After an embittered presidential election, a never-ending kabuki on Washington finances, and now a fierce debate over property rights, many would be surprised to know that members from opposite sides of the political spectrum have found some common ground. Betsy Woodruf at National Review Online sure was. She was shocked to find agreement between the Republican Governor of Illinois, Mitch Daniels, and Tom Dickenson of Rolling Stone magazine regarding medical marijuana and federalism. Both, it seems, favor letting the states determine their own drug policy, even though they may not agree on what each state ultimately decides.
First, note that agreement between the two parties happens more often than not. In principle they all agree on war, debt, entitlements, taxation, police statism, drones, the central bank, socialistic healthcare, prohibition, and many other issues. Of course they disagree on just how much debt there should be; if the military ought to bomb the people of third-world countries or drop bombs and machine-gun them; and whether individuals should forfeit 35 percent of their income or only 33 percent. Some diversity of thought.
But what’s noteworthy about this particular case is that each can agree because neither is trying to force the other into submitting to a single policy. Here we see one of the great things about decentralized government: it tends to reduce conflict by allowing various groups to “live and let live.” This is isn’t possible when all policy decisions are made by one body, when a polity becomes too big.
As the power of the state becomes more centralized, those living within its borders are forced to live under one legislative dictate. This works well enough for (mostly) uncontroversial issues such as laws prohibiting murder and burglary, mainly because most everyone recognizes these as actual crimes. But as soon as one group tries to force its views of say, marriage, how the earth was formed, or criminalize vices, conflict arises.
This is because the state is an institution predicated on force, and its laws are executed under threat of violence. When you remove choice from a situation – which is what centralized government does – the natural tendency is for individuals to push back. Unfortunately, too often both sides end up wrestling for control over the same political body, rather than respecting each other’s position and agreeing to disagree.
The debate over gay marriage demonstrates this well enough. Here you have many social liberals who want a nationally recognized right to gay marriage, and social conservatives are just as enthusiastic over an amendment to prohibit gays from tying the knot. The very notion that marriage ought to be left to smaller political bodies or, heaven forbid, religious institutions and the individual parties involved, is rarely considered.
So again, decentralization fosters peaceful coexistence because it allows for greater individual freedom; centralization crushes this freedom, and leads to unrest and social turmoil.