Throughout the tea party movement, and among many conservatives and libertarians lately, there have been cries for "state sovereignty." Much of this has to do with a reaction to the overreach of the federal government, which has gone on since the Progressive Era in the early twentieth century and accelerated with the New Deal and the Great Society programs.
The latest infringements of federal power on the states has come in the form of federal bailouts for failed corporations and federal mandates for states and individuals in the realm of health care. But is a cry for "state sovereignty" the answer? According to the U.S. Constitution... absolutely not.
But what about the Tenth Amendment? Let's revisit the words in that amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Now, don't get me wrong. I agree with just about everyone who agrees with what the Tenth Amendment actually says. But let's get things straight. There is a role for both the states and the federal government. The states are not sovereign.
In addition to the use of the term "state sovereignty," some use the term "state's rights." For many others, the use of the term "state's rights" conjures up images of slavery and the Confederacy. Well, both sides of that debate are wrong. It is true that state's have a role to play, but rights? Does the federal government have "rights"? Absolutely not - they have powers delegated to it by the consent of the governed (i.e. "We the People"). In this same sense, states also do not have rights, they merely have powers delegated to them. "Rights" and "powers" are two very different things.
So, what about "we the people"? Do we, as individuals, have rights? Yes. In fact, we're the only ones that do. Our founders also laid out these rights in a very controversial (especially for their time) Bill of Rights. Some at the time, who believed the people already had these natural rights, as granted by their Creator, did not think they needed to be spelled out in the Constitution or in any amendments to that Constitution, for they were a given. But, as a compromise with those that did want them spelled out, they went ahead and wrote these rights into words in order that the Constitution be ratified. Fair enough, but that's where our confusion set in; because for some people today, a written Bill of Rights makes them believe that government is the grantor of "rights." Absolutely not. The people have the rights, as the Declaration of Independence stated, they are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." The people thus have the liberties to govern themselves, with the only exception being the "powers" they consented to have delegated to the various levels of government (local, state, and federal).
For those in our movement that want to reign in the overreaching powers of the federal government, we need to stop using the terms "state's rights" or "state sovereignty." Government (federal, state, or local) does not have "rights." Government only has "powers," and only those powers delegated by we the people.
And individual states are not sovereign. The last time they were sovereign was before the Constitution was ratified in 1789, and arguably before the Articles of Confederation were put into place during the War for Independence in 1781. The states joined together in a loose confederation then and later, under the Constitution, into a federal republic, in which some powers were delegated to the federal government, while others were retained by the states and by the people.
That said it is imperative, for the sake of our Union, that the Tenth Amendment movement should go forward. The federal government has certainly usurped more powers than the U.S. Constitution has granted it. States need to check the federal government's power and use the Constitution to do so. But we must abandon this language of "state sovereignty" and "state's rights" fast, before we lose the ultimate battle. Rather, we need to educate more people on the principle of federalism, which provides a role for states and a role for the federal government. It is part of the ultimate checks and balances, just as (if not more important) than the separation of powers in the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial).
We must get a grip back on the language of the role of the various levels and branches of government. That language is right inside the Tenth Amendment itself. We must speak of the various "powers delegated" and must educate more people on which of those powers are for the federal government and which are left to the states and the people.