Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CENTRALIZATION and DECENTRALIZATION. The contrast between centralization and decentralization is to be found everywhere: in social and political life, in the state and the church, in the municipality and even in the family; in public concerns and in the private affairs of large and small benevolent and educational institutions as well as of industrial establishments. Everywhere we find the relation of head and members, of centre and circumference, either stamped upon the original organism or formed by man; everywhere we find the task of properly understanding and regulating this relation, of distributing in proper measure the power of the centre and the independence of the circumference—the question of centralization and decentralization.


—When political centralization is spoken of, it must not be forgotten that the expression is only approximately correct; that it implies an imperfect comparison, which may lead to erroneous conclusions. It reminds us too strongly of the construction of a machine the different parts of which mechanically obey the central power without any capacity for self-determination. To the different members of the state organism there belongs, however, by virtue of natural necessity—although in intimate connection with the life of the centre—a sphere of free and independent action.


—The idea of political centralization admits of a strict or broad interpretation. When we compare the state of the middle ages with the modern state, the characteristic difference between them becomes apparent at once, the latter giving a wider scope to its action and consequently bringing a larger part of public life under its control than the former brought. While the care for instruction and for the support of the poor devolved formerly chiefly upon the church, the care for security and means of communication upon the municipality, and that for the administration of justice in a great measure upon the patrimonial tribunals in every part of Europe, the modern state has drawn these and other matters either entirely or partially into the sphere of its activity. Even at the present day this process is not finished, and the problem is not yet solved, how far the centralization of public life in the state should be extended. The problem embraces, at the same time, the question of separation of those things which should be subjected only to state supervision, from those which come within the immediate sphere of action of the state power. Within the wider or narrower limit which the state puts to its sphere of action, the question of centralization again arises. Should legislation be reserved entirely to the central state power, or be partly transferred to provincial and district legislative organs? Should it be placed entirely in the hands of the head of the state, or be made dependent upon the co-operation of the representatives of the people? Should the law give expression to the variety of interests in the state, as well as to the unity of the state? Should the administrative offices of secondary or subordinate rank be simply the tools of the centre, or be invested with relative independence? Should the people take a part in the business of government, or is all the business of administration of affairs of state to be concentrated in government offices? After the centralization of public life in the state, therefore, the centralization of the life of the state in the head of the state and in offices is a subject for reflection.


—The contrast between political centralization and decentralization is not confined to the constitution of the state which is a unit; it is also apparent in the laws regulating the union of a number of federated states. On the other hand, it is met with within the unit-state in the wider and narrower circles of district and municipal constitutions. There does not exist, for the proper measure of centralization, any general rule equally well adapted to all states and to all times.


—The members of the political organism do not show the same aptitude and the same desire for an independent expression of their life, in different nations and at different times. The French surrender themselves, more than do the Germans, to the whole. Their nature, more than the German, seems to be able to bear strict centralization and to require it. In states where the people belong to one race or have become melted into one in course of time, there is less necessity to individualize the legislation and the administration than in states that have either been recently formed or which are composed of essentially different elements. In Spain the independence of municipal constitutions is of greater importance than in France; Joseph II. utterly failed in the attempt to adapt the same political system to Germans, Italians, Belgians, Bohemians and Hungarians. It is true that the peculiar nature of the state in his case imperatively demanded that every existing element of unity should be carefully nurtured from a strong centre; the holding together of nationalities striving for political disruption consists in the art of taking into consideration the peculiarity of their nature and of letting them fully experience the economical and political advantages arising from union with a large and powerful state. During any serious crisis, particularly in the event of a war for external independence, the necessity of centralization is much stronger than in times of peace. It here becomes imperative to increase the concentration of all available forces, thereby securing the power of the state against any impediment that might be created by the obstinacy of external force. In moments of the greatest danger centralization goes so far as to reach dictatorship.


