(A shorter version of this article appeared in the Mises Wire under the title Decentralization as the Bridge to a More Libertarian Society)
Friends of liberty argue relentlessly and courageously against the myriad manifestations of government intervention into our lives, our families and our economy. We fight against every proposed measure of regulation, taxation, nationalization, we oppose wars, we demand the protective stability of a sound money against inflation, we make friends and enemies; in short, we struggle for freedom from the State.
Yet I believe that this tactic is ineffective and mistaken. To be more precise, these arguments are indeed indispensable to reveal the flaws in the endless list of proposed government interventions, but we have to see that this is a reactionary, defensive tactic, indeed, a shield without a sword to complement. These arguments alone are not sufficient to bring about a society based on the principles of property and freedom. They have converted us, but they will definitely not convert everyone.
As libertarians, we tend to know that the State and its evils are but the shadow cast by public opinion, and this is why we put so much emphasis on education, on spreading the arguments about the workings of the profit motive versus bureaucratic management, state monopolies versus free competition, international trade versus protectionism and so forth. But we also know that a libertarian is not made overnight. Ask anyone, and the tale of how they became a libertarian usually involves reading numerous books, often having long conversations with those who are already convinced of the value and virtue of liberty, in short, going through a months and years long conversion process of learning, reading and overturning previous convictions and beliefs one after another.
Therefore, as salespeople of liberty, our conversion process might literally take years to come to fruition. That should give us a pause. This is because we cannot make strides towards a free society by relying solely on the aforementioned arguments. Once again, they are indispensable for the deconstruction of any statist proposition, but they seem to be insufficient for a positive program for liberty, especially one that has the potential to win over a majority in any democratic election.
The solution for this, I believe, is to put much more emphasis on the cause of decentralization. In short, we do not push for political decentralization hard enough. The argument for a free market is complex and encompasses a vast nexus of interconnected problems starting from the axiom that man acts through the subjective theory of value and endless historical myths to the privatization of everything. On the other hand, the argument for decentralization is so short and simple it is almost artistic.
To reiterate the argument in the shortest possible form: the greater the degree of political decentralization in a given territory, the easier it will be for the populace to move if one government becomes ever-increasingly tyrannical. And as governments seek to retain their tax cattle, decentralization imposes a natural limit on the festering of State power.
A good sales pitch, although it only convinces those who already hold liberty as their highest political goal. I believe an even more effective way of phrasing it is as follows: you and I may have different ideas about how to organize society to achieve the best conditions for all its members. Currently, our only chance is to wrestle for State power and impose our ideas onto everyone else. Yet this need not be the case. If you believe that your ideas will bring about the best, most livable system, and if I believe the same about my convictions, why not put both of them to test? Instead of a top-down system of politics, why not have a competition of free cities, communities, districts, states and counties, each of them free to implement the policies they deem to be the best, and the rest, seeing the resulting increase in living standards, will be incentivized by those who would vote with their feet to follow them.
To implement the political program of decentralization requires only one simple step – a mere constitutional amendment – that can be effected in every country of the world: If the majority of the inhabitants of a village, town, district or a city express in a freely conducted plebiscite their opposition to any given law ratified by local, state or federal governments, they are to be exempt from the jurisdiction of that law.
One need not be a libertarian to see the virtue of such a decentralist program. Indeed, this is arguably the only program which has the potential to unite just about everyone globally, whether they be left or right, capitalist or socialist or anything in between under a single worldwide decentralist movement to liberate every community, so they may shape their society according to their own values, instead of those imposed on them by the might of the centralized, leviathan State. And the libertarian parties of the world should note that this is the sales pitch that has the potential of winning over a majority, even and especially if the populace is otherwise skeptical about the virtue of a free market.