I just came across an excellent review by Herman Belz of a book on American history recently published by Nicolas Barreyre, a French history professor. The main thrust of the book Belz is reviewing has to do with American Reconstruction, but the theoretical thrust of the book is all about state-building and political economy. The whole article is worth your time, but I wanted to hone in on a particular paragraph that caught my attention:
In the 20th century, Progressive “living-Constitutionalism” dedicated to constructing a centralized administrative state […] undermined the Founders’ establishment of a territorial federal republic as the constitutional ground of American liberty. Americans were the territorial people of the United States. Sovereignty resided in the people of the state in which they lived as well as in the states united as a national whole. In the 21st century, the aspirations of Progressive statism reach beyond national borders to the conceit of transnational global authority.
In this paragraph Dr Belz draws a distinction between two political structures:
- a centralized administrative state
- and a territorial federal republic
The centralized administrative state is a much worse option than a territorial federal republic in Belz’ view (and my own), mostly because in the federal republic sovereignty resides in both “the people” and in the various “states” that have federated to form a republic (Belz suggests this made the United states “a national whole,” but I don’t think that’s true, largely because of Belz’ own description of what Barreyre calls “sectional” politics at the time, but I digress; see Michelangelo for conceptions about “the nation”).
The territorial federal republic is thus a bottom-up approach to a more inclusive, more open society, whereas the centralized administrative state relies on experts, many of whom are unelected and unknown, to govern public affairs.
Belz is largely correct in his summaries of these two political structures, but I think his conclusion (“the aspirations of Progressive statism reach beyond national borders to the conceit of transnational global authority”) misses the mark. This is not because he is right to suspect the Left of wanting to create and sustain a centralized administrative state with a global reach (i.e. the UN), but because he leaves out the possibility that a territorial federal republic can also have a global reach while still avoiding the pitfalls of morphing into a centralized administrative state. Belz is probably more conservative than I am, and hence more pessimistic about the chances of a “transnational global authority” being republican in nature rather than administrative, but I still think my argument is better…