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April 2015

Why Decentralism? An Exit and a Promising Alternative

D’Amato examines the arguments presented by a range of advocates for decentralism in government and the private sector.

Starting with my previous column on decentralism, I have been considering the idea of decentralism as it relates to the philosophy of liberty and investigating the practical implications of this connection. Libertarians ought to carefully evaluate the claim that our principles, once enacted, would lead to smaller organizations with more horizontal management structures. The historical and ideological ties that bind decentralism and libertarianism are strong, the two being close kin, complementing and underpinning one another. Given the degree of political and economic centralization existing today, libertarians must make a close reassessment of decentralism a priority; indeed, it is a necessity if libertarianism is to provide relevant answers to today’s social, economic, and environmental problems.

The American individualist anarchists regarded economic centralization and, in Josiah Warren’s terminology, “artificial combinations” as obstacles to genuine independence and thus to equitable economic relations; they saw capitalism not as a system of private property and free competition, but as fundamentally a system of middlemen, rent-seekers, and rent-takers taking a toll on commercial transactions as a result of privileges granted to them against the principles of free markets and free access to natural resources. Fully free markets would, they argued, have a dispersive and distributive effect, a centrifugal force whose results would, by definition, be the fairest distribution of wealth. Through his own experiments, reactions to his experiences with Robert Owen’s hierarchical and centrally planned utopianism, Josiah Warren was dedicated to “showing how competition is converted into being a regulator rather than a destroyer,” to ending the conflict between labor and capital that was the focus of the socialist project during Warren’s life.

Warren’s socialism was always ultimately built around the principle of individual sovereignty, and he expressed an aversion to a language of class conflict that reduced individuals to their membership in certain vaguely defined groups. In a letter to a friend shortly before his death, Warren rejected the “wholesale denunciation of ordinary business men as ‘thieves and robbers’ because they live on profits,” revealing the determinism inherited from Owen in adding that “[i]t is philosophically wrong to punish people for being what their birth, training and surroundings make them.” Foreshadowing future divisions in the anarchist movement, particularly those between communists and individualists, Warren furthermore regarded his friend’s desire to see labor expropriate wealth from its current owners as “ridiculous” and “def[ying] all rational criticism.” He worried that if such expropriations and attacks on private property in general were the goals of labor reform, it would “repel many of the best of men,” proclaiming, “If this is reform, I refuse to be classed as a Reformer.” For the victory of equity for the producer to be true and complete, Warren thought, it must be the result neither of a revolutionary uprising against proprietors nor of any other momentary or political cataclysm. Rather, the ends of equitable commerce must be reached by the means of equitable commerce, by the gradual evolution initiated through decentralized economic arrangements.

Thus is Warren, despite his association with socialism, ideologically far closer to today’s free market libertarians than to today’s libertarian communists or socialists. His thought made private property in land “the first step in Civilization,” and he made no apology for his view that the opposition to such property among socialists “looks to me…like insane fanaticism.” Was not the goal of socialism, Warren argued, to make of each individual a property owner, and thereby to end the exploitation of the many by the few? In Warren’s life and work, then, we find a trenchant criticism of concentrated wealth and power undertaken by way of a plea for, rather than an attack on, private property and market exchange. His defense of private property is analogous to Benjamin Tucker’s later apology for wage labor, “the purchase and sale of labor,” so deeply reviled by other currents in the broad movement of socialism. In an 1888 number of Liberty, Tucker arraigned the anarchist communist Johann Most for objecting to the existence of the wage relationship itself, calling Most’s communism “pseudo-Anarchism.” Tucker writes, “Labor should be paid! Horrible, isn’t it? Why, I thought that the fact that it is not paid was the whole grievance.” For Tucker, no particular economic relationship or organizational form was necessarily problematic, at least insofar as no one invaded the individual sovereignty of another.

