I was listening to something the other day, and the guy was making a point I had never considered. Empires for the most part, whether ancient or modern, are not particularly intrusive regarding local cultures and customs. Empires more often than not live with local cultural pluralism so long as locals pay their taxes and fulfill their military obligations to the empire. The upside is that the local nation in effect outsources its military defense, and like Japan after WWII, it can direct all its energies into economic or cultural development. The downside is that the local nation loses a degree of sovereignty and control, especially when it comes to foreign policy, and it has to live with the humiliation of its military defeat. Honor and glory can only be found in the service of the empire, not in the service of one's own nation, unless it’s in an insurgency against the empire. But empires are not typically extraordinarily repressive of their local client states as long as they promise not to revolt; nation states are often far more violently repressive of their minorities.
When people get nationalist fever, then the liquidations begin. When the British Empire collapsed, Hindus who lived relatively peaceably in India for centuries with Muslims go into ethnic cleansing mode. When the teetering Ottoman empire finally collapsed during WWI, the Greeks and other Balkan Christians kicked out all the Muslims, and then the Muslims who returned to Turkey in turn kicked out the Christians, and a million and a half Armenians wind up dead. Empires are brutal, and will ruthlessly suppress anyone who resists them militarily, but they are not into genocidal mass murder. That kind of thing is done by the locals to one another.
Nationalists and fanatical ideologues suffer from a form of collective mental illness, and it's primarily the disease of the right. Nationalism is a pathological fantasy that gives people a sense of belonging to something that is an abstraction rather than a lived concrete experience. It's rooted in our day in the disintegration of concrete local cultures and customs destroyed mainly by the creative-destructive dynamics of modernity, not the least of which is consumer capitalism.
Modernity creates anomic, alienated, isolated, deracinated humans who suffer identity loss and who then seek to recover identity in a collective, which more often than not is the Nation, usually defined by language, religion, and nativist jingoism. People who don't feel a need for the Nation to define their identities tend to be more cosmopolitan and tolerant. Empires tend toward cosmopolitanism; nation states toward jingoism and ideological fanaticism. More murder and mayhem has been done within states by its own citizens to its citizens than has ever been done by imperial aggression. Mao, Pol Pot, Suharto, and Stalin killed more of their own people than their external enemies.
The power of the nation state is far more intrusive, meddling, and violent than the power of the typical empire. Imperial powers are not interested in micromanaging their local subjects. Empires are cosmopolitan; nation states are more likely to demand homogenization than far-flung empires. DeGaulle famously said, "How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?" Well, I guess it depends on what degree of micromanaging your idea of governing requires. If you're into top-down micromanaging according to an ideological or racist script, yeah, that kind of diversity and local chaos is a problem.
But empires are too big to care about local chaos so long as it doesn't threaten to undermine the basic framework for order they have established. Nationalists chafe at having to live within a framework that they cannot control, but such frameworks can exist while allowing for a lot of local freedom within them. And that's my point. I'm not arguing for empire, but this discussion of the organizing impulses that animate empires as contrasted with nation states to which I was listening helped me to see that the greater the distance between the local communities and the power center, the more freedom enjoyed by the locals.
So there are different kinds of centralization, and some are better and others worse, and the better kind is the one more distanced from life as it's lived on the local level. And if we have to live with varying degrees of centralization, which is clearly our future, the argument we should be having does not lie in whether centralization is good or bad (markets vs. socialism) but about what kinds of centralization are better and worse. I would argue that the best kind of centralization is the one that provides a basic framework for order and peace, but which allows the maximum amount of freedom and diversity in the political and economic spheres at the local level where people live. We tend to think that centralization and homogenization go together, but homogenization is more the agenda of nation states than it is the impulse at the super state level.
So, no, I'm not making an argument for imperial aggression or for the desirability a la Niall Ferguson for a Pax Americana, but I am making an argument that certain kinds of centralization are more desirable than others, and that we should be clear which poses the greatest danger to individual freedoms. Those on the ideological right in this country are kissing cousins with the kind of nationalism that wants to homogenize and purge out what is in their view impure and un-American. This impulse is at the heart of movement conservatism, and, sure, not every movement conservative is as crazy as Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh, but their careers depend on feeding off this kind of ideological, hyper-nationalist longing for lost identity.
Movement conservatism is more closely aligned with this nationalist impulse for homogeneity than it is aligned with the principled anti-statist desire to limit the scope of government. Quite the opposite. Movement conservatives don't have a problem with government intruding into the lives of people so long as it aligns with and enforces their particular homogenizing, jingoist vision of what it means to be a true American. Coulter wrote a book entitled Treason, and whether or not she's completely serious, she's playing on the widely held belief among movement conservatives that people with liberal, cosmopolitan attitudes are America-haters and traitors. Only movement conservatives are true Americans. Movement conservatives don't hate government; they hate a government that promotes cosmopolitan tolerance and respect for pluralism. They want to replace that with a government that promotes no such thing.
For years now I've been arguing that if Americans could embrace a subsidiarist model, it would reduce the polarization that structures the left/right debate about whether markets or the government should be the dominant influence in shaping social and economic policy. I’ve also argued that with the New Deal we began living with a subsidiarist model, even if most Americans wouldn't call it that.
