Why ‘Classical’ Liberals Want Decentralization – OpEd


By Ryan McMaken

In recent decades, many pundits, scholars, and intellectuals have assured us that advances in communications and transportation would eliminate the different political, economic, and cultural characteristics peculiar to residents of different regions within the United States. It is true that the cultural difference between a rural mechanic and an urban barista is smaller today than was the case in 1900. Yet recent national elections suggest that geography is still an important factor in understanding the many differences that prevail across regions within the US. Urban centers, suburban neighborhoods, and rural towns are still characterized by certain cultural, religious, and economic interests that are hardly uniform nationwide.

In a country as large as the United States, of course, this has long been a reality of American life. But even in smaller countries, such as the larger states of Europe, the problem of creating a national regime designed to rule over a large diverse population has long preoccupied political theorists. At the same time, the problem of limiting this state power has especially been of interest to proponents of liberalism—including its modern variant, “libertarianism”—who are concerned with protecting property rights and other human rights from abuses inflicted by political regimes.

The Growth of the State  and the Decline of Local Powers

Among the best observers and critics of the problem of state power were the great French liberals of the nineteenth century, who watched this process of centralization unfold during the rise of absolutism under the Bourbon monarchy and during the revolution.1

Many of these liberals understood how historical local autonomy in cities and regions throughout France had offered resistance to these efforts to centralize and consolidate the French state’s power.2

Alexis de Tocqueville explains the historical context in Democracy in America:

During the aristocratic ages which preceded the present time, the sovereigns of Europe had been deprived of, or had relinquished, many of the rights inherent in their power. Not a hundred years ago, amongst the greater part of European nations, numerous private persons and corporations were sufficiently independent to administer justice, to raise and maintain troops, to levy taxes, and frequently even to make or interpret the law.3

These “secondary powers” provided numerous centers of political power beyond the reach and control of the centralized powers held by the French state.4 But by the late eighteenth century, they were rapidly disappearing:

At the same period a great number of secondary powers existed in Europe, which represented local interests and administered local affairs. Most of these local authorities have already disappeared; all are speedily tending to disappear, or to fall into the most complete dependence. From one end of Europe to the other the privileges of the nobility, the liberties of cities, and the powers of provincial bodies, are either destroyed or upon the verge of destruction.5

This, Tocqueville understood, was no mere accident and did not occur without the approval and encouragement of national sovereigns. Although these trends were accelerated in France by the revolution, this was not limited to France, and there were larger ideological and sociological trends at work:

The State has everywhere resumed to itself alone these natural attributes of sovereign power; in all matters of government the State tolerates no intermediate agent between itself and the people, and in general business it directs the people by its own immediate influence.6

Naturally, powerful states are not enthusiastic about having to work through intermediaries when the central state could instead exercise direct power through its bureaucracy and by employing a centrally controlled machinery of coercion. Thus, if states can dispense with the inconveniences of “local sovereignty” this enables the sovereign power to exercise its own power all the more completely.

The Power of Local Allegiance and Local Customs

When states are dominated by any single political center, other centers of social and economic life often arise in opposition. This is because human society is by nature quite diverse in itself, and especially so across different regions and cities. Different economic realities, different religions, and different demographics (among other factors) tend to produce a wide range of diverse views and interests. Over time, these habits and interests supported in a particular time and place begin to form into local “traditions” of various sorts.

Benjamin Constant came to similar conclusions. As noted by historian Ralph Raico: “Constant appreciated the importance of voluntary traditions, those generated by the free activity of society itself….Constant emphasized the value of these old ways in the struggle against state power.”7

In his book Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments, Constant complains that many liberals of his time, having been influenced by Montesquieu, embraced the ideal of uniformity in laws and political institutions.

This, Constant warns, is a mistake and tends to create more powerful centralized states, which then proceed to violate the very rights that Montesquieu thought could be preserved through uniformity.

