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Were the Antifederalists right???

Saul Cornell has noted that “studies of ratification have underestimated the depth of hostility to the new Constitution characteristic of grass-roots Anti-Federalism…by the tendency to treat Anti-Federalism as a monolithic ideology.”[1] In other words, it is hard to pin down exactly what the anti-federalists believed. Thomas Rodney—an anti-federalist—noted that “the better sort…seem much afraid of the Federal constitution in its present form without a bill of rights [while] the inferior class are totally against it, from the current Sentiment against proud and Lordly idea’s.”[2] In other words, even in the earliest days of America, many of the “common people” have been somewhat distrustful of the.[3]

If this has been the common theme of Americans since its earliest days, it only seems fair that more of the power should be vested in a state than in a federal government. As long as each state is tied together loosely by the articles of confederation (and perhaps a bill of rights) what more do we need a national government for? The arguments for anti-federalism abound when we consider the fact that people in Washington DC may not have our best interests in mind. In the modern day, in fact, we have seen much of the federal government bogged down in bureaucracy and inefficiency. The president can declare war without the consent of congress and without being provoked directly. Have we given the federal government too much power?

Let us take an example from economics that has to do with American history: the railway system. As a result of federalism and centralization, federal regulations have been in place since 1887—more than a century after the ratification of the constitution.[4] Over the years, because of federal regulations and other “alternative transportation modes,” a “deteriorated rail network, higher costs, misallocated traffic, a decline in financial position, and ultimately to bankruptcies in the 1970s.”[5] Only when the railway was deregulated, and individuals could come in to fix the problems “more responsive to competitive pressures, did “aggregate (average) rail rates” drop in price.[6] What was discovered was that “differences in rates across state-to-state flows and finds that competition from intramodal and intermodal sources increased under deregulation.”[7] In other words, more competition, more decentralization, and more state to state regulation helped decrease the price of the rail for the common man.

Such examples should be limited to the rail. State governments are better suited to look after the interests of their own particular state. Pennsylvania’s state government, for instance, is better suited in looking after the oil refineries in Pennsylvania than a federal government would be. Regional governments have to care more about their decisions because their decisions directly affect their constituents. Presidents can often get away with broad generalizations in state of the union addresses, but poor souls like Governor Gray David could not escape the energy crisis that pushed him out of office a few years ago. If anti-federalism would have won out, one might project that more people would be more involved at the state level. There would be no cushiony federal level jobs to employ people, and states would each have to examine issues like welfare, poverty, and homelessness at the state level. No longer would Massachusetts have to pay for homelessness they care little about all the way in San Francisco.

Anti-federalism also simply allocates funds better than a federal system. Rather than paying state and federal taxes, a citizen only has to pay taxes to the state. The citizen can be sure that this money will be reinvested into the place where he or she lives. Federal programs are good, but all of these programs are ultimately employed at the state level. States should be able to decide how to allocate their own money in their own way that is best for their particular state. If Adam Smith is correct, then all of these states will be in competition and in mutually beneficial relationships as trade opens up between all of these different states. These loosely defined relationships would lead to trade in each states comparative advantage. If one state has a lot of oranges, they can trade another state for apples, and both states are better off. Capitalism works better when the world is decentralized so that he market can work supply and demand with Smith’s invisible hand seen only in the background.


[1]Saul Cornell, “Aristocracy Assailed: The ideology of Backcountry Anti-Federalism,” The Journal of American History 76:4 (March 1990): 1148 also notes that scholars have sometimes spent too much time on those anti-federalist delegates who went to the convention and big name politicians instead of grass roots revolutionaries. These people “were ‘men of little faith’ who distrusted the common people as much as their elected representatives.”

[2]Quoted in Cornell, “Aristocracy Assailed,” 1149

[3]The word “common man” here is used to refer to the farmers and rural back-country folks living in the infancy of the new American republic.

[4]Wesley W. Wilson, “Market- Specific Effects of Rail Deregulation,” The Journal of Industrial Economics 42:1 (March 1994): 1

[5]Wilson, “Rail Deregulation,” 1

[6]Ibid., 1

[7]Ibid., 2

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3 thoughts on “Were the Antifederalists right???

  1. ‘Capitalism works better when the world is decentralized so that he market can work supply and demand with Smith’s invisible hand seen only in the background. ‘

    Surely something is wrong with this sentence! How do you ‘see’ an ‘invisible’ hand’?

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