Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“An Age of Centralization,” By Jeff Taylor

This following essay was authored by Jeff Taylor who is a Nomocracy and Politics Contributor. It is an excerpt from Professor Taylor’s new book, Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism, and it is republished here by permission form the Lexington Books. 

Power is centralized in our nation today.  It was probably inevitable.  The Anti-Federalists saw it coming.  “Brutus”—probably Robert Yates of New York—began his consideration of the proposed Constitution with what he called the “first question”: “Whether the thirteen United States should be reduced to one great republic, governed by one legislature, and under the direction of one executive and judicial; or whether they should continue thirteen confederated republics, under the direction and controul of a supreme federal head for certain defined national purposes only?”  He explained, “This enquiry is important, because, although the government reported by the convention does not go to a perfect and entire consolidation, yet it approaches so near to it, that it must, if executed, certainly and infallibly terminate in it.”

Later, in his address to the citizens of the state of New York, Brutus commented, “History furnishes no example of a free republic, any thing like the extent of the United States.  The Grecian republics were of small extent; so also was that of the Romans.  Both of these, it is true, in process of time, extended their conquests over large territories of country; and the consequence was, that their governments were changed from that of free governments to those of the most tyrannical that ever existed in the world.”  In contending against “the idea of an extensive republic,” Brutus cited “the opinion of the greatest men, and the experience of mankind,” as well as arguments “drawn from the reason and nature of things.”

Members of the Pennsylvania ratifying convention’s minority faction explained their opposition to the proposed Constitution partly on the basis of what they feared would be the “total destruction of the state governments”:

We apprehend that two co-ordinate sovereignties would be a solecism in politics.  That therefore as there is no line of distinction drawn between the general, and state governments; as the sphere of their jurisdiction is undefined, it would be contrary to the nature of things, that both should exist together, one or the other would necessarily triumph in the fullness of dominion.  However the contest could not be of long continuance, as the state governments are divested of every means of defence, and will be obliged by ‘the supreme law of the land’ to yield at discretion.

The Tenth Amendment was intended to provide a means of defense but, as we have seen, it has been a weak reed as federal courts have taken upon themselves the power of sole interpretation of the federal Constitution and have tended to ignore the Tenth Amendment while upholding the Supremacy Clause.

“Agrippa”—probably James Winthrop of Massachusetts—argued, “It is impossible for one code of laws to suit Georgia and Massachusetts.  They must, therefore, legislate for themselves. Yet there is, I believe, not one point of legislation that is not surrendered in the proposed plan. . . . The laws of Congress are in all cases to be the supreme law of the land, and paramount to the constitutions of the individual states.”  Agrippa argued against what he viewed as an oxymoronic concept—a large republic:  “This new system is, therefore, a consolidation of all the states into one large mass, however diverse the parts may be of which it is to be composed.  The idea of an uncompounded republick [spread over a large expanse] . . . containing six millions of white inhabitants all reduced to the same standard of morals, or habits, and of laws, is in itself an absurdity, and contrary to the whole experience of mankind.”

The Anti-Federalists referred to not only the ancient Greek and Roman examples in warning about the unsustainability of an extensive, or large, republic, but also to the French political philosopher Montesquieu.  In The Spirit of Laws, published 40 years earlier, he wrote,

It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist. In an extensive republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are trusts too considerable to be placed in any single subject; he has interests of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy and glorious, by oppressing his fellow-citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country.  In an extensive republic the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views . . . In a small one, the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and, of course, are less protected.

Rousseau was composing his thoughts even closer to the time of the Anti-Federalists.  His writings apparently had little or no impact on the thought of these men, but there are interesting parallels worth noting.  In his exposition on social contract, general will, and democracy, Rousseau assumed a small, decentralized republic such as those found among the Swiss.  Under such conditions, consensus was possible: “As long as several men in assembly regard themselves as a single body, they have only a single will which is concerned with their common preservation and general well-being.”  In a context of peace, unity, and equality, “the common good is everywhere clearly apparent, and only good sense is needed to perceive it.”  Pointing to happy Swiss peasants “regulating affairs of state under an oak tree,” he scorned the complicated governments of other nations, “which employ so much skill and mystery to make themselves at once illustrious and wretched.”  Rousseau used the terms State and Sovereign Power in an unusual way, meaning the People rather than the Government.  It was the demos themselves, not an institution imposed from above and controlled by a few.  We would call that Athenian or direct democracy.

