Centralization versus Decentralization: The Real Dichotomy

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by Steven Yates

Just recently, LewRockwell.com was the target of yet another verbal assault, this one by long-time Reason editor Virginia Postrel. Regular readers will know the details and have read the responses, so I'll not rehearse them here. I do recall the flurry of attention Postrel's book The Future and Its Enemies received when it came out, although I've a confession to make: I started but didn't finish the book. Once I realized that Postrel's main contention was one I couldn't accept, at least not in the form she cast it, I lost interest. After all, life is short.

Postrel's contention is that there is a struggle going on between "dynamists" who favor the liberty supposedly inherent in unrestricted change (including that prompted by unlimited immigration) and "stasists" who want to restrict change. It is not that we cannot draw such a dichotomy; of course we can. But David Gordon, in his original review of the book for the Mises Review (v. 5, #1, 1999), seemed to me to have the most obvious response. Sometimes change is worth endorsing, and sometimes not. It depends on the change. Sometimes what Postrel would no doubt describe as stasis is worth keeping around – if the people living in a given community are satisfied with the technology they have and show no desire to change. Stasis, of course, need not be merely technological. There are Libertarians who have yet to realize that traditional religious beliefs serve important and valuable purposes in many people's lives, and may contain more metaphysical truth than materialism. But that is another article.

To my mind, there is different dichotomy one might draw that is far more interesting, and ought to shed some light on the matter that originally triggered this new volley of exchanges – namely, David Boaz' uninformed attack on Confederate symbols. That is the dichotomy between those I will call centralists and those I will call decentralists.

Centralists, as the term implies, support the increasing power of a central government, whether directly or not. They might support expansionist government indirectly by supporting ideas or policies that make no sense without increasing centralization of government, such as the drug war, or can only lead to centralization at the international level, such as support for foreign wars that destabilize entire regions (e.g., that nasty little war in Kosovo). Decentralists agree with the Jeffersonian statement that "the government that governs best is that which governs least." They believe, in other words, that a central government ought to be as small as possible – as small as is compatible with social stability. The Declaration of Independence is a classic decentralist document in my sense, because what it declares is that a community of persons has the natural right to free itself from a government that has grown powerful and abusive. The original Constitution contains something of a mixture of centralist and decentralist tendencies. It created a stronger central government than existed under the Articles of Confederation – and this made the misnamed "anti-federalists" sufficiently uncomfortable that men like Richard Henry Lee of Virginia led movements against the ratification of the Constitution until changes were made in it. The Bill of Rights shifted the Constitution back in the direction of decentralism.

Now to be sure, Virginal Postrel wants to be a decentralist. What Libertarian doesn't? When she tells us that technological innovation cannot be controlled from any central point, there is no faulting her arguments. The problem is whether Postrel (and Boaz and, therefore, perhaps, other Libertarians) are consistent decentralists. Since consistency is something Libertarians normally prize (and rightly so), the question is worth raising. I will maintain that a consistent defense of decentralism requires at least some stasis.

The principles defined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights certainly amount to stasis of some kind. The Constitution wasn't intended to be changed easily. This is why the authors of the Constitution very purposefully made the document difficult to amend (not difficult enough, as it turned out). The idea, accepted by Libertarians working with natural rights theory, that rights pre-exist governments, wasn't meant to be changed at all.

One may argue that the ensuing history of our country has been the history of the struggle between those trying to preserve a decentralized order (originally embodied in the Jeffersonians) and those wanting more centralization (originally the Hamiltonians). The centralists made control of education one of their first goals, which is why we see calls for government-funded "public schools" going back to the early 1800s. The centralizing impulse succeeded at creating a system of government-funded colleges, embodied in the land-grant system created by the Morrill Act. President Buchanan had refused to sign the Morrill Act into law during the late 1850s on the grounds that it was unconstitutional; he correctly observed that the Constitution did not authorize federal involvement in college education. Then, in 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Act into law as a wartime measure. Clearly, education – at all levels – has become more and more centralized ever since.

Here is our question for Libertarians, since we are now up to the 1860s: was South Carolina's Ordinance of Secession in 1860 a centralist or a decentralist document? Were the efforts of the Southern states to secede and form their own government fundamentally centralizing or decentralizing? Let us pose the same question regarding Lincoln's effort to hold the Union together. In a sense, the question answers itself. Southern secession was decentralist almost by definition; Lincoln's war to keep the Southern States in the Union against their will was, but nature, an act of centralization. The Confederacy was formed by men who believed that the central government in Washington no longer represented their interests politically or economically, and wanted out – a tendency not that different from those who originally fought off the British, leading to the formation of what eventually became Lincoln's Union.

