Decentralization is incompatible with libertarianism

Isn’t it obvious? If you want a libertarian society in a big country, the only way to make sure of it is to have a strong centralized national government that makes it its business to keep the state and local governments out of everybody’s business. Otherwise, you’ll have them doing whatever local pressure groups and business interests want, and the result will be courthouse-ring cronyism, fat sweetheart contracts paid for by high state/local taxes, and dry counties and blue laws and sundown towns and community-standards obscenity laws, everything hateful to libertarians. Local autonomy equates to small-scale biggummint. And lots of corruption, too, based on our history.

Why do you believe that a national government would be better at that role?


It’s typically more competent, less corrupt, and easier to keep an eye on than the lower levels of governments.

It might or might not be, but it’s obvious nothing else will work.

Who else? Or, more to the point, what other entity would be suited to protecting the rights of the individual from the tyranny of the majority or the coercive nature of concentrated money & power that occurs at the local or municipal level? Even under the present system one of the major functions of the federal government is to safeguard the constitutional rights of the public.

Libertarianism is full of false premises, the most blatant of which is that it is about maximazing freedom and individual liberty for all. Not so…libertarians worship at the alter of the great god THE MARKET™ who assigns dollar values to every item and every field of human endeavor and who blesses his/her/its most faithful followers with the power to coerce & exploit the worth of lesser mortals.

As has been noted previously, the only condition under which a libertarian approach could be effective is some kind of frontier setting and then only until settlement is accomplished and stable culture is established. There actually was a de facto libertarianism in the American West from (nominally) 1840-1890. It was effective in rapidly opening and settling the frontier regions, but it also gave us the era of robber barons, large scale property ownership by foreign interests, vigilante “justice”, environmental rape and horrible injustices toward labor. Those who wish to study the natural progression of a libertarian society need look no further than the Teapot Dome Scandle, the Steunenberg assasination or the Lincoln County War. Eventually the frontier closed and society moved toward a (somewhat) more stable and equitable system wherein some individual rights are protected from the tyranny of unrestricted monetary and social power.

The OP is correct. Libertarian theory has a basic dichotomy embedded in it. It empowers some individuals, to be sure. But invariably one person’s increase in power comes at the expense of another’s. A healthy society will naturally move toward placing limits on power to control & coerce, and protecting certain individual rights. The best means to do this is by establishing some sort of central authority such as a constitutional government.

Libertarianism as a temporary expedient may be reasonable, but in the long term it carries the seeds of its own destruction.

Says the person who absolutely despises Bush for starting the Iraq War.

And yet local government tends to be more corrupt than that.

Depends, places like Chicago or Detroit maybe depending on whether the rabble-rousers and machine politicians or a quasi-technocratic elite of businessmen and professionals are in charge. Several state governments are currently having surpluses and generally well run for that matter (mostly the smaller states however not California).

More importantly, American history shows that local bullies and local busybodies are even worse threats to personal liberty than the federal leviathan.

“Decentralisation” is a pretty way of selling a system that makes it easier to dismantle and privatize government functions for private profit.

It’s even better than pure privatization, as it provides more avenues for private companies to profit off of government funds. For example. the US is seeing a spate of fly-by-night online high schools that offer a low-quality simulacrum of “teaching.” A central education system would probably never partner with these guys. But a local education system, perhaps wanting to cut funding they spend on “problem kids”, fund these things like crazy using taxpayer dollars. The local government gets kickbacks, the private company gets easy revenue, and everyone wins (except the kids.) What isn’t to love?

The smart “Libertarians” who embrace “decentralization” are eyeing how to get their piece of the pie as they dismantle and sell off US public assets for their personal gain a la the Russian plutocracy, and the dumb ones are the clueless ground troops that have bought into an ideological bill of goods being sold by these would-be-plutocrats.

Libertarianism is incompatible with democracy. Therefore a centralized government will never be libertarian. People will vote for any demagogue who promises to make other people pay their fair share and give the money to the voters.
Decentralized governments have the same problem, but two signficant advantages. The first is they have less money to buy off voters. The second is they have to compete. This is the great limiter of government size. If a business thinks the US government is charging too much tax for the services it provides, then the business would have to move to Canada and hope to get a better deal there. This is really hard. However if a business thinks a state government is not providing its money’s worth it can move to a new state with less difficulty. The lower the level of government the easier it is to leave so the taxes have to be worth the services provided. This is a check on the ability of politicians to buy votes with taxpayers money. Those who want to live off of other people know this which is why they vote for centralizers.
The trade off for this is that there is less scrutiny given to local governments because the stakes are smaller. Thus a corrupt government can survive for longer without exposure.

The Russian circumstance was quite unique stemming from the total implosion of the USSR> :rolleyes:

Libertarianism is incompatible with decentralization to the extent that one wants libertarian governance enforced uniformly across the country.

But maybe you don’t care what the rest of the country does.

:confused: Wait, what?! If libertarianism is incompatible with democracy, that means only that a democratic government will never be libertarian. There are several independent axes relevant here, including at least these:

Centralized vs. Decentralized.