—I. Centralization of Legislation. Under this head we have to consider, in the first place, the organization of legislative bodies; and next, the extent and the nature of their action. Correctly to represent the political and legal ideas prevalent among the people, their ideas of the state and of right must either be framed with the co-operation of the people themselves, or emanate from a personage of towering ability in whom their consciousness of law and right is concentrated. As the appearance of such individuals can not be counted on, the constitutional system in monarchical states has provided that laws shall be framed with the co-operation of the people. The representation of the people in the work of legislation can not keep the defects of the national character and the errors of the times from finding expression in the laws, but it can keep the errors and whims of single individuals from leaving their imprint on them. When properly regulated, the participation of the people in legislation not only guarantees the harmony of the law with the spirit of the people, at least in that which is fundamental, but also that the resources of the country shall not be employed to excess for state objects and that the wants of the different parts of the country and of the different classes of the entire people shall be recognized more certainly, duly appreciated, and properly attended to. There is no compensation for such guarantees when the central power has recourse to the advice of officials or boards (Behorden) which only too often are the mere reflection of the thought of the central powers, and of both its good qualities and its defects. The greatest although not insuperable difficulty in constitutional legislation lies in the danger, that in the multiplicity of elements at work the unit thought may be lost. This danger, it is true, is present to a less degree when legislation is in the hands of the head of the state, but even there it may be produced by rival influences.


—If the centralization of the legislative power is properly modified, the sphere of action of that power should not be extended further than is required by a centralized legislation. Both in legislation and administration the principle holds good, to assign to each its centre in the circle of those who are immediately concerned in its result, but to secure also to the more distant circles interested in it the possibility of affecting its action; the state does not meddle with legislation on subjects that are not of a state or political nature, and confines itself to the most general direction and supervision of those concerns which interest it only in a secondary degree. The defect in mediæval decentralization did not lie in the fact that the state left to each interest the care for its own concerns, but that it drew too narrow a limit to its own action, excluding much that concerned it very particularly or was intimately connected with its own interests.


—On the other hand, it is acknowledged, in principle at least, that civil legislation should not interfere with the free action of those who share in it; also that criminal legislation (although central in quite another sense), should leave room for the judge's estimate of the individual case, and that so-called administrative legislation can not commit a greater blunder than when, by disregarding the variety of economical conditions, intellectual culture and civilization, it takes as its starting point the fiction of an average state which exists nowhere, or which imposes the conditions of one part of the country upon all others.


—Nevertheless, this latter kind of faulty centralization is often found in modern laws, sometimes as the result of a false principle and again as a consequence of overhaste or superficiality. A sufficient protection against such errors is not afforded even by a representative constitution; it can only be secured through the preliminary discussion of the law at provincial and district meetings, by chambers of commerce, by conventions of business men, etc., in fact, particularly by the proper organs of the classes most interested in and most familiar with the subject. In other cases, in connection with these measures, the examination of experts or other competent persons by a committee of the legislative body may prove beneficial.


—We have been considering the decentralization of legislation from two essentially different points; in the first place, as the recognition of an autonomy which the state can not refuse without exceeding the limits of its powers and its rights; then as a matter of expediency, which may indeed be overlooked without violation of the law, but not without injury to the state. In the first place, the state power is called upon not to extend its sphere of action to matters foreign to it, and in the second, not to pass laws regulating any subject in its own sphere of action without the concurrence of those possessed of the most perfect knowledge of it and directly interested in the result.


—The recognition of autonomy above spoken of should find a place in the affairs relating to the church, to communities, institutions, associations, but not in the sense that state legislation could ignore them altogether. Even with regard to the church, which is allowed full independence within its own province, it behooves the power of the state to protect its own sphere from encroachment, and to regulate the extent and the conditions of its grants to the church and which the church expects from it.


—The state has more to do with the organization of other associations and corporations, especially of municipalities; but here, also, a state legislation, properly limited, acknowledges the principle of autonomy, and all legislative provisions are preceded by the question, not how the subject is to be regulated, but whether it can be regulated by the state at all.


—II. Centralization of the Administration. The contrast between state legislation and autonomy corresponds with the contrast between administration by officials and self-government. In both cases a line must be drawn between the right of independent action in matters which lie outside the jurisdiction of the state and the institutions called upon to co-operate in state affairs.


