Despite every attempt in the world by left-wing elites in both parties to throw this subject into the dustbin of history, I’m going to bring it up anyways. I’ll cut straight to the chase: The United States is too large and too centralized.
Although one in four Americans are open to the idea of secession, there is almost no idea in America that is more condemned by elites more than this one. As time has passed, it has become a near unquestioned assumption that centralization is a desirable and progressive force, whereas decentralization and secession represent retrogression and backwardness.
But America has not always been characterized by political centralization, and it has not always been unfashionable to support politics on a smaller scale. It doesn’t have to be unfashionable today, either.
Tocqueville’s American Decentralization
In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the United States to study its prisons and thereafter returned back to Europe with knowledge of the United States extensive enough to publish his two-volume book Democracy in America. This book is considered both then and now to be a classic work of political science and history and helped to attain Tocqueville the reputation as a highly astute observer of the nineteenth century America.
And like so many during his age, Tocqueville was a proponent of decentralization. In particular, Tocqueville admired the framers of the Constitution for the way in which they carefully crafted powers between federal and state governments, whereby governing authority remained primarily with the states as opposed to the federal government. The decentralized management of political and social affairs, which, according to Tocqueville, was rooted in American tradition tracing back to the Puritans and certain municipalities in England, remained a critical feature of American society.
In fact, so great were the powers of the states that they – not a monolithic “American people” – had created the Union. And since the Union comprised of sovereign states (which in joining together had forfeited neither their independence nor their nationality) the federal compact could be dissolved at will. In other words, the Union was not perpetually binding. Tocqueville observed:
“The Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the States; and these, in uniting together, have not forfeited their Nationality, nor have they been reduced to a condition of one and the same people. If one of the States chose to withdraw its name from the contract, it would be difficult to disprove its right of doing so, and the Federal Government would have no means of maintaining its claims directly, either by force or by right.”
Thus, upon a thorough and impartial study of the early nineteenth-century American landscape, Tocqueville could not help but conclude that the states were sovereign. Such sovereignty was not only a critical feature of the new Constitution but was also so engrained into American custom that it was akin to a father’s authority in the family. “The sovereignty of the states,” wrote Tocqueville, “is sustained by memories, habits, local prejudices, regional and familial self-interest; in short, by all things that make the patriotic instinct such a powerful force in the heart of man.”
Also important, of course, were towns and counties. For Tocqueville also recognized that local institutions are the natural outcome of a free society. Just as liberty begets local institutions, so too is the fostering of local institutions critical to the preservation of liberty. “It is at the local level,” wrote Tocqueville, “that the strength of a free people lies. Local institutions are to liberty what elementary schools are to knowledge; they bring it within reach of the people, allow them to savior its peaceful use, and accustom them to rely on it.” Thus, Tocqueville did not believe it was a coincidence that localities were the foundation of American political economy. To the contrary, local institutions are the only associations that are “so apart of nature” that whenever men come together they tend to spontaneously arise.
In many regards, as was pointed out by L. Joseph Herbert, Tocqueville’s American decentralization is not unlike the Catholic Church’s teaching of the subsidiary. First coined in Pope Leo XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931), this principle held that matters ought to be handled by the least centralized authority as competently possible. Whenever plausible, political decisions should be decided at a local level – by individuals, families, and local political and civil associations – rather than by a central authority.
Lastly, when looking at the United States, Tocqueville noted that American political decentralization accorded with the diversity of customs found throughout the nation. In this regard, political decentralization fostered the diversity of customs and discouraged cultural uniformity. Unlike lawmakers in the United States, those in centralized nations were “obliged to give laws a uniform character that does not comport with the diversity of places and customs.”
Decentralization: The Path Forward
Today, however, the decentralized America observed by Tocqueville has been long lost. No aspect of life is left untouched by federal authorities. The federal government, for instance, has taken upon itself to impose a new definition of marriage onto the entire country; to replace education by parents, churches, and communities with education by the federal government; to replace local charity with a compulsory and federalized welfare state.
And this isn’t even the beginning.
Indeed, everything must be under direct control of the modern centralized state. All are encouraged to embrace the new wave of cultural leftism currently engulfing western civilization– a wave which seeks to homogenize all peoples and cultures under the mantra of “diversity.”
And speaking of “diversity.” What passes as “diversity” today is far different than the type noticed by Tocqueville within the United States in the 1830s. As Lew Rockwell astutely wrote in his recent article The Unique Evil of the Left:
“…the left’s version of diversity amounts to uniformity of an especially insidious kind. No one may hold a dissenting view about the desirability of ‘diversity’ itself, of course, and ‘diverse’ college faculties are chosen not for their diversity of viewpoints but precisely for their dreary sameness: left-liberals of all shapes and sizes. What’s more, by demanding ‘diversity’ and proportional representation in as many institutions as possible, the left aims to make all of America exactly the same.”
Rather than letting people “live and let live” by fostering small groupings and alliances akin to the kinds Tocqueville admired in early America, the centralizing left thus seeks to substitute the local with the distant. Seeking what Rockwell calls the “fundamental transformation of society,” the centralizing left seek to crush local allegiances and replace them with allegiance to centralization. Rockwell wrote:
“In place of naturally occurring groupings and allegiances, it demands the substitution of artificial constructs. In place of the concrete and specific, the Burkean ‘little platoons’ that emerge organically, it imposes remote and artificial substitutes that emerge from the heads of intellectuals. It prefers the distant central government to the local neighborhood, the school board president over the head of household.
Thus, for those of us who believe in liberty, it would be wise to consider carefully the words of Tocqueville and others who shed light on the superiority of decentralized political structures. Indeed, the centralized state is not an outcome of the free social order. It is instead, as Rockwell has articulated, a replacement of the concrete and specific with remote and artificial substitutes that emerge from the heads of intellectuals, the type who believe themselves capable of ushering in a utopia by giving a small number of people power over a vast federal apparatus.
In contrast, however, we can boldly proclaim rationales for breaking away from the modern centralized state, with all of its wars, it’s money-printing, its crony capitalism, its assault on traditional culture. All of this assuming, of course, that Tocqueville was right in arguing that local institutions arise organically from a free social order and are essential for the flourishing of civilization.
Left-wing elites want us to stay quiet about this subject. They don’t deem it a worthy serious discussion. But really, what’s so bad about politics on a smaller scale?