February 25, 2010 at 1:00 am

Nolan Finley

Tea Partiers hold true to the 10th

The latest marginalization of the Tea Party movement dubs its members "tenthers" and finds in their obsession with the 10th Amendment evidence of quackery, or perhaps even racism.

Tea Partiers do like to wave the 10th Amendment, which gives to the states and the people any powers not specifically delegated by the Constitution to the federal government. They find in it justification for their campaign to derail health care reform and other huge expansions of government's footprint. Since the Constitution doesn't mention health care -- or education, or the environment or a host of other things the federal bureaucracy now controls -- they say, their tax dollars have no business flowing to these programs.

Washington, of course, blew the doors off the 10th Amendment ages ago and no longer acknowledges any limits on its powers. The federal government raises and spends nearly twice as much than all the states combined.

Critics see the Tea Party's failure to acquiesce to this reality as evidence of its outdated mindset. The kindest jabs find it amusingly quaint that its followers would read the Constitution and actually think it still means what it says. The more vicious connect the revulsion to an overpowering central government to arguments in favor of slavery and against civil rights. Once again, the attacks go, racists are hiding behind states' rights.

But the Tea Party is fighting on ground that should never have been surrendered by the American people. If this movement can shine a spotlight on the rough treatment of the 10th Amendment, it will have served a noble purpose.

The Founders knew exactly what they were doing when the limits on federal reach were written into the Constitution. They understood that government works best when it works closest to the people. They also recognized that an all-powerful central government in a nation as large and diverse as the United States was even then would alienate and disenfranchise the citizenry. Free people must have considerable direct control of their affairs.

One of the major reasons for Washington's dysfunction is that it is meddling with issues -- such as health care -- that could and should be resolved at the state level, where community values and local needs can be factored and a public consensus more easily achieved. Massachusetts managed to do it, and though the result isn't perfect, the people can, if they choose, fix it more swiftly than the federal bureaucracy could.

Advocates of an ever-expanding central government have found good allies in the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which has been used to justify seizure of just about all economic activity, and in its call for Congress to provide for the "general welfare."

General welfare is a wide avenue. It can easily be twisted to give the government the right to impose any mandate, take over any function, ban any behavior in the name of the common good.

Follow that string to the end and Congress can, under the general welfare guise, collectivize any of the rights guaranteed to individuals.

The Tea Partiers see the red flags in this health care bill. They know it will shove the nation beyond the tipping point in its ability to limit the expansion of the federal government. They are hoping, perhaps naively, that the 10th Amendment will be the barrier it was intended.

If not, Washington will grow so fat on health care that there will be no hope of ever shrinking it.

Nolan Finley is editorial page editor of The Detroit News. nfinley@detnews.com">nfinley@detnews.com