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Jun 29, 2015

Why Decentralism? Beyond Left and Right

An emphasis on decentralization unites radicals on left and right in American politics, while moderates support central power.

As I have attempted to show in the previous two installments, decentralism defies the popular conceptions of both the political right and left. The right will identify with the decentralist resistance to big government and the growth and power of executive branch bureaucracies, as well as decentralism’s stress on respecting the sovereignty of smaller political units. The left will also appreciate the decentralist emphasis on the merits of localism, especially apropos of economic and environmental sustainability, and the principled opposition to big business dominance of politics and culture. The most destructive and baleful aspects of American politics today belong to “moderates” who are not only centrists, but also centralists. Decentralists, in contrast, are to be found mostly on the outer extremes of right and left, despite the fact that they share more similarities than differences.

In 1996, at the E.F. Schumacher Society’s International Decentralist Conference, Society co-founders Kirkpatrick Sale and John McClaughry observed the way in which decentralism transcends the traditional left-right spectrum. In his talk, McClaughry remarked that, at first blush, a former speechwriter for, among others, George Romney and Ronald Reagan1 may not seem to have much in common with a former “mainstay of the Students for a Democratic Society,” for whom “left anarchist” was likely a completely unobjectionable label. Sale’s lecture similarly confronted “the flat-earth delusion of politics,” submitting in its place the idea that there’s really not much daylight between “the anarchocommunalists and communitarians and communards and anarchists on the Left, and the libertarians and Jeffersonians and individualists on the Right.” And just as decentralist principles are capable of crossing party lines and political divides, so too did the opposite principles transform American politics and overtake both major parties in the twentieth century. In his history of the period from 1877 to 1920, Robert Wiebe chronicles “the emergence of a new system” in America, the transition from a decentralized “society of island communities” to a system “derived from the regulative, hierarchical needs of urban-industrial life.” The Progressive Era produced profound changes in social, political, and economic life. Increasingly centralized, governmental power incorporated “a variety of flexible administrative devices” that were previously unknown to the United States Constitution in theory or practice.

In his book Is Administrative Law Unlawful?, legal scholar Philip Hamburger argues that the powers currently vested in the administrative state represents a dangerous departure from traditional legal and constitutional principles, that the administrative agencies of the federal government now exercise law-giving and judicial functions that ought to be reserved for the Congress and the judicial branch, respectively. The problem as identified by Hamburger is fundamentally one of centralization. Roles that are meant to be neatly partitioned, performed by specialized bodies, have converged in the executive. Describing the problem “in terms of off-road driving,” Hamburger shows that the executive branch, charged with executing and enforcing the law, has for a long time arrogated to itself the unlawful power to bind subjects legislatively and judicially. Exploring the lineage of contemporary administrative law, Hamburger finds its origins in the “absolute prerogative” power enjoyed by the Crown in England, “a power outside the law,” essentially unconstrained by traditional legal limits. In the United States, the recrudescence of this kind of arbitrary power is a direct legacy of the Progressive Era’s subversion of the concept of the rule of law and the Constitution’s separation of powers. Progressives determinedly rejected the Enlightenment ideas of natural, inalienable rights. They believed that political decision-making could be understood as an exact science, one to be mastered and administered by experts in central government bodies dedicated to specific policy areas (for example, the Departments of Education, Agriculture, and Labor).

Trained bureaucrats, devoted to specialized, empirical study, were to exercise far more policy power, with the traditional separation of the three branches increasingly seen as an outmoded, needless limitation of genuine progress. As Hamburger points out, progressive reformers worried that elected lawmakers and the legislative process would move too slowly and would prove insufficiently progressive, unable to accomplish the sweeping changes they envisioned. Academics such as Frank Goodnow, a Progressive Era administrative law expert, wanted to insulate important policy questions from the rabble of popular politics and “urged the consolidation of government as a means of achieving the consolidation of society.” For the progressives, centralization of power was the route to reform and genuine social advancement—both centralization in Washington, drawing power and autonomy away from state governments, and centralization in the executive branch, usurping the constitutional functions of the legislature and the judiciary. The accomplishment of the desired goals, progressives believed, required a government that was not held in check by passé legal principles from a bygone era, before the discovery of the true, scientific understanding of the proper role of the nation-state in shaping society. Where the Constitution was designed to make the legislative process slow and deliberative, the progressive embrace of administrative law’s prerogative power would allow the government to circumvent such retarding obstacles to the transformation of politics and thus society.

Resisting the progressive attitudes that now characterize so much of both the political left and right, decentralists see rigid hierarchies and government controls as obstructing the processes of experimentation and discovery that lead to a healthy, prosperous society. Rather than a static system of uniformity, decentralism counsels, with John Stuart Mill, “that all economical experiments, voluntarily undertaken, should have the fullest license,” that only force and fraud should be prohibited. Centralized control and the resultant social and political homogeneity are to be avoided, dynamic pluralism encouraged. Here, the insights of Friedrich Hayek will prove illuminative. Decentralism as a philosophical approach denies neither that human societies require planning, nor that people must associate and act together in order to accomplish such beneficial plans. As Hayek writes in The Use of Knowledge in Society, it “is not a dispute about whether planning is to be done,” but rather about “who is to do the planning.” Centralized in a small group of bureaucrats, planning is susceptible to the difficulties that naturally attend both limited information and the inability to correctly sort even the information that is available. As Hayek teaches, “Competition, on the other hand, means decentralized planning by many separate persons.” Political and economic centralization are natural concomitants. Limiting the discretion—that is, the prerogative power—of economic rule-makers necessarily limits the kinds of favoritism and special privilege that lead to monopoly or oligopoly conditions. In the absence of such privilege, a company participating in the market can achieve great size only through maintaining exceptional value and service to consumers.2

