“Small is beautiful,” declared economist E. F. Schumacher in his 1973 book of the same title, and the epigram encapsulates the spirit of decentralism. There is a poetic quality to decentralism, rooted as it is in a love of the particular. The British writer G. K. Chesterton noted in his novel of local patriotism, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, that the true patriot “never under any circumstances boasts of the largeness of his country, but always, and of necessity, boasts of the smallness of it.”
A decentralist believes that political power (and, in some but hardly all cases, wealth) should be widely dispersed. He or she believes that concentrated power is the bane of liberty; its remoteness insulates the wielder of power from the citizen—or, perhaps more accurately, the subject. As the most literary of modern decentralists, the Kentucky poet-farmer Wendell Berry has warned, “Everywhere, every day, local life is being discomforted, disrupted, endangered, or destroyed by powerful people who live, or who are privileged to think that they live, beyond the bad effects of their bad work.” Decentralists would cite as specific examples the federal policy of requiring cities to bus children to schools outside their neighborhoods, which virtually destroyed cohesive ethnic enclaves in American cities; the siting of public housing projects and nuclear waste facilities over the objections of residents of the affected areas; and the deracinating effects of an interventionist foreign policy that sends young men (and now women) hither and yon, far from their home places.
From the founding, American political debate has pitted advocates of a strong central state against partisans of decentralism. Although James Madison, writing as Publius, assured readers in Federalist no. 45 that “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined,” the “Anti-Federalists,” who opposed ratification, saw in the Philadelphia compact the scaffolding of empire. Republican government “is only suited to a small and compact territory,” argued Maryland Constitutional Convention delegate Luther Martin. Within a unitary government spread over a wide territory, citizens would have little opportunity to know those whom they might elect; lawmakers would govern in ignorance of local conditions, and tyranny would be necessary to enforce their laws. This argument has continued throughout American history: Are liberty, property, and the integrity of small places best secured by local government or by national (or, increasingly in the age of globalization, international) authority?
In American politics, this argument has often been rendered in shorthand as the Jefferson–Hamilton debate. Although Thomas Jefferson’s presidential administration sometimes overstepped constitutional bounds (e.g., with his Louisiana Purchase) and although he was essentially neutral on the matter of the Constitution’s ratification, he is regarded as the founding father of American decentralism. Sketching his ideal in a letter from Monticello in 1824, Jefferson wrote that even the county was too distended a district for meaningful citizenship; he favored the creation of smaller “wards.” In Jefferson’s description,
Each ward would thus be a small republic within itself, and every man in the State would thus become an acting member of the common government, transacting in person a great portion of its rights and duties, subordinate indeed, yet important, and entirely within his competence. The wit of man cannot devise a more solid basis for a free, durable, and well administered republic.
The wit of man, at least in the United States, had other plans. The centripetal force of three major wars—the Civil War and the two world wars—consolidated extraordinary power in the national government; decentralists were relegated to the political fringe because as the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., cautioned in his manifesto of cold war liberalism, The Vital Center (1949), “One can dally with the distributist dream of decentralization,” but “you cannot flee from science and technology into a quietist dreamworld. The state and the factory are inexorable: bad men will run them if good abdicate the job.”
The distributists whom Schlesinger dismisses as airy dreamers were the most visible decentralists in the years between 1930 and 1950. Drawing inspiration from Catholic social teaching and from such figures as G. K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day, founder of the anarchist Catholic Worker movement, the distributists promoted the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. That is, the management of affairs should devolve to the lowest possible level of society—individual, family, block, village, and, only in the rarest cases, the national government. In 1936, the American distributists, in league with agrarian and libertarian allies, published a widely heralded programmatic book, Who Owns America? The guide had little practical effect on the drift toward centralization.
In post–World War II American politics, decentralist themes can be found in such disparate groups as the New Left (especially Paul Goodman, Carl Oglesby, and Karl Hess), the libertarians, the Greens (see Kirkpatrick Sale’s encyclopedic Human Scale), the Democratic left (former California Governor and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown), Southern agrarian intellectuals (Thomas J. Fleming, Clyde Wilson, and Donald Livingston), and such Republican Party figures as Senator Robert Taft of Ohio and Vermont State Senator John McClaughry.
