Let’s Read the Federalist — and Constitution — Right

Over at Jay P. Greene’s blog, Greg Forster takes issue with those who say that the Constitution does not permit federal excursions like No Child Left Behind. I address these concerns over at the New Talk discussion underway since yesterday, and encourage you to check that out. I offer only one, I think fairly conclusive, rebuttal to Forster here.

Greg calls on Federalist Papers nos. 47-51 to argue that federal intervention in state authority over education is presumptively okay because the principle behind checks and balances requires that each federal branch have some power over the others. He admits that these argument are not about federal authority over states, but invokes the Federalist nonetheless.

Unfortunately, Greg misses the clear point of both the Federalist and Constitution concerning federal-state relations. The federal government is given only specific, enumerated powers (see Article 1, Section 8) and all others are reserved to the states or people. It’s put that simply in the Tenth Amendment, and Madison was very clear in Federalist no. 41 that no reading of the Constitution, not even the vaunted “general welfare” clause, gives the federal government authority to be involved in anything outside of the specific, enumerated powers.

“For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power?” Madison asks. “Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.”

There are arguments for why the federal government should be involved in education — though none that are convincing — but they won’t be found in the Federalist Papers.