantee liberty. We have both the right and duty to take the reins of government in hand to secure the blessings of liberty.

The U.S. Constitution is rightly venerated for creating a government of ordered liberty. But the Constitution wasnt our first constitution. We need to do a little historical digging to recover the nations earliest governing charter: the Articles of Confederation. Without appreciating the virtues of this document, we wont fully understand our own story.

The American colonies-turned-states ratified the Articles of Confederation on March 15, 1781. The Articles governed the nation during its most tumultuous days in its conflict with Great Britain until the Constitution was ratified in 1789. Unlike the Constitutions federal government, the confederal government under the Articles was strictly limited. Nineof 13 states had to agree for an act of the unicameral Congress to pass. Amending the articles required unanimity. Most important was Article II, which explicitly laid out the nature of the government as a voluntary association of states: Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

From a libertarian standpoint, the Articles of Confederation was an impressive document. The confederation had no power to impose taxes, maintain a standing army or navy, or regulate commerce. Todays Americans have learned the hard way that taxes can become punitive, armies and navies can be instruments of imperialism, and commercial regulations are often the excuse used by Washington to micromanage our lives. Perhaps our Founding Fathers had it right the first time around! As E. James Ferguson, a respected historian of the early Republic wrote, our first constitution emphasized defense of local rights against central authority. The Articles were designed to safeguard liberty.

But wasnt American government dysfunctional under the Articles? Critics contended the new nation couldnt pay its war debt, excessive decentralization resulted in the states engaging in costly trade wars with each other, and the high concurrence requirements for Congressional action hampered valuable political projects. But all these claims are exaggerated. The states themselves, not the confederation government, took the lead on paying the war debt. Trade barriers between states were minimal. And the whole point of the Articles was to discourage political projects unless they were truly in the interest of the whole nation.

The constitutional theory of the Articles was simple: keep government constrained! Most politics should happen at the state and local level. National politics is only for those rare occasions where the entire nation must act collectively. Even then, there needs to be explicit consent with greater-than-majority voting thresholds. Anything else threatens the liberty Americans just shed blood to win. The only real strike against the Articles is that the confederation could not withstand the political ambitions of those among the Federalist faction who hungered for national greatness, possible only with a stronger and more activist central government.

Somewhere in the course of American democracy the nation at large forgot to distinguish between the government and the people, Ferguson lamented. Individual rights and local privileges were no longer regarded as standing against the authority of the government; they were to be advanced by soliciting its aid and patronage. We lost something priceless when we abandoned the Articles for the Constitution. That doesnt mean we forfeited the promise of liberty in America. But it does mean we must turn a critical eye to our own history, to ensure our hard-won rights are not taken away.

Alexander William Salter is the Georgie G. Snyder Associate Professor of Economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University and the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at TTUs Free Market Institute.

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Salter: Liberty forgotten and the Article of Confederation - LubbockOnline.com

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