In 1975, Ronald Reagan declared, in words ghostwritten by McClaughry,
I am calling for an end to giantism and for a return to the human scale—the scale that human beings can understand and cope with… . In government, the human scale is the town council, the board of selectmen, the precinct captain. It is this activity on a small human scale that creates the fabric of community, a framework for the creation of abundance and liberty.
If the Reagan administration seldom honored this vision—imposing a national drinking age of 21 and ordering state National Guard units to Central America over the objections of governors—recent years have seen a revivification of decentralist thought. The post–cold war fissioning of overlarge states is the realization of Leopold Kohr’s exhortation in The Breakdown of Nations (1978): “Instead of union, let us have disunion now. Instead of fusing the small, let us dismember the big. Instead of creating fewer and larger states, let us create more and smaller ones.”
Decentralism is a motive force in the early 21st-century secession movements in Quebec, Scotland, Northern Italy, and elsewhere, as well as in proposals to divide such American states as California, New York, and even Kansas into two or more states. The Nobel laureate Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made a lyrical, if largely ignored, plea for a “democracy of small areas” in Rebuilding Russia (1991). In the 1990s, there also was a renewed emphasis in popular, if not yet in legal, circles on the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides that, “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.”
Decentralists insist that the love of the local and particular need not exclude a love of the national or even universal. In his essay “Provincialism,” the early 20th-century philosopher Josiah Royce emphasized that “the tendency toward national unity and that toward local independence of spirit must henceforth grow together.” The national culture of the United States was to be the sum of a thousand and one distinct and vibrant local cultures. (The cultural implications of centralized government should not be discounted: The two great flowerings of American letters, in the 1850s and 1920s, came during eras of much-derided “weak” presidents and a relatively inactive national government.)
In the formulation of the Iowa painter Grant Wood, “when the different regions develop characteristics of their own, they will come into competition with each other; and out of this competition a rich American culture will grow.”
Political decentralists would extend the same principle to governance: permit each polity to adopt laws suited to local conditions, let San Francisco be San Francisco, and let Utah be Utah. Or in the remark of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “The United States should go back to the federation idea, letting each state evolve a policy and develop itself. There are enough good men in Alabama, for example, to make Alabama a good state.”
Critics of decentralism demur. They point to the numerous instances in which local authority has been exercised unwisely or even repressively, most notably in the Jim Crow laws and state-sanctioned segregation in the states of the Deep South. The federal government, through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, secured the basic rights of American blacks—although decentralists would reply that the same government was sending those same young Southern black men across the world to fight and die in Vietnam. The central state giveth, and the central state taketh away.
Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, which drew localist and anarchist lessons from Christianity, held that bigness “is not only impersonal, but also makes accountability, and, therefore, an effective political forum for redressing grievances, next to impossible.” If my town council passes an ordinance that I regard as silly or oppressive, I can remonstrate, face to face, with men and women who are my neighbors. If the federal government enacts a law to which I object, I can do little more than write a letter to a federal office holder, who will respond with a computer-generated reply, or I may cast a vote in the next federal election: impersonal and probably futile acts.
The devitalizing, dispiriting effect of centralization was captured by novelist Norman Mailer, who in his 1969 campaign for the mayoralty of New York City proposed that the city become an independent state and that this new state devolve all political power to the neighborhood level. Mailer wrote:
Our authority has been handed over to the federal power. We expect our economic solutions, our habitats, yes, even our entertainments, to derive from that remote abstract power, remote as the other end of a television tube. We are like wards in an orphan asylum. The shaping of the style of our lives is removed from us—we pay for huge military adventures and social experiments so separated from our direct control that .. . our condition is spiritless. We wait for abstract impersonal powers to save us, we despise the abstractness of those powers, we loathe ourselves for our own apathy.
From Thomas Jefferson to Norman Mailer, the faces change, the styles too, but decentralists endure.
Agar, Herbert, and Allen Tate, eds. Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1999 .
Berry, Wendell. Home Economics. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987.
Bryan, Frank, and John McClaughry. The Vermont Papers. Colchester, VT: Chelsea Green, 1989.
Chesterton, G. K. The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1991 .
Davidson, Donald. The Attack on Leviathan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1938.
Hess, Karl. Dear America. New York: Morrow, 1975.
Jefferson, Thomas. Writings. New York: Viking, 1984.
Mailer, Norman. “An Instrument for the City.” Existential Errands. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.
Naylor, Thomas, and William H. Willimon. Downsizing the U.S.A. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.
Originally published .