The tension between centralized and decentralized decision making has been a reality for governance throughout history.
When the United States was formed, the founders addressed this tension in the Constitution by making it clear (or so they thought) that any powers not specifically given to the federal (centralized) level would belong to the states (decentralized).
They added the Bill of Rights because it was important enough to the American spirit that a centralized protection was in order. For example, if North Carolina decided to ban the right to bear arms, that was an important enough freedom for the whole country that the state could not deny it.
As we’ve added various amendments to the Bill of Rights, this spirit guides them.
If a state wants to preclude Asian voters, for example, it can’t. That is an important enough principle that it needs entire-country protection.
If a state began banning newspapers, it would violate a federal guarantee.
Those of us in the conservative-libertarian tribe, for all our “local autonomy” posturing, must appreciate that some things are important enough for centralized power to protect.
As we defend personal freedom and decentralized power, we must appreciate that centralized authority yields benefits for societal protections important enough to not be negotiable by states and local communities.
With that said, how do we express our views and arguments without being dismissed immediately?
I don’t know about you, but I find myself constantly struggling to find better ways to defend decentralization when discussing national policies like education, environmental protection, agriculture, housing and even energy.
The steady increase in federal cabinet-level positions (secretary of education, secretary of agriculture, secretary of housing, secretary of energy, etc.) manifests a steady progression of centralized authority.
This centralization has become normal enough now that the average person doesn’t even question the need for a federal secretary of education, for example.
The idea that we could have schools without this office and without this bureaucracy, without federal education grants to the states, Title IX, and every other program is simply not debatable. Of course we need all these things. How could our schools function any other way? How would our children be educated?
The same could be said of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Bequeathed to our nation by dear President Abraham Lincoln, the USDA now dominates policy trajectories in milk prices, school lunches and welfare food assistance.
Again, most people can’t imagine anything except starvation for the sector of the population served by federal food assistance.
The result of this ubiquitous acceptance within the citizenry is that anyone who dares question it is branded an uncharitable, unthinking nut case. That’s not a designation most of us enjoy carrying in our workplaces and social settings.
Finding Common Ground
Too often we rail against centralized control without either first, or quickly, appreciating the issue and offering alternatives.
I’ve kicked myself more than once for being too focused on attacking the “tyrannical and stupid federal” whatever – name the policy or program – without offering empathy for the problem and a solution that’s different.
I find it also helpful to offer the solution with words stolen from the opposition.
Let’s take education. For the record, I don’t think the federal government has any role whatsoever in education. It’s not expressed in the Constitution, and we survived a long time without it.
But if I get into a discussion with “normal” people (not Manward readers) and say bluntly, “I don’t think we should have a U.S. Department of Education,” I’m quickly branded a nut case.
Instead of going there first, then, I’ve learned to ask something like, “Is diversity a good thing?” Everybody will agree that it is.
Then I might ask, “Is diversity more protected by centralization or decentralization?” That might get their heads scratching a bit, but eventually everyone agrees that decentralization is a better way to ensure diversity.
Now we’re making progress. We haven’t attacked the federal education department or agenda as evil… rather we’ve simply laid a contemplative foundation for exploring a less top-down mentality.
Then we can lay out our case…
Most people like innovation. But the more centralized structure and control in a sector, the more it stifles innovation.
How do we stimulate innovation? We do it with freedom to experiment.
The way the founders envisioned things, we would have 50 simultaneous experiments going on.
Perhaps one state wouldn’t think education is a responsibility of the state at all, from kindergarten to college. Nothing. Let the private sector and families handle it.
Perhaps another state thinks it’s the responsibility of the state to offer free education from kindergarten through doctorate programs.
These are two extremes, of course, and numerous states could offer education policies in between.
The point is, though, that everyone could look at these different policies and see how they work.
Suddenly we would all be enriched by many different simultaneous trials, and gradually society would move toward the one that offered the most advantages.
A Profound Difference
One of the reasons our discussions grow heated is that we’ve arrogated to the federal level so many things that should be done at the state or local level.
The further toward centralization you move the decision, the less innovation you have and the more importance it carries.
It’s a winner-take-all thing. Not just a one-size-fits-all, but a winner-take-all.
And that makes things that could be little tempests at the state or local level boil over into massive heated discussions due to the policies’ size and reach.
Most big-government folks love the words diversity and innovation, and even experimentation and accessibility.
Instead of simply railing against this policy or that, how about co-opting these words and building our arguments out from them? That creates emotional equity early on, offers pathos to the discussion and might brand us as thoughtful rather than saboteurs of normal-think.
The point is to appreciate the importance of education, to come across as a lover of education first rather than a hater of federal domination.
The difference is profound and speaks to our first priority. Is our first priority to rail against what we don’t like… or to thoughtfully offer a better option than the one we currently have, no matter how popular?
How we frame the argument says everything about our motive and how we’re perceived by those around us.