But political uniformity can lead down very dangerous paths, Constant insists, concluding, “It is by sacrificing everything to exaggerated ideas of uniformity that large States have become a scourge for humanity.”8 This is because large politically uniform states can only reach this level of uniformity by employing the state’s coercive power to force uniformity on the people. The people do not give up their local traditions and institutions easily and therefore, Constant continues,

It is clear that different portions of the same people, placed in circumstances, brought up in customs, living in places, which are all dissimilar, cannot be led to absolutely the same manners, usages, practices, and laws, without a coercion which would cost them more than it is worth.9

This may not be “worth it” to the people, but it appears to be worth it to the regime. Thus, states over the past several centuries have expended immense amounts of time and treasure to break down local resistance, impose national languages, and homogenize national institutions. When this process is successful, a nation’s laws end up reflecting the preferences and concerns of those from the dominant region or population at the expense of everyone else. When it comes to these large centralized states, Constant writes:

one must not underestimate their multiple and terrible drawbacks. Their size requires an activism and force at the heart of government which is difficult to contain and degenerates into despotism. The laws come from a point so far from those to whom they are supposed to apply that the inevitable effect of such distance is serious and frequent error. Local injustices never reach the heart of government. Placed in the capital, it takes the views of its surrounding area or at the very most of its place of residence for those of the whole State. A local or passing circumstance thus becomes the reason for a general law, and the inhabitants of the most distant provinces are suddenly surprised by unexpected innovations, unmerited severity, vexatious regulations, undermining the basis of all their calculations, and all the safeguards of their interests, because two hundred leagues away men who are total strangers to them had some inkling of agitation, divined certain needs, or perceived certain dangers.10

 For Constant, the diversity among communities ought not to be seen as a problem to be solved, but rather as a bulwark against state power. Moreover, it is not enough to speak only of individual freedoms and prerogatives when discussing the limits of state power. Rather, it is important to actively encourage local institutional independence as well:

Local interests and memories contain a principle of resistance which government allows only with regret and which it is keen to uproot. It makes even shorter work of individuals. It rolls its immense mass effortlessly over them, as over sand.11

Ultimately, this local institutional strength is key because, for Constant, state power can be successfully limited when it is possible to “skillfully combine institutions and place within them certain counterweights against the vices and weaknesses of men.”12

The sentiments of Tocqueville and Constant were echoed later in the nineteenth century by Gustave de Molinari who came to similar conclusions:

In many respects the ancient customs, adapted over centuries to the populations they ruled and successively perfected by way of experiment, left a much greater area to individual liberty and established the responsibility attaching to liberty with more equity.13

Molinari would take these historical observations, however, and come to even more radical conclusions than most French liberals. In an essay titled “The Production of Security,” Molinari denounced the very idea of “monopoly government,” concluding that competition among regimes was beneficial even within a single territory. When monopoly power prevails, Molinary writes, “justice becomes costly and slow, the police vexatious, individual liberty ceases to be respected, and the price of security is abusively high and unequally levied.”14

The American Example:  An Independent State

Nonetheless, Molinari’s more radical views were a minority position. As we see in the work of Constant and Tocqueville, the French liberals were often advocating for decentralization within a larger political entity. In this way of thinking the French state—and other states—were a given, albeit something that could be improved by significantly decentralizing the state’s power.

By the time French liberalism became a meaningful political force, however, the American liberals had already provided their own example of decentralization, in a form far more radical: the secession of the American colonies from the British Empire.

In contrast to the French liberal example of internal decentralization, the American example was of total separation. The end game in this case was to establish a completely independent state—or group of independent states.

The underlying philosophy behind this is clear enough in the text of the American colonials’ Declaration of Independence—penned primarily by Thomas Jefferson. The argument is simple: universal human rights are important, and political regimes are only legitimate or valuable when they can be relied upon to protect those rights. If a regime violates these rights, then it may be necessary to break off from that regime and form an independent state.

Yet even as the Americans moved increasingly toward forming a single confederation in North America, they were careful to ensure this was a decentralized state with political power spread out among a number of smaller member states. As originally conceived, the central government was to be quite weak. There was to be no standing federal army, and most land-based military power was to be in the hands of the militias controlled by member states. Local legislatures and local courts were to handle the overwhelming majority of government administration. Federal powers were to be strictly limited in comparison to more flexible powers of member states.

