The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Seemingly so simple, but these twenty-eight words have been constantly misconstrued, circumvented, or flat out ignored.
So what? It's just a bunch of old-school rhetoric spewed out by some powdered-wig sporting fundamentalists over two hundred years ago. Move along; nothing to see here.
Or is it something more than that? Not to hide my bias (not that I could; why else write a treatise on the 10th?), I find it horribly relevant today.
This amendment, last of the Bill of Rights, can be seen as a conclusion to the Constitution as it was originally written; sort of a catch-all for anything not covered in the rest of the document. To fully understand its significance, one first must understand the intent of the framers for the Constitution. Here are a couple of quotes that might help out:
"A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate."
"A republic is the best of governments."
"Each State, in ratifying the Constitution, is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act. In this relation, then, the new Constitution will, if established, be a FEDERAL, and not a NATIONAL constitution."
I could go on all day, but a lot of you were probably educated in public school so you have neither the patience nor the ability to read anything written prior to 1995 (for the record, I was also educated in public school; I'm just a snob). The point is, the founders were pretty united by two ideas:
1. Rights are innate to man, not granted by the government.
2. Local politics are the best politics, because the public has more control over them (the basis for a Republic over a Democracy).
The first point, that our rights are innate and not granted by government, is a simple notion with severe ramifications (I'll leave the religious question out of it, for now). If it is true, then there are things that we, as humans, have a right to; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness come to mind. Any government infringing on these rights (no matter how cool their "Che" pictures look) is violating the very nature of mankind. If, on the other hand, it is not true; then all rights are arbitrary and may be enforced or repressed at the will of whoever happens to be in power. I'll take "true" for 304 million, Alec.
The second point, that local politics are the best politics, makes all kinds of sense if you think about it (it actually makes sense even if you don't think about it, but it’s best that you do; instead of just mindlessly following along like a zombie without cool powers and a thirst for brains). Not only does a person have more relative clout in a local election (one vote in a town of 10,000 voters is 0.01% of the vote, whereas one vote among 131,000,000 voters is only about 0.00000076%), but they have the advantage of having lived around the person running for office. In essence, it makes it much harder for a politician to "image build." Kind of like when Jesus said, "a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown" (oh no, the J-word!). Basically, unless we're talking about Jesus, we would know the person running for office and know that they can't walk on water; regardless of what their PR guys tell you.
So, what does this all have to do with the 10th Amendment? Well, once we understand that the Constitution was not meant to grant the Federal government power but to limit the scope of the Federal government's power, we can look at it in a proper light. In a nutshell, it says that whatever isn't laid out in the Constitution is left in the hands of the People and their States. Think about that for a minute. It means that whatever rights you think you have and whatever powers you think the government ought to have, barring what's already written down in the Constitution, are supposed to be dealt with at the State or interpersonal level. The House of Representatives and the Senate are not supposed to be the major law-making bodies in these United States; the State and local legislatures are supposed to be.
Now, for those of us who grew up post horse-and-buggy days, this seems like a foreign concept. We vote for President, maybe Senators, and call it a day- er, decade. Whereas I could wax grumpy about people not getting involved locally, I won’t because I can hardly blame them. These days, most laws are handed down from on high, while the local-yokels are there to try to bend them to suit our needs (or their own needs, if you live in California). People don’t get involved in local politics because they don’t see the relevance; and I’m not sure that they’re wrong. At least in practise.
But journey with me now [insert dream-sequence music here] into a magical realm, ruled by the 10th Amendment. All taxes go to your local government first, and most of them stay in your town. You and your neighbors decide what the rules are for schooling your children, funding your parks, police, fire, and city services. You decide where the roads need to be improved, bridges built, and monuments erected (PM me if you need a pic of me in a Superman suit for your town square; I’ve got like a dozen of them and they’re not moving on eBay). Want universal health care for your city or state? Go for it! Next to no government intervention in life and business? You’re the boss! But wait, where’s the Federal government? Don’t worry; they’re busy doing the only things they’re allowed to, like having a military and managing our (limited) international role.
OK, wake up. We’re not in dreamland anymore. The good news is, a lot of the above is still possible even under the current paradigm (I hate using that word; let’s pretend I said “zeitgeist”). The difference is, a lot of your tax money is going to the Federal government first and the local governments a distant second, third, or fiftieth. It’s not that government isn’t supposed to provide for schooling, welfare, health care, and the like; it’s that the Federal government is not supposed to. Those sorts of decisions were intended to be made on the State and local levels, where the people with the most at stake have the most control.
How do we fix it? Repealing the 16th Amendment would be a good start (that’s a whole ‘nother blog for a whole ‘nother time), but it takes something both bigger and simpler than that. We need to change the way we think about our country and the type of government it has. Would you call us a Democracy? I think most Americans would. There’s an old joke that says, “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” We need to stop looking at our country as a simple majority rule system. We were set up far better and more elegantly than that.
We are a Republic. Our rights are our own, and the government is set up to ensure those rights do not get trampled. We and our neighbors determine our own destiny. We have all of the strengths of a large nation, but all of the virtues of a small town. We flex global and act local. Until we can get back to these concepts, America is doomed to slip from what made it great into the mediocrity epidemic throughout the rest of the world. The choice, and the burden, are ours.