Revisiting Lowi’s From United States to United State

A gem in terms of political science literature is a late 1970s work entitled Nationalizing Government spearheaded by Cornell Professor Theodore J. Lowi, who is widely respected in the field of American government. Lowi is well-known for the seemingly pedestrian observation that government acts in its own distinct interest, and does not necessarily reflect the will of the people. But among other political science scholars in the radical era of the early 1970s, this resurrected bit of wisdom proved a real theoretical breakthrough.

We will borrow heavily from Professor Lowi’s overlooked essay “Europeanization of America? From United States to United State” in order to amply set up the current trends regarding federal and state government relations. As it is not easily available elsewhere online, this contribution to understanding contemporary politics is warranted.

Between 1789 and the 1930s, the national government was not such a significant force in the economic or social life of the citizens of the United States. The most important principle in the Constitution of 1787 was Federalism, and for well over a century, despite the Civil War and abolition, Federalism was one of the dominating realities. Given their intimate knowledge of European political theory and experience, the Founders certainly must have selected the term ‘state’ as the name for our lower units of government in order to indicate where most sovereignty was expected to reside. Comparison of national and state legislative activities in any year after 1800 show that the states did almost all the governing in the United States. The domestic policies of the federal government were almost entirely concerned with subsidies, bounties, and claims. Land grants were piled upon land sales at low prices, and these were piled upon still additional land grants until the frontier ran out. Subsidies in the form of money and privilege were granted to the coastal trade, the railroads, and other common carriers. Tariffs were handed out to virtually any manufacturer or producer who could gain effective representation in Congress. The federal government was spending about 99 percent of its domestic efforts husbanding commerce. In the meantime, the states were held responsible for the entire use of the ‘police power,’ which referred to the authority and obligation of governments to provide for the health, safety, and morals of the community.” (16)

Professor Lowi thus puts into some empirical context the relations of the state to the federal government. The states were responsible for most of the duties and obligations of civil government, while the federal government’s role was limited to national defense and the preservation of commerce.

Lowi then goes on to make an abstract theoretical point worth noting, because it disabuses a prevalent false notion among today’s intellectual class.

It is no paradox at all, as some would like us to believe, that the national political system of the United States was so stable despite the instability and dynamism of society and the economy during all the formative years of the Republic. The fact of the matter is that all the fundamental social choices involving the coercive powers of government were being made at levels of government far below the national. The Constitution, quite deliberately, had delegated the fundamental social choices to the lower level and therefore had delegated or suppressed or diffused political conflict. We had not, for lack of a feudal system to overthrow, merely lucked up on political peace, class harmony, and intergroup consensus. We had really designed a means by which the opposites of peace, harmony, and consensus could be institutionally dispersed. Federalist 10, understood in the context of constitutional federalism and the actual comparative functions of government, was the most successful planning document in the history of the world.” (16)

The professor then moves on in his narration to point out that the Roosevelt administration of the 1930s was a turning point in American history for national and state government relations; but while numerous government regulations and policies were initiated under his long regime, they were justified by emergency powers and did not actually take longer root until the late 1960s. The essay then emphasizes another, associated phenomenon: the increasing subservience of the Congress to the executive branch.

In a generation we have moved from a Congress-centered national government to an executive-centered national government, and the most recent decade or so, we have moved from an executive-centered to a White House-centered national government.” (25)

And in a clarion call that fell on deaf ears, Lowi concludes his essay:

Review of the many programs in this volume suggests that it is high time we start evaluating long-run costs along with short-run benefits and cost. The long-run costs may be directly empirical in their nature, but they also may require a certain philosophic posture. Nevertheless, we must somehow approach them, because the welfare of the entire society may be at stake. We have become Europeanized at least to the extent that the United States has become a united state, and we are going to have to prepare ourselves for the consequences. […] [W]e can still lose [the] liberal tradition if the large and unified national state we have now created is allowed to fail either through falling too short of its promises or through allowing itself to be captured by any combination of elite and corporate interests. Such a state will so confirm the most antagonistic theories of the liberal society that it may produce not an anti-state movement but an anti-liberal movement that will simply attempt to free that state from one set of interests and enslave the state with another set. We as citizens would then have traded one set of masters for another.” (27-8)

Professor Lowi’s observation rings disturbingly true in light of the numerous Alinskyite protests taking place around the country calling for the overthrow of “Wall Street,” the face of capitalism in the American imagination, which would presumably remove the moneyed interests from Washington while granting the federal government unprecedented power over the economy. There seems to be no recognition in the protesters’ minds that the central government is its own interest, as Lowi pointed out, and it has been scrubbed of all responsibility for giving numerous firms and banks trillions of dollars in taxpayer money.

We can also comment on Lowi’s observations by showing how far short the federal government is falling of fulfilling its promises. We are officially $15 trillion in debt, and some estimates of future debt obligations show a high water mark of $100 trillion. We are drowning in debt.

The structure of our debts indicates that most of it is public welfare expenditure. Though much of the debt is federally incurred, some of it, like Medicaid, is mandated to be carried at the state level. Federal obligations and regulations are costing the states a fortune, and undoubtedly, some states are not helping themselves by legislating costly pension funds. California, for example, is the most indebted state in the country, which itself has a total debt exceeding $4 trillion.

In addition to the debt trap states are falling into – and assuredly, states will eventually be asking the United States Treasury, and specifically, The Federal Reserve through its corrosive debt monetization policies, to bail them out – we have federal grants to states. Ironically, those states whose citizens most ideologically favor economic freedom, those who live in so-called “red states” (named for their traditional Republican support) are very high recipients of federal spending relative to blue states. This suggests to me, even accounting for the relative urbanized wealth of blue states, that the federal government is systematically attempting to undermine the hostile ideological disposition of red state citizens towards the federal government by trying to buy them off.  Given that Washington D.C. itself takes in over $5.55 for each dollar in taxes it pays, that kind of premeditated corruption is not far-fetched.

The attempt by a cadre of less than one percent of the population to dominate a nation of over three hundred million Americans, many of them freedom-loving and armed, is a singular act of hubris in world history. Adding to the volatile mix is an economy that simply cannot meet the demands being placed upon it, thanks to years of Democrat promises to “constichencies” in exchange for votes. It is difficult to foresee how Washington will be able to maintain its hegemony over the states in perpetuity. Something’s got to give.

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