Union blues

by Henry on September 5, 2003

“Iain Murray”:http://www.iainmurray.org/MT/archives/000267.html blogs approvingly on a recent Robert Helmer speech. Helmer claims that federalism in the European Union doesn’t have much in common with its American equivalent; it isn’t democratic, and it isn’t really federalism either. He’s trying to square a rather inconvenient circle for the righties – by and large, right-wingers in the UK and US approve of federalism in the US (more rights for the states), but disapprove of it in Europe. Helmer’s basic argument is that federalism is only legitimate if it applies within a single nation-state, where people share a common national identity and common sympathies. Thus, EU federalism is Bad – there’s no such thing as a European national identity. However, US federalism is Good – after all America is ‘One Nation under God.’

There’s one small problem with this argument. Any half-way intelligent reading of American history will tell you that it’s utter nonsense. 150 years ago, the US bore a remarkable resemblance to the EU today; a scattering of loosely affiliated states without all that much of a shared national identity. Then, from the Civil War on, it began to centralize. If Helmer and Murray are right, then, the modern American political system is at best a massive mistake, and at worst, a democratically illegitimate usurpation of powers by a centralizing federal government.

Helmer claims that

bq. federalism can deliver a model of limited, democratic government within a nation. It cannot do so within an association of distinct nations.

bq. Democracy is more than simple arithmetic and majority voting. Democracy presupposes a group of people who feel that they are in the same boat, that they are part of a common enterprise. … Clearly, these conditions apply in the USA. Equally clearly, they do not and cannot apply in the 15 (soon to be 25) diverse nations of the EU.

But the US in the early 19th century was very probably just such an association of diverse nations. As Daniel Deudney argues^1^, the US had little to nothing in the way of a common ethnic identity.

bq. The least important feature of identity in the Philadelphian system was ethnic and national. … First, the British colonies that claimed independence in 1776 were filled with people whose language, ‘race,’ religion and political differences were not very different from those of Britain. … Second, sectional identities were strong, and the southern states that sought to achieve independence in the war of 1861-64 claimed to constitute a separate nation, and met many of the criteria normally associated with a nation. … Third, the differences of national identity between Canada and the United States do not appear as great as the difference among Americans. Either the United States was part of a multistate nation or the United States was a multinational union (215-16).

Americans were united more by a ‘republican civic identity’ (a bit like the ‘constitutional patriotism’ that Habermas proposes for Europe) than by a shared sense of nationality.

Second, Helmer claims that

bq. When we, loosely and mistakenly, describe European integration as federalist, we are speaking of a continual transfer of powers to centralised institutions. … Valery Giscard d’Estaing may pretend that his Convention has drafted an EU Constitution which bears comparison with the US Constitution, but it is wholly different. … Federalism in the USA is a workable model for democratic accountability in a single nation. The EU Constitution is a model for the subjection of historic nation-states to unaccountable centralised institutions which are not, and cannot be, democratic.

But the development of the US political system involved precisely the kind of transfer of powers from independent states to a centralized federal authority that Helmer doesn’t like. As Deudney documents it, the antebellum US political system was more like a loose collectivity of semi-autonomous states than a federal state in the modern sense of the word. Not only was there little in the way of a common US identity before the Civil War; the states within the US weren’t all that dissimilar from the states within the EU today.America’s founding fathers feared that states without some form of intimate connection would be likely to go to war with each other; thus, they created a “union [which] … fell far short of a complete merger.” The central government was constrained from going to war on its own accord. Police and law enforcement were left almost entirely in the hands of the states. As Deudney nicely describes it, the US “had a government, but was not a state.”

Nor did the US have much in the way of an integrated economy. As Kate McNamara “documents”:http://www.wws.princeton.edu/~mcnamara/statebuilding.pdf at length, the US had little in the way of a unified monetary system before the Civil War; even though the federal government issued gold and silver coins, state and local banks issued their own paper money, leading to monetary chaos, and widely varying internal exchange rates for dollars from different banks.

In the wake of the Civil War, the US developed a proper unified currency, and then, over time, a more powerful centralized government. The central institutions of the US, over time, developed into the conventional trappings of the state, including most prominently a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence within the US. The federal system that Helmer likes so much is a result of this push towards centralization.

All of which means that Helmer’s argument rests on a basic contradiction. On the one hand, he can argue that the EU is illegitimate, because it involves the centralization of authority in an association of distinct nations. But this means that the creation of the modern US federalist system was just as illegitimate – it too, involved such a centralization of power among semi-autonomous states without much in the way of shared sense of nationality. And by force to boot. Or, alternatively, he can argue that the current US federal system is legitimate – but this implies that EU integration processes are potentially legitimate too. He can’t have it both ways.