But the whole Reaganite, right-wing backlash used cultural resentments and the confusion following the turmoil of the sixties and seventies as a way to de-legitimize New Deal subsidiarity (the Tom Frank argument), and the result finally is the social economic disaster we now have on our hands. And now Obama, as he tries to restore subsidiarity as a remedy for the mess perpetrated by Reaganites and their neo-Liberal collaborators (e.g., Bill Clinton and the DLC wing of the Democrat party), we find these ridiculous assertions about Obama being a socialist, because from the point of view of the Reaganite right, if you're not a market fundamentalist, you're a socialist--there's no middle ground.
Subsidiarity defines that middle ground. A subsidiarist is against top-downism, but recognizes that some problems have a scale and complexity that cannot be handled at the local level or by unregulated markets, and that there are some things that are best handled at higher levels of organization. It's just common sense, and anybody who can take off his market fundamentalism goggles for even a moment can see it. It's a good thing that there is a FAA and that each city doesn't have its own rules and regulations regarding air traffic. It's a good thing that local communities organize and fund their own emergency and rescue operations, but it's also a good thing that there's a FEMA to step in to help when a major disaster overwhelms the capacity of locals to cope with it. It's a good thing that regional cultures and subcultures and religious groups are allowed to flourish without intrusion from central governments, but it's also a good thing that when the basic human rights of minorities within those subcultures are abused that the central government will protect them if the local government won't. It's a good thing that doctors and hospitals can make their own judgments about the care of their patients without the government telling them what to do, but it's a bad thing that insurance companies do.
I'm not going to put in my two cents for single-payer health care in this post. It's not without it's problems and limitations, but if you understood it, you'd see that it allows for the greatest amount of freedom for the most people. It's like the empire idea--a framework is setup by a central authority, and then there's a lot of freedom on the local level for doctors and patients to interact. But it's a moot point now.
Centralization is something we already live with as a necessity, and we will continue to live with it--to oppose it as a matter of principle is ridiculous. The point I want to make today is that the centralization of certain social functions is desirable in complex societies, and that the only solution to certain kinds of problems lies at higher levels of organization. We can debate which problems are best attacked that way as we go along.
But because centralization is necessary, it does not mean that life on the local level needs to be homogenized or totalized by some would-be Stalin, Mao, Castro, or name your socialist villain; it does not mean that every form of centralization is a movement toward creating the Big Brother monster who will try to control every aspect of our lives. Centralization cannot work unless the officials elected at the central level are held accountable and govern by consent according to subsidiarist principles. The question is not whether centralization is good, but what kind is good--what kind serves the common good, and what kind oversteps its rightful jurisdiction. It's not either/or.
We need to find the kind of balance that allows for flourishing subcultures within a larger framework that guarantees certain basic rights. As the decades pass, this kind of framework will be increasingly global. There will have to be a global fair labor and wage guidelines. There will have to be global regulation for financial markets. There will have to be global rules for pollution and energy use. There will have to be global adjudication of national disputes without resorting to the gang violence we accept today as war making. But despite our fears, centralization doesn't have to be dictatorial if we can understand it as primarily providing a framework, not imposing its homogenizing will.
Tyranny is more of a local phenomenon than the agenda of very large central governments, which have enough to deal with without micromanaging at the local level. I'm not saying that large centralizing governments don't overstep or can't overstep--we've seen egregious violations in the last decade--but real, existential tyranny and the violence that comes with it is more commonly experienced at the local levels--with bosses in the workplace, with oligarchical cliques in local communities, with abusive parents and spouses. Yes, we have to be vigilant that the central government not overstep. Yes, we must do everything we can to preserve a space of freedom immune from government control in which the dynamism, vitality, and creativity at the bottom is society's center of gravity. But I would argue that a certain coordinating and organizational function at the top, if envisioned and implemented correctly according to subsidiarist principles, would provide the basic frameworks that would enable people and subcultures at the bottom to flourish.
It's inevitable that we will have to live with greater degrees of centralization as the global system evolves, but the more remote the center is from the life lived on the local level, the more unlikely it will be intrusive. You can micromanage a relatively small nation state like France, Sweden, or Germany; but the larger and more culturally complex the area governed, the harder to micromanage, and the easier it is for locals to resist on issues that are not central to the functioning of the centralized system.
Tyranny in the world's experience of it over the centuries has been a relatively local phenomenon. Would-be Saurons need to be resisted, but even if they succeed in making life miserable for everyone subjected to his rule, he will ultimately fail. The idea here, then, is that fears about one-world government, etc., are grounded in projecting local tyrannies onto a global screen, and that such fears are unlikely to be realized in any sustainable way. The two most ambitious recent attempts at totalitarianism centralization were unsustainable, and the larger and more complex the system, the less likely that any such regime could be imposed, or if imposed, sustained.
[Ed. A version of this post originally appeared in March 2009 entitled Centralization and Subsidiarity. I am reposting it here because its somewhat topical because of Jerry Brown's pointing to subsidiarity in his state of the state speech last week, and because it provides a framework for things I want to say following up on the post I wrote last week about Liberalism 5.0.]