In the wake of Hurricane Irene battering the East Coast, two senators of dramatically different ideologies, Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican from Texas, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a far-left Socialist from Vermont, made bold statements regarding the effectiveness and existence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Before Irene even hit, Paul was airing his frustration with FEMA, which is a federal bureaucracy created to respond to national disasters.
Paul called the agency “a system of bureaucratic central economic planning, which is a policy that is deeply flawed.”
Recalling the wastefulness and poor response of FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, Paul stated, “We’ve conditioned our people that FEMA will take care of us and everything will be okay, but you try to make these programs work the best you can, but you can’t just keep saying, ‘Oh, they need money.’ Well, we’re out of money, this country is bankrupt.”
Of course, liberals and even some on the right were quick to jump on Paul’s comments and expressed desire to end this federal agency.
Joining a list of liberal pundits and columnists lauding the effectiveness of FEMA, Sen. Sanders took a shot at Paul during a CNN interview.
Being interviewed because of the disastrous flooding in his home state of Vermont, Sanders said, “On these issues he is completely out to lunch.” He then said, “We are not 50 individual states.”
Sanders and Paul represent opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, but the question is, which one is right? The not-so-simple answer may be that in a sense both can be right and both can be wrong.
This fight is in part a very old battle over the federalist—or more correctly, nationalist—and anti-federalist beliefs espoused at the nation’s founding, but perhaps even more so, this is a more modern battle over what some Americans have come to see as federalism and rule by a massive, centralized bureaucracy.
Paul seems to have staked out an anti-federalist position, which is that the states should essentially be left alone to provide for their own defense and their own safety in a disaster. Paul, much like the anti-federalists, and in fact most modern conservatives, believes that the extension of control by the federal government over the states will reduce the liberty of the citizens of all states at one time or another.
Robert Yates warned in the “Anti-Federalist Papers” that a nationalized government may “possess absolute and uncontrollable power, legislative, executive and judicial, with respect to every object to which it extends.”
This warning came from the inclusion of the so called “commerce clause” and the “necessary and proper clause” of the Constitution, which states that “Congress shall have power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution, in the government of the United States, or in any department or office thereof.”
On the flip side it might seem like Sanders is taking the federalist position, which justifies having a centralized government that would have the power to tax citizens in the states and provide for national defense, these actions, of course, being “necessary and proper.”
In the early years of the American Republic, the federalists seemed to be justified.
Many states were generally breaking down into near banana republics, sinking under a mountain of debt created during the Revolutionary War and waging economic warfare against one another. The nationalization of the economy allowed for a safe reduction in debt, which was extinguished for a brief moment in 1837, and for the creation of the largest free-trade zone in world history.
There were other challenges for states as sovereign entities as well. Even after the Constitution, the country did not have a national, professional military and relied on state militias. When the war of 1812 broke out, many of these militias simply refused to cross state borders, leading to mass chaos and dramatic failure in the invasion of Canada.
The fact is, though, that no aspect of the Constitution has been as overused and abused as the commerce clause, and in time it would open up the country to all kinds of machinations, under the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt and The Great Society under President Lyndon Johnson, which were justified as “necessary and proper.” It has been used to justify the creation of FEMA in 1978, and also ObamaCare.
While critics of Paul may be right in the belief that disasters in one state require a national response, they err when believing that a massive federal bureaucracy can in fact revive a damaged or war-torn area. FEMA’s bumbling and waste in the response to Hurricane Katrina is a perfect example of the challenge of coordinating any national response.
Even the military, with its ability to smash any other military force in the world and defeat countries in a matter of days and weeks, is unable to rebuild a country’s economy, and is in fact dramatically wasteful in using economic resources.
The modern-day argument over government is less between federalists and anti-federalists—nationalist against sovereign states’ rights advocates—and more of an argument of federalism vs. centralized and permanent government rule by bureaucratic planners.
While Paul may go too far toward a pure state-sovereignty doctrine, it would be a mistake to argue that Sanders wishes to return to anything like the “federalist” government created at the founding of this country.
The late 18th and early 19th century federal government enacted minimal to nonexistent domestic taxation while tirelessly working to eliminate the national debt. Almost all revenues went to debt reduction, expansion of American territory, and the military.
Even large-scale infrastructure projects, such as the Erie Canal, were built by a state government and completed on time and under budget.
Having so many permanent federal programs with open-ended functions and no regard for fiscal realities has created the problem that the nation now faces. When real national emergencies arise, like a war or natural disaster, there will simply be no means to tackle it, at a national, state or local level.
Sen. Sanders and other leftists, who believe that nearly unlimited amounts of money should be shoveled into all manner of budget-busting federal programs, all clamoring for “necessary” tax dollars with little regard to financial stability—money
coming simply from “the rich”—would probably find a real “federalist” government to be odious and “extremist.”