Unlike the Anti-Federalists, Thomas Jefferson believed that it was possible for representative democracy to function in a large geographic area.  In 1795, he wrote, “I suspect that the doctrine, that small States alone are fitted to be republics, will be exploded by experience . . . Perhaps it will be found, that to obtain a just republic (and it is to secure our just rights that we resort to government at all) it must be so extensive as that local egoisms may never reach its greater part.”  Jefferson favored the new Constitution, albeit with some ambivalence and reservations, and remained convinced for the rest of his life that it was an improvement over the Articles of Confederation.  His initial optimism regarding a large republic was somewhat diminished during the presidency of John Adams.  Vice President Jefferson’s belief in decentralization was strengthened by the heavy-handedness of the federal government, leading directly to the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions.  In the late 1790s, Jefferson united with the bulk of those known as Anti-Federalists a decade earlier.  He provided leadership for an opposition party that stood for states’ rights, among other tenets.

One of the other Jeffersonian tenets was support for democratization of the republic.  Most Anti-Federalists shared Jefferson’s democratic propensities—what we would call “populism” today.  Brutus objected to the large republic that would result from the proposed Constitution partly because it would be invariably aristocratic, not democratic.  He warned, “In so extensive a republic, the great officers of government would soon become above the controul of the people, and abuse their power to the purpose of aggrandizing themselves, and oppressing them.”  Wary of the aristocratic design of the U.S. Senate, Brutus advocated shorter terms and term limits for senators.  He was skeptical of the democratic nature of the U.S. House of Representatives, writing, “The very term, representative, implies, that the person or body chosen for this purpose, should resemble those who appoint them—a representation of the people of America, if it be a true one, must be like the people.”

Referring to the proposed Congress, Brutus stated, “According to the common course of human affairs, the natural aristocracy of the country will be elected.  Wealth always creates influence, and this is generally much increased by large family connections.”  He argued that if merchants were elected, only “the most opulent and ambitious” would be chosen and that no yeomen (small farmers) or mechanics (urban workers) would be members of Congress.  He contended, “In reality there will be no part of the people represented, but the rich, even in that branch of the legislature, which is called the democratic.—The well born, and highest orders of life, as they term themselves, will be ignorant of the sentiments of the midling class of citizens, strangers to their ability, wants [needs], and difficulties, and void of sympathy, and fellow feeling.”  Realizing the difference between style and substance, between rhetoric and reality, Brutus declared, “However fair an appearance any government may make, though it possess a thousand plausible articles and be decorated with ever so many ornaments, yet if it is deficient in this essential principle of a full and just representation of the people . . . it still will be a government, not according to the will of the people, but according to the will of the few.”

Populism and libertarianism are not the same thing, but within the Jeffersonian framework they are usually compatible.  Sometimes the values of democracy and freedom clash, but more often they do not.  Conversely, show me an elitist and you will usually be showing me a statist as well.  Rule by the few contradicts decentralized power and individual rights.  Jefferson understood this, which is why he supported both majority rule and states’ rights.  These were not absolutist positions.  He coupled his support for majority rule with belief in minority rights.  He coupled his support for states’ rights with belief in the union of states.

We see the same mix of populism and libertarianism in modern-day Jeffersonians, including economist-historian-activist Murray Rothbard.  In the 1970s, he told a Libertarian Party convention, “Too many libertarians have absorbed the negative and elitist conservative worldview to the effect that our enemy today is the poor, who are robbing the rich; the blacks, who are robbing the whites; or the masses, who are robbing heroes and businessmen.”  Instead, Rothbard emphasized that the government is “robbing all classes, rich and poor, black and white, worker and businessman alike” and that we ought to “strive to see all of these groups united, hand in hand, in opposition to the plundering and privileged minority that constitutes the rulers of the state.”  He urged libertarians to be “the spokesmen for all classes, for all of the public.”

