Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Localism, Centralism, And Otherism

One useful measure of how free you are is what percentage of the decisions that compel or constrain you is made by you. That will vary according to what you care about, what you care to do, and what you prefer to avoid, so it's of no use as a general assessment of a society's level of freedom. However, as a personal metric, it's pretty good.

It also functions in another way: It makes you contemplate what aspects of your life you care about enough to want the decisions to rest in your hands. In that knowledge lies a powerful explanation for your level of "civic engagement," whatever it might be.

Strange though it seems, there are persons who actively want to be slaves. That is, they want to cede all decision-making authority and responsibility to someone else, whether that's a single person they know and trust, or an indeterminate number of faceless others near and far. One who has zero personal authority over his own actions is a slave by definition. If there's any compensation for that status, it would be that the slave cannot justly be held responsible for his condition or his deeds. All the same, the typical American would recoil from the idea in horror.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are persons to whom the cession of any authority whatsoever is repugnant: the sort of man one would call "a law unto himself." This is beyond anarchism as classically understood, for even an anarchist will concede that there are some actions that are absolutely wrong, and thus beyond anyone's power to sanction. As Herbert Spencer put it in The Proper Sphere of Government:

I asked one of the members of Parliament whether a majority of the House could legitimize murder. He said no. I asked him whether it could sanctify robbery. He thought not. But I could not make him see that if murder and robbery are intrinsically wrong, and not to be made right by the decisions of statesmen, then similarly all actions must be either right or wrong, apart from the authority of the law; and that if the right and wrong the law are not in harmony with this intrinsic right and wrong, the law itself is criminal.

Between those stops lies the domain of decisions over delegation -- the sphere in which we ponder whether the rules that bind us shall be made near or far.


One of the characteristics of a federal system that contrasts with a national system is localism: locales, however defined, possess a degree of local sovereignty. That sovereignty is usually delimited in charter documents such as the Constitution of the United States. But in such a system, localism must imply a complementary centralism: a sphere of decisions to be made at the national level, which cannot be contravened by local authorities. Were it otherwise, there would be no reason for the national government to exist at all.

Freedom-loving Americans have historically preferred to keep most decisions about "public matters" -- the rei publicae that justify the founding of a Republic -- at the local level. The Constitution reflects that preference in its enumeration of the legislative powers of Congress and in the Tenth Amendment. Indeed, for many years, state governments were inhibited against legislation that would restrict the autonomy of county and city governments, even in some instances where state legislators could make a good case that the authority over some subject properly rested with them rather than with the counties. "Public works" projects that might have better been organized at the state level were sometimes left to the cooperation of a gaggle of county governments, occasionally with laughable results. The prevalent assumption was that the citizens could best trust those nearest to them, known to them personally...and personally exposed to the citizens' wrath should they overstep their proper bounds.

Certain trends of the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries weakened that assumption without disproving it:

  • Moral crusades (e.g., temperance, Christian Socialism) that went national;
  • The integration of the nation's communication and transportation systems;
  • The rise of "public education" in response to mass immigration;
  • The move away from hard money to Federal Reserve notes;
  • The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments;
  • The two World Wars.

(Urbanization also contributed, in that it accustomed city dwellers to the idea that certain facilities and utilities simply must be monopolies...and the wholly illogical conclusion that such monopolies should be politically controlled.)

As the preferential assumption for localism over centralism declined in power, the sphere of subjects and decisions made by the federal government expanded. To anyone acquainted with the dynamic of power-seeking, this will come as no surprise. Nor will the prevalent mechanism used to advance that progression -- gradualism -- be a revelation to those acquainted with the history of these United States.


The families of political belief differ sharply on the values of localism and centralism. Left-liberals are centralist about nearly everything. Paternalist conservatives are localist about economic matters, but generally centralist about moral concerns. Libertarians, libertarian-conservatives, and "classical liberals" prefer localism about all subjects that don't impact individual rights, state and interstate highways, or the national border -- with the understanding that to these folks, "localism" will often mean individualism: the uncoerced, unconstrained action of each individual of recognized decision-making capacity. These predilections are the frames that capture American political debate...to the extent that anyone remains willing to debate anything these days.

Yet there remains a third orientation, in some ways a development from centralism, that points in a direction only the most slavish of slaves would relish: otherism, the desire to reach a state in which all decisions are made by entities or agencies completely outside one's reach, and therefore immune to any attempt at correction. C. S. Lewis captured the idea in That Hideous Strength, when he revealed to his antihero Mark Studdock that the N.I.C.E. was under the direction of unhuman, even anti-human powers, and that that was what their devotees found most appealing.

There are no otherists quite that demented in the world today. However, some persons are sidling toward it: for example, those who claim that, because America "affects everything," therefore everyone in the world should have a vote in American elections...a say in American foreign policy...in American domestic policy. Indeed, recently some English moron opined that America's "gun slaughters" demand an "intervention" by the "world community," no doubt to repeal the Second Amendment. Call it globalism.

There is no hard and fast barrier that will keep the passionate left-liberal from succumbing to the globalist variety of otherism. As the left-liberal does not believe in individuals per se, he does not believe in individuals' rights. Therefore, when pressed to defend any particular example of local or national decision making, he cannot produce a logically coherent justification for it.

When I squint at the recent plague of centralism America has endured -- ObamaCare, Common Core, the "bailouts," the takeover of education finance, the effective nationalization of the American banking system -- I find myself wondering just how far the Left's ambitions reach. And I find I can no more "localize" their ambitions than they could defend the notion of a rightfully independent and sovereign United States of America.

Be afraid.

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