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In Federalist #33 Alexander Hamilton writes in order to assure us that the federal government would not become the monstrosity that it has become today. When Hamilton thinks of himself as a federalist, and as he supported the creation of a national bank in order to improve the credit position of the US government, he probably had in mind that people like the ones he was hanging out with during the revolutionary and constitutional era would be the ones running the show. Here are two “oops” moments from Hamilton:

(1) Here he assures all of us that laws on inheritance could not possibly ever become the domain of the federal government:

(2) Here he assures all of us that taxes on land could not possibly ever become the domain of the federal government:

But it may be again asked, Who is to judge of the necessity and propriety of the laws to be passed for executing the powers of the Union? I answer, first, that this question arises as well and as fully upon the simple grant of those powers as upon the declaratory clause; and I answer, in the second place, that the national government, like every other, must judge, in the first instance, of the proper exercise of its powers, and its constituents in the last. If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify. The propriety of a law, in a constitutional light, must always be determined by the nature of the powers upon which it is founded. Suppose, by some forced constructions of its authority (which, indeed, cannot easily be imagined), the Federal legislature should attempt to vary the law of descent in any State, would it not be evident that, in making such an attempt, it had exceeded its jurisdiction, and infringed upon that of the State? Suppose, again, that upon the pretense of an interference with its revenues, it should undertake to abrogate a land tax imposed by the authority of a State; would it not be equally evident that this was an invasion of that concurrent jurisdiction in respect to this species of tax, which its Constitution plainly supposes to exist in the State governments? If there ever should be a doubt on this head, the credit of it will be entirely due to those reasoners who, in the imprudent zeal of their animosity to the plan of the convention, have labored to envelop it in a cloud calculated to obscure the plainest and simplest truths.

I imagine this  may have started out in one of those political theaters like we see today. “Well Mr. Hamilton, I see that the federal government cannot levy property taxes but what would you say a “royalty” payment is that minerals producers are “asked” to pay?”  Not even the founders of the country could solve the time inconsistency problem. The only way to solve it is to not rely on “credible” commitments. At least not formally written ones. Ever.

One Response to “The Understanding and Ideas of the Framers”

  1. Harry says:

    Sorry, WC, you lost me with the “time inconsistency problem.”

    Madison an Hamilton understood a lot about human nature and its weaknesses, at least that is my guess. The Federalists had first-hand experience with tyranny, which may be more sophisticated today, but has not changed much since the days of the big guy with the jawbone in his hands, commanding the waterhole.

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