Especially among the more decentralization-minded American revolutionaries—such as Jefferson and the many “Anti-Federalists,” who opposed ratification of the new constitution without a Bill of Rights—it was thought that local customs and local institutions could provide a barrier against the abuse of power by the new national government.15

This ideology would continue to be a political force for another century under the Jeffersonians and Jacksonians who were perennially suspicious of federal power.16

Liberal Decentralization in Decline

Today, however, liberal efforts to protect regional power and customs from encroachment by central governments are very much in decline. Whether it is attacks on Brexit in Europe, or denunciations of so-called “states’ rights” in the United States, even limited and weak appeals to local control and self-determination are met with contempt from countless pundits, politicians, and intellectuals. Two centuries after Tocqueville and Constant, regimes still see decentralization as a threat. And they are right. Decentralization is a threat to state power. Those who seek to limit political power in the liberal tradition ought to take notice.

About the author: Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

Source: This article was published by the Mises Institute. This article is chapter 3 of Breaking Away: The Case for Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities. Now available at Amazon and in the Mises Store

  • 1.Murray Rothbard also viewed the rise of French absolutism as an attack on local control and local prerogatives. See Ryan McMaken, “Medievalism, Absolutism, and the French Revolution,” Mises Wire, July 12, 2019.
  • 2.It is important to note that many liberals also supported the centralization of power. On this, Jörg Guido Hülsmann writes:
    To get rid of aristocratic privileges, the classical liberals first supported the king against the lesser aristocrats, and then concentrated further powers in the democratic central state to fight all regional and local forms of monarchism and aristocracy. Rather than curbing political power, they merely shifted and centralized it, creating even more powerful political institutions than those they were trying to supersede. The classical liberals thus bought their short-run successes with very burdensome long-run annuities, some of which we have paid in the twentieth century.…It is true that this “technique” was very effective in realizing the classical-liberal program all at once in the whole territory controlled by the new democratic central state. Without it, this process would have been gradual, and it would have implied that islands of the Ancien Régime would have survived for a very long time. Yet like all mere techniques, this was a two-edged sword that would eventually be turned against life, liberty, and property.See Jörg Guido Hülsmann, “Secession and the Production of Defense,” in The Myth of National Defense, ed. Hans-Hermann Hoppe (Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 2003), p. 380.
  • 3.Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, bk. 4, chap. 5, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Democracy_in_America/Volume_2/Book_4/Chapter_5.
  • 4.An important characteristic of the pre-absolutist and pre-modern political institutions was that they often failed to achieve monopoly power within their jurisdictions. That is, power was often shared between the national sovereign and by local authorities, and government relied much more on a consensus model rather than on government-by-decree from a central authority. See Luigi Marco Bassani and Carlo Lottieri, “The Problem of Security: Historicity of the State and ‘European Realism’,” in The Myth of National Defense, ed. Hans-Hermann Hoppe (Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute 2003), p. 35.
  • 5.Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
  • 6.Ibid.
  • 7.Ralph Raico, Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School (Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 2012), p. 225.
  • 8.Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments, tr., Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2003), https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/constant-principles-of-politics-applicable-to-all-governments.
  • 9.Ibid.
  • 10.Ibid.
  • 11.Ibid.
  • 12.Ralph Raico, “Great Individualists of the Past: Benjamin Constant,” New Individualist Review (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1981), https://oll.libertyfund.org/page/raico-on-benjamin-constant.
  • 13.Quoted in Raico, Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School, p. 242.
  • 14.Ibid., p. 239
  • 15.Prior to the Fourteenth Amendment, the Bill of Rights limited federal power only, and explicitly reserved the exercise of most powers and prerogatives to the member states or “the people” as stated in the Tenth Amendment.
  • 16.Rothbard regarded the Democratic Party in the nineteenth century, which was largely controlled by Jacksonians, to be a true laissez-faire liberal political party. This ended in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan fundamentally changed the ideological orientation of the party away from laissez-faire. Murray N. Rothbard, “1896: The Collapse of the Third Party System and of Laissez-faire Politics,” The Progressive Era, ed. Patrick Newman (Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 2017), p. 163.


The Mises Institute, founded in 1982, teaches the scholarship of Austrian economics, freedom, and peace. The liberal intellectual tradition of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995) guides us. Accordingly, the Mises Institute seeks a profound and radical shift in the intellectual climate: away from statism and toward a private property order. The Mises Institute encourages critical historical research, and stands against political correctness.

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