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Brooks and the “Magic” of Decentralization

This is the completely predictable conclusion to Brooks’ column on reform conservatism:

I’d say the reform conservatives are still a little too Jeffersonian [bold mine-DL]. They have a bit too much faith in the magic of decentralization. Some decentralized reforms do nurture personal responsibility and community flourishing. But as Alexander Hamilton (and Margaret Thatcher) understood, sometimes decentralization needs to be complemented with energetic national policies, to disrupt local oligarchies, self-serving arrangements and gradual national decline.

Brooks has made it very clear over the years that there is no political movement on the right that is ever quite Hamiltonian and “energetic” enough for him. I doubt that Hamilton himself would measure up very well against the standard of “energetic” government that Brooks has claimed for him. Of course Brooks thinks reform conservatives are too Jeffersonian, since I suspect this is what he thinks of anyone that isn’t inclined to support a “national greatness” project. It would be quite an understatement to say that this is a highly unusual interpretation of most reform conservatives. They are normally viewed with disfavor on the right because they have far too much confidence in the efficacy and desirability of activist government. What Brooks recommends is not a complement to decentralization, but rather seems to be its negation. Going down that road does not eliminate the danger of oligarchy or self-serving arrangements, but allows these things to operate on a much larger scale with even fewer constraints.

It’s worth noting that decentralists don’t think that there is anything magical about a wide and broad distribution of power. Decentralization isn’t a panacea, it leaves many political problems unsolved, and it can suffer from its own excesses and abuses. Like any other political arrangement, it is subject to the distortions of passion and interest. However, it has the virtue of limiting the damage from abuses of power by reducing the amount of power available to the few. It guards against the creation of unchallengeable entrenched interests that can amass so much wealth and power that they can put themselves beyond control or accountability. It isn’t compatible with a vision that involves relying on “small groups of the great and the good” to impose legislation on an unwilling public, and that is probably why Brooks dislikes it so much.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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