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Decentralism and Meritorious Government: Reflections on Jeff Taylor’s Politics on a Human Scale

In the autumn of 2013, an American political theorist at Dordt College, Jeff Taylor, published a remarkable book entitled, Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism (Lexington Books).  Working various aspects of the decentralism issue across independently devised yet broadly synergistic chapters, Professor Taylor examines the last 130 years of American political party activity.  His important work reveals not only the nature and consequences of America’s drift from its traditional decentralized policy model, but directs attention toward a philosophy of scaled governance.  This philosophy is evident in the Republican federalism tradition, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, and the Kuyperian (Dutch Reformed) commitment to sphere sovereignty.  In exploring Taylor’s thesis that decentralism is essential to good governance, the extant essay explores synergies between decentralism and morally meritorious policymaking.[1]

An Enduring Philosophy of Good Governance

The American tradition of decentralism was built on a time-tested philosophy; namely, people feel more responsible for the morality and merit of decisions in which they are personally involved than in decisions made remotely by people with whom they have little correspondence.  In order for governance to prudently uphold honorable liberties (as contrasted with licentiousness or exploitation), citizens upholding the rule of law must make “morally meritorious” decisions— judged not merely by the metrics of monetary efficiency, market acceptance or profitability but also with an eye to ethics and goodness.  Naturally, ethics and goodness are difficult to judge without a set of societal ends or a vision akin to an Aristotelian telos.  During earlier periods of American history, the religious understandings of various Protestant sects provided societal goals as well as benchmarks by which to evaluate moral merit’s contribution to those goals.. Furthermore, the importance of virtue for all citizens tasked society with the mission of overcoming impediments to virtue, thus bolstering economic prospects for individuals, groups and states.

While it takes a good deal of historically moored philosophy and enlightened theology to build a sound discussion about the relative value of various forms of government, concepts such as accountability, transparency, responsiveness, civic virtue, justice, natural rights and sustainability are often in play.  One thing learned across many decades and landscapes is that best practices in government seem to crumble without competition, policy innovation, checks and balances, constraints upon coercive power, and the express preservation of semi-autonomous jurisdictions for ongoing choice.  According to most political historians, the world is yet to find a substitute for decentralization and federalism in these regards.

Obviously, it is prudent to retain and develop some aspects of centralism for the sake of security, efficiency and national coordination—a conclusion that moved America’s Founding Fathers to move from a highly decentralized league of friendship under the Articles of Confederation to a more modestly decentralized federal system under the Constitution.  As an expression of limited government under the rule of law, the revised system delegated essential functions to the national government (or concurrent federal-state arrangements) while reserving the broad remainder of power to the states or the people, as expressed in the Ninth and Tenth constitutional amendments (Taylor, 513-15).

Federalism’s Decentralist Frontier

As Jeff Taylor shows, history amply demonstrates how concentrated power fosters serious ills, especially when the administration of the power is largely unfettered.  While decentralism shorn of civic virtue is no cure to governmental malpractice, civic virtue alone in a centralized republic lacks instrumental means or “teeth.”  If checks and balances are to matter, they must arise from government stations with hybrid “inside/outside status.”  Nothing in governance has facilitated this prospect as fully as the existence of semi-autonomous states.  Under the original plan for the U.S. Senate (undermined with the Seventeenth Amendment) states were to have access to critical national information while retaining independent judgment.  As Germany learned painfully during the Nazi totalitarian regime, once a would-be dictator takes decision-making autonomy out of a federal apparatus, checks and balances between legislative, executive and judicial branches at the national level no longer count for much (82-83, 135-40).

Unfortunately, America has been swept along for three-quarters of a century in a current of nationally administered social-policy centralization—a countercurrent to the country’s earlier preference for decentralized, state-level policymaking.  At the behest of national special interests with their encompassing political agendas, policy centralization has raised both the stakes and spending in national political affairs.  A ‘winner-take-all’ nationalized policy environment has contributed to multiple dysfunctions in governance such as executive intrusions into the legislative sphere, bureaucratic excesses, and partisan polarization that mismatches public policy initiatives to the preferences of the general electorate.  Indeed, national pressures for a few faddish brands of diversity increasingly threaten the prospect of self-realization for individuals seeking wholesome social norms in communitarian environments.