Such defenders of individual liberty oppose what they call “crony capitalism” even as they champion what they call “true capitalism” (i.e., unfettered, laissez-faire free enterprise).  Historically, crony capitalism is rooted in the mercantilism criticized by Adam Smith, the Hamiltonian program resisted by Thomas Jefferson, and the New Deal opposed by the Old Right.  In 1933, Amos Pinchot, a liberal (Jeffersonian) Republican, called Alexander Hamilton “the first strong advocate of plutocratic fascism in America,” who spoke at the Constitutional Convention “for an absolutism almost as extreme as that of Lenin, Mussolini, or Hitler.”  The unholy alliance between big government and big business grew throughout the twentieth century and has reached epic proportions during the past decade.  (The Wall Street bailout of 2008 was a defining moment of the alliance.)

Our age of centralization includes concentration of both political power and economic power, both domestic and foreign.  It consists of monopoly of every kind, running the gamut from statism to globalization, from No Child Left Behind to World Trade Organization.  Really, it is not much of a gamut because the same individuals and groups tend to drive all of these initiatives.  Likewise, opponents are usually the same cast of characters, usually on the “far” Right and “far” Left—far from respectability in the eyes of major party leaders and the corporate media, but often in the mainstream of popular opinion.  So, while the Center of wealth and power pursues centralization in all areas—a rational pursuit of self-interest even when it is cloaked, perhaps even from themselves, as noblesse oblige—dissident voices continue to object.

This trend toward centralization has continued, almost unabated, for a century.  Why?  For one thing, it may be natural.  A type of reverse entropy.  It may be related to the Actonian axiom regarding power, or perhaps the biblical account of the warning given to the Israelites when they asked for a king.  There may be something in human nature, or the nature of the world, that encourages lust for power and centralized control.  Perhaps the rise of modern technology, business models, social psychology, and propaganda techniques in the twentieth century accelerated a trend that has existed since ancient times.  A second set of explanations is found in the weakness of the opposition.  Opponents of centralization tend to be under-funded, under-publicized, under-organized, under-powered, and divided by social, partisan, and ideological labels.  As we have observed, in earlier chapters, traditional farm life has been decimated, many liberal Democrats have forsaken their traditional skepticism of big government, many southerners have been misdirected and distracted, many evangelical Christians are naive, and many conservative Republicans have been confused by advocates of big government masquerading as “Reagan conservatives.”

We should not overstate the triumph of consolidated government.  It is true that the federal government has grown in scope and size, in cost and control, to an extent unimaginable by most Americans in the 1790s, 1890s, or even 1920s.  Many of the fears expressed by the Anti-Federalists have come true.  Yet we have not seen the “total destruction of the state governments.”  Governance at the state level has continued.  There are significant differences between the laws and norms of various states.  Federalism is not completely dead.  Nullification attempts, whether under that name or not, have increased in recent decades.  Dormant power remains at the state level to challenge federal authority.  It can be exercised if so desired.  Occasionally, it is.  Also, as we shall see later in this chapter, public opinion polls show that most Americans are far more libertarian, populist, and national-sovereignty-minded than are public officials and the policies they craft.  In many ways, we have a country that follows Hamilton at the elite level and Jefferson at the grassroots level.

When it comes to determining why political centralization has developed in the United States, we can consider philosophical and theological reasons.  We can also look closer to the ground in historical reasons.  The seeds of centralization were sown by the Constitution itself and its interpretation by the federal judiciary.  The Anti-Federalists and Jefferson were prescient in this regard—the former having qualms about the document and the latter about its interpreters.

In his book Nullification, historian Tom Woods calls What was the United States supposed to be, anyway? “the most important question of all.”  He is talking fundamentals here, as he considers the nature of the union: the compact theory of Jefferson and Madison vs. the nationalist theory of Hamilton and Marshall.  We learn that the Constitution originally began with the words “We, the States . . .” rather than “We, the People . . .”  Not wanting to sound presumptuous, and perhaps wanting to appeal to democrats fond of popular sovereignty, the framers’ Committee on Style changed the wording before sending the document to the states for ratification.  Nevertheless, at ratifying conventions, the Federalists themselves reinforced the principle of states’ rights, as did Madison and even Hamilton in their writings and speeches.  The Constitution was “sold” as a true federal system, with most domestic powers reserved to the states, even before adoption of the Tenth Amendment.