—The right of independent action belongs to churches, municipalities, and to all corporations which have neither been created by the state nor for it, not only in administration but also in legislation. These independent bodies possess the prerogative to be ruled according to their own conception of their mission, by authorities they themselves appoint and who are responsible to them. Only their independence is not absolute, and in so far as it behooves the state to interfere in their autonomy with its legislation, it has to superintend and define their administration through its authorities.


—The participation of citizens in the affairs of the state is called self-administration in a wider sense, and appears chiefly under two forms: first, when public offices are held as honorary positions by citizens who do not devote themselves to a public career with the view of earning a livelihood; secondly, when a committee of citizens is placed side by side with the administrative state power, with the right to make proposals, express opinions and interpose a veto.


—A state which excludes autonomy and self-administration, or limits them to a fictitious existence, deprives itself of a great power. It extends its task beyond its natural limits, while it, at the same time, diminishes its capacity to perform that task even within its natural limits. The state, like any other society, reaches its ends all the more completely, the better its members understand them, and possess the strength and inclination to fulfill them. This political education of the people, which made Rome great in antiquity and England in modern times, and the want of which has made Germany small, can only be attained through the participation of the many in public life. This political education alone overcomes the spirit of egoism, which knows no interest but personal advantage; makes no sacrifice for the general weal unless compelled; and which, where the state is concerned, does not shrink from acting in a manner considered immoral in private life, and remains a passive spectator during the perturbation of the order of the state until the danger has entered into the narrower circle of private interests. As the feeling for the common weal, so is also the capacity to serve it, a natural consequence of that political education which is acquired and practiced in the management of the affairs of the municipality, of corporations, associations and in the honorary officers in state administration. The constitutional state can least of all dispense with it, an institution requiring the people, through its representatives, to take a part in the highest work of legislation, will prove a failure rather than a success if these representatives are not returned by politically educated electors. Autonomy and self-administration in the electors are necessary conditions to the sharing of the people in the functions of the central power; and for the prosperity of the constitutional system. On the other hand, the constitutional system itself serves as a means of political education, exercising a beneficial influence upon the narrow circles of public life, and so they mutually condition each other.


—The objection has been raised against the principle of self-administration, that this liberty can not be granted to a people deprived of public spirit and sunk in individual interest, without endangering the treasure intrusted to them. That thus consciously or unconsciously the constitutional system is rejected, is evident from what has preceded. This objection would be well founded if the officers of government were chosen from a race endowed with higher political capacity, and not from the same nation as the governed. But the state takes its servants from the same people subject to the same imperfections. What they acquire in training for service and in the administration of their office, is scientific knowledge and refinement of manner, not public spirit. This highest qualification will be wanting in the civil service class, unless it has come to them as an inheritance, and unless kept alive in them by the public spirit of the whole people. The office accepted by the citizen as a duty of honor, without remuneration, is a school for political virtue and constant self-denial; but to the paid servant of the state the same office is merely a livelihood. A higher conception of his calling he acquires not by the possession of the office, but from the spirit of the community at large and from a supreme state direction in harmony with it. History confirms this; the lower a people had sunk, the more did official calling degenerate into bureaucracy.


—The administration of foreign affairs in which the state as a unit has to do with another state, should be concentrated entirely in the hands of the supreme power, but without prejudice to the granting of extraordinary powers in critical moments, on the one hand, and to regular intercourse with neighboring states on the other.


—Military affairs require a complete unity of administration, frequently reaching even to the smallest details. In war, when military operations are conducted far away from the centre of the state, the commander-in-chief should be invested with extensive powers so as to act any moment as the moment demands. The evil consequences of a disregard of this principle are abundantly shown in the German and more particularly in the Austrian annals of war. Of the affairs concerning the internal administration of the state, those referring to the state budget are the most adapted to a centralized treatment; they are managed by paid officials according to prescriptions frequently reaching down to the smallest details given by the supreme authority. This refers particularly to taxes and customs dues.