As Professor Taylor explains, decentralized federalism made it possible for people to vote, as it were, with their feet.  If, for example, in a particular state the rewards of public policy were favoring benefits for the few while widely dispersing the costs to the many, the disaffected many could migrate (vote with their feet) and congregate in another state.  If, in the target state the newcomers were to become part of the jurisdictional majority, they would reap the benefits of majoritarian democracy; that is, within the policy purview and parameters allowed by the federal constitution.  Traditionally, this aspect of decentralized federalism offered a potential check on the politics on inequality: if a state facilitated crony capitalism, persons disenchanted with exploitative injustices could move to a fairer place (12).  Now, however, with the centralization of crony capitalism, middle-class Americans are left with little refuge and few options for creating preferred social environments.  There is “little frontier” left—a phrase often associated with the federalism theories of Daniel Elazar and the nineteenth century pragmatism of the Utah Territory-bound Mormons.

Unfortunately, many of decentralism’s considerable successes in furthering the public good have not gained recognition among liberal academics—an observation made several times in David Brian Robertson’s 2012 book, Federalism and the Making of America.  Errantly, the blame is placed too narrowly upon the American South.  A fairer reading of American history would observe a complex set of attitudes and circumstances in the North as well as the South that slowed the full inclusion of American blacks in the rights and privileges of citizens.  The hands of history move religious, racial and other identity groups along differing trajectories, the consequences of which cannot be laid upon any single cause, especially federalism.

Scholarly Perspectives

The constitutional background and institutional nature of the states’ rights brand of decentralization has been studied for decades by political scientists.  In 1982, AEI scholars Robert Goldwin and William Schambra observed a resurgent interest in federalism studies.  Desirous of advancing the conversation on states’ rights, they published a collection of essays entitled, How Federal is the Constitution?  Eight years later, the celebrated Florida State University professor, Thomas R. Dye, added momentum with the college classroom text: American Federalism: Competition Among Governments.  Other celebrated books followed, including Vincent Ostrom’s 1991 work, The Meaning of American Federalism: Constituting A Self-Governing Society; and former Harvard Professor Samuel Beer’s award-winning book, To Make A Nation: The Rediscovery of American Federalism (1993).  Dozens of thoughtful books emerged alongside these works, broadening a scholarly literature that had gained considerable visibility through the academic quarterly, Publius: The Journal of Federalism.

As the twentieth century closed, Forrest McDonald’s examination of federalism’s history in America served as the high-water mark for federalism studies.  Entitled, States’ Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876, the book endeavored to revive the concept of state sovereignty within national sovereignty.  While academically visible, the attempt was not enough to counter currents flowing against federalism’s revival.  Powerful national interests were at work to elevate one brand of diversity over others.  At stake was one nation-spanning version of pluralism in which all political participants would be required to cede space to liberal conceptions of tolerance.  In demeaning traditional wisdom, community-based intolerance for moral errors would no longer be sufficiently tolerated, especially when the specification of moral error was religiously informed.

In the space of a few years, debates over the proper place of “intolerant religion” in public policy debates grew in vigor.  In one particularly interesting exchange, the prospect for inclusive, ecumenical and secularism-friendly sects or platforms in America was contrasted with that of conservative, fundamentalist and allegedly divisive sects.  More than thirty scholars from widely varying religious and secular backgrounds weighed in on the matter in a Pew Charitable Trusts forum that produced the 2004 book, One Electorate Under God? A Dialogue on Religion & American Politics.  Interestingly, the role of federalism in creating space for highly divergent religious policy commitments is hardly touched upon in the forum.  The reason is fifty years of work by the U.S. Supreme Court in weakening federalism as one of the key operational supports of religious freedom (starting in 1940 with Cantwell v. Connecticut).  Little wonder, then, that an erudite Catholic scholar, Thomas J. Curry, saw the criticality of the loss of decentralist religious liberty in his 2001 book, Farewell to Christendom: The Future of Church and State in America.  Ominously titled, the book posits that real world losses occur when the natural law foundation of religious liberty (protected under the decentralism umbrella of subsidiarity) is supplanted by discretionary and fiat court pronouncements.

