Old Trend: Constitutional Conservatism; New Trend: Pre-Constitutional Conservatism

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Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Amity Shlaes’s latest column for Bloomberg News argues that all federal taxes should instead be collected by the states. This might seem kind of radical, but, Shlaes explains, it has been done before:

There will be objections, of course. The first is that states’ collecting the money isn’t our tradition. It is, actually. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states, not individuals, owed payments to the federal government.

Well, there you have it! It worked under the Articles of Confederation! I can’t think of any objections to citing that highly successful governing arrangement as a model.

Shlaes’s bizarre argument here is the latest signpost in the “Constitutional Conservative” movement, which is a general trend among right-wing activists that claims that the Constitution requires the enactment of their preferred economic policies. The movement stretches from right-wing legal types to old white guys wearing colonial garb at Tea Party rallies. The general and recurrent flaw in their reasoning is that they assume that one side in an ongoing argument among the Founders was the sole legitimate expression of the national tradition. Often the movement’s definition of “The Founders” turns out to be the people who were arguing against the Founders.

As Andrew Koppelman put it, they “read the Constitution as if the Antifederalists had won.” Of course, the trick here is to pretend that their side did win. Actually going ahead and citing the Articles of Confederation as your model undermines the case a bit.