Decentralization Is A Step Toward Self-Determination

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For decades now, advocates for freedom and free markets have disagreed over whether or not political decentralization and local self-governance are important principles in themselves.

Most recently, this debate flared up here at mises.org over the issue of state-level preemptions of local government. Specifically, Connor Mortell objected to the State of Florida’s prohibition of local policymaking autonomy on the issue of covid lockdowns and mandates.

In response, a number of readers both in social media and in the comment section here at mises.org insisted that centralization of political power is fine so long as it’s the good guys who are doing the centralization.

We’ve certainly been here before. Indeed, this debate is essentially identical to the one over whether or not the US Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo decision was a good thing. In that case, both sides were in agreement that eminent domain powers—practiced by any level of government—are a bad thing.

The disagreement was over whether or not states and the federal government ought to be able to prohibit local governments from exercising local eminent domain powers.

Lew Rockwell, building on Murray Rothbard's decentralist views, took the position that eminent domain is bad (of course), but faraway governments ought not be in the business of meddling in local affairs to prevent it.

In an article titled “What We Mean by Decentralization” Rockwell writes:

The Kelo decision, in which the Supreme Court refused to intervene in the case of a local government taking of private property, touched off a huge debate among libertarians on the question of decentralization. The most common perspective was that the decision was a disaster because it gave permission to local governments to steal land. Libertarians are against stealing land, and so therefore must oppose the court decision.

And yet stealing isn't the only thing libertarians are against. We are also opposed to top-down political control over wide geographic regions, even when they are instituted in the name of liberty.

Hence it would be no victory for your liberty if, for example, the Chinese government assumed jurisdiction over your downtown streets in order to liberate them from zoning ordinances. Zoning violates property rights, but imperialism violates the right of a people to govern themselves. The Chinese government lacks both jurisdiction and moral standing to intervene. What goes for the Chinese government goes for any distant government that presumes control over government closer to home.

Rockwell doesn’t mention it, but he’s likely taking a page from Ludwig von Mises here on the matter of “self determination.” For Mises, self-determination was a key element in limiting the power of political regimes and opposing the “princely principle” of political centralization and maximization of a state's area of control.

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