We are living through an unprecedented crisis—epidemiological, economic and social.
Ongoing events, according to the emerging consensus, seem to have invalidated the concept of limited government. Media headlines proclaim the beginning of an age of big government, which is essential to shore up the economy, tackle climate change, promote universal healthcare, protect citizens, etc.
But the current crisis does not necessarily imply that the idea of small government should be thrown into the dustbin of history. Rather, it is proof that the power of the executive branch should be decreased, and regional and local authorities, private companies and individuals should be empowered. We should embrace decentralization and localism and reduce the size and power of central government.
Localized Police Reform
The recent killing of George Floyd has led to widespread protests against police brutality. The American police system is in need of reform: police are no longer seen as the upholders of law, but as a threat to public safety.
Crime rates have been at historically low levels in the United States, yet the overuse of force by the guardians of the law remains an unresolved issue. This problem repeats itself in a self-reinforcing cycle: police brutality decreases people’s trust in the state, thereby fueling more crime, which exacerbates the relationship between the police and the people and leads to clashes and riots like the ones we have recently experienced.
And, while many steps will need to be taken—from reforming police unions to requiring policemen to wear cameras—in order to reclaim citizens’ trust, the police should ultimately become more community-oriented.
Decentralized and localized reform must begin by ending the so-called doctrine of qualified immunity, which, as the Supreme Court has put it, “provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Those who enforce the law cannot be above the law: the police must be part of the community they serve.
Second, in order to make the American police more localized and community-oriented, it needs to be demilitarized. Excessive militarization leads to a loss of trust between the people and their guardians.
In early colonial America, there was no police as we imagine it today—public safety was a communal responsibility. However, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and rapid urbanization, community-based policing began to be seen as outdated and inadequate. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the progressive movement introduced universal operating procedures, ushering in the era of the professionalization and formalization of the police—and their greater militarization. This was when the police’s perception of the local situation began to diverge from reality, leading to a lack of trust, mutual antagonism and estrangement.
Today, police are taught military-style tactics, in so-called warrior training, and “the majority of law-enforcement academies in the United States are loosely modeled on military boot camps,” as former Defense Department official Rosa Brooks has noted.
More than $7 billion worth of military equipment has been transferred from the Department of Defense to the police department since the 1990s. Police nowadays look—and, increasingly, act—like warriors, not like guardians or community peacekeepers. And, as Brooks remarks, “ironically, small-town and rural agencies, rather than large city departments, have been most likely to request heavy equipment such as mine-resistant vehicles,” even though “there’s no earthly reason for small-town cops to wear military fatigues, ride around in mine-resistant Humvees, or carry bayonets.”
The problem with militarization is that, according to a 2017 study published in Research and Politics, police are more likely to use weapons the more they have of them: not only does militarization not reduce crime, it leads to more police violence.
One great example of an effective and respected police force is Italy’s carabinieri. As Elisabeth Draw has written in Foreign Policy, “As highly trained as they are, it’s rare to see a Carabinieri officer brandishing a gun.” She quotes Massimo Mennitti, the carabinieri’s chief of external relations: “Even during arrests of Mafia leaders, the officers only rarely use their weapons.” Drew concludes: “If Carabinieri can apprehend mafia kingpins without heavy artillery, it should be possible for US police officers to apprehend garden-variety offenders without killing them and without using bullets, helicopters and armored vehicles.”
Third, many of the present responsibilities of the police should be shifted to social agencies. We should rely more on unarmed civilian workers to cope with minor violations of law and with mentally ill people. As Patrick Sharkey has remarked, in Uneasy Peace, community members—without the benefit of weapons or qualified immunity—have often been successful in ensuring public health and safety—in no small part because they tend to see law-breakers as people in need of support, rather than criminals.
Creating a police force that serves the people rather than the state, and protects rather than punishes, is not an impossible task.
In 2012, the local authorities of Camden, New Jersey laid off their entire police staff and formed a new police force, twice the size of the previous one. The new police, as the Atlantic notes, “were trained to focus more on community policing, which included an emphasis on de-escalation and using tools such as guns and handcuffs only as a last resort.” Camden has subsequently experienced a 42% decline in homicides as well as a substantial decrease in the number of “use of force complaints.”
Even if some of the moves will need to be taken on the federal level, every police reform must, in the end, empower the community rather than the state: the police should be the defenders of public safety, trusted by the people they serve—which means localism and decentralization.
A Decentralized Response to Coronavirus
In a recent essay, Francis Fukuyama argues that, “Given the importance of strong state action to slow the pandemic, it will be hard to argue, as Reagan did in his first inaugural address, that ‘government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.’”
However, this belief that the era of limited or small government is over and that the centralization of power is necessary, especially during emergencies, is flawed. Leadership is seldom competent or intelligent enough to use available power productively. As Karl Popper writes, “it is easy to centralize power but impossible to centralize all that knowledge which is distributed over many individual minds, and whose centralization would be necessary for the wise wielding of centralized power.”
A decentralized system is the only one capable of offering a counterbalance to the mistakes made by the central government because of the dispersal of power among many participants.
A decentralized system provides checks and balances on the power of the government and the leader, which allows other players to fight back against the worst excesses of bad emperors: by contrast, in centralized countries, mistakes usually result in disasters, because power is concentrated in the hands of the dictator, whom few have the courage and power to restrain.
Coronavirus has brought to light the flaws of centralized regimes. The outbreak of Covid-19 became a global pandemic because it was covered up by local authorities in China: when doctors in Wuhan tried to warn of the threat of a new virus, they were suppressed. China’s centralized system led to a global disaster. Meanwhile, decentralized countries proved much more resilient in responding to the pandemic, as I point out elsewhere in this magazine.
In the United States, President Donald Trump’s initial denial and downplaying of the outbreak—as well as the bureaucratic red tape hampering the federal government—especially that of the FDA and CDC—undermined the country’s response to Covid-19
The federal bureaucracy and the White House have significantly hindered America in this. But, had it not been for America’s decentralized model of governance, the situation would probably have been even worse.
Private companies, such as Google and Apple, have been stepping up their efforts, with contact-tracing apps and social media campaigns. While effective leadership has been absent on part of governments around the world, Bill Gates and his foundation are pioneering the global effort to mass-produce vaccines.
States, private businesses and individuals practiced or imposed self-isolation even before government mandates. Defying Trump’s claims of total authority, state governors and local authorities across the country took decisive action. As one White House advisor told the Washington Post, “The states are just doing everything on their own”: pushing back against the federal government’s excesses, forging partnerships between public and private sectors, launching interstate initiatives.
Citizens themselves have noted a discrepancy between the degree of leadership shown by the federal and by the state governments: 72% of voters judge their governors’ work favorably, while only 50% approve of President Trump’s actions.
Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic has been widely criticized by the media, including by his media allies—something that would be impossible in a centralized dictatorship like China. As a result, the president was quickly forced to change his views and take action—something that would not have happened if power in America had been concentrated in the center. In centralized Turkmenistan, by contrast, state media are reportedly not allowed to mention the word coronavirus; in Belarus, President Lukashenko held a military parade on 9 May and has called Covid-19 “yet another psychosis, which will benefit some people and will harm others”; while, in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro continues to call the virus “a little flu.”
A decentralized response to the pandemic also enables us to avoid universal lockdowns by allowing regional and local authorities to decide when to reopen, based on local circumstances, as Raghuram G. Rajan has noted in Project Syndicate. In hi-tech hubs and large cities, such as San Francisco, Seattle and New York, many jobs can be performed remotely, while the risk of infection is high: therefore, a strict lockdown is desirable. But why should the same measures be adopted in, say, Farmington, New Mexico, a small town where, according to the New York Times, “few people know anyone who was ill from the coronavirus, but almost everyone knows someone unemployed by it”?
We should adhere to decentralization while managing the economic repercussions of the coronavirus as well. For example, as Raghuram G. Rajan suggests, “a fair share of stimulus spending on infrastructure should take the form of block grants to communities, which are in the best position to allocate funds according to need.”
America’s decentralized response to the coronavirus, while far from perfect, is preferable to the lack of any action whatsoever, which has happened in countries where the government has more power.
Big government can be good—but only if its power is wielded wisely. But, since wisdom is rare, limitations on executive authority are necessary to ensure that, if the state fails, others can fill the governance gap and encourage the government to implement appropriate measures. The federalist, decentralized model means that even a country with an erratic president and ineffective bureaucracy is not completely hamstrung.
The Case for Decentralized Governance
The current crisis has not only demonstrated the importance of effective government intervention, but also the risks of placing too much power in the hands of a single authority.
The failures of President Trump and the US federal bureaucracy demonstrate the importance of further constraining the power of executive authority. The fact that a single person—Donald Trump—has had such a negative impact on America’s response to the outbreak implies that the executive branch has too much power.
The government had been acquiring more and more powers even before Trump took over. Barack Obama often resorted to the unconstitutional use of executive orders to bypass Congress—this created a precedent for Trump, who is now issuing executive orders at an unprecedented pace. Ironically, by widening the scope and sway of the federal government, the Obama administration endowed his successor with more influence, which he has already used to reverse the majority of Obama’s decisions.
If there is one good thing about the Trump presidency, it is that it may make more people finally realize the dangers of concentrated power. There is a widespread belief that Donald Trump has been undermining the US political system, with its checks and balances—although many of the president’s measures have been overruled by the courts or states (as in the case of coronavirus response, climate change and immigration). But the fact that Trump has often managed to override the system implies that restrictions on presidential authority must be increased. Checks and balances should be constructed in such a way that they cannot be undermined or swept away.
There is a similar paradox in the perception of police violence: Republicans, the usual supporters of limited government, are more likely to uphold the status quo; while leftists, who rightfully oppose the government agency’s abuse of power, have been the advocates of an increase in government involvement in public life.
Those who criticize Donald Trump should recognize that, in order to offer a counterbalance to bad emperors, the power of the executive authority must be decreased. In other words, America—along with many other countries—needs to become more decentralized and localized.
The ideas of decentralization and localism are founded on the doctrine of subsidiarity: what can be done better at the local level should be decided there; local communities should make most of the decisions, while leaving the management of systemic risks (pandemics, wars, etc.) and other tasks that cannot be done at lower levels to higher authorities. Because, when black swan events occur, strong and intelligent centralized leadership is preferable to chaotic and uncoordinated localized actions.
Decentralized governance also allows us to circumvent irrational orders from the center and fill the governance gap when strong leadership is lacking. As Alexis de Tocqueville puts it,
Decentralization … increases the opportunities for citizens to take interest in public affairs; it makes them get accustomed to using freedom. And, from the accumulation of these local, active, persnickety freedoms, is born the most efficient counterweight against the claims of the central government, even if it were supported by an impersonal, collective will.
The more players participate in decision-making and the less power is concentrated in a single entity, the lower the likelihood of costly blunders.
Central government must play an essential role. However, decentralization ensures that the system will not collapse if the center is disorganized and unprepared. The decentralization of decision-making power provides a strategic reserve, which permits the normal functioning of the country, when central authorities fail. In other words, decentralization of power decreases the downsides of low quality management by empowering others to take action.
The decentralized distribution of decision-making power is a quintessential element of open societies’ flexibility, adaptability, resilience and the ability to successfully overcome challenges. And the failures of central government underscore the critical role of bottom-up initiatives, personal responsibility and the ingenuity of the private sector.