The Westphalian System: Decentralization vs Centralization

The human race is now engaged in a war of ideas. A cursory examination of this conflict emphasizes debates around COVID-19: lockdowns and the nullification of individual freedoms in the name of public health, or the opening of economies so people can get on with their lives. But the issue is much deeper than that, and literally involves how human societies in the future will be organized. The debate between centralization and decentralization is worldwide, and affects almost every human being on the planet.

In the West, the ideas of the nation state, sovereignty, and territorial integrity began in the 17th century with the signing of  the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended 80 years of war in Europe, and also involved a religious truce of sorts between the three main religions of that time: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism (based on the doctrines of Martin Luther, which were essentially objections to the perceived corruption in the Catholic Church), and Calvinism. The Peace of Westphalia was the beginning of the modern era of nation states with distinct and protected cultural, religious, and/or political identities. The concept of territorial integrity and national sovereignty were born out of these negotiations almost 400 years ago. These ideas allowed for the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, just after World War II.

The 20th century saw the establishment of communist and fascist states, and a serious  challenge to the Westphalian system across the globe. Of course there have always been totalitarian states throughout human history, but as the population of earth rose from 2 billion in 1927 to 7 billion in 2011, centralization, authoritarianism, and centrally planned economies began to conflict with notions of individual rights, and societies such as constitutional republics that protect individual freedoms.

Those in favor of centralization argue that planned economies are vastly more efficient at moving goods and services, and are better able to utilize the talents of individuals in society for the common good. Those in favor of decentralization decry the squelching of human rights and individual freedoms, and argue that centralized societies inevitably become totalitarian, inhibit creativity, and are ruled by a privileged elite who use inflexible ideology to make people follow “the party line.” Those in favor of centralization counter that the inevitable evolution of free societies lead also to the establishment of wealthy elites who establish a modern-day privileged class and lord it over the people.

In the United States there is a lot of confusion about the political system we have. If you asked most citizens about this, they would say that the US is a democracy. On a very basic level, this is true. But the US is actually a constitutional republic. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights spell out explicitly what the government can and cannot do. The Bill of Rights guarantees individual rights for each citizen, and religious rights. The power of the central government is limited by the Constitution, and all powers not specifically granted to the central government are reserved to the states.

Here is what the 10th Amendment to the Constitution says:

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

FindLaw says:

Passed by Congress in 1789 and ratified in 1791, the Tenth Amendment is the last in the group of Constitutional Amendments known as the Bill of Rights. Unlike several of the other early amendments, it is quite brief – only one sentence. But that one sentence grants state governments all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government by the Constitution. However, as broad a grant as this seems, interpretation by the Supreme Court has placed some limits on state power.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is meant by "reserved powers?"

“Reserved powers” refers to powers that are not specifically granted to the federal government by the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment gives these powers to the states.

What is an example of a reserved power?

Reserved powers include running elections, creating marriage laws, and regulating schools.

Why are reserved powers important?

Reserving powers for state governments helps maintain a balance of power between the states and the federal government. They also allow states the freedom to try out different ideas and programs, which is why states are sometimes called laboratories of democracy.”

Furthermore, in  Fry v. United States, 421 U.S. 542, 547 n.7 (1975), the 10th Amendment expressly declares the constitutional policy that Congress may not exercise power in a fashion that impairs the States’ integrity or their ability to function effectively in a federal system."

"The Tenth Amendment: Reserving Power for the States,"

Notice that the states are the laboratories of democracy, not the federal government. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written precisely to limit the power of centralization by the British crown, or any dictator or group of totalitarians, such as modern-day fascists and communists.

The states run elections and have always run elections, not the federal government in DC. It’s why some states are now looking into the corruption surrounding the 2020 election. The power to examine elections and ballots can be done, legally, by the duly elected legislature of each state.

There is good reason to limit the power of the central government.

In a democracy, the majority can trample on the rights of minorities. The Electoral College, for example, was designed to protect the rights of less populated states from the rule of big states. Those who favor abolition of the Electoral College, or packing the Supreme Court, have, most likely, not studied the U.S. Constitution and the checks and balances it creates to keep a stable political system. The recent riots in dozens of American cities, with billions of dollars in property damage, is a taste of what can happen when mob rule takes over. Totalitarian societies are always centralized, and are always based in intolerance for other points of view.

Here in the US there is now a debate between a populist movement that favors a smaller government and a larger private sector, and those who favor the communist, centralized model of a huge central government that plans the lives of all citizens. Under the guise of “COVID Relief Bills,” the central government in Washington DC and the Federal Reserve, the nation’s central bank, are literally printing trillions of dollars. Some businesses report that they cannot find employees because people are being “paid” more to stay home than going to work. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: money is not wealth. As long as the amount of currency and credit in circulation balances the goods and services produced by the economy, the currency is stable, inflation is low, and the economy has the opportunity to run well. Merely printing money without a concomitant increase in the production of goods and services must lead inevitably to inflation and the debasing of the currency, which adversely affects the poor, the class least able to withstand the onslaught of inflation. Inflating the currency has been tried (and it has failed) throughout history, from the Roman Empire to the U.S. colonies, who attempted to print scrip to fund the Revolutionary War against the British crown. No one would take this currency, which were just pieces of paper backed by nothing valuable.

A centralized economy would be able to print massive amounts of money, whereas a decentralized  economy with a smaller central government and a large private sector would never be able to get away with it.

In short, centralized governments can never plan for the billions of decisions made every day by citizens. Centralized planning inevitably results in prohibition on thought, speech, and action to suit the demands of those in power. This is why centralized, totalitarian societies have always failed.

Centralization of politics in the United States has led to the placing of barriers and barbed wire around the Capitol, as a privileged political ruling class tries to protect itself from the people it is supposed to govern. Here in the US, HR 1 and SB 1, under the guise of “election reform,” will take control of decentralized elections from the state legislatures and give it to a corrupt central government, allowing for the party in power to maintain its power indefinitely. These election laws will, of course (for it is the modus operandi of centralization) – be backed by the coercive power of the State, where authority (and military power to enforce diktats) is concentrated.

In conclusion, human societies thrive when they are supported by the rule of law, and by the guarantee of liberty and freedom of thought and expression, which leads to creativity and powerful economic opportunities.  Although some centralization is necessary for good planning and rational public policy, too much centralization will lead to a sterile, apathetic society ruled by a privileged few.