What happens when the only referee in a ballgame is a member of one of the two competing teams?  What if this ref is imbued with overweening confidence in his team’s natural superiority and his own sense of fair play?  Confident to the point that any questioning of his calls is deemed illegitimate and his team’s victory is considered inevitable?  Meet the U.S. Supreme Court and the rest of the federal judiciary.  Self-righteousness and concentrated power are a dangerous combination.  This has not prevented its rise in America, with the groundwork being laid early in our republic’s history through the rulings of Chief Justice John Marshall.  Marshall was a Federalist who shared Alexander Hamilton’s belief in political centralization.  Federalism was a distinct move away from the decentralism of the Articles of Confederation but was initially touted by its advocates as something far removed from the unitary, or consolidated, governmental system favored by kings and despots.  The U.S. Constitution and federal laws made in pursuance thereof would be the supreme law of the land.  So said the Supremacy Clause.  At the same time, traditional rights and responsibilities would be reserved to the state governments, and to the people themselves within the states.  This principle of federalism was enshrined in the Tenth Amendment.

The federal balance between the Supremacy Clause and the Tenth Amendment was maintained while each level of government stuck to its promised and constitutional areas of concern.  The balance was gradually destroyed as federal power intruded into areas formally—and formerly—reserved to the states.  Beginning with the Marshall court in the early nineteenth century, with its adoption of the non-constitutional power of judicial review and its creative use of constitutional loopholes, the federal judiciary facilitated this growing imbalance.  The lack of objectivity, fairness, and strict construction of the Constitution ought to have been no surprise, since the high court belonged to one of the competing levels of government.  It possessed an inherent bias, thereby leaving no official means to stop the growing concentration of power in D.C.

Are decentralists doomed to wax nostalgic about the good old days, their engagement with contemporary culture sounding like the plaintive cry of a mourning dove?  Maybe it is not as bad as all that.  Yes, there is political and economic concentration but there is a countervailing force: social fragmentation.  On the one hand, the mainstream media are more highly concentrated than ever, with six giant corporations dominating most of our news and entertainment.  Yet there are positive signs.  The Internet provides a wide diversity of opinion and information without the old establishment acting as regulators and gatekeepers.  The Web provides the best of both worlds: decentralized yet global.  This is a very positive development.  Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are often superficial and lacking in intellectual content, but they do provide decentralized communication by linking individuals together in an instantaneous way and allowing them to share comments as they please.  The fact that corporate, metropolitan newspapers have fallen on hard times, with some closing down altogether, and that the big television networks have lost most of their influence when it comes to news are two other signs of positive change.  Decentralized, democratized decision-making is becoming the norm in some areas of society despite understandable resistance by established elites.

In an analysis of the future of American democracy, written as the twenty-first century began, political scientist and former Congressman Glen Browder (D-AL) asserted that centrifugal dynamics, driven by demographic changes, are “pushing us toward popular decentralization of the American political system.”  He concluded, “While both community and diversity have always been competing strengths of American democracy, the prudent course is one which consciously balances ‘pluribus’ and ‘unum’ (and considers the possible consequences of ‘ex uno plures’[“out of one, many”]).”

Browder considers not only changes in the ethnic composition of the U.S. but also ideological and theological divisions and partisan polarization: “Whatever their reasons, Americans seem to be settling, residing, working and conducting their public lives in subcultural enclaves (regions, communities, and groupings) distinctly defined by their demographics, lifestyle, philosophical outlook, and voting behavior.”  This does not have to be viewed as a bad thing.  Rather than resisting this trend toward centrifugal democracy—emanating from both deep local and regional ties stretching back centuries to more recent waves of immigration and dissatisfaction with mainstream culture—it could be respected and embraced.  It would be to acknowledge the point made by Agrippa that “It is impossible for one code of laws to suit Georgia and Massachusetts” and that it is absurd to force millions of diverse Americans to live under “the same standard of morals, or habits, and of laws.”