In 1999, federalism’s chief theoretician and organizational academic, Daniel Elazar, passed away.  Around the same time, accusations began rising in the business world that federalism complicated capitalism, constrained corporatism and hindered globalism.  In essence the assertion was that federalism impeded higher growth rates and the financialization of the economy (a dubious prospect for communitarians).  As the siren song of potentially higher stock prices pulled the conservative business community toward this framework, momentum was sucked out of the “devolution of government” movement that conservative Reaganites had fostered.  Thus hindered, backlash against the centralization and concentration of power in national government apparatuses was short-lived.

In hindsight, the new leg of federalism’s decline went farther in the 1990s than most Americans expected.  With the imperative of economic growth near the top of the federal agenda due to increased government spending and debt loads, Republicans as well as Democrats were willing to further centralize government powers following the 9-11 attack upon the World Trade Center towers.  Noting the spectacular rapidity of the move, Robert F. Nagel saw fit to place a headstone for traditional decentralism in his 2001 book, The Implosion of American Federalism.  The new consensus, supposedly, was that global policy imperatives leave little leeway for local problem-solving in an interconnected world.  Purportedly, solutions that stop at state lines leave externalities, inconsistencies, loopholes and loose ends.  Using these challenges as political leverage, leadership elites assume they must retain sufficient power to wrest away from the distracted electorate any maladroitness that might slow the gears of global trade.  This perspective continues to be expressed in high-level conversations within countries, financial centers and umbrella trade organizations.

Lessons Learned Locally

For traditionalists, federalism went awry after 2001, with the high court offering repeated rationalizations for departures from the constitutional text, especially in matters of commerce and national security.  It was during this period of centralism’s renewed climb that Jeff Taylor examined the costs of ignoring lessons learned in the past—like the wisdom of the Kuyperians who believe in protecting a sphere of sovereignty in lower levels of government (370-71).  Growing up in a rural, Iowa environment Taylor saw the value of life’s lessons learned locally—with considerable autonomy in putting family and community learning to work.  Increasingly he concluded that centralization, in opposition to the subsidiarity principal, was eroding the goodness of fit between governance methods and human needs (7).  In short, too much legislation at the national level creates a burden of governance that does not scale well with human traits (17-21).  Consequently, America needs the balance of a “quadratic persuasion” that properly balances democracy, liberty, community and morality (4-6, 62).

As his research progressed, Taylor found evidence that a great many expressions of decentralism were jettisoned not because the facts of governance justified the move—a conclusion consistent with David Robertson’s recent findings—but because of a failure of scruples in the fight for partisan power.  This failure made the preservation of federalism subservient to special interest demands.  Even now, powerful special interests are very resourceful in pressing political parties toward programmatic centralization.  Centralism helps national interests to concentrate the largesse they collect.  The drive toward centralization is not so much for the sustainable public good but to maximize the power of government to take from some and distribute to others.

Centralism’s Attack

Historically, decentralized federalism stood in the way of the practice of powerful national-level factions securing rewards far greater than the value of their contributions to the sustainable public good.  Sadly, both parties fell victim to a dangerous immorality growing malignantly within their respective constituencies: the willingness to take rewards and gains irrespective of the value of actions and ingenuity—a cultural problem at its core (2).   Locked in combat for control of government’s rewards-dispersal machine, both sides exchanged the traditional idea of income earned uprightly for a faster party-building system with tacit acceptance of immoral winnings and manipulative takings (186-88, 467-73, 507-08).  Leaving prudence behind, both sides forgot that the greatest check in a democratic republic upon the excessive accumulation of power is the insistence that resources be honorably earned and morally deserved.

After acknowledging in 1787 that we had a republic, Benjamin Franklin asked rhetorically if we could keep it.  If the greatest threat to liberty is an unlimited power to make unjust laws (tyranny), then it is foolish to allow the unjust to grasp more power than they legitimately deserve.  The concept of deservedness can be a morally reasoned principle.  Unless one believes in peerage, and that Magna Carta was a breech of the divine right of kings, deservedness must reflect merit within the context of opportunity.  In turn, merit should reflect real contributions—not exclusively but substantially.  Without this principle there is no limit to the injustices that can be created through manipulated law: injustices against persons as well as well-deserved private property.