^1^ Daniel Deudney, “The Philadelphian System: Sovereignty, Arms Control and Balance of Power in the American States-Union, Circa 1787-1861, _International Organization_ 49,2 (Spring 1995), 191-228.



Jimmy Doyle 09.05.03 at 3:30 am

Surely you overstate the resemblance between Europe now and the North American states in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. What about hundreds (or thousands) of years of separate cultural incubation, different and largely mutually unintelligible languages, centuries-long traditions of independent sovereignty, largely incommensurable political systems…the list is indefinitely extendable. As Jim Treacher might say, “Department of chalk and cheese? How may I help you?”


Henry 09.05.03 at 4:03 am

Jimmy – fair points – all of which bear on the practical question of whether a US equivalent will ever emerge in Europe. Like you, I don’t see that happening (especially because the tried and tested methods of nation-building – war and bloodshed – are more or less ruled out) But the Helmer speech is about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of European integration, which seems to me to be a rather different question. If you start from Helmer’s position, as he states it, it seems to me that either you concede that European integration is potentially legitimate (or at least not illegitimate on the grounds that he lays out), or else you concede that the creation of the US was illegitimate. It’s a different question, it seems to me.


Bob 09.05.03 at 4:15 am

“150 years ago, the US bore a remarkable resemblance to the EU today; a scattering of loosely affiliated states without all that much of a shared national identity. Then, from the Civil War on, it began to centralize.”

If we follow this historicist line, presumably what we Europeans need is another thoroughly good war to stir up some real enthusiasm for federalism in Europe. But why do we need a federal, rather than a confederal Europe of nation states and why now? I’ve not noticed much enthusiasm on the part of Canadians to join the US of A. It seems very likely that similar sentiments might apply in parts of Europe too.

Federal America developed from the outset with a single currency but that is not so in Europe and in prevailing circumstances it is impossible to pretend monetary union in the EU has been an unqualified success. Besides, as Bernard Connolly observes in the preface to the P/B edition of: The Rotten Heart of Europe (1996): “the idea of monetary union as a barrier against the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world has been made more explicit than ever before: in March 1996, for example, the Belgian Finance Minister said baldly that monetary union was about ‘preventing the encroachment of Anglo-Saxon values’ in Europe.”

To gain a better sense of what could be entailed by that consider: “While Western Europe reported no net new jobs from 1973 to 1994, the United States generated 38 million net new jobs.” [Lester Thurow: The Future of Capitalism (1996), citing the Economic Report of the US President 1995]


tc 09.05.03 at 6:27 am

Legitimacy is ultimately decided by what the population considers as legitimate. Can anyone conceive of a EU Civil War where some countries (France and Germany?) go to war over some other countries that secede, and then where the losers accept defeat peacefully and rejoin the union? I don’t think so.


Scott Martens 09.05.03 at 11:19 am

Jimmy – Deudney is wrong in one fairly critical respect. The US in 1776 was not quite so close a reflection of the UK in terms of culture and ethnicity as it’s made out to be, and the US became more, not less, diverse over the course of the 19th century. In 1787, the US had one state with a German speaking majority, another with a large Dutch speaking community, still another where Swedish was widely spoken, and no less than three states where sizeable areas were francophone. This is on top of the large African and aboriginal minorities present in much of the union.

At the time of independence, the US hoped that Upper and Lower Canada – now Ontario and Quebec, but at the time resolutely francophone and Catholic areas – would join the union soon and passed bills to ease the transition. The founders certainly understood the US to be a mutlicultural, multiethnic and even multilingual federation – not a nation-state as understood much later in the late 19th century.

As time passed, multiculturalism became still more firmly established in the US. Until the Civil War, public affaris were conducted in French in Louisiana and in much of New England. As late as the 1970 census, there were still counties in three US states with francophone majorities. There were monolingual German-speaking third generation Americans until WWI, and in a large section of the plains Norwegian was effectively the sole community language until the beginning of the 20th century. The territories the US annexed from Mexico had Spanish-speaking majorities, and the state of New Mexico still interprets the Treaty of Guadeloupe-Hildago as mandating Spanish-bilingual government services.

The post-Civil War period – the era when the supremacy of the Federal government finally went unchallenged – was the period when the US was probably the least linguistically and culturally uniform in its history. The EU is already arguably more uniform than the US was in 1880.


