Prairie Grass Rising

International Decentralist Conference, organized by the New Economics Institute
June 28-30, 1996, Williams College, Williamstown, MA
Copyright 1996 New Economics Institute and John McClaughry

by John McClaughry

I am honored to be speaking to you tonight for several reasons. First, I have the honor of serving as the current chairman of the E.F. Schumacher Society, the prime sponsor of this first-ever national conference on decentralism in America. For sixteen years now, under the leadership of Bob Swann and with the tireless exertions of Susan Witt, the Schumacher Society has worked to educate America about the promise for the future of the decentralist tradition. It has sponsored all sorts of projects, from Deli dollars in Great Barrington to training sessions on community economic transformation, to sustainable agriculture on the shores of Lake Baikal.

In taking the name of the late, renowned Fritz Schumacher, who is best known as the author of Small is Beautiful, the Society did not intend to create a cult of Schumacher worship. We chose the name as perhaps the most succinct way to bring home to the people of our country the ideas of human scale, mutual aid, community renewal and respect for the land which characterized not only the writings of Fritz Schumacher, but a long series of great— although sometimes little known—decentralists.

We have long believed that those everlasting ideas can be combined in a brilliant, sparkling paradigm for the inspiration of men and women everywhere. This conference marks a major milestone in that effort, and I am thrilled to see so many people—and such a diverse group of people—here for this important event.

It is also an honor for me to follow to this platform my longtime friend and sometimes adversary, Kirkpatrick Sale. Kirk preceded me as chairman of the Society, and has long been a high profile toiler in the vineyards of decentralism. We have had numerous heated debates on current political issues. As you may know, Kirk was a mainstay of the Students for a Democratic Society in the 60s and would probably not be offended at being referred to as a left anarchist. As you may also know, I was a Reagan Republican as far back as 1964, and later one of his speechwriters.

Yet Kirk has always resisted the blandishments of the centralizing socialist left, because he knows that down that road lies the Leviathan state and the death of the human spirit. I have always been a loud voice against the efforts of the wealthy and powerful to take over government and run it for their own profit at the expense of ordinary Americans, because I know that down that road lies the Leviathan state and the death of the human spirit.

But in any case, I come before you tonight to tell you, first, that if there is only one book you ever read on the subject of decentralism, it must be Kirk Sale's master work Human Scale, published in 1980. And when you get your hands on this indispensable book, please make it a point to turn to page 417, where you will find a splendid quotation on the importance of turning away from giantism and returning to human scale—a quote from a 1975 address by former Governor Ronald Reagan.

Now I don't want you to think that Kirk and I, as past and present chairs of the Schumacher Society, put the arm on Bob Swann and Susan Witt to make us the opening night speakers for this conference. We reluctantly —in my case at least—agreed that we would be the fall back speakers in the event that we were unable to obtain the services of world famous decentralists more appropriate to the task.

We all tried to come up with the names of world famous decentralists to invite to address you this evening. It proved to be an exceedingly difficult—in fact , an impossible—task. Ask yourself this: if you had to name the leading voice in American public life today for the decentralist ideals and tradition, just who would you name? I have asked myself that question on and off for the past thirty years, and have never been able to come up with a convincing choice.

It is not hard to name literary critics of onrushing centralism, or libertarians lamenting the growth of government. But in the world of national affairs, it is really difficult to find an even moderately prominent man or woman who has clearly, coherently, and courageously raised a consistent, uncompromising voice against the evils of centralized power, and in favor of the kind of tradition exemplified by such as Fritz Schumacher.

A month or so ago I was happy to note the formation of something called the Congressional Federalism Caucus. Its purpose, said its chair, Republican Congressman J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, was to speak out against the continual extra-constitutional accretion of powers in Washington, and in favor of giving new life to the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution.

In case you are one of the millions of people who have forgotten the Tenth Amendment—a group which apparently includes the entire current membership of Congress, the Executive Branch, and about half of the Supreme Court—that's the Amendment which provides that "the powers not delegated to the United States nor prohibited to it by the states, are reserved to the states respectively or to the people."

So I was pleased to see this purported renewal of support for this important constitutional principle. But then as I watched what Congress did, as so often happens, I grew despondent. First it legislated a ban on partial birth abortions. Now leaving aside what one's view may be on the subject of abortion, I found myself wondering what constitutional power Congress thought it was exercising when a majority voted to prohibit these late term abortions.

After no small amount of effort, I discovered that Congress passed this legislation on the grounds that it was a necessary regulation of interstate commerce! Surely, I thought, at least the conscientious members of the Federalist Caucus must have voted against this bill because it far exceeded any reasonable interpretation of the commerce power.

Alas, to the best of my knowledge, the entire membership of the Federalist caucus enthusiastically voted for the bill, either because they opposed abortion or because it would put President Clinton on a political hot seat.

