'The Individual v. Big Gov't' Pt. 2: Understanding The Importance of Decentralization

P. Gardner Goldsmith | February 13, 2019
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Contemporary news stories and political predators can be fist-to-palm infuriating, but, if we’re canny, they also can serve as “leap points” to see timeless principles that have been forgotten as the political class turns America into a collectivized, command-and-control dystopia.

In Part One of this series on the individual versus the state, we took a serious look at the philosophical crux of the problem, the fallacious “social contract”, which is something politicians and their collectivist supporters tell us is an actual "agreement" between each subject and the state, allowing the state to rule.

And, get this, collectivists argue that if you don’t flee those imposing this mystical “contract” that you never signed, you are, somehow, “accepting the contract.”

So much for real contracts and voluntary choice showing personal values.

But the problem is long-standing.

In the late 1600s, John Locke tried to adjust this “social contract” idea by saying that the contract was only “valid” if the state is “protecting you and your property” from encroachments and threats by others.

The trouble is that Locke’s argument dies at least two ways - ways that open the door to collectivism in the US.

First, if you supposedly have a right to control your life and property such that no one can harm or threaten either, how can the state (i.e. government) justifiably claim the power to make you to pay for its “protection” agencies?

The illogic of it is manifest. Likewise, in his “Second Treatise” Locke also assumed that “no man should be deprived of the fruits of his labour without his consent”, but in the same document he states, “by his consent, I mean the consent of the majority”.

For which Locke would have left the game show of logic with a consolation prize.

If the majority can consent for a person and force something on him, he’s not really giving his consent.

Likewise, if government were really operating based on the consent of each individual to hire it for protection, it would be a business, not a state. The state is always -- always -- involuntary. Conversely, if the hiring of a protection and adjudication force is 100 percent voluntary, by definition it cannot be a state. It’s a privately contracted business.

These distinctions are incredibly important and are at the heart of how the United States got into the collectivist mess we see today, but most Americans miss these points. In fact, many have never discussed them, never explored the so-called “Social Contract” or seen how acceptance of it leads to greater and greater growth of the state over individual choice and volition.

Aristotle seemed to have understood the tendency of populations to veer away from allowing for individual control and for the state gain in power, so he recommended that if the state were to rule, all states had to have constitutions laying out precisely what the government could and could not do.

Of course, 19th Century American philosopher, abolitionist, and lawyer Lysander Spooner noted that the US Constitution is still an artificial imposition on future generations, and is, in fact, not valid as any form of real “contract.”

But if we’re stuck with this “contract”, and the politicians at every level in the US tell us they are going to abide by it, at least they could do so.

And, of course, they don’t.

American subjects are forced to either flee to other places where the systems are as bad or worse, or try to manage the decaying body politic that the politicians themselves keep poisoning.

Which leads us to the important lesson we can take away, that of the decentralization of political power.

One of the few arguments to be made by Americans who favor at least slowing the growth of government is the fact that many of the Founders recognized the importance of smaller political units.

In fact, the Articles of Confederation, saw the States as almost entirely sovereign. Unfortunately, boosters of bigger, more centralized government that could hand out pork and form a central bank – people like Alexander Hamilton and tricky banker Robert Morris – pushed for more, and got a “revision of the Articles” which morphed into a rewrite of the entire federal government. This, they called the “Constitutional Convention”.

To give you an idea of how worried some Founders were when they saw this move, keep in mind that many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence boycotted the Constitutional Convention to show their displeasure. In fact, the Articles had explicitly stated that for them to be amended, all States had to approve. Yet people like Hamilton and Morris wanted to not only amend the Articles, but turn them into a whole new document with a mere two-thirds vote from the States.

While debating at the Constitutional Convention, many worried that the self-titled “federalists” who actually favored centralization, not confederation (they already had that under the Articles), were pushing too hard, and they insisted on the passage of the Bill of Rights, to explicitly say that only those powers enumerated in the Constitution were the powers of the feds and that all others were reserved to the states and the people therein. They also went to great lengths to explicitly stop the feds from infringing on the right to free speech, or the right to keep and bear arms, or the right to a trial by jury, or to not be searched without a warrant issued by a judge.

Every one and more of those so-called “barriers” in the Bill of Rights has been utterly smashed by the central government.

But not by all local and state governments.

And this is why the concept of decentralization has proven to be so important.

The concept and the lesson from history renders down to this:

Market competition allows for real choice and values to be shown. It allows providers to compete and offer the best for the lowest price, and consumer choice lets the people doing the best for them rise in popularity and profit.

But if politicians are going to block volition and create the state, the closest one can get to choice is by having small spheres of political control, spheres that most closely approximate some semblance of choice.

Large areas of control are, by their nature, disconnected from local information and desires. They also harm more people when politicians issue bad dictates, and it’s more difficult for people to escape the effects of the bad decisions.

With smaller spheres of control, bad political dictates harm fewer people, and people can flee to other “competing” political areas.

Which is why people like Thomas Jefferson stressed decentralization and the concept of state nullification of unconstitutional federal laws.

We’re seeing vestiges of that now, as many states disregard federal laws prohibiting the sale and possession of marijuana and protesters speak out in favor of state control of lands taken over by the feds.

And perhaps we’ll see more. But the only way that will happen is if people recognize what has been lost in history and ethics, and try to teach their neighbors some of these important lessons.

Thank you for reading this second part in our series on man versus the growing state. Next, we will look at particular areas where centralization has crept into our lives, and why this is morally and economically important.