Why Decentralism? Beyond Left and Right

By David S. D’Amato


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).


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