In our own day, it is one of the positions that attracted such a broad range of support for Ron Paul.  A cultural conservative himself—including anti-legalized-abortion and pro-traditional-marriage—he rejects the “one-size-fits-all” approach of imperial Washington, preferring to allow the states and localities to decide for themselves how to handle controversial issues.  This emphasis on freedom and decentralism appeals to some cultural liberals because they are willing to settle for “freedom of choice” in New York and Oregon, even if it means allowing “right to life” in Nebraska and Mississippi.  Of course, some activists on both sides of this and other divisive issues insist on an all-or-nothing strategy of nationalizing every problem and every conflict.  Such an approach has mostly failed cultural conservatives when it comes to legalized abortion and it is likely to do the same when it comes to politicized homosexuality.

In some ways, social fragmentation can be welcomed rather than feared.  Leviathan, in its political and economic manifestations, may be forced into dismantlement because it cannot be sustained.  The nation has become too large and too diverse.  The root word of politics is polis.  It was a city, not a colossus.  It is time to get back to our roots.  To the once-were city states of Greece, to the could-be ward republics of Jefferson, to the should-be reserved powers of the Constitution.  We are human beings.  We are not cogs in a machine of epic proportions.  Let us have politics on a human scale.

Jeff Taylor is Professor of Political Science at Dordt College.  This article is excerpted from his new book, Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism © Lexington Books, 2013. Here it used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

4 Responses to ““An Age of Centralization,” By Jeff Taylor”

  1. gabe


    Very nice piece. I also, sometimes suspect that centralization may have been inveitable. Was it due to an overestimation of the virtue of citizens and legislators? Perhaps?
    Was it perhaps becuase of some inherent trait or need in man-in-civil-society? Also, perhaps!

    But here is another one to consider:
    Consider the words of Robert Yates cited in your first paragraph:
    “Whether the thirteen United States should be reduced to one great republic, governed by one legislature, and under the direction of one executive and judicial; or whether they should continue thirteen confederated republics, under the direction and controul of a supreme federal head for certain defined national purposes only?” He explained, “This enquiry is important, because, although the government reported by the convention does not go to a perfect and entire consolidation, yet it approaches so near to it, that it must, if executed, certainly and infallibly terminate in it.”
    Clearly, Yates and other Antis were not unaware of the tendency, both as positive law and structurally in the Constitution and philosophically in the Federalists, toward concentration of power toward the center.
    The Constitution, in many ways, serves only as a limit upon the states with nothing more than a putative circumscription of Federal Powers. Generally speaking, (OK, I am simplifying things here) it is all about telling the states what they can not do – coinage, war, treaty, compacts, comity, contracts, etc.etc.
    While the Federal government has only certain “enumerated powers”, nevertheless, the Supremacy Clause pretty much determines the subordinate role of State legislatures and Judiciary to the central government. As we have seen, starting with the Marshall Court, these powers have been broadened considerably (perhaps, even beyond what Madison and Hamilton in their widest nationalist dreams would not have considered).
    So what does this mean?
    I am reminded of certain comments of Mr Madison that essentially question the usefulness of “states as States” as well as several comments ascribing to the states a tendency toward self destructive “faction” type behavior. In point of fact, much of this was true of the states at the time. Certain Constitutional clauses were directed at past state “mis-behavior” – paper currency, debt issues, contracts, etc.
    Madison was no fool and as the architect of the document he may, in fact, have had in mind, a rather serious (irreversible) diminution of state power(s).

    However, he was able to convince other rational actors during this period who were not disposed to accept such a strong central government. There was no question that the Antis were against the Constitution as drafted. Yet, in the end it was accepted.
    In retrospect:
    1) The Antis may very well have been correct.
    2) The Federalists won.
    3) Were Madison and Hamilton, etc less than forthright in their exposition of a) the Constitution, b) its structural import upon the States and c) the impact of the positive law (clauses) of the constitution.
    I suspect not. I believe that they had a clear understanding of HOW the document would work ,as a whole, to the detriment of the States and proceeded to snooker the other players.
    Just a thought!!

    Also, there is one other element to consider;
    To what extent were the States complicit, or even active participants, in their subordination. Today, it is clear that states have become rent seekers along with major corporations. It may have also been the case even earlier in our history – but that is a subject for another day.

    take care


Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: