It was not supposed to be this way. The United States was not conceived as a gigantic, cumbersome, highly centralized state. The Founding Fathers envisioned an American polis weighted much more towards local and regional governments than to a central national state. To this end, Thomas Jefferson forcefully promoted his concept of a “ward republic.”
To Jefferson, most government functions should take place in the ward (or precinct). In 1816, he wrote: “The article nearest my heart is the division of counties into wards.” Jefferson thought Virginia’s counties were too large for direct voter participation, and argued for small units of local government or ward republics. Today, we have strayed far away from this Jeffersonian vision of small republics in favor of a large federal government, and distant rulers in Washington D.C. And my impertinent question is: Should we revisit the notion of ward republics?
For the United States, a strong case can be made that a powerful central government is necessary for national defense. This argument may also hold true for a handful of other functions where a large national scale is compelling. However, Jefferson’s “small republics” are not an anachronism of an era long gone. Even in 1800, Jefferson recognized that “Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government.”
When a distant Federal government undertakes authority in an ever-expanding scope of affairs, it usurps the political effectiveness of individuals and communities. The authority amassed in one place must come from another place, and that place is us. The Jeffersonian tradition encourages local and regional authority rather than a national authority. And yet, for the United States it may be too late to undertake meaningful reforms to reverse the flow of power from the Federal government back to state and local authorities.
But is the Jeffersonian model of ward republics applicable to other nations? Here my personal history compels me to think of a future democratic Cuba or Venezuela. Is a model of small units of local government appropriate for these countries following a history of highly centralized totalitarian and authoritarian governments? Is there a population, in these countries, capable of reasserting itself in the governance of their townships, counties and states?
Jefferson’s “small republics” rely entirely on a virtuous citizenry willing and able to undertake political responsibility for their communities. In theory, this citizenry would make more enlightened local decisions than a faraway central government. Although imperfect, local and regional decision-making is likely to be far more responsive to the needs of the community.
A typical answer here is that populations that have been unable to practice self-governance for decades are ill prepared to undertake the challenges of governing, and are likely to govern poorly. I have made similar comments in my writings. But this condition, rather than being an argument against local government authority, may actually be an argument for it.
If mistakes in government are to be made, it is far better than they be made at the small scale of local government than at the large scale of the national government. Moreover, a relatively large number of empowered local governments provide not only a laboratory, but also a school of governance and citizenship. There is no better way to provide an inexperienced population the practical training for governing. And, I would be remiss not to mention, that a larger number of opportunities for local government are a vehicle to satisfy the political ambitions of more citizens.
Local governments also offer the citizenry an opportunity to evaluate who has governed well at the local level and who should be considered for advancement to a higher position. It is in this sense that, in the United States, state governors are looked upon as potential presidential candidates. We can asses their executive performance as governors.
But the most compelling argument for small units of local government is that government centralization discourages civic virtue, encourages dependency on government, and ultimately, centralized power presents a threat to our rights and to our liberty. So, why not ward republics?