In Organizing Locally: How the New Decentralists Improve Education, Health Care, and Trade, education and public policy professor Bruce Fuller paints a picture of how “top-heavy firms and feckless public institutions found themselves on the ropes, beset by lagging performance and fading legitimacy, now seen as potent only in eroding the human spirit.” The ideological momentum of modernism, with its preference for large, integrated institutional forms, seems to be decelerating in favor of a reconnection with community-oriented, locally rooted ways of producing and organizing. Witnessing this trend toward smaller, more autonomous bodies, steeped in an informed suspicion of the maladroit giants of twentieth century modernist ideologies, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ideas on federation and the Swiss political structure are brought to mind. Proudhon’s anarchism recommended “reciprocal and equal commitments” between local governing bodies. Proudhon’s idea of the political contract wants decision-making organizations to “remain within reasonable limits and to become profitable and convenient for all,” in which the smaller units “reserve for themselves more rights, more liberty, more authority, more property than they abandon.” In Switzerland’s system of Kantonligeist, similarly, the diversity of the Swiss population and the devolvement of power have produced not disorganization, but remarkable stability and order. In Organizing Locally, Fuller observes that it is no longer a question of “whether to decentralize massive firms and public institutions, but how to” do so effectively. Both political theory and practical examples such as that of Switzerland ought to play a role in the development of workable solutions. Careful to create distance between his “new decentralists” and libertarianism, Fuller contrasts their organizations to both government bureaucracies and market institutions. He assures his reader throughout that the decentralists he is discussing “hold little naive faith in markets alone,” distrustful of “textbook notions of pure markets populated by unregulated firms.” Fuller thus frequently falls into a familiar pattern, mistaking American corporatism, deeply shaped by government intervention, for a principled free market system. He presents “Enron’s corrupt implosion” and “Wall Street’s massive greed” as exhibits in an indictment of “pure markets.” Organizing Locally often reveals a frustrating, yet selectively applied, inability to distinguish between decentralized free market and an existing political economy of cronyist subsidies and regulatory barriers to entry. At the same time, Fuller occasionally seems keenly aware of the fact that a true, decentralized free market—the kind libertarians actually espouse—has never obtained in reality. Rather, the relationship between political and economic institutions leaves us with a messy hybrid system, the result of politics and the interplay of interests more than any neat ideological system. Furthermore, he notes that valuable decentralist contributions have come from both the left and the right, and acknowledges that “less fettered markets” have often “sparked fresh thinking.” Even within a given firm or organization, we see that a “regulation-light” approach, taking seriously horizontal forms of interacting and organizing, presents several advantages, resources and information passing more fluidly. Like so many other decentralist thinkers, Fuller deliberately and appealingly portrays “the drive to decentralize” as a novel alternative turned to “after hierarchies and markets disappoint.” And despite the confused and inconsistent perceptions of markets that litter the book, we might forgive non-libertarians for wrongly associating markets in and of themselves with the abuses of giant corporate monopolies. Discerning the differences often requires a trained eye, schooled in public choice theory and acquainted with the unintended consequences of meddlesome regulations. If markets are to be understood correctly as instantiations of—rather than departures from—decentralist principles, libertarians must be careful to avoid the trap of the false choices that are so often at the center of political dialogue (for example, the individual vs. the community, and, in Hayek’s example above, planning vs. non-planning).

The most important of Organizing Locally’s insights is the general claim that “unrelenting forces” will make the survival of “big bureaucratic organizations” increasingly difficult. Throughout political and economic life, there seems to be a growing estrangement with what Fuller calls “mammoth hierarchies.” Having witnessed a parade of failures from both, many Americans want no part of big business or big government. Cynicism and ennui are natural and, it must be noted, rational reactions to politics, to the remoteness of power and the inescapable fact that the ordinary citizen can have little or no real impact on policy and the political process generally. New technologies, particularly in the information and internet spheres, have made the small competitor more viable and more dangerous to the establishment economy. In government and public policy, people want more choice, fewer nonnegotiable directives from on high—more say in how they live their lives and the rules that govern them. Perhaps without any awareness of the fact, these people, who place more faith in friends and neighbors than in politics, are natural decentralists, creating communities and project for themselves, without permission or hesitation. In the spirit of Kirkpatrick Sale and John McClaughry, of Murray Rothbard in his Left and Right days, decentralists and libertarians of all sorts ought to search each other out and start conversations about reshaping our politics and culture around genuine, human-scale communities. The colorless politics of modernism and progressivism have had their time. The exciting heterogeneity of network culture has started us down the path toward a vibrant, tolerant system of free people and independent organizations, decentralized and libertarian in principle.


  1. Delivering a speech by McClaughry, Reagan said, “I am calling for an end to giantism, for a return to the human scale—the scale that human beings can understand and cope with; the scale of the local fraternal lodge, the church congregation, the block club, the farm bureau.”
  2. As Murray Rothbard writes in Man, Economy, and State, “Our conclusion is that economics can make few valid statements about the optimal size of a firm except that the free market will come as close as possible to rendering maximum service to consumers, whether we are considering the size of a firm or any other aspect of production.”

This is part of a series