A coalition of otherwise quite different thinkers have formed a kind of spontaneous alliance in an attempt to divert attention away from issues like secession, states' rights and other expressions of decentralism as they existed 140 years ago. It does this by keeping attention focused on slavery, and the harm it supposedly did to blacks. The coalition includes, obviously, the purveyors of political correctness in the universities and the media (all of whom are direct beneficiaries of political and economic centralization), those neocons who have made Lincoln out to be a hero because he preserved the Union – and, unfortunately, those who have become what might be called the "Libertarian Establishment." This phrase isn't quite an oxymoron. The Libertarian Establishment appears to have two centers: Washington, D.C. (home of David Boaz's Cato Institute) and the West Coast (home of Reason, Virginia Postrel's longstanding affiliation). It obviously doesn't include Auburn, Alabama – or Columbia, South Carolina, either.

Earlier this spring I penned an essay showing that the “harm” done to blacks by slavery is largely a fabrication — at least, if we accept the thesis that blacks played a major role in America's natural inventiveness. Of course, this is not to say that slavery was somehow a good thing. Of course no Libertarian could endorse it, because no Libertarian (who by definition supports the idea of economic self-ownership for all human beings) can endorse the ownership of human beings by other human beings. But just as there are degrees of evil in terms of the amount of harm done, there is another side to the slavery issue. American blacks today — descended from slaves — are the wealthiest blacks in the world. Far from having been harmed, it is reasonable to argue that our ancestors did today's black Americans a favor. Naturally, the politically correct will blow several gaskets a piece if they ever read this. But how do you stare facts in the face and simply deny that they exist? Today, black Americans at least have a chance at prosperity — when they keep their families together, stay off drugs and out of gangs (rather like white Americans). Had their ancestors been allowed to remain in Africa, they would not only suffer far worse poverty but would likely be ruled over by the kinds of criminal gangs that today control a good many African countries. And they would not have escaped slavery, which is practiced in many African nations even today. The institution was not invented on the American continent, after all!

But this is really a side issue, because there is considerable evidence that ending slavery was, at best, a means to end. Lincoln's own words lend this thesis considerable support. In 1862 Lincoln said:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it be freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.

This one quote lets the cat out of the bag: ending slavery was not the central priority of the man running the show in the North. Saving the Union was. It is becoming increasingly clear that for Lincoln, this was the end that justified whatever means it took – a centralist project if I ever saw one, and the first of the quantum leaps the country would take on its path toward becoming an empire instead of the Constitutional republic the Framers originally gave us. Moreover, the idea that Lincoln was in some sense of the term a friend to blacks is hard to maintain in light of the following remark he made in one of his debates with Stephen A. Douglas:

Such separation if effected at all must be effected by colonization: … Let us be brought to believe that it is morally right, and at the same time favorable to, or at least not against, our interests to transfer the African to his native clime, and we shall find a way to do it, however great the task may be.

Lincoln is here talking about sending blacks back to Africa!

All of this refutes the idea, which continues to be popular with the Libertarian Establishment, that the War for Southern Independence was fought over slavery. Slavery was one issue, but it was far from the only issue. And it was not even the most important issue – from the northern point of view.

In the last analysis, centralism had become the dominant political (and economic) philosophy of the country by the end of the second decade of the century just concluded. The quantum leaps of Empire building continued, and continue to this day – to the point where it is difficult to imagine the idea that the country's founding political philosophy was something quite different. This explains why (for example) criticisms of the Federal Reserve banking system are to be found only on the margins – despite the criticisms of central banks by the Framers. The same is true with the Internal Revenue Service and the possibility that the 16th Amendment wasn't legitimately ratified according to the Constitution's own rules. Was the government or any media entity to recognize these, this would give them "official" legitimacy. The holes this would blow in the fabric of our rise to centralized Empire status could never be papered over.

But the real question here is: which side are the major voices of Libertarianism today really on? What position are they eventually going to take with the growing pro-South movement — and, for that matter, other independence movements afoot (e.g., in Hawaii where slavery can't be raised as a red herring)? There are, indeed, people in places other than the South who are fed up with the regime based in the District of Columbia. Is the “Libertarian Establishment” going to side with centralists or with decentralists in how it approaches today's independence movements generally?

To side against the pro-South movement is to side with this country's first quantum leap into centralization, like it or not. Libertarians cannot be decentralists on every point except this and still be consistent. So when David Boaz rails against the "symbols of slavery" in the South, all we need say is that he hasn't done his homework; and when Virginia Postrel rushes to his defense, taking LewRockwell.com to task for its pro-South leanings, our best strategy is to point out that one cannot be "for liberty" without also being against centralization. These are not "entirely different things."

Steven Yates [send him mail] has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action. He is presently compiling selected essays into a single volume tentatively entitled What Is Wrong With the New World Order and Other Essays and Commentary and a work on a second book, The Paradox of Liberty. He also writes for the Edgefield Journal, and is available for lectures. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina, and is starting his own freelance writing business, Millennium 3 Communications.

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