Skip to main content
Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

Democracy & Governance

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).

Gar Alperovitz

Gar Alperovitz

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

More related work

Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth: Introduction

If the design of corporate capitalism is unable to sustain values of equality, genuine democracy, liberty, and ecological sustainability as a matter of inherent systemic architecture, what systemic ‘design’ might ultimately achieve and sustain these values? read more


Why are current approaches to trade problematic? How would the Pluralist Commonwealth approach trade? What existing efforts point toward a sustainable and just trade regime? read more


How do modern researchers understand the deeper sources of economic abundance and technological change? How should the fruits of our common technological inheritance be distributed now and in future? How would the Pluralist Commonwealth deploy management of new technologies in new ways? read more


Why consider long term regional devolution of power? How might long term devolution to regionalist patterns operate in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are some on-the-ground developments that suggest possibilities for the future of regionalism? read more


Why must the United States confront its long history of systemic racism? How would the Pluralist Commonwealth begin to promote racial equality? What on-the-ground efforts can be seen working towards our future of collective liberation? read more


Why are new forms of public economic institutions important at certain critical levels of scale in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are the key challenges for public ownership? Where are communities organizing elements of public ownership in the economy? read more


Why is the idea of prehistory important for thinking about systemic change? Are we in the prehistory of genuine systemic change, the prehistory of a Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


Why is pluralism an important value for systemic design? What makes a pluralist commonwealth “pluralist,” and why are more complex forms sometimes important? Where can we see pluralism in action today? read more


What is the role of planning in our present economic system? How would planning function in the Pluralist Commonwealth? Where are new models of decentralized and more participatory planning being explored today? read more


Why is ownership a key determinant of system structure? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth democratize ownership? Where is ownership being transformed in the direction of a Pluralist Commonwealth today? read more


How is money created in the current system? How is money created in the Pluralist Commonwealth? Where can we see key elements of a new approach to monetary policy emerging today? read more


What’s wrong with markets, and why do we still need them? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth use markets to sustain communities? Where are examples of markets that remain subject to democratic control operative today? read more


What is liberty? Why must liberty be a central part of the design for the pluralist commonwealth? Where is a renewed conception of liberty being developed on the ground today? read more


Why is investment in the current system fundamentally undemocratic and unsustainable? How would a Pluralist Commonwealth democratize investment? Where is investment managed in more democratic directions today? read more


Why must we factor gender equity into the institutional design of the next political and economic system? What kinds of structures would a Pluralist Commonwealth use to support true gender equality? Where are important elements of a more gender equitable system being built today? read more

Evolutionary Reconstruction And Displacement

How do evolutionary reconstruction and displacement of corporate power differ from “countervailing” strategies of containment and regulation? Why are evolutionary reconstruction and displacement key strategic approaches in the building of a Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


Why is equality a key part of the Pluralist Commonwealth? How is movement towards equality achieved in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What examples prefigure equality as envisioned in the Pluralist Commonwealth? read more

Economic Growth

Why is growth a challenging problem? How Would the Pluralist Commonwealth Manage Growth? Where can we see on the ground efforts to tackle the growth question today? read more
Economic Change

Economic Change

How does economic change really occur locally and nationally? How, specifically, can we build upon the ways cities and states already foster the local economy to create the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are some examples of shifts toward greater democracy? read more

Ecological Sustainability

Why is pluralism necessary to guarantee ecologically sustainable ends? What are the key strategies for environmental protection in the Pluralist Commonwealth? What are some promising on the ground developments that point toward an ecologically sustainable Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


What is democracy? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth build stronger foundations for democratic life? Where are more participatory systemic directions being prototyped and developed today? read more


Why is culture a key part of the pluralist commonwealth? What are the most important strategies for building such a culture? What are some examples of the development of the cultural transformations toward democratic society at work today? read more


What are cooperatives? What role do cooperatives play in a Pluralist Commonwealth? Where else is this systemic direction for cooperatives being prototyped and explored today? read more


Why is community important to the pluralist commonwealth? What are institutional mechanisms aimed at undergirding rather than undermining community in a Pluralist Commonwealth? What current developments point towards the restoration of community as a central category? read more


What does it mean to hold wealth in common? Why is wealth held in common and democratized at various scales, so important for the design of a next system? What are some examples of how “common wealth” builds a “commonwealth” today? read more

Climate Change

What are the challenges presented by global climate change? How does the Pluralist Commonwealth tackle ecological threats such as climate change? What are some promising on the ground developments that point toward an ecologically sustainable Pluralist Commonwealth? read more


Why is bureaucracy problematic? What can be done in a pluralist commonwealth to minimize necessary bureaucracy? What contemporary interventions or potential interventions illustrate democratic control of large-scale entities? read more


Why is the Pluralist Commonwealth an American system? What resources for a Pluralist Commonwealth can be found in the American tradition? read more