Friday, April 22, 2011

First (negative) Reaction to a Rather Good Op-Ed on Medicaid

OK, I'm going to preface this that I rather liked this editorial in the New York Times.  I think it illustrates some of the problems with Medicaid well, though I'm skeptical that block grants are a great solution (they're certainly better than what we have).  I'll go into this more tonight.  But this inspired an intensely negative reaction that I have to get out right now.

States are not merely “laboratories of democracy,” but also sovereign governments under our system of federalism. Unfortunately, the encroachment of the federal government in Medicaid threatens to reduce states to mere agents.

No, no, no, no, false, wrong, incorrect, bad history, lies, and the source of far too many of our problems in this country.  States in a federal system are not sovereign by definition!  States sacrifice their sovereignty to be component parts of a federal system.  Sovereignty is maintained in personal unions and in some forms of empires, the Holy Roman Empire or the Hapsburg Empire (partially overlapping at certain points in history) would be examples.  It is partially maintained in confederal systems, such as the Dutch Republic.   In a federal system however, the constituent parts maintain only a limited number of carefully circumscribed powers and are ultimately subordinate to the central authority.  In early political parlance the powers retained by constituent members were sometimes referred to as sovereignty but this is not in the sense as it is used by moderns where sovereignty has a more specific definition that implies a degree of independence.  In modern terms however, it is powers, and not sovereignty, that is retained by the constituent members of a federation.

Of course, if you don't really believe that the US was meant to be a federation and is instead a confederation, than the stance I'm complaining about makes sense.  But, as long as we're using modern terms and not dressing up in costume on stage and feigning bad accents, sovereignty is not something that the states possess in the United States, or in any other political federation.  If they did, we'd be a confederation or empire.


  1. Go, Tzi! This is not an issue I lose a lot of sleep over but I have the impression (and you're the historian) that is has been seen as ambiguous whether the United States was founded as a federation, a confederation or a confoundment. Certainly, the U.S. constitution circumscribes the federal government and only in granting specific powers to the U.S. cicrumscribes those of the states.

    All that said, you're right that states obviously weren't intended to be sovereign. They cannot become monarchies (except Louisiana every now and then,) they cannot make war on each other no matter how badly they want to, they cannot ratify treaties and they cannot fail to honor contracts their neighbors honored. They cannot elect Haley Barbour president.

  2. Doug,

    Yeah, I agree that there is some ambiguity in the Constitution about whether the US was meant to be a Federal Republic or a Confederation of States. I think the best interpretation is that the Founding Fathers that everyone talks about wanted a Federal Republic, but some of the guys that happened to be in the same room as them and very few people can name needed to be convinced to sign the document and wanted a Confederation so a certain amount of ambiguity was introduced. Since the Constitution was a reaction to the Articles of Confederation and the Federalist Papers are a strong statement of Federalism in opposition to the Confederate arguments of the anti-Federalist papers, and we had the whole Civil War thing to settle the ambiguity as well, I think the argument that we're a Federal Republic rather than Confederation of states is just a smidgen stronger the interpretation of the Constitution as intending for a group of sovereign states grouped together in a Confederacy.

    Though I think a big part of the issue is that the meaning of sovereignty has drifted somewhat since the 18th century. It's one of those terms that used to be applied more generally, while I certainly haven't read enough to be entirely certain that my interpretation of its use is correct, my impression is that it used to mean just a little more than the power to make laws. While there was always some implication of a degree of independence to the word, over time this element of it has become much stronger. This is problematic when people read only a couple of documents from that era, without reflecting on how the meaning of certain terms have changed over time, resulting in interpretations of history that I find rather peculiar.

  3. To some extent you're describing the sola scripturum/revelation debate of the 16th century. I happen to agree with you that the civil war and the 145 years since have resolved the question in favor of federalism. But it is not automatically false to go back to the founding documents and reopen the debate. I have friends in South Carolina so if you want to fire on Fort Sumter, I should be able to arrange a place to stay.