In the 1947 epic film, California (a Paramount Pictures dramatization of California’s gold rush years), a would-be empire builder (metaphorically named Pharaoh Coffin) takes on all who would stand in his way.  Halfway through the movie, one of Coffin’s political critics, Mr. Trumbo, chastens him for gaining his wealth undeservedly through the African slave trade.  Trumbo says, “You may have washed it [the stink of death] out of your clothes, but it will take more than soap and water to wash it out of your mind.”

Coffin replies, “These are fast moving times, friend.  Helpless little men have no place in them.”

Trumbo objects to his opponent’s rationalizations.  Thereafter, Coffin lays out his philosophy, no words minced: “Most men love the chains they wear.  They need a master the way they need their mothers.  I’ve heard such talk from pulpits: The meek shall inherit the earth.  No, Mr. Trumbo, the earth belongs to the men who make the law.  And the law belongs to the men who can lay it down.”

Pharaoh Coffin’s philosophy that ‘might makes right’ tells the story of centralism today: Having usurped the power of states to hold federal indiscretions in check, the national government makes laws on behalf of today’s pharaohs, whether found on Wall Street or in the billionaire centers of London, Moscow and Beijing.  Fraudulently, the law belongs to the men who can lay it down, largely because the nation no longer has a prudent ethos by which merit can be measured and sound liberty preserved.  The rule of law becomes corrupt whenever unlimited power is facilitated by an amoral liberty to take as much as one can while the taking is good, public-spirited prudence ignored.  As James Madison argued, checks on government power, while essential, avail little unless reinforced by civic virtue.

One of the greatest virtues is contentedness with what one has earned by diligent and honorable means.  Covetousness, by contrast, often expresses itself in the taking of more than is warranted by reason of one’s contributions, thus diminishing the relative well-being of others.  Viewed from this perspective, the rule of law means little without sufficient insight to operationalize merit in political and economic systems—a principle that can be derived from Joseph Kett’s landmark 2013 book, Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal from the American Revolution to the Twenty-First Century.

Merit vs. Political Spoils

In recent decades, the revenues of government are but political spoils to be plundered.  The tragedy of exploitative centralization is that it disengages politics from the local level where most people have their best opportunity to make responsible contributions to decision making.  Yet, when culture is degraded, even localism is an insufficient bulwark against the foolish use of taxation powers.

As judgment about what constitutes the morality of merit breaks down, it becomes difficult to discern right from wrong.  When wrongdoing becomes mainstreamed it gains a certain acceptability.  If celebrities and the privileged regularly acquire rewards substantially richer than the worthiness of their contributions warrant, critics who resist this immoral transfer of power come to be viewed as dangerous.  Once value-systems are shorn of the decency of deservedness, power can be accumulated almost without limits in private and public settings.  A case in point would be how BlackRock, a Wall Street investment firm advantaged by a special relationship with the U.S. government, now manages over $4 trillion in assets.  While BlackRock’s defenders justify the outcome based upon claims of extraordinary financial expertise, this extreme centralization of private power illustrates what can happen when moral merit is discounted.  The continuing rise of wealth and power around Washington D.C. further illustrate the problem.

Merit-focused citizen participation is good for the development of the community soul.  People need opportunities to participate in upholding honorable standards.  Governance that becomes too complex or remote invites citizen lethargy, indifference and confusion.  Tragedies of the common—situations where harm results from people having greater incentives to pursue immediate self-interest than to care about their long-term shared good—often follow.  The cost of centralized healthcare within the context of massively subsidized crony capitalism appears to be a growing case in point.

When Congress Cannot be Trusted

America’s Founding Fathers created the U.S. Constitution in 1787 to encourage strategic, limited centralization as a means of providing enough system coherency and efficiency to help keep social policy decentralism healthy.  When the Bill of Rights was passed in 1791, it worked to constrain further rights centralization by limiting the range of possible legislation the U.S. Congress could pursue.  This understanding stood until the U.S. Supreme Court used judicial review to turn limits on government power into imperatives for federal action.  Originally, though, the idea of constitutionalism was to limit the growth of centralism by disbarring Congress from tampering in the policy jurisdiction of the states (61-63).

