All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1998

The Arc of the Pendulum: A Philosophy for Government in the 21st Century

Not a Solid Case for 21st-Century Anti-Federalism

In The Arc of the Pendulum, Charles Stewart Goodwin advocates moving government power from the national to the local level and narrowing the scope of government at all levels. He calls this philosophy antifederalism, after the philosophy of those who opposed ratification of the U.S. Constitution on grounds that the central government would be too powerful. (It is ironic, of course, that the call for a weak central government and relatively stronger state and local governments was labeled “antifederalism.”) Goodwin identifies Thomas Jefferson as the intellectual father of antifederalism, and credits Andrew Jackson for articulating a vision of the philosophy that can be carried forward into the 21st century. Yet, Goodwin’s antifederalism deviates sharply from the Jeffersonian vision and beyond a doubt, Jefferson himself would be appalled at the broad scope of activities that Goodwin would leave to government.

Goodwin envisions local republics of about 2,000 to 3,000 persons as the main units of government. They would constitute a confederation and would create towns, counties, and states. But the federal government would still have plenty to do. It would administer a national energy policy, engage in some economic planning, and, though he says Social Security will be privatized, aid the elderly and indigent. Goodwin never clearly delineates a philosophical basis for deciding what government should or should not do or what functions belong at what levels of government. His policy recommendations are marked with an overwhelming number of seeming inconsistencies.

Three chapters are devoted to specific examples of how his antifederalist ideas could be put into action. The first applies antifederalism to education. He calls for local control rather than federal involvement, but offers no real suggestions for implementation; nor, tellingly, does he question the case for government improvement in education at all. By his own admission, he raises more questions than he answers.

Goodwin’s second example is taxation. Ironically, the chapter is devoted almost entirely to an analysis of federal taxes, even though local governments would require more revenue if Goodwin’s antifederalism were realized. Where would they get it, especially since the federal and state governments are currently their largest source of funds?

Entitlements are the third example. Goodwin argues that the federal government has overcommitted itself and advocates devolution of entitlement programs to local governments. At the same time, however, he wants to retain a substantial federal program of entitlements. He evidently is not convinced of his own antifederalist case. Readers may question whether this recommendation is even remotely consistent with Jeffersonianism.

Goodwin cites the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as an example of misguided federal policy, illustrating its side effects and noting its “crushing financial burdens.” But is it inconsistent with the role of the federal government under his antifederalist philosophy? He says government should act to protect individual rights, but proponents of the ADA will argue that it does precisely that. Goodwin’s philosophy provides no clear way to answer that claim.

Goodwin’s book has interesting ideas scattered throughout, but ultimately it has too many inconsistencies and irrelevant detours to make a solid case for 21st-century anti-federalism. This is a shame, because a strong argument for a true “antifederalism” can and should be made. If the role of the federal government were reduced, and the scope of other government narrowed to mere order-keeping functions, the common interest would be served and factionalism would be eliminated. This would foster the idealism and voluntarism that Goodwin says we need.

Ultimately, however, another problem lurks. Our current system of government is a product of the political process, and even the limited changes Goodwin advocates would require a substantial restructuring of American politics. He never discusses any concrete institutional changes that would be necessary to realize his vision.

Goodwin’s ideas rest on a solid antifederalist foundation, but his often vague and inconsistent arguments create a philosophical superstructure much less substantial than the foundation on which it rests.