Jane Galt 09.05.03 at 12:23 pm

Squaring the circle? Surely the objection of the right is to the power anti-democratically arrogated to itself by an unelected bureaucracy in Brussels, not the fact that they have chosen a federal structure. And since federalism in America involves moving more power away from the center, while federalism in Europe involves moving more power to it, I don’t see how liking one and disliking the other are incompatible opinions.


Barry 09.05.03 at 12:32 pm

It amazes me that so many people seem to have forgotten WWI and WWII. How many people from the present EU area were killed in those wars, in the space of 30 years? Tens of millions?

Western Europe has gone through a bloody war phase, and is trying to make sure that there is no repeat.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 09.05.03 at 2:34 pm

As for Europe’s “hundreds of years of separate cultural incubation,” well, Anglo-American culture in North America didn’t start in 1776, either.


Doug 09.05.03 at 2:38 pm

Quoth Jane Galt: “And since federalism in America involves moving more power away from the center, while federalism in Europe involves moving more power to it…”

Please support the first half of this contention with recent examples; it would be helpful if you could distinguish between movements that carry a partisan (particularly Republican) advantage, as opposed to those enacted to further federalism. Otherwise, if yould be possible to claim that federalism in America involves moving power into the hands of a single party, while federalism in Europe involves something else.


Nicholas Weininger 09.05.03 at 2:55 pm

I’m puzzled. Why should we reject out of hand the idea that the modern centralized US *is* a massive mistake *and* an illegitimate usurpation of powers? That seems pretty obviously true to me.

Now, granted, I’m a radical Anti-Federalist libertarian, and the authors of the quoted article may well not share my beliefs. If that’s so, they are indeed hypocrites. But it seems wrong to me to exclude the possibility that they might be consistent decentralists, or to dismiss arguments against EU centralization just by noting that they also apply against American centralization.


Barry 09.05.03 at 4:26 pm

Because it doesn’t seem to be a massive mistake to
a majority of the population of the USA, perhaps?


Nicholas Weininger 09.05.03 at 5:16 pm

No, that’s not a good reason at all. The will of the majority has no relation whatsoever to the truth– especially when said majority has been educated in government indoctrination camps.


james 09.05.03 at 5:33 pm

Surely for a functioning pan-European democracy to exist a common European language is needed. No such language now exists, in contrast to present day USA.

I would guess that functioning democracy was less of a priority in 1776 America than we would hope it is in Europe today, or at least that the concept of democracy is very differant.


Henry 09.05.03 at 5:51 pm

_Surely for a functioning pan-European democracy to exist a common European language is needed._

For starters, Switzerland? Canada? India?


clew 09.05.03 at 6:40 pm

Besides, teenagers in Western Europe seem to have learned all the common European languages, and I personally expect a fascinating creole of the lot of them plus txting.

More on WWI and WWII; they cut down the linguistic variety in the US a whole lot: many non-English schools and newspapers shut down out of fear or US patriotism or increased expense, and never started up again.


Steady Eddie 09.05.03 at 11:00 pm

Once again, the lack of historical memory in current, shallow, self-serving political “debate” is appalling.

James Madison, Federalist 10 (only what is probably the most famous single essay in the Federalist Papers):

“…the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than the latter…. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens…. the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic,–is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it… In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.”

Madison was identifying a basic insight into human nature that was certainly never dependent on anything like a “national identity,” much less any characteristic then or later distinctive to the US. In Madison’s most insightful view, diversity (rather than homogeneity) of federal components strengthens the potential of a larger republic to protect minority rights against the tyranny of the majority.


FDL 09.05.03 at 11:39 pm

“The will of the majority has no relation whatsoever to the truth— especially when said majority has been educated in government indoctrination camps.”

This is certainly a true statement in certain areas, like evolution. But in political theory? I’m not so sure that Mr. Weininger’s statement has any meaning.

(Of course, if I’m right, then if Iraqis pick a sharia-based judicial system the US will have to live with it. Seems unlikely. Maybe there is absolute truth in political theory — at least according to the ruling party in the US.)


james 09.06.03 at 12:03 am

The real concern over EU federalism is not in federalism per say. Its in the perceived loss of democracy. The concern over the EU federalism is in the power structure. In the US, elected representatives set the laws that define future regulations. Contrast this with the EU, where the agencies (Brussels) set the laws. In effect, the EU bureaucracy rules the EU federation.

Keep in mind, During the height of the Soviet Union, it too was considered a federal government.


Meban 02.20.04 at 1:13 pm

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