Democratic vs. Elitist.

Libertarian vs. Authoritarian.

Rationalist vs. Traditionalist.

Egalitarian vs. Inegalitarian (which is not the same as Democratic vs. Elitist).

Libertarianism is currently incompatible with democracy, philosophically they are not incompatible but practically they are. I can imagine a set of circumstances where a democracy votes for libertarianism but for the foreseeable future the lure of other people’s money is too strong.

How is it easier to keep an eye on though? Do you know what the CIA is doing? No you have no idea. Do you know what your local PD is doing? Most likely.

This seems to be the real crux of the whole confusion here. Along the libertarianism vs authoritarianism scale at the extremes there are going to be issues with enforcing those policies with pretty much any other form of government.

That all said, I don’t really see the logic in the OP. Sure, there’s corruption at the local government level, but also in a more libertarian society, government in general should have less power. That is, to put it simply, libertarian vs authoritarian is a discussion about how much total power the government has, whereas centralization vs. decentralization is about how that power is distributed. So really, a highly libertarian and highly decentralized government, while there will be corruption at the local level, they won’t really be able to do a whole lot even if they’re very corrupt because they won’t have the ability to do some of the nasty things that a corrupt decentralized more authoritarian government might.

The fundamental idea seems to me that the idea of decentralization is more about just having local governments make certain decisions that make more sense to be made at that level. I think even most ardent libertarians would agree that there are plenty of decisions that don’t make sense to decentralize, most notably the military. In any case, if there’s a national law of some liberty and a local government is corrupt and violates that, there ought to also be a way of addressing those issues to the more centralized government to correct it. But also part of the idea of libertarianism ought to be that, at least at some locales, where everyone may voluntarily want a somewhat more authoritarian or socialized form of government than at other areas. That seems to me to be sort of the point of the philosophy.

You’re missing a few things:

First, decentralization is itself part of the libertarian ethic, as decentralization allows for more choice. If you absolutely detest your local zoning board, you can move across the city. If you hate the way your city is governed, you can move to another one with more difficulty. If your state becomes tyrannical or embraces policies you don’t like, you can move to another one with even more effort, but you can still do it.

Moving to another country, however, is often not possible for non-professionals, and the cost and disruption of your life is far more dramatic. You can move from one city in your state to another and maintain connections with your family, keep your certifications, have your driver’s license recognized, etc. It gets much more difficult if your only escape from policies you disagree with is to renounce your citizenship and move to a new country.

Second, decentralization acts as a brake on extreme government policies, exactly because it’s so easy to move people and capital. Set your taxes too high, and wealthy people will leave. Oppress gay people, and they’ll find another state to live in. Ultimately, in a country with 50 autonomous states there is a ‘market’ for government. People can go live where the government suits them best. This happens all the time.

Decentralization also allows for more lifestyle experimentation and opportunity for like-minded people to create communities that suit them. Venice California has a population that would be totally unhappy living in Provo Utah, and vice versa. That’s real diversity, which even liberals say they support. I’ve never understood how a philosophy that puts so much emphasis on ‘diversity’ always seems to want to centralize government and make universal rules for everyone.

Allowing 50 states to set their own policies also allows for experimentation and innovation that you can’t get when everything is controlled from a central authority.

To a libertarian, the ultimate in decentralization is the market itself. If we all had to vote on what kind of car we had to drive and what color it should be, we’d either have 51% of the people upset, or we’d be driving beige sedans. Democracy by voting is at best a rough approximation of what individuals actually want. The market allows me to ‘vote’ every time I buy something. But even better, it allows for enough variation that even if 70% want red cars, I can still find a yellow one. If car color was chosen by democratic vote, I’d be screwed.

So no, decentralization is not inimical to libertarianism: It’s essential for it. Your example of a centralized force is something like a benevolent dictator, who retains absolute power so he can simply relinquish it back to the people. The British governor of Hong Kong comes to mind as such, or the monarchs that allowed free trade cities and networks to exist without interference in early pre-renaissance Europe.

In the case of the U.S., the way the system is supposed to work is that the states are left alone to choose their own paths, with a central government that exists in limited fashion as laid out by the Constitution. The Constitution is essentially a document which sets the limits of government, and not the limits of what the people can do. Some parts of it only limit the federal government, while other parts restrict what any government can do - local, state, or federal. For example, a state cannot put you in jail without due process, or take away your right to own a gun or to speak freely and associate with whoever you choose.

So… A libertarian would argue that government is best that governs least, and what government is necessary is best done locally if possible. I’ll tolerate a lot of restrictions from my condo association, somewhat less from my local zoning board, even less from my city government, less still from the state govermment, and least from the federal government. Local government is more likely to be representative of my needs and wants, and is easiest to get out from under if it doesn’t.

No, I know more about what the CIA does than what the local PD does. Because there are far more people with far more resources watching the CIA and trying to figure out what it does than there are watching the local PD; the local PD is beneath the radar.