公 法 评 论 你们必晓得真理，真理必叫你们得以自由。
1 November 24, 1999
FEDERALISM, SELF-ORGANIZATION, AND THE DISSOLUTION OF THE
By Gus diZerega
This paper began as a joint project with the late Aaron Wildavsky. Unfortunately,
Prof. Wildavsky was unable to contribute appreciably to its writing, and so it
would be inappropriate to list him as a joint author. I also do not know that he
would agree with all of the interpretations given herein. On the other hand,
without his initiative and our discussions, this project may never have been
undertaken at all.
Federalism seems almost a quaint notion today, a charming, and sometimes
irritating, holdover from our political infancy, when we fancied ourselves