As you know, President Clinton vetoed the bill. Did he veto it on the grounds that Congress has no power to legislate on such matters? Of course not. He vetoed it because he opposes government restrictions on abortions. President Clinton and the others who opposed the bill do not recognize any constitutional limit to what Congress can legislate, except maybe quartering soldiers in private homes without the owner's consent.

Well, a month later another bill came before Congress, in response to the rash of church burnings going on across the country. The bill made it a federal crime to burn a church, but not a pool room or a county court house. Surely I thought the members of the Federalist Caucus would not stand for this further extension of a federal police power which is nowhere specified in the Constitution but which in recent years has been extended to cover an astonishing list of offenses.

But no! This politically popular measure passed the House on a unanimous vote, a vote which apparently included the entire membership of the Federalist Caucus.

And so I was driven to the sad conclusion that even among those who claim to be concerned about what Thomas Jefferson described as "the generalizing and concentrating all cares into one body", there is no serious effort to mount a principled stand against the constant expansion of the central power.

To those of us who, like Mr. Jefferson, view that concentration as "destroying liberty and the rights of man", America seems to have come to a sad pass. But, as I shall explain a little later on, things are brighter that they may seem.

Before leaping to that conclusion I would like to trace very briefly a little of our history as it relates to decentralism in these United States.

When this country was first settled by Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries, there was little expectation that we would fall prey to indigenous centralized power. That was what most immigrants gladly left behind them in the Old World. The new settlements were small and widely dispersed, on the rim of a great, fruitful and thinly populated continent. There was none of the industrialization that later did so much to promote giant institutions. Indeed, as late as 1783 Mr. Jefferson could write in advocacy of an agrarian America, "let our workshops remain in Europe".

Another important fact was that Americans were never subject to feudalism. Feudalism calls to mind castles and crusades, jousting and feasting, Ivanhoe and Prince Hal. Shorn of those romantic garments, however, feudalism was a deadly serious business. At its heart was feudal land tenure.

Land could not be owned by anyone save the crowned knave called the sovereign. It could only be held, and the holding carried with it all sorts of duties. The most important was to lead armed men to the aid of the superior in the feudal hierarchy when he got into a bloody altercation with another such ruffian, spotted some easy and unprotected pickings elsewhere, or went off to Jerusalem to free the Holy City from the infidels and get in good with the Pope.

Admittedly, feudalism was a strong force for social stability and military security in a tempestuous age. Unfortunately, feudalism stifled liberty, opportunity, and self government. By the time the colonies were settled, it was rapidly dying out in England.

Yet another barrier to the rise of centralized power in America was the ideology of what was called in England the Country Party. That system of political beliefs was found in abundance throughout the writings of the great republican and whig leaders of our revolutionary period. The Country Party was bitterly opposed to the beliefs and practices of its nemesis, the Court Party. It detested a monopoly on religion by the established church. It had an absolute horror of the standing national army and conscription. It despised government run banks and the issuance of paper money, which could be manipulated by rich elites to defraud the honest farmer, artisan and mechanic.

It hated corporate monopolies conferred by corrupt governments, taxation without representation, and the gang of fawning hangers-on who subsisted as parasites at the Court. It demanded that the people of a community be given the power to appoint their own judges and justices of the peace, and the members of the militia be given the power to elect their own officers. It resisted with vigor every effort of the Crown to restrict the historic liberties of the common people.

As Lance Banning has so ably shown in his brilliant book The Jeffersonian Persuasion, this Country Party ideology became the ruling beliefs of the early Jeffersonians. And when Mr. Jefferson came to the Presidency in the Revolution of 1800, he acted on those beliefs.

Mr. Jefferson's motto was "equal rights for all, special privilege for none." He cut in half the nation's foreign embassies, laid off half the little army, began to sell off the western lands to homesteaders, repealed all domestic taxes, and abolished the equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service.

Mr. Jefferson's first budget dedicated 70% of the government's revenues to paying off the national debt. The amount remaining for current expenses was less than what was spent by the national government in any year since 1793. He sent out his commissars to "hunt out and abolish multitudes of useless offices." Now there was a true decentralist hero! But even before the end of his two terms, Mr. Jefferson had been forced to backtrack from this auspicious beginning. He had to revive the Navy — without Congressional authorization — to confront the Barbary pirates. He swallowed hard and committed the new nation to the purchase of the huge Louisiana Territory.

Nonetheless, thanks to the wise policies of his Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, the national debt was in fact paid off completely in the year 1835.

But as the new nation grew and prospered in the first half of the 19th century, the forces of centralization gathered steam. With the growth of invention came the rapid growth of industrialization. Industrialization required capital. The result was what came to be called Finance Capital, interwoven, often corruptly, into the fabric of the state and national governments.

