The basic premise of localism—and therefore, the basic premise of what I call “County Rights”—is that civil government power should be as decentralized as possible.
This is the heart of the program. This section covers that principle of localism: the ideal of freedom and how we once had it in America.
By Joel McDurmon / American Vision
Local Government in a Free America
We need to acknowledge that States’ Rights—though much better than all power being centralized in a large national government—is not a good enough answer to national tyranny. “States’ Rights are for sissies,” as a friend of mine says. Give me “County Rights.” That’s decentralized power. But lest my libertarian friends needle me by pointing out that counties can cajole and extort too, I prefer to argue that civil government power should be as decentralized as possible. If it is possible to have a well-ordered society with little government beyond the family and perhaps voluntary community organization, then we should welcome this.
As we shall see here, localism and decentralized power is the best expression of freedom in government, and it was the way America was originally founded. This is the way it used to be in America, and it worked. So I would like to discuss, briefly, localism or “County Rights” in both principle and practice.
In principle, limited and localized government is an outgrowth of specifically Christian thinking; particularly the demands that
1) Rulers are not divine, but themselves subject to a higher law,
2) Private property is to be protected and conferred with its own governmental powers under law, and
3) Social relationships are based on legally binding contracts,
4) Power tends to allow for corruption and should therefore be limited, checked, and safeguarded. In short, we have a society based on religious faith, property rights, honoring of contracts, and individual responsibility—all fundamental things derived directly from the Ten Commandments. And of course, with all of these things is assumed the right to life and the protection of life.
Origins of county
To understand these things properly, we need a little background. What is a “county”? Where did such a name come from? The answer to that question is found in the medieval feudal system of government (“feudalism” is not a bad word, despite many modern liberal scholars). A “county” was the area of land governed by that member of the hierarchy of nobility called a “Count.” A “count” owned and governed a “county,” just as a “duke” did a “duchy.” This was the French name for the rank. In England, the equivalent division of land was a “shire”—a name coming from the Latin word scire, meaning “to cut” or “to divide” (we get our words “scissors,” “shears,” “schism” and others from this same word, including our word “share,” as in “shareholder”). It was a division of land apportioned to a particular property owner (usually as granted by the King or other higher property owner).
After the Norman invasion of 1066, the English usage of “shire” gradually fell out and was replaced by “county.” Later, in the American colonies, there were only six divisions ever called “shires” and this was in Virginia in 1634. A couple years later these were renamed as “counties” and that name stuck throughout America ever since. Regardless of the name, however, the point stands that our most basic units of government are derived from the original basic units of property ownership. The basic premise is of government is one of private property, and that each owner of property is the governor of what he owns. And of course, in a Christian society, this owner’s government was not according to his own law, but to God’s.
Local limitations on evildoing
In such a society, ideally, there would be no need for higher governors. But of course, this is neither possible nor practical yet. We live in a world still marred by sin, and crime exists and needs to be deterred and punished. But, crime exists on all levels of life, including those in higher ranks. This means that sinful men fill positions of power as well (perhaps especially), and thus we should seek to have the powers of punishment and force radically distributed throughout society so that no individual or group ever has too much power or power over too great an area. If there’s going to be a tyrant or corruption in civil government, it’s better to have administrative units as small as possible and as separated and independent as possible, so that
1) The tyranny is limited to that area,
2) The tyrant has limited resources with which to work, and thus can’t easily spread,
3) People in that limited area can easily escape to better places, and
4) That tyrant will be facing a whole host of surrounding jurisdictions and forces ready to intervene for at the very least the sake of peace. When there’s another layer of government above the local (which is usually the case), the local units can appeal to the higher powers; disputes between locals can be settled by private arbitration between them, or by appeal to the higher courts if necessary. If the higher powers try to exert tyranny, the local governments must resist, and if necessary band together to resist as a group.
Value of Magna Carta
This is exactly the nature of what happened in Anglo-American history, during the construction of that famed document the Magna Carta. In 1215, in the midst of feudal society, the Kings had for several generations gradually moved closer to absolute power; the land barons had enough. It was really the wane of the old feudal system, and because of the King’s grasping at more and more power, absolutism was gaining early strength.
It was the representatives of the local land owners who gathered together to oppose King John’s extensive attempts at solidifying absolute power and raising taxes on them: it was these protectors of private property who drafted the Magna Carta. In doing so, they fell back on the old feudal ideas of fixed contractual obligations on the part of each side—the land owners paying a predictable and tolerable tax, and the King being subject to the powers of law upheld by a representative assembly of the barons (as well as protection and proper courts, etc.). The document is often perceived as some advance in political theory because it looks a little like modern representative government being advanced against monarchy, but in reality it was a conservative document, aiming at securing ancient rights of property owners, the rule of law, and the upholding of contracts—things that had been established in England for centuries.
