In this essay, we will look at two ideas which effect nullification and Tenth Amendment efforts in America today. One of these ideas, the idea of incentives, is familiar to all of us. Another idea, the Overton window, may be less familiar.
People are influenced by incentives. As Dr. Perry often writes at the Carpe Diem blog, “if you tax something, you get less of it”. This is the driving theory behind today’s Nanny State. Want less obesity? Tax fast food and sugary drinks. Want to eliminate smoking? Tax cigarettes. Want more marriage? Give a tax break to married couples. This is the gentle way that government “nudges” us, trying to get the behavior it wants; ostensibly without forcing anyone to do anything… except, of course, for forcing whoever pays for it to part with their money.
Similarly, with the large numbers of people in our federal, state and local governments, we need to think about the tendencies which are created by the incentives acting on these groups of people. Some of these individuals might act in opposition to their incentives, but as a whole, these groups of people, like any other, are largely going to follow their incentives.
How many times has a politician told us he’s going to “clean up Washington”, yet it never happens. Under republican and democrat control, corruption and spending grow incessantly. Although some of these officials are doubtless sincere when they make their promises, the incentives in Washington are upside down, so cleaning Washington from inside Washington is an impossible goal.
Politicians want to win elections. In order to do that in Washington, they need to cultivate their networks. The corruption and spending are self-reinforcing. It is time for us, as voters, to stop searching for the mythical politician who will ignore their own self-interest in order to clean things up. Mr. Smith is not going to Washington. And even if he were, he would be overwhelmed by the system that’s already in place. The problem isn’t that we’re electing the wrong people. The problem is that the system is broken. Specifically, the states have forgotten their proper role in defense of the Constitution.
When they drafted the Constitution, our founders knew that this tendency of people to respond to incentives applies to our government officials too. They designed the Constitution so that the states could “nudge” the Federal officials. To counter central power grabs, they designed a system where the incentives working upon the groups tended to pull power away from the center. Local officials wanted to pull power from the state and state officials wanted to pull power from the federal government.
Washington is well aware that the states can check its power if they choose to. This is why Washington tries to make the states dependent on federal income. The plan is to to override the natural incentives which are in place with a new incentive system whereby state and local officials have their interests aligned with Washington, not with the people.
The good news is that the framework which the founders created is still in place. Our state and local officials are still incented to try to pull power from Washington. The problem is that our state and local officials have forgotten and may need help seeing it.
In order to reclaim our Liberty and our sovereignty, it almost doesn’t matter who we elect in Washington. What we need to do is to focus on getting people at the state and local levels who understand the states’ role in the constitutional framework. People who can see past the short-term, expiring incentives offered by Washington to the lasting and sustainable incentives provided by Liberty and the Constitution.
I only learned about the Overton window this week, at RealClimate. This window is the idea that for policy questions there is an acceptable range of ideas which can be implemented. If an idea falls outside of that range, it doesn’t even qualify for consideration by policy makers. An early goal of activism then, on truly extraordinary ideas, is to move the Overton window so that the desired idea moves from outside to inside of the Overton window.
The Mackinac Center, where it was developed, says this about the Overton window
“Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time. Regardless of how vigorously a think tank or other group may campaign, only policy initiatives within this window of the politically possible will meet with success”
Looking at nullification with the Overton window in mind is informative, and encouraging. At the time of the revolution, nullification was an accepted idea. It was implemented by numerous states on both sides of the slavery issue, so nullification was clearly inside of the Overton window. After the Civil War, until recently, nullification had moved outside of the window.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I was trained by my government school education to believe that the question of states’ rights was “settled” in the negative by the Civil War. I suspect many others of us were similarly instructed. However, upon logical examination, this can’t possibly be true. As we have already seen, implementing Personal Liberty Laws to nullify the Federal Fugitive Slave Acts on behalf of escaped slaves was indisputably the proper course of action for the states. Also, the Civil War was settled by armed conflict. The correctness of an idea cannot possibly be established through the use of force.
For over a century, the idea of nullification had been pushed outside of the Overton window primarily through the use of force. During the last decade, however, as the Tenth Amendment Center has documented extensively, nullification has moved back inside the window.
In this essay, we have seen two ideas which have been successfully used by statists to consolidate their power. First, they used force and propaganda to manipulate the Overton window and prevent people from even talking about, let alone using, the vertical checks which were built into the Constitution. Second, they confiscate money from the People and dole it out to the states (after siphoning off a cut for themselves), effectively hiding the incentive structure which was built into the Constitution to protect our Liberty.
The role of the Tenth Amendment activist today needs to incorporate these ideas, as they have been used with some success, by the statists. In the comments for this thread, please feel free to brainstorm about tactics to make use of incentives and the Overton window.
With their understanding of the effect of incentives on human behavior, The Tenth Amendment is one tool which our founders gave us to protect our Liberty. For too long, it has been forgotten, outside of the Overton window. Let us now dust it off and display it prominently.
Steve Palmer is the State Chapter Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Tenth Amendment Center.
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