Re: English Liberty and American Liberty (Part I)

Recent conversations here have dealt frequently with “big government,” and with a chic alternative to big government in both its FDR and Bush varieties, namely Front Porch Republic localism.  I think it is fair to say that both Progressives (primary advocates of “big government”) and Porchers (advocates of “localism”) would agree that portraying these two political approaches as opposites is fair and accurate.  This dichotomy leads to such distinctions as universalism vs. particularism, nationalism vs. localism, and centralization vs. decentralization.

However, I believe Bryan Wandel rightly identified the falseness of these distinctions in his discussion of mixed government not long ago.  So first let’s look at some history that both ideologies tend to skim over, and tomorrow we will consider its significance with regard to the two ideologies.

Alexis de Tocqueville made a case for mixed government in two of his books, Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the French Revolution.  In the first book, he made a distinction between the centralization of government and the centralization of administration.  “Certain interests are common to all parts of the nation, such as the enactment of its general laws and the maintenance of its foreign relations.  Other interests are peculiar to certain parts of the nation; such, for instance, as the business of different townships.”  Centralized government is a centrally-constituted government that deals with the first interests; centralized administration is a centrally-constituted government that deals with the second.

Tocqueville’s first book (published in 1836) gave a real-life illustration of a mixed government that accepted this distinction.  The American national government, as Tocqueville saw it, was a fairly strong centralized government.  It dealt firmly in matters of foreign affairs, of issuing laws that applied equally to all the states, and exercising its other constitutional powers.  But far from being a “big government” that trampled on localism, it was precisely this centralized government that protected local autonomy.  As Bryan observed in a recent comment, it is when localities are left free from dealing with national affairs, and free to handle their own, that they can thrive.

Tocqueville’s second book (published in 1850) demonstrated this by contrast.  Tocqueville contended that a form of local self-government (or, more precisely, local self-administration) was quite common in France and across Europe prior to the 18th century.  It existed underneath – and because of – autocratic monarchies that handled the affairs “common to all parts of the nation.”  It was this European local democracy that gave birth to the New England township, which blossomed under the autocratic rulership of the king of England.  But under the 18th century French kings, local administration was increasingly brought under national control.  Top-down and bottom-up authority were united in one centralized administrative state, and local institutions were subverted and began to decay.

The American Founders rejected the administrative states they saw developing in Europe.  They also rejected the populist, localist democracies of Athens and Italy, believing that the combination of decentralized government and decentralized administration led to constant infighting, instability, and ultimately anarchy (Federalist No. 9).  They accepted Tocqueville’s later distinction because they saw in it the prospect of uniting universal principles and national stability with local autonomy and vibrancy.  Far from being revolutionary, this distinction was the continuation of a tradition seen in republican Rome, post-imperial Europe, and the American colonies themselves.  And, most of the Founders believed, it was the best hope for thirteen bickering, near-bankrupt states drowning in their own localism.

To be continued tomorrow…

Brian Brown
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.

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