Though he made certain very specific predictions about what the economy would look like under a libertarian political system, Tucker never wanted to use the power of the state to achieve the conditions he desired. Still, he anticipated the views of many contemporary decentralists on economies of scale—or diseconomies of scale, as the case may be. He thought that, in a true free market, firms would tend to be smaller and more local. Accordingly, he saw state socialism, communism, and capitalism alike as embodying the principle of centralization and concentrated wealth. Again responding to arguments from Most, Tucker argued that the centralizing tendency was “but a phase of progress,” destined to be reversed as processes “become cheaper, more compact, more easily manageable, until they shall come again within the capacity of individuals and small combinations.” The giant trusts of his day, he contended, were not creatures of open competition, but parasitic institutions existing for their own sake rather than for that of either consumers or stockholders. Law professor Butler Shaffer argues that the institution, as such, is defined by the fact that it places “the preservation of the organization” above the goals, practices, and projects out of which it first emerged; the people inside the institution become secondary, an afterthought, swallowed by the grinding gears of the machine itself, mere fuel in the furnaces of the administrative apparatus.

Among many libertarians, the prevailing ideas about corporations tend to treat them as embodiments of free enterprise and therefore as well-oiled machines, their competitive environment simply demanding that they run efficiently. Arguing that, in fact, “smaller businesses are far more efficient than big businesses,” the nonprofit Saving Communities points out that insofar as corporations are also gigantic bureaucratic swamps, they are just as susceptible to inefficiency and management self-serving as government bodies. Despite the gospel of economics of scale, then, the claim that efficiency simply demands large size and highly integrated firms, there are reasons to doubt the viability of huge, centralized corporations. For as E.F. Schumacher writes in Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, “[A]s soon as great size has been created there is often a strenuous attempt to create smallness within bigness.”

Just as Benjamin Tucker once did, contemporary libertarians such as Roderick Long have argued persuasively that genuine free markets would mean significantly smaller firms, less hierarchically structured and more likely to be owned and controlled by those who work in them. Were we to more closely inspect the methods through which the largest multinational corporations escape competition, libertarians might not be surprised that big business and big government come out looking quite similar as centers of waste. Indeed, such a close inspection may lead us to join individualist anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker in regarding capitalism as chiefly characterized by its privileges rather than its adherence to what libertarians actually consider free market principles.

The ideas of Catholic thinkers G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc recall individualist anarchism in hoping for a society of free and independent peasants and artificers, in which property is widely and relatively evenly distributed. Catholic philosophical thought going back to St. Thomas Aquinas emphasizes the importance of individual conscience, carefully safeguarded to allow free will to operate outside of arbitrary commands, to discover the natural law by applying independent judgment and reason. Chesterton, of course, was a great student of Aquinas and wrote what is often considered the greatest of all books on the philosopher monk whose work would become so important in Western thought. Following Aquinas and his emphasis on freeing the reasoning power of the individual, Chesterton and Belloc examined the social and political aspects of subordination, the elements of modern life that yoked the individual to dominating institutions and prevented independence and self-sufficiency. They saw capitalism, no less than socialism, as one such dominating influence. Further, their belief in a Thomistic “Science of Man,” through which we are able to answer fundamental questions about human nature and man’s role in the cosmos, led them to suspect that the kind of centralized economic subjugation furnished by both capitalism and socialism was deeply unnatural. Their alternative to both, distributism, was implied in the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. “Put simply,” writes Joseph Pearce, “the principle of subsidiarity rests on the assumption that the rights of small communities—e.g., families or neighborhoods—should not be violated by the intervention of larger communities—e.g., the state or centralized bureaucracies.”

Critics of distributism, particularly advocates of free markets, have argued that its quaint longing for village communities of small-holding peasant farmers and artisans would itself require the introduction of stifling coercion, governing bodies that would forbid, as one distributist puts it, “the frivolity of modern city life.”1 Worries about the use of political force to achieve the distributist ideal are not entirely unfounded. Belloc himself argued in The Restoration of Property that insofar as capitalism had used violence and the power of the state to institute “servile conditions,” distributists were quite justified in the use force. We might therefore distinguish between political distributism—distributism as an end goal in itself—and distributism merely as the (now speculative) practical result of more libertarian political and economic structures. In its “attempt to socially nurture the ethic and spirit of the bourgeois,”2 distributism shares rather obvious commonalities with early anarchist thought, particularly as we find it in Tucker and in the first self-styled anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. In contrast to later iterations of anarchism that were explicitly communist, and thus execrated bourgeois values, Proudhon’s anarchism was profoundly shaped by his early experiences with country artisans, skilled craftsmen operating independently. These experiences persuaded Proudhon that the pathway to political and economic liberation was a network of self-organized, worker-controlled bodies, a decentralized federation with its own bank of the people.