—Centralized administration is required also in the case of the police. The object of the police institution can often be attained only when the measures taken by the central or provincial authorities are speedily and uniformly carried out in all parts of the country. On the other hand, under pressing emergencies, even subordinate officials may find themselves compelled to act without delay according to their own view of the case.


—The administration of justice comes within the principle of centralization to some extent.


—Proper centralization has nothing in common with the ideas of absolutism, of state omnipotence and bureaucracy. "In unity, in the irresistible power of the whole, lies all that is great in the moral world. Centralization is in no way opposed to liberty; only the man is free who lives in the whole and in whom the whole lives. Nothing makes man more impotent, less free and weaker than isolation, extreme division and anarchy." (C. Rössler, Allgemeine Staatslehre, v. i., p. 347.)


—But proper decentralization has just as little in common with the ideas of radicalism, state impotence and anarchy. It keeps the power of the state together by preventing it from forcing itself into circles foreign to its calling. It secures to it the good will of capable men who wish to devote themselves to the state, but not to be absorbed by it. It grants every part its individual value, each office a competent sphere of action, and each existing force its freedom of movement.


—Proper decentralization grants every part the liberty to really live within the whole; and to the whole the power which is secured by a healthy development of all parts.


—BIBLIOGRAPHY. Some of the above questions have been treated in von Bülau's Die Behorden in Staat und Gemeinde, Leipsig, 1836. For France, see de Tocqueville, L'ancien régime et la révolution, Paris, 1856; von Mohl, Geschichte und Literatur der Staatswissenschaften v. iii., p. 193, etc. For England, see Gneist, Englisches Verwaltungsrecht, 2 vols., 2nd ed., 1867; Englische Kommunalverfassung, 2nd ed., 1863.*40


Notes for this chapter

We here add an extract from M. Coquelin on Centralization in the Dictionnaire de l'economie politique: "We think A. de Tocqueville entirely correct when in his work 'Democracy in America,' he expresses himself as follows: 'Centralization is a word very often repeated in our days, although, generally speaking, no one ever tries to define its meaning. Certain interests are common to all component parts of the nation, such as the framing of general laws and the relation of the nation to foreign nations. There are interests, on the other hand, which belong especially to certain parts of the nation, as for instance, municipal enterprises. The concentration in a place and in one and the same hand of the power to direct the former interests, constitutes what we may call governmental centralization. And by concentrating in the same manner the power to manage the latter we have administrative centralization. But there are cases in which these two kinds of centralization are confounded with one another. Still by taking, in the aggregate, the objects which belong more especially in the domain of each of them, we are able to distinguish them easily. It is evident that governmental centralization acquires immense power when it is combined with administrative centralization. Thus people are accustomed to completely and continuously leave their will out of consideration; they are made to obey not only once and upon a given point, but in everything and every day. Not only does such centralization subdue them by force; it isolates them and then takes hold of them one by one in the great mass. These two kinds of centralization mutually aid each other; the one draws the other after it; but we do not think that they are inseparable. Under Louis XIV. France witnessed the greatest governmental centralization imaginable, for the one man who framed general laws and had the power to interpret them, represented France abroad and acted in her name. 'I am the state,' he used to say, and he was right And yet, under Louis XIV. there was much less administrative centralization than in our days in France. We have in our time a country, England, where governmental centralization has attained a very high degree; the state there seems to move like one man; it raises immense masses at its will, and the effects of its power are everywhere felt England, which has accomplished great things during the last 50 years, has no administrative centralization. For our part we can not conceive how a nation could exist, much less prosper, without a strong governmental centralization. But we think that administrative centralization only enervates the people who submit to it, because it ever tends to diminish their public spirit. Administrative centralization succeeds, it is true, in bringing together all the forces the nation can dispose of, at a given time and in a given place; but it is prejudicial to the reproduction of these forces; it makes the nation triumph on the day of battle, but it diminishes her power in the long run. Administrative centralization can, therefore, very well contribute to the greatness of one man, but never to the durable prosperity of a nation. It must not be overlooked that in saying that a state can not act because wanting in centralization, we almost always unconsciously have in view governmental centralization. The German empire, it may be argued, has never been able to draw all the advantage possible from its forces; and why not? Because the national power has never been centralized; because the state could never enforce obedience to its general laws; because the several component parts of this great body always had the right or the possibility to refuse their co-operation to the depositaries of the general authority even in questions which interested all citizens alike; in other words, because there was no governmental centralization. These same remarks apply to the middle ages also. All the misery of feudal society was brought about because the power not only of administering but also of governing was divided among a thousand hands and split up in a thousand ways. The entire absence of governmental centralization prevented at that time the nations of Europe from striving with energy toward any goal.'

—Consequently it is true that there exists a political and an administrative centralization. The former—the only one which really affects the unity and power of the state—has, to our knowledge, never been seriously attacked. It is, therefore, an error, when, in defending the cause of French centralization people incessantly invoke the great, the supreme argument of the unity and the power of the state—an argument which has such ascendency over unthinking minds. The unity and the power of the state have nothing to do with the question. As long as the state is invested with the general attributes of public authority; as long as it makes laws and appoints judges; as long as it holds in its hands the entire public force and directs its movements; as long as it can levy the taxes necessary for its support and collect them by its own agents; as long as the central government enjoys these essential prerogatives and some others besides which are attached to them, the unity of the state will be guarded and its power of concentration will be as great as it can be. But it does not follow, therefrom, that this government should interfere incessantly in the particular affairs of provinces, counties and cities; and still less should the state usurp the natural right of citizens whom it should confine itself to protecting. All the arguments advanced on the subject are therefore good to defend political centralization which nobody attacks; but they have no value whatever when advanced in defense of administrative centralization which alone is in question.

—And says Ch. Dunoyer, in his De la liberte du travail: 'The apologists of the system we reject, hold the following language: It lies in the nature of centralization, they say, to produce a stronger government, a stronger nation, a more highly developed civilization, and, above all, a more general and a more equal development, a more complete and better organized system of roads, canals and all other means of communication; a greater unity in all the means of exchange, in language, in money, in weights and measures; more uniformity in the ways of manufacturing, of clothing, lodging, and of doing a multitude of things; more equality of feeling and thinking. * * * * In one word, the system has the pretension to render the government better organized for the mission of order and peace it has to accomplish, to make it better fit to develop social forces and more apt to give rapidity and unity to this development. I do not think much penetration is needed to perceive that the system succeeds but poorly in bringing forth such results and that in many respects the results are negative.

—More uniformity in the way of feeling and thinking! But what if everybody complains.—unfortunately not without reason—of the anarchy of ideas nowadays reigning in France. More equality or uniformity in the manner of manufacturing, of dressing, of lodging. But this uniformity which is desirable only in a certain sense and in a certain measure, exists to a greater extent in England, the country of municipal institutions, than in centralistic France. As to the unity of the monetary system, of weights and measures, which is a good thing in many respects, there is no necessity, in order to establish it, to deprive local authorities or individuals of the right of managing their special interests as they deem best. With respect to the uniformity of language, it is worthy of note that all the efforts of an exaggerated centralization have not succeeded in bringing it about in France, while it exists, although it may seem incredible, in the United States, the most decentralized country of the world, and among the heterogeneous population which has only recently come to the country from the extremities of the globe. If it becomes a question of the power of concentration to be given to France, and with right, for the maintenance of her political power, we may say that this political power does not result from administrative centralization, but from political centralization, which, in our opinion, should be kept intact. All the rights, all the attributes, all the prerogatives relating not only to the defense of the country but also to the general affairs of the state, must be reserved for the central government. We thus understand the question. So much is necessary, but it is sufficient. But to these natural, legitimate and necessary prerogatives, governments are wont to add others which make them intervene at all times and at the wrong time in the private affairs of provinces, of communalities and of individuals. Far from adding to their original power, governments thus embarrass, enervate and enfeeble themselves."

—What is here said of administrative centralization may with great force be applied to the government of the several states of the Union, but with greater force what is said of political administration to the power which should be lodged in the federal government of the United States. ED.

Footnotes for CHARITY

End of Notes

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