By Mike Maharrey
Many antifederalists warned us about the dangers of centralized power. And George Mason was one of the most prominent.
They called this centralization of power in the general government “consolidation.” In a speech during the Virginia ratifying convention, George Mason said a consolidated government “is totally subversive of every principle which has hitherto governed us. This power is calculated to annihilate totally the State Governments.” [Emphasis added]
He later added that consolidation “is one of the worst curses that can possibly befall a nation.”
And yet the march toward consolidation continues.
A lot of people like the idea of a strong national government because they think it will yield the policy outcomes they desire. But they forget that the power to do “good” can just as easily be turned toward evil purposes. Mason warned about this tendency during the Philadelphia Convention, saying, “From the nature of man we may be sure, that those who have power in their hands will not give it up while they can retain it. On the contrary we know they will always when they can rather increase it.”
As good as centralized power might sound as you contemplate achieving some policy goal, the idea of a consolidated federal government is flawed by its very nature. Its size and scope make it unworkable. As Mason explained to the delegates attending the Virginia ratifying convention, the country is simply too big to have all of its matters directed by a handful of politicians in a far-away place.
“Is it to be supposed that one National Government will suit so extensive a country, embracing so many climates, and containing inhabitants so very different in manners, habits, and customs? It is ascertained by history, that there never was a Government, over a very extensive country, without destroying the liberties of the people.”
Mason pinpointed a fundamental problem with a centralized government. The representatives cannot possibly understand the dynamics in all of the diverse regions of the country.
“Sixty-five members cannot possibly know the situation and circumstances of all the inhabitants of this immense continent: When a certain sum comes to be taxed, and the mode of levying to be fixed, they will lay the tax on that article which t will be most productive, and easiest in the collection, without consulting the real circumstances or convenience of a country, with which, in fact, they cannot be sufficiently acquainted.”
He went on to ask a rhetorical question.
“Why leave the manner of laying taxes to those, who in the nature of things, cannot be acquainted with the situation of those on whom they are to impose them, when it can be done by those who are well acquainted with it?”
Mason formulated these arguments when the country was much smaller than it is today.
One of his chief concerns was the inadequacy of representation. At the time, he said, “It would be impossible to have a full and adequate representation in the General Government; it would be too expensive and too unwieldy.” He was proved right. Today, each congressional district averages 700,000 people.
Mason argued that “to make representation real and actual, the number of Representatives ought to be adequate; they ought to mix with the people, think as they think, feel as they feel, ought to be perfectly amenable to them, and thoroughly acquainted with their interest and condition.”
This is clearly impossible when each member of Congress “represents” so many people. The average person has virtually no access to her or his congressional representative, and they spend the vast majority of their time in D.C., not in their home districts (unless they are campaigning).
Mason said that a centralized system is by its very nature “defective.” and therefore, “no powers ought to be given, but such as are absolutely necessary.”
During the ratification debates, supporters of the Constitution argued that “public virtue” and the “confidence” placed in those with power would mitigate the possibility of abuse. We hear similar arguments from proponents of centralized authority today. They say as long as “good people” wield power, we will enjoy good outcomes. Mason threw cold water on this notion. He understood that nobody can guarantee “good people” will control those power levers.
“This, like all other assemblies, will be composed of some bad and some good men; and considering the natural lust of power so inherent in man, I fear the thirst of power will prevail to oppress the people.” [Emphasis added]
In his third antifederalist paper, Cato accurately predicted what would happen if the American people ignored Mason and others’ warnings about the danger of consolidation.
“From this picture, what can you promise yourselves, on the score of consolidation of the United States into one government? Impracticability in the just exercise of it, your freedom insecure, even this form of government limited in its continuance, the employments of your country disposed of to the opulent, to whose contempt you will continually be an object. You must risk much, by indispensably placing trusts of the greatest magnitude, into the hands of individuals whose ambition for power, and aggrandizement, will oppress and grind you.”