Huffpost Politics

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Robert A. Levine Headshot

Revive the Articles of Confederation

Posted: Updated:

Thankfully, this proposal from my friend, Whistler (short for Whistleblower) lacks the paranoid features of his last two communications ("A Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy", May 5, 2010; and "The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy: Update", July 12, 2010)). Indeed he contends that his proposal should appeal to the left wing as well as his own "conservatives"--and he may be correct.

The United States, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century faces three sets of overwhelming problems: economic problems, particularly continuing high unemployment for which we can find no agreed remedy; political problems, stemming in part from the economic problems and leading to extreme polarization; and international security problems--with Iraq seemingly "solved", but Afghanistan continuing to deteriorate, while faraway places like Yemen and Somalia are coming into play.

Each of these reinforces the others. Is there no way out? There is--going far back into American history. Much as it pains a conservative to admit it, the Constitution is obsolete. We must discard it and return to the Articles of Confederation that preceded it.

Of course the Articles, agreed to in 1777, cannot be completely applicable to modern circumstances--the Constitution, after all, has been amended twenty-six times--but the Articles can be updated judiciously by reference to the Constitutional amendments themselves (e.g., the abolition of slavery), adaptation to current realities such as the differences in transportation and communication systems, and even examination of the recent experience of the European Union. (The last really pains me, but the EU is, after all, the inheritor of conservative traditions far older than ours.)

The essence of the Articles of Confederation lies in two of its short sections:

Article II, right up front, unlike its weaker successor, the tenth amendment to the Constitution, says in full:

Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled


Article V makes state sovereignty real by describing in a single sentence the entire structure of the national government:

For the most convenient management of the general interests of the united States [the lower-case "u" is not a typo], delegates shall be annually appointed in such manner as the legislatures of each State [nor is the upper-case "S"] shall direct, to meet in Congress on the first Monday in November, in every year, with a power reserved to each State to recall its delegates, or any of them, at any time within the year, and to send others in their stead for the remainder of the year.

That's it. No president, no national judiciary, supreme or otherwise; just a Congress representing the states.

One likely adaptation would be the voluntary folding of some of the states into coalitions. The Articles were written for 13 states; the EU is proving very clumsy with 27 sovereign states, and a confederation of 50 American sovereignties might well be impossible. California and New York are large enough and unique enough (thank goodness) to stand alone, but New England forms a natural ideological as well as geographical coalition, as do several groupings of southern and midwestern states.

It can be done. But why do it? Referring to the three sets of problems:

The economic issues are surely best handled state by state. Circumstances differ, ideologies differ even more. California and New York, having dug themselves deeply into their own holes, should get out by their own means, perhaps Keynesian in both cases. Texas and South Carolina would undoubtedly adopt more prudent courses. The same differences would govern business regulation. Let New England regulate to its heart's content; a Rocky Mountain coalition would do much less.

Economic sovereignty could be somewhat limited, as it is in the European Union. EU is an effective bargaining unit on trade issues. True, it also issues constraining stultifying regulations covering everything from budget deficits to the names of cheeses, but the sovereign members mostly ignore them. EU has a common currency, but does not require its members to use it. The dollar has a much more hallowed tradition than the euro and most members of the new United States would surely continue to use it, but they need not be required to.

Political polarization would be so clearly eased under the new Articles that this needs little comment. Let blue states be blue, red will be red.

All of this, of course, seems ineffably conservative, and admittedly it is. Could liberals possibly countenance the breakup of the system of national economic management that they have built since the New Deal?


In the international sphere, although it was Democratic Secretary of State Madeline Albright who called America the "indispensable nation", liberals were never really comfortable with that, particularly as its implications became clear under President George W. Bush. President Obama has now recognized that in Afghanistan and elsewhere America as the sole world power must continue to intervene. Liberals are extremely uncomfortable with this fact of life, and as new occasions arise--new terrorist havens in Yemen and Somalia, new disasters in Haiti and Pakistan, new massacres in Sudan and Zimbabwe, new atrocities against women and others--the discomfort will become acute.

Nonetheless, America will continue to bear the responsibility so long as it remains the sole world power, and it will be a long time before any challenger arises. China is on the way up, but real rivalry will take may decades.

Waiting for China to share world responsibility is of course not the answer. Rather, the new Articles of Confederation will recreate the United States in the same powerless "who us?" model as the EU. The EU is similar in population and wealth to the U.S., but its military forces and decisions are determined by its members, not the Union. The result is token expenditure and token strength, illustrated by token contributions to international operations almost always led by the U.S.

Henry Kissinger's famous question, "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" remains unanswered. Under the Articles of Confederation, with no executive to call, it will become unanswerable by the United States. The burden of responsibility will be gone, and liberals will be very happy.

The left-right coalition for a new "constitutional" convention to adapt and adopt the Articles of Confederation should begin forming soon.

This author, however, has one additional request. Please do not describe this by the usual liberal term. "A modest proposal", after Jonathan Swift's proposal to solve Irish poverty by having them eat their babies.

That was satire. This is real!