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.
Mises and “Self-Determination”
As Mises put it in Nation, State, and Economy, the “doctrine of freedom” offers an alternative—“the principle of the right of self-determination of peoples, which follows necessarily from the principle of the rights of man.”
Mises goes on to clarify that this type of self-determination is also about local control:
To call this right of self-determination the “right of self-determination of nations” is to misunderstand it. It is not the right of self-determination of a delimited national unit, but the right of the inhabitants of every territory to decide on the state to which they wish to belong.
What does this mean in practice? Mises insists on the right of inhabitants to choose their own state. By this he means that localized groups of people with similar cultural and political interests—even down the level of a village—must have the freedom to function independently of the impediments of a larger centralized state.
Murray Rothbard, not surprisingly, was in agreement with this, and noted the implications of Mises’s position: that self-determination at the local level is a key step in securing self determination not only for small groups, but for individuals themselves.
The reasons for this are numerous, and they’re why most libertarians (i.e., the liberals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Constant) preferred local government to government by larger, less local regimes. Like his liberal predecessors, Mises understood that larger “national” regimes tend toward abuses committed by large majorities on smaller linguistic, cultural, ideological, and ethnic groups.1
These problems tend to be made less bad by more localization.
Decentralization of this sort is also important, because it allows individuals greater ability to exercise their freedoms by more easily changing the regime under which they live. Rothbard explains that decentralization
means greater competition between governments of different geographical areas, enabling people of one State to zip across the border to relatively greater freedom more easily; and it exalts the mighty libertarian principle of secession, which we hope to extend on down from the region to the city to the block to the individual.
Rothbard speaks of state boundaries—here meaning the American political units called “states” and not to be confused with the Weberian sovereign state—but of course he also applied the same principle down to local governments:
Pending total privatization, it is clear that our model could be approached, and conflicts minimized, by permitting secessions and local control, down to the micro-neighborhood level, and by developing contractual access rights for enclaves and exclaves. In the U.S., it becomes important, in moving toward such radical decentralization, for libertarians and classical liberals—indeed, for many other minority or dissident groups—to begin to lay the greatest stress on the forgotten Tenth Amendment and to try to decompose the role and power of the centralizing Supreme Court. Rather than trying to get people of one’s own ideological persuasion on the Supreme Court, its power should be rolled back and minimized as far as possible, and its power decomposed into state, or even local, judicial bodies.
“Uniformity” Is No Virtue
Nonetheless, one recent commenter at mises.org argues local autonomy is unacceptable because travelers ought not have to deal with a patchwork of different legal regimes:
[In Wisconsin] I drive 40 miles to work and 40 back. I pass through at least 8 different towns on the way. If every town had different gun laws, my freedom to protect myself [with legal concealed weapons] would be compromised or curtailed altogether.
The conclusion we are presumably supposed to draw is that some centralized political authority must intervene to ensure uniformity among laws, presumably in a way that protects the rights of residents. Of course, this sort of reasoning also takes the naïve view that in this case the central government will implement laws that favor the legality of concealed weapons. Experience suggests this is a rather fanciful notion, and we can see the benefits of local control if we consider the case of a state that takes an unfavorable view toward firearms.
Consider New York State, for example, where the government heavily restricts the use and ownership of firearms. It is likely that many towns and cities in the northern and western part of the state would prefer to allow more freedom in firearms usage were local control allowed by the state. If these local communities had the ability to ignore state edicts on firearms, at least the residents in those communities would have greater freedom with firearms. As it is, the presence of a strong centralized state government ensures these freedoms are heavily curtailed everywhere within the state. Thus, the overall amount of freedom is greater in a scenario with decentralized political power.
The argument that laws ought to be uniform is equally suspect when dealing with passing across state borders. For example, consider a commuter who must drive from southern Maine to the northern end of the Boston metro area. This is a trip of only about eighty miles, but requires the commuter to travel through three states. Two of these states tend to be permissive on guns—Maine and New Hampshire—but Massachusetts tends to heavily restrict firearms usage and ownership.
If uniformity in law is important, then we must therefore insist that the federal government intervene to ensure that we aren’t inconvenienced by the fact gun laws change every time we cross state lines.
But, of course, we know how well that would work out. Inviting federal lawmakers to “protect rights” or make gun laws “uniform” would almost certainly result in far more restriction than is currently the state in many states. Unfortunately, “uniformity” across state lines tends to favor the areas with the most restrictive mandates.
The Problem with Asking Higher Levels of Government to Protect Our Rights
Another objection is that a profreedom position requires support of any regime that lowers government regulations or mandates, regardless of how immense or distant that regime is:
Government at any level, other than at the individual level, is illegitimate … it makes more sense to support any individual action that comes closer to enforcing the NAP [i.e., the nonaggression principle] whether it is the president, governor, or mayor.
This is the logic behind the EU: the national governments are imposing tariffs, so we need the European Commission to ensure “free trade.” Indeed, the EU has long been sold as a profreedom institution, because it supposedly lowered trade barriers erected by more local government units. Of course, we can see where that led. The net effect of the EU has been the exact opposite of the expansion of freedom. Instead, the EU has given the world a giant bureaucracy that limits trade with the non-EU world and imposes countless regulations of its own.
The same logic could also be employed to call in the World Trade Organization to force down Trump’s tariffs. After all, if the US is raising taxes on trade, we need somebody to “enforce the NAP.” Why not strengthen the WTO so it can dictate tax rates to member states? The problem with this should be obvious: calling in some international body like the WTO to better “protect rights” is just asking for trouble. Americans would soon find themselves in a position similar to that of the British under the EU. Would surrendering more local prerogatives to an international group of politicians be a solution to high tariffs? This could potentially work in the short run, but experience has taught us that the potential for lost freedom in the longer term is enormous.
- 1. On this, Benjamin Constant writes: “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.”