The distributist aspiration “to construct institutions appropriate to the human person” in turn evokes Kirkpatrick Sale, whose decentralist work has argued for such libertarian ideas as secession and the devolution of government powers. Like the distributists, Sale and his contemporary decentralist movement have explicitly described their ideas as a “third way,” indeed, identifying the distributists as important forerunners. And again like the English distributists, Sale understands the coadjuvant relationship between political and economic power. Rather than seeing large-scale modern governments as curbing the abusive power of global corporations, Sale regards the former as the “handmaidens” of the latter. Today, the supposed left and right wings of the American political class are essentially united in embracing centralism in all of its aspects, whatever the various labels they fancy. Democrats and Republicans compete for a narrow sliver at the authoritarian center of politics, both parties equally devoted to a set of institutions and policies that are never up for debate and can never be changed through the electoral process.

Similar to the individualist anarchism and distributism that preceded it, the decentralism of Kirkpatrick Sale and others defies the oversimplified and too often hollow false dichotomy of left and right, liberal and conservative, that obtains in the United States and elsewhere. Decentralists want to transform the debate itself, to place socialism and capitalism together on one side—the side of “centralizing, big-government twentieth-century forces”—and a genuinely free society on the other. As the Center for a Stateless Society’s Kevin Carson observed over ten years ago, “Today, as much as ever, the good guys on the left and right fringe have more in common with each other than with the bad guys in the corporate center.” In our relations with what Wilhelm Röpke phrased the “cult of the colossal,” the reverential submission to gigantic, cheerless bureaucracies, decentralists are iconoclasts. We want to change the way people think about what role the state and other massive institutions ought to play in our lives.

Sale’s work demonstrates that proposing secession as a political strategy is not just for right-wingers or neo-confederates. A permanent egress from the American empire now appeals to both right and left, however defined, as opposition to costly and precarious foreign entanglements and collusive corporate welfare and favoritism bring together Americans with very different views and backgrounds. A desire to find a permanent exit from what the historian of anarchism George Woodcock termed “the soulless world that was developing around them” led radicals throughout the nineteenth century to reexamine the decentralist impulse and to establish small, experimental communities wherein they might put their ideas to the test. At least on a very small scale, theirs were secessionist experiments. Peaceful secession asks nothing of taxpayers or governments; it furthermore comes with no necessary set of public policy proposals or aims, each community being allowed to determine these for itself. Just as decentralism itself is a “third way,” so too is secession as a political strategy a workable alternative to both violent revolution and futile reformism through the traditional political process.3 It is probably beyond any serious doubt that electoral politics does not and cannot work to bring about liberty and community self-determination, that participation in politics ultimately reinforces and offers the appearance of legitimacy to the existing status quo. Revolution, too, is untenable as a strategy. As a historical matter, it has meant the substitution through violence of one conspiring criminal band with another, often worse than its predecessor. As Proudhon and others have observed, genuine social change and progress must result from an evolutionary process in which authoritarian institutions are gradually replaced by libertarian arrangements.

Decentralists perceive that bigness contains the seeds of its own destruction. We have observed that destruction all around us, widespread poverty and environmental spoliation plaguing the world. Libertarians tend to have a firm grasp on the problems of political centralization while too often defending economic centralization and its aftereffects as the workings of the free market. When we hear environmentalists or Pope Francis, for example, lambaste libertarianism, we ought to pause and take note. There are usually important truths and legitimate worries contained in such critiques, even if they are embedded in misconceptions and vaguely defined ideas. We must have a firm grasp of our own philosophy to address worries, to show that private property and genuine free markets are the solution, not the problem. The key insights of distributism, decentralism, and libertarianism necessarily entail and compliment one another. We must continue to explore these connections, drawing conclusions for better policy and refining our understanding of the philosophy of liberty.


  1. Kevin Ford. “From Teacher to Farmer: Why I Went Back to the Land,” The Distributist Review. November 11, 2011 (http://distributistreview.com/mag/2011/11/from-teacher-to-farmer-why-i-went-back-to-the-land/).
  2. William F. Campbell. Introduction, The Social Crisis of Our Time by Wilhelm Roepke (1991 Transaction Publishers), p. xvi.
  3. Kirkpatrick Sale. “The Logic of Secession: Three Tines to a Trident.” Middlebury Institute. November 15, 2007 (http://middleburyinstitute.org/thelogicofsecession.html).

This is part of a series