Decentralization: Freedom by Diffusion
NOVEMBER 01, 1988 by DAVID HUFF
David C. Huff is chief financial officer of an Atlanta-based manufacturers’ representative.
One of the beneficial aspects of national election campaigns is their reminder to us that America is becoming dangerously enamored with the false hope of political salvation. The finances, energy, media attention, and zealous devotion heaped upon candidates for high office at times reaches messianic proportions. They provide further evidence that what was once a valid political process now borders on idolatry.
What has caused our nation’s obsession with politics? To fix blame upon the electoral system, or upon the candidates, would be inaccurate and overlook the true cause. Such a fixation on politics is but one indication of an increasing drift toward a “Pyramid Society”:
The Pyramid Society is a culture in which a majority of the people spend most of their time transforming the civil government to the near exclusion of themselves, their families, churches, schools, businesses . . . . By changing the powers at the top, we are led to believe that there will be a trickle-down effect of cultural transformation that will blossom into a better society. The problems that a nation faces, as this approach sees it, are solely political. Change the State, and all of society will change with it. This has been the vision of pagan empires since the building of the tower of Babel.
It is easy to see how such a utopian vision produces an unwarranted emphasis on politics.
More specifically, the philosophy of the Pyramid Society and its top-down remedies by necessity revolve around the concept of central planning. For this reason, it is especially important that advocates of freedom understand and apply the principles of decentralization.
The essence of decentralization is a social order characterized by the diffusion of power away from an authoritarian nation-state where politics, economics, and eventually all of life are regulated through the control of a centralized government. By such diffusion, the potential tyranny of the Pyramid Society gives way to the freedoms of multiple jurisdictions, self-government, and the practical hierarchy of family, community, and local government.
The natural appeal of decentralism can be appreciated by examining its rich historical precedents. Throughout history, the disintegrations of both national governments and totalitarian regimes have been followed by the appearance of a variety of local assemblies which effectively administered societal affairs. After surveying over a dozen twentieth-century illustrations of this phenomenon, one author has perceptively concluded: “It is striking to reread history with eyes opened to the persistence of this tradition, because at once you begin to see the existence of the anti-authoritarian, independent, self-regulating, local community is every bit as basic to the human record as the existence of the centralized, imperial, hierarchical state, and far more ancient, more durable, and more widespread.”
The lessons from history are compelling, and none more so than that of the United States. The decentralist philosophy was a driving force in America’s early years, and leaders such as Thomas Jefferson were acutely sensitive to the insidious encroachment of centralism which already had begun during their lifetimes. Jefferson saw in decentralization the spirit of a free society, where each individual would participate in government on a localized, “bottom-up” basis; he envisioned a freedom so important that the individual would “let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.”
The repeated emergence of decentralization throughout the centuries should not be considered an anomaly. Indeed, decentralism’s longevity and durability bear strong witness to its practicality. Though interventionists stubbornly claim that the need for centralization of power increases as nations become larger and more complex, it is statist programs that have failed time and again.
One important example of the efficacy of decentralization is in the area of economics. The absence of intervention is integral to the successful operation of the free enterprise system. Under laissez-faire capitalism, a society’s economy prospers as individuals pursue the improvement of their well-being through the unhampered functioning of supply and demand coupled with the profitable ventures of entre preneurs. The freedom of choice and diversity of opportunity available in a decentralized freemarket economy are intensely practical, and become increasingly so as the society expands—for more complexity produces additional choices and enhances the division of labor.
Contrast this with the well-documented and bitter fruits of central planning. As historian Herbert Schlossberg has observed: “The economic results of central direction must, by reason of the central direction alone, be unfavorable, because the system is formally irrational. It substitutes preferences of central planners for the estimations based on a price system that reflects both supply and demand . . . . the planner’s will replaces the action of the market.”
True freedom, social stability, and economic health can be realized only by applying the practical self- government approach of decentralization.
A survey of American history reveals a disturbing trend toward centralization and a growing ideology of political salvation. To continue down the present path will destroy the freedom of future generations.
Clearly, then, one imperative for our future as a free nation is the propagation and application of the precepts of decentralization; they are an inseparable part of the formula for liberty. By replacing the misguided illusion of political salvation with education and action in the areas of personal responsibility, limited government, free enterprise, and the liberty-producing features of decentralism, our society can avoid the lethal errors of the past: “[the] pyramids are • . . evidence . . . of the political theory of Egypt. Their silent witness in the desert kingdom of Egypt should remind us that any top-down political structure is doomed to fail.”