Biblical origins of free, protected society
As I said, this society is based deeply in Christian thinking and biblical law. In the right to life we see the commandment against murder. In the sanctity of private property, we see the commandments against theft. In the upholding contracts, we see the commandment and against false witness. We could also easily explore the centrality of the family and inheritance, expressed in the fifth and seventh commandments. We could also explore the guarding of property and inheritance against the jealousies of others found in the tenth commandment.
One modern political philosopher noted the derivation:
The limited state is a creation of Christian thinking, particularly of Augustine. It arose from the fundamental experience of the Incarnation, the appearance of God in human form at a definite place and time of human history. Christian thinking about politics was based on a new discovery about the destiny of man: man lived in order to attain fellowship with God.”1
In other words, beyond the mere popular idea of Christianity, the idea of limited government is based in Christian theology: it is a political development based upon the previous theological development of the historic Church councils, particularly Nicaea (AD 325) and Chalcedon (AD 451). Because only Jesus Christ is the perfect man, and the only God-man, this means He alone has the final word of human jurisdiction. He is prophet, priest, and king. No human government, therefore, has the right to wield supreme or final power on earth, whether in family, church, or state. All people and all rulers must bow the knee to King Jesus, obey his commandments, and love one another as equals before God.2
All of these biblical and theological ideas are visible in and fundamental to the old feudal system, despite the flaws that also existed in that system.
Why I cover this, and why it is relevant to the United States history we are about to see, is that the idea of federalism is related directly—both in principle and in name—to feudalism. “Federal” and “feudal” have the same etymological root (foedus, Latin for pact or covenant) and refer to governmental relationships based on contractual agreements, or covenants, between various levels of government. The contract established a bond between the parties—for example, a King and a Colony, or a Colonial Government and its counties—which established obligations for each party, and protected each party in regard to those obligations being performed. If those obligations were not met, then sanctions could be enforced, or the bond could be declared null and void.
It was this very type of covenantal relationship which the American colonists in 1776 argued had been violated in regard to them by King George III. The colonies had each been established with charters which themselves established feudal land grants and recognized the ancient feudal rights of free Englishmen. But things had gradually changed—especially in England—over the decades.
In 1688, Parliament overreached its bounds by usurping the absolutism to which the King once aspired. It began a series of attempts to extract taxes from the colonies. King George did nothing, and the colonies regarded this as a failure on his part—they in fact considered him complicit in the act of aggression and tyranny. The Declaration of Independence was federal document, announcing that the King had failed in his end of the contract, and thus it had become necessary “to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”
Abuses from afar
The Declaration—aside from the famous language of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which is all we normally recall—goes on to list two long trains of abuses. The first list includes abuses on the part of the King himself, and the second, those in which he has “combined with others”—a.k.a. Parliament—“to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation.” The colonists considered Parliament a foreign party to their colonial charters and governments, and thus King George’s failure to protect the colonies against Parliament’s encroachments and taxes was a breach of the governmental contract on his part. For this failure, and in order to retain the freedoms they expected under the original agreement, the colonists united with the willingness to fight and die if necessary.
Thus it is instructive to look at the nature of colonial government during that time—especially the time before the Constitution—in order to see what a decentralized, truly free and federal society look like, especially as derived from the old system of genuine federalism. Thus, second, we shall examine the practice of limited government:
The practice of localism in the colonies
The fundamental unit of government was the county. The so-called anti-federalists during the Constitutional ratification period argued for local sovereignty on the part of their States, as opposed to the nationalists (improperly named “federalists”) who wanted a strong central national government with direct jurisdiction, taxation, and military power upon the people (bypassing the State and local governments as convenient).
Men such as Patrick Henry rightly argued that a truly federal system would only allow a national government to interact with the States, not the counties, townships, towns, or people. In a truly federal system, only counties dealt with people, States only dealt with counties, and the Constitution should only deal with States.
Purchase One County at a Time.
- Gerhart Niemeyer, “Two Socialisms,” Modern Age: The First Twenty-Five Years, a Selection, ed. George A. Panichas (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1988), 587.
- See my book Manifested in the Flesh, 2006, chapters 8–9.
Decentralization and its origins in biblical thinking and American colonial history. In two parts. Thank you. Please like Noogaradio on Facebook.