For some time, major polls have shown that over 85% of Americans no longer trust the U.S. Congress or the powerful lobbyists that move the legislative process.  Government is dysfunctional for many reasons, one of which is that national government is busy with policy endeavors pursued through omnibus legislation on a scale indifferent to human capacities and needs.  Indeed, most members of Congress cannot properly comprehend the thousand-page bills that get assembled by countless staffers in dozens of committees and subcommittees.  It would be better to create comparatively few important laws that are consistent with best practices and morally evaluated merit.  From there, markets, not the Congress, could take care of the rest.  If foundational architecture is set up properly there is no need for a massive overhang of bureaucratic regulations.  Continuing calls for a powerful interventionist state bear witness to underlying design problems in corporatism, finance, healthcare and other fields.

The problem for constitutionalists is that a torrent of change over the last 90 years has produced an environment where the U.S. Constitution, as written, carries less superintendency over legislation than in earlier times.  In many areas where the Constitution is relevant by reason of judicial review, the modern “constitution voice-over” is that of preferentialism and judicial partisanship.  The Constitution’s limited saliency to emerging issues, as in the matter of financial derivatives, keeps the door open for Wall Street lobbyists to induce Congress to create regulatory initiatives that benefit the few at a relative cost to the many.

Practical Limits on Decentralism

Decentralization cannot handle all challenges.  The population of the U.S. is 100 times greater than in 1787, and natural resource demands are over 1,000 times greater.  Decades of immigration have made U.S. population grow much more rapidly than world population (global population is purportedly up seven-fold since 1787), resulting in conflicts and pressures that must be addressed centrally.  Additionally, global trade and finance, extensive resource extraction, environmental externalities, and world militarism have created a set of issues salient to most nations.  The problem is not that centralism is sometimes warranted—as it undoubtedly is—but that it keeps advancing willy-nilly without suitable constitutional checks, especially in the face of crises (Taylor, 11).  As a result, electorates are burdened with monitoring an explosion of complex legislative and executive initiatives: an impossible task.  In this morass, public guardianship is forfeited to powerful interests that exploit the system to further their aims.

When critically important policy must be centralized, it is sometimes best to do so by constitutional amendment.  Unfortunately, the amending competency of the vast majority is in doubt.  By analogy, the challenge is like trying to fly a commercial airliner across the country on the basis of flight instructions gathered from a passenger poll.  Yet, while we hope for prudent, competent and altruistic leaders (like America’s founders imagined would populate the electoral college) the cultural soil is too depleted to nourish such candidates in many parts of the nation.  Either that or the campaign environment that has existed for decades tends to weed out most of the people we need.  For some time now money and votes go to candidates who promise to over-reward their side relative to what the other side receives.  (Each side constructs a false justice.)  When people are willing to take from the government far more than their merits deserve, the much-needed check of culture on morally rotten campaigns is gone.  This observation is broadly highlighted in Taylor’s book as he masterfully studies the electoral platforms and campaigns of dozens of congressional candidates and presidential hopefuls.  Indeed, the central strength of Taylor’s book is an abundant interweaving of historical accounts that reveal the intensity of centralism’s temptations within the evolved party system.

Closing Reflections

The work of cultivating electoral advantage by promising special interests more than their moral merits deserve takes prudence out of the rule of law and threatens the sustainability of moral liberties.  Satisfactory correctives are few and far between nowadays, owing to the way that centralization has resulted in a complexity and extensiveness of government that overwhelms people’s ability to provide informed restraint.  In this environment, highly compensated political mercenaries (oftentimes former members of Congress), gun down the public good to win for their ambitious clients rewards disproportionate to the gains fair play would warrant.

America’s religious heritage proclaims that righteousness exalts a nation.  The centralizing tendencies of the times may reflect what happens when cultural and moral health declines: the nation moves away from governance that works. When the media’s chatting-class no longer grasp prudence or what ought to be integral in a good name, there is little to stop lobbyists and legislators from creating unjust laws.  Increasingly, fast guns trump integrity, ingenuity and productive merit.  Excessive centralism fuels multiple dysfunctions by distancing people from their sense of responsibility for what government does—a point in need of explication.  For this reason and many others, Politics on a Human Scale is highly recommended reading.


This was originally published with the same title in Anamnesis on March 27, 2014.


Timothy J. BarnettTimothy J. Barnett

Timothy J. Barnett

Timothy J. Barnett is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at a Southeastern University in Florida. He is author of Legislative Learning: The 104th Republican Freshmen in the House (Routledge, 1999).

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