The greatest impetus toward centralization in America was the War Between the States. This is not the time or place to recount the centralizing effects of President Lincoln's administration, but suffice it to mention conscription, total war against civilian populations, suspension of habeas corpus, arbitrary rule over the conquered states, and the nationalization of money and banking.

On the positive side of the ledger, the war did destroy the Slave Power, but the victors tragically failed to deliver on the empowering promises they made to the new black citizens of the South.

Half a century later the writer Randolph Bourne was to observe pithily, "War is the health of the State". It was proven again in his day, when the Wilson administration laid the modern foundation for the all powerful Federal leviathan. That era gave us, again, participation in a bloody war, conscription, the income tax, the final nationalization of money, the sedition act, the interweaving of Big Business and government, and the beginning of J. Edgar Hoover and the ruthless invasion of civil liberties.

By the time of the Great Depression the pattern was well established. As Robert Higgs has documented, every crisis called forth more centralized governmental power. This economic crisis, caused largely by grievous mistakes by the new Federal Reserve Board and an oppressively protectionist tariff law, disappeared only with the onset of the greatest war in our history.

As government grew, business used its influence to get government to create new private fortunes. The rapacity of finance capital called forth the organization of what has now become Big Labor. In due course the trend toward giantism has given us Big Media, Big Religion, Big Education, Big Medicine, and a big and all powerful Judiciary.

To this centralizing trend, dating back a century and a half, there have been many honorable dissenters. The honor roll begins with Jefferson and Jackson, curiously the alleged patron saints of today's Democratic Party. It drew on the genius of such dissimilar men as Ralph Waldo Emerson and John C. Calhoun, Fighting Bob Lafollette and Louis D. Brandeis. It included the valiant Loco Focos, the early Populists and Western Progressives, the followers of Henry George, the anarchists and cooperators, the homestead movement and the Southern agrarians. Years ago I remember the thrill of discovering a yellowed copy of the magazine called Free America, the journal of the distributist movement of the late 1930s. Its credo might serve us still today:

"Free America stands for individual independence and believes that freedom can exist only in societies in which the great majority are the effective owners of property and in which group action is democratic. In order to achieve such a society, ownership, production, population and government must be decentralized. Free America is therefore opposed to finance—capitalism, fascism, and communism."

To that movement from the past must be now be added many newer voices. They include the many local currency movements represented here this weekend; the communitarians of the American Association for Rights and Responsibilities; the various libertarian groups; the "new Democrats" of the Democratic Leadership Council and the "old rightists" of the Republican Liberty Caucus; the groups of all races working for neighborhood renewal in our inner cities and rural renewal in the countryside; and even many of the spontaneously formed groups bearing the honorable name of the militia.

To these must be added the names of rising political philosophers like Michael Sandel and Robert Putnam, and techno-futurists like George Gilder and Nicholas Negroponte.

Indeed, in the magazines of the cyberworld articles regularly appear showing how the rise of the Internet and readily available cryptography mean the defeat of the institutions of centralized power, just as perestroika laid the groundwork for the rapid dissolution of the late unlamented Soviet Union. That of course is the reason why the government is trying desperately to gain policing authority over the Internet, and to suppress the distribution of crypto systems the government cannot penetrate.

When we survey the sweep of American history, it is easy to become despondent about the march of giantism and centralized power. We mourn the inexplicable absence of a bold leaders to force the issue of centralization and decentralization on the national public. Many of us are doubtless disgusted with the major party candidates for President, both of whom seem committed to preserving and enlarging the central power, albeit for different ends.

I daresay most of us here today share the sentiments of an out of work politician who said, back in 1978, that the real issue is not the opposition of Left and Right. "The real issue," he said, "is how to reverse the flow of power to ever more remote institutions, and to restore that power to the individual, the family, and the local community. Millions of Americans, in both the small towns and great cities of this land, are steadily coming to the same conclusion."

Three years later that man was President of the United States. Although I can think of nothing his administration did to reflect those sentiments, I can assure you that Ronald Reagan sincerely believed in what he said on that radio broadcast. So too, I think, do many millions of Americans subscribe to that incisive sentiment, although they would describe themselves politically in many diverse and conflicting ways.

Out in the western part of Kansas, bordered by waving fields of grain, is an old two lane highway. Once it was the great Route 66, America's mightiest highway, the mainline from Chicago to the Golden West. No longer do the eighteen wheelers speed over its pitted concrete; no longer do the Harleys and travel trailers push forward to new adventures.

Old Route 66 is abandoned now; the heavy traffic zooms by on I 70 to the north and I 40 to the south. Even the local small town traffic has passed it by. The prairie grass has grown up through the cracks forced open by decades of exposure to sun and wind.

But just as that soft, flexible grass has pushed through the hard, heavy concrete under the hot Kansas sun, the spirit of decentralism, often paved over and ignored, always returns to bring about a new beginning.