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The Reactionary Utopian (classic)
February 3, 2012

The Autonomous State
A classic by Joseph Sobran
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John McCain is that rare candidate who has a way of making people believe in him even when they have only the vaguest idea of what he stands for. Ross Perot inspired similar enthusiasm in 1992, until he suddenly withdrew from the race. Likewise Colin Powell in 1996, though he never actually became a candidate.

All three men symbolized an undefined patriotism and general disgust with partisan politics. None had a clear program or principle to speak of. McCain poses as a conservative, but his attachment to conservative principles is iffy, and his chief appeal is not to conservatives but to liberals, independents, and moderates. He is often described as a Republican “maverick” because he favors such measures as campaign finance reform and punitive taxes and restrictions on the tobacco industry.
Though McCain himself speaks of these anomalous positions as “principled,” he never actually explains what their governing principle is. He is certainly less consistent than those conservative Republicans who steadily oppose centralizing power in the federal government. His campaign “reform” would give incumbents more power to regulate their opposition — an odd way to improve republican self-government, to which unfettered opposition is vital. His anti-tobacco crusade similarly aspires to make a large sector of American life and industry less free than it has traditionally been.

Far from being a “maverick” (except in terms of party discipline), McCain conforms to the dominant principle of twentieth-century politics: the autonomous state, the state that is the source of its own authority and recognizes no authority above itself that may limit its power. The most egregious examples of this principle were Communism, Nazism, and fascism. But there is a milder American version as well.

In civilization’s better moments, the state has acknowledged limits on itself. When it claims authority from God, it is bound by divine law; when it claims authority by custom and succession, it is limited by positive law; in other cases it has recognized what Catholic theology calls “natural law,” by which it has been accordingly controlled.

The American Republic was based on an interpretation of natural law, under which government existed to secure man’s natural rights and derived its specific powers from the consent of the governed. The U.S. Constitution was the instrument by which the governed — “We the People” — delegated certain specific powers to the federal government. All the powers that weren’t delegated to that government were forbidden to it.

Abraham Lincoln recognized that slavery was contrary to the natural rights of man; but he also recognized that the Constitution had delegated to the federal government no legal power to meddle with it in the states where it existed. In the Emancipation Proclamation he merely claimed the military authority to deprive slaveowners in the rebellious states of their slaves; and even so, many other Northerners thought he had exceeded his constitutional power. Everyone agreed that abolishing slavery throughout the United States required a constitutional amendment.

The principle at stake was limited government. All Americans understood that it was dangerous to allow government to exercise any power that had not been specifically assigned to it, no matter how righteous the cause or how great the evil to be remedied. When alcohol was seen as an evil to be banished, they amended the Constitution. However misguided Prohibition was, at least they recognized that such an exercise of federal power required a formal change in the basic rules of American governance.

The original consensus broke down during the New Deal, when Franklin Roosevelt claimed that the Great Depression had created emergency conditions requiring both centralized power and lax interpretation of the Constitution. Constitutional restrictions on the federal government became meaningless as Roosevelt construed such phrases as “general welfare” and “interstate commerce” to be almost infinitely elastic. During World War II, the “general welfare” warranted the incarceration of all Japanese-Americans; there was no logical reason why it couldn’t have been invoked to justify killing them all.

With Roosevelt, the United States moved from limited government to the autonomous state that could define its own powers as it pleased. John McCain belongs to this recent tradition, under which the Founding Fathers, Lincoln, and even Woodrow Wilson would qualify as “extremists.”

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Copyright © 2012 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally by Griffin Internet Syndicate on February 17, 2000.

Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio and archives of some of his columns.

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