By David Tulis
Events in Ukraine are generating a great deal of huffing and puffing in Washington, as if its government has anything to do with a secession vote in Crimea instigated by people in its Russian-speaking majority. Secession from Ukraine is not the sole step in view among Crimeans. The second step, sadly: The ostensible overseers of the province want to be vassals of Moscow.
Still, the idea of independence is one that should interest us a great deal as residents of the American South, whose states fought a war for independence in 1861, only to be vanquished and coerced into a union of states supervised by an ever more centralizing federal government.
Secession is to vote to separate from another. Decentralization is a different concept, less violent but trending the same way. It envisions the exercise of power (law applied to the citizenry) and devolving from a national capital to a state, or a province to a city, or from a city to a neighborhood or district. Secession, really, is part of the larger concept of decentralization
The major trend geopolitically is decentralization, toward the breaking up of giant systems that have become unworkable and too expensive. The Internet has allowed for decentralization in many areas and a destruction of long-standing cartels. Think newspapers. Think universities such as Bryan College, which in Sunday’s editions of the newspaper is described as struggling financially and in terms of enrollment as it grapples with the destabilizing effects of the Web. Think capital creation and Indiegogo.com. For decentralization, think movements in New York, California, Canada and Scotland to break up or break away. Think former Soviet Union.
Underlying concept: Self-government
In the mid-2000s researcher Merilee Grindle studied 30 towns in Mexico where since the 1980s the idea of decentralization has taken a hold. She ventures into city halls to see how local government acquired new responsibilities and more resources, and officials locally obtained new power. Politics long focused on the national scene shifted toward cities. “Indeed, decentralization was so widely adopted that it amounted to a structural revolution in the distribution of public responsibilities and authority in large numbers of counties. *** [D]ecentralization helped redefine the role of central government in the development process.”
Now, the first chapter of that book suggests that decentralization doesn’t mean less civil government, just a more local one, a perhaps more accountable one, a more personal one. But decentralization, in a government context, should be seen as favorable to self-government and a reabsorption of services from the state to the marketplace. In other words, delegation or deconcentration give a platform for the jumping away from commercial government.
Decentralization, Grindle suggests, doesn’t necessarily separate public services from civil government. “[A] local government may be coming with a devolved education system that continues to vest authority over standards and testing in a national ministry; a deconcentrated health system that requires local governments to be responsible for the maintenance of local clinics; the full delegation of property tax collection; and the devolution of responsibility over sanitation within norms set by national or provincial governments” (p. 4).
Devolution creates new troubles. If Chattanooga or Hamilton County were favored in a collapse of national will or solvency and became more an independent city state, problems would touch on the rise of powerful local personalities. Local interest groups would become more powerful. Local elites might create “authoritarian enclaves” that reshape the area’s politics and tax-funding priorities. Weston Wamp would care less for the federal legislature than the county commission. Chattanooga might have more “responsive and participatory” local government, Grindle’s research suggests.
Constitutional basis for localization
Decentralization in the United States is possible, and certainly desirable under the 10th amendment, which avers, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the constitution, nor prohibited to it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” The ninth amendment makes clear that the constitution’s naming of particular rights “shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Activists citing these provisions seek to restore to the people rights and immunities presumptively lost to the national power by its exercise of the welfare and surveillance state. Dan Mitchell proposes dividing the U.S. into two (why not six?) parts. The statist left on one side, the freedom-loving right, as he sees it, on the other. In a “model separation agreement” he lets one section keep the IRS, left-wing judges, the ACLU, Obamacare, wind, Volvos, biodiesel and Hollywood. The other America keeps the NRA, the Bible, greedy CEOs, rednecks, SUVs, the oil industry and doctors.
All in fun, of course, But the fault lines are great. The people are no longer represented in congress, with local Rep. Chuck Fleischmann representing 632,000 people. Divisions in culture and religion are becoming more violent as they become politicized. If the high court rejects federalism in a redefinition of marriage to suit homosexuals, it will greatly increase the sense of oppression many people in conservative states feel, perhaps pushing them toward a breaking point.
To get ahead of this trend, Chattanooga and Hamilton County elected officials should think in the direction of decentralization and increasing local autonomy so that the county might declare itself a tax-free trade zone, leading to a tripling of the population in a place that is a haven to entrepreneurs, investors, artists and business operators.
Sources: Daniel J. Mitchell, “Ukraine, Ethnic Division, Decentralization, and Secession,” Forbes.com/sites/danielmitchell, March 3, 2014. Also, “The American Right Asks the Left for a Divorce,” Jan. 18, 2011 on his website.
“Political Decentralization,” World Bank.org
Merilee S. Grindle, Going Local: Decentralization, Democratization, and the Promise of Good Governance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). Chapter 1 is online.