Gar Alperovitz | May 15, 2017

Why is decentralization a key principle of system design?

The flaws of centralized power were made all too clear during the Soviet experiment with state socialism, in which the maintenance of a central authority, for the sake of central authority, was pursued at tremendous human cost. Less dramatically, there is ample evidence to suggest that centralized PUBLIC enterprises may tend to become BUREAUCRATIC institutions with little public input or control. Additionally, modern economic theory since, but not limited to, the work of Hayek suggests that attempting to effectively control a complex system entirely through a centralized apparatus may be infeasible on a purely technical level, even allowing for modern computer technologies, and regardless of our particular political commitments.

Furthermore, many studies suggest that scale is also an important, indeed, fundamental consideration. Robert Dahl and Edward Tufte, for instance, have asked “[h]ow large should a political system be in order to facilitate rational control by its citizens?”1 The United States—with over 300 million people spread across a continent—is almost certainly too big to be meaningfully participatory and democratic. How, specifically, does so large a nation nurture genuine citizen involvement in critical decisions? Sooner or later, a profound decentralization of the federal system—to the REGIONAL level, perhaps—is highly likely.

What are the limits of decentralization?

Even though decentralization is appealingly in accord with our ethical intuitions about democracy, we should avoid treating it as an unquestionable good in all situations. The principle of “subsidiarity,” as noted, with its roots in Catholic social thought, may be helpful here—the idea being that decentralized, small-scale solutions, should as far as possible be a default option—in the absence of a compelling argument to the contrary in favor of a more centralized or larger scale solution. E.F. Schumacher substantially concurs in his book, Small is Beautiful, which is often regarded as something of a bible for human-scale, decentralized solutions. An important chapter of that book emphasizes that for certain sectors, nationalized public ownership may be a more appropriate design pattern. “When we come to large-scale enterprises,” he urged, “the idea of private ownership becomes an absurdity.”2

A related challenge is to recognize that decentralization and equality may very well be at odds in some instances—as the history of shameful state-level efforts to deny the humanity and legal rights of African Americans, and the corresponding necessity for corrective action at the federal level clearly demonstrates. In the design of an alternative political economy, the desire for local control needs to be balanced with the desire to redistribute resources in a more equitable pattern, and to assure civil rights and liberties. One model suggestive of ways to do both is the European Court of Justice which grants individuals the right to sue European Union member states or private individuals in connection with the enforcement of certain critical rights.3

What are some contemporary developments in the direction of decentralization?

As noted, efforts, like Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives, that use the purchasing power of large non-profit institutions like universities and hospitals to create economic opportunity for cooperatives in poor urban communities, are an example of how to decentralize economic PLANNING, with different groups of loosely coupled stakeholders developing overlapping and mutually reinforcing frameworks to establish economic outcomes a market alone would not generate, but without a single central authority dictating a unified plan.

On an entirely different front, the recent history of social movements—Occupy and Black Lives Matter—suggests that decentralized organizing can be extremely powerful, with the ability to scale and self-organize in ways very surprising to people who assume that social movements develop only through more coordinated organizing. A major challenge is to move such models of spontaneous organizing beyond ephemeral opposition to the long-term project of building new institutions—without sacrificing their power to scale and adapt.

At the regional level, strategies like those of the New England and Mid-Atlantic states which create cooperative air pollution control agreements,4 coordinated energy planning,5 and even a regional approach to food systems that is building out of academic institutions in the region,6 begin to sketch the preliminaries of larger scale planning approaches. Viewed from this perspective the many environmental, social, and even high-speed rail developments in the regional scale state of California suggest directions that regional units consisting of several smaller states might ultimately begin to replicate.7

See also:


Further reading

Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore, The Size of Nations (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005).

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (London, UK: Blond & Briggs Ltd., 1973).

Robert Dahl and Edward Tufte, Size and Democracy: The Politics of the Smaller European Democracies (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1973).

Theodore Burczak, Socialism after Hayek (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2006).

Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth

Endnotes   [ + ]

1. Robert Dahl and Edward Tufte, Size and Democracy: The Politics of the Smaller European Democracies (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1973), 2.
2. E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (London: Blond & Briggs Ltd., 1973).
3. Elizabeth Defeis, “Human Rights and the European Court of Justice: An Appraisal,” Fordham International Law Journal, 31 (2007): 1112.
4.  “Regional Green House Gas Initiative: an initiative of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States of the U.S.,” RGGI, accessed November 3, 2016.
5. “NESCOE: New England States Committee on Electricity,” NESCOE, accessed November 3, 2016.
6. “Enhancing Food Security in the Northeast,” Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development and EFSNE, accessed November 3, 2016.
7.  “California High Speed Rail Authority,” California High Speed Rail Authority, accessed September 1, 2016.


Next story:


Gar Alperovitz | May 15, 2017