Saturday, April 7, 2012

Hamilton Revisited

Alexander Hamilton authored a number of those newspaper articles which we now call 'The Federalist Papers' - although many of them were originally published anonymously. Together with James Madison and John Jay, they made the case for the new constitution then under consideration in 1787 and 1788.

The papers address many different questions; one major issue was the relationship of the central government to the individuals states. It was important to convince readers that the states would retain much of their own authority, and not be made slaves to the federal government:

The administration of private justice between the citizens of the same State, the supervision of agriculture and of other concerns of a similar nature, all those things, in short, which are proper to be provided for by local legislation, can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction. It is therefore improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the powers with which they are connected; because the attempt to exercise those powers would be as troublesome as it would be nugatory; and the possession of them, for that reason, would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendor of the national government.

Sadly, at certain points in American history, the central government has done exactly that: transgressed its proper boundaries, and meddled in the internal affairs of local government. Such activity essentially overrides the free votes of local citizens, and oppresses them under the dictates of a distant authority. Reflecting on Hamilton's words, in 1960, Senator Barry Goldwater wrote:

Hamilton was wrong in his prediction as to what men would do, but quite right in foreseeing the consequences of their foolhardiness. Federal intervention in agriculture has, indeed, proved "troublesome." Disregard of the Constitution in this field has brought about the inevitable loss of personal freedom; and it has created economic chaos. Unmanageable surpluses, an immense tax burden, high consumer prices, vexatious controls - I doubt if the folly of ignoring the principle of limited government has ever been more convincingly demonstrated.

There is no doubt that the United States, like any other nation, needs diligent and skillful farmers. They and their farmland are essential to the nation's survival and health. But it is possible to have a surplus of farmers.

Doing something about it means - and there can be no equivocation here - prompt and final termination of the farm-subsidy program. The only way to persuade farmers to enter other fields of endeavor is to stop paying inefficient farmers for produce that cannot be sold at free-market prices.

Agriculture is perhaps one of the clearest cases for both free markets and local control. When centralized governments, instead of local ones, attempt to regulate or manage agriculture, the result is invariably bad, as we see not only in the history of the United States, but also, for example, in the Soviet Union. When markets are regulated, farms produce either too much, or too little, or inefficiently, or produce the wrong crop altogether.