Sunday, December 14, 2008

Eating Local: Federalist 17

Recall these words of the Anti-Federalist George Clinton:
The strongest principle of union resides within our domestic walls. The ties of the parent exceed that of any other. As we depart from home, the next general principle of union is amongst citizens of the same state, where acquaintance, habits, and fortunes, nourish affection, and attachment. Enlarge the circle still further, and, as citizens of different states, though we acknowledge the same national denomination, we lose in the ties of acquaintance, habits, and fortunes, and thus by degrees we lessen in our attachments, till, at length, we no more than acknowledge a sameness of species.
In Federalist 17, Hamilton returns to this argument, and (perhaps surprisingly) embraces it:
It is a known fact in human nature, that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object. Upon the same principle that a man is more attached to his family than to his neighborhood, to his neighborhood than to the community at large, the people of each State would be apt to feel a stronger bias towards their local governments than towards the government of the Union; unless the force of that principle should be destroyed by a much better administration of the latter.
This principle of affection, Hamilton argues, will be a natural check on the power of the central government.
It will always be far more easy for the State governments to encroach upon the national authorities than for the national government to encroach upon the State authorities. The proof of this proposition turns upon the greater degree of influence which the State governments if they administer their affairs with uprightness and prudence, will generally possess over the people...
Hamilton adds that state and federal governments exercise their authority in different spheres. The federal government regulates commerce, engages in international diplomacy, and wages war; state governments regulate their own internal affairs. In particular, Hamilton mentions the administration of civil justice and the supervision of agriculture as matters for state control. Hamilton sees no reason for the states or the federal government to encroach upon each other's jurisdictions:
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.
Hamilton's concern was that, without a strong central government, the states would succumb to the centrifugal forces of anarchy. He found this scenario much more likely than the alternative; namely, that the federal government would usurp state power and lapse into tyranny.

In the late 1830s, not long after the crisis in which South Carolina unsuccessfully asserted the right of states to nullify federal legislation, Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, the first commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office, began to collect new and improved varieties of seeds to distribute to farmers. Soon, Ellsworth had spun off an entirely new agricultural bureau from the patent office—the seeds of what would become, in 1862, the United States Department of Agriculture.

While attempts by the states to exercise authority over the the federal government led to the discredited doctrine of nullification, the federal usurpation of state control of agriculture has led to the equally problematic exercise of "preemption." For example, the 2008 Farm Bill originally contained language that would "preempt" state laws regulating foods and agricultural products, such as genetically-modified (GMO) foods. The bill read: "no State or locality shall make any law prohibiting the use in commerce of an article that the Secretary of Agriculture has inspected and passed; or determined to be of non-regulated status."

Hamilton offered assurances that agriculture was a state and local matter, exempt from the "troublesome" interference of federal authority, but the Farm Bill would have entirely denied states the power to regulate local agriculture.

Hamilton's America, of course, was largely rural, and food was for the most part produced for a local market. America has changed beyond recognition since 1787, and Hamilton could not have envisioned GMO foods, high fructose corn syrup, or industrial agriculture. But the principle of local control over the food supply is a good one: the federal government should not have the authority to determine what foods we plant in our fields and put into our mouths.

This evening from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., Just Food Co-op in Northfield is celebrating its 4th anniversary with an exclusive event for member-owners. If you live and eat in Northfield, get out and celebrate your Constitutional right to eat locally.

Environmental Commons 2008 Local Food Legislation Tracker. Tracks state legislation to protect and support local food, including legislation to support use of local food in school lunch programs.


Jim H. said...

If Hamilton had ever eaten a Little Debbie Nutty Bar, he would have seen the evils of a national market and been more forceful an advocate for keeping agriculture a local enterprise, regulated by the states.

Elizabeth said...

Hamilton's comments about citizens being more attached to local than to national governments is interesting and makes me think about a long conversation I recently had with an Army colonel, who noted that the House of Representatives, where he works, is sometimes one of the government's less effective institutions because it was, in his opinion, originally designed to let legislators serve, for a very short period, the very particular needs of their constituents (which, presumably, would change over that period), rather than thinking about big-picture items, like grand strategy, national defense posture, etc. So, I guess Hamilton is right, in more than just the sense he intended ... vahry intahresting.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

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