A Question for Limited Government Centralizers

Originally posted at the Tenth Amendment Center

Being a political decentralist has its share of oddities.  The phenomenon that continues to amaze me is how we who believe in decentralization often find ourselves in political agreement with people who hold completely different conceptions about the correct role of government. Conversely, those who agree with us politically are often the harshest critics of our insistence on decentralization.

Thus, even though I come from a conservative and libertarian background, I find myself in agreement with leftists, liberals and even socialists, who acknowledge that centralized power is dangerous and undesirable.

I also find myself most annoyed by limited government types who insist on the primacy of capturing control of the central government.  Getting the right guys into office in Washington would finally allow us small government folks to rein in the out-of-control federal leviathan.  Or so goes the theory.

The problem is that this has never worked.  It would be one thing if the people propagating this argument could point to some point in time when representatives of an ascendant small government movement took office and drastically changed the size and scope of the federal government.  Unfortunately they can’t.

This didn’t happen under either of the Presidents Bush.  Federal interventions and regulations grew in the Reagan years, despite the Gipper’s rhetoric.  Richard “We’re all Keynesians now” Nixon was clearly not leading a small-government revolution, nor was his successor, Gerald Ford.  Dwight Eisenhower oversaw, unhappily perhaps, the expansion of the “military-industrial complex.”  And Herbert Hoover gave FDR a model for what would become the New Deal.

Perhaps the strongest case for the limited government centralizers is Calvin Coolidge, the nearest approximation of a free-market federalist to inhabit the White House since the nineteenth century.  And yet even Coolidge favored government interventions like the manipulation of interest rates, public works programs and federal subsidies.

Most damning to the Coolidge argument is the fact that after eight years of the conservative administrations of Coolidge and Warren G. Harding, it took only an economic crisis for limited government policies to be thrown out the window for good.

But even when faced with nigh on 125 years of complete failure to appreciably limit government at the federal level, proponents of limited government continue to try to find solutions in Washington.  The question must be asked, why?

Or maybe the better question is in what other part of life would this logic be acceptable?  Could a medical researcher just continue to try the same cure for a disease over and over again, regardless of whether or not it ever works?

In the real, non-political world the efficacy of a strategy must at some point guide whether or not that strategy should continue to be pursued.  But in the political world hope springs eternal.  Sure, this strategy hasn’t worked for a century, but it just might work this time.

Thomas Edison famously said of his experiments, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that haven’t worked.”  Notice that he didn’t say, “I’ve just tried to do the same thing 10,000 times, it hasn’t worked, but I’m going to go ahead and keep trying it.”

And yet this is the logic of the limited government centralizers.  Despite an abundance of evidence showing that political centralization is incompatible with limited government, they continue to focus their efforts to reduce government on Washington D.C.  Instead of just trying the same thing for the 10,000th time, it’s time to realize that it doesn’t work and that it’s time to find a strategy that does.

By the way, that strategy is decentralization.