In the context of having just finished Thomas Pangle’s course on the Constitution, two columns in the New York Times caught my attention. One, Broccoli Mandates and the Commerce Clause from James B. Steward in Business Day, commenting on the commerce clause and recent argument regarding the health care reform issue in the Supreme Court, ends, “The commerce clause was a response to the chaotic and often conflicting state regulations that hobbled the nation under the Articles of Confederation.” The second, Pragmatism on the Prairie by Gretchen Dykstra, describes Republican, conservative, North Dakota’s venture into socialism and their continuing support of it.
The Anti-Federalist image of society, it seems, and not much unlike the image which today’s Tea Party reflects, is of an idyllic, small republic of like-minded citizens participating rather directly in governing themselves. It is a society which 1780’s Anti-Federalists could well imagine, and colored their antipathy toward strengthening the federal government. However, as James Steward notes, even in the days of the Constitutional Convention, with a nation suffering from a lack of cohesion created by the decentralizing Articles of Confederation, this idyllic republic was no longer sustainable.
Except, perhaps, in North Dakota, a state, which, after a population explosion, still has a small population of about 684,000 individuals, quite homogeneous ethnically and religiously (90% white, 80% of German or Scandinavian origin, 86% Christian), and economically (agriculture and food-processing are a large part of the economy, with energy playing an increasing role).
Gretchen Dykstra notes that North Dakota is the only state in the union with a state-owned bank; it also has a profitable state-owned grain elevator and flour mill. All state revenues are deposited in the Bank of North Dakota, and from this it supports programs like student loans, loans for new farmers, and for commercial and industrial enterprises. The grain elevator and mill compete with private grain elevators, and returns its annual profit to the North Dakota general fund. In addition, the state maintains the toughest laws in the country limiting corporate farming.
Ms. Dykstra asks the question, how does the Republican, conservative citizenry support such obvious socialism? She goes on to describe the difficult circumstances in the years 1915-1920, which led to the creation of some of these institution, and their relative success since then.
I think the key understanding is that conservatives are not really about “small” government per se, nor necessarily about all of the other issues which inform our current political debate. Rather, they want a government which supports them. But if the idyllic, small republic of like-minded citizens was already past in the 1780’s when the Articles of Confederation gave way to a more-centralizing Constitution, perhaps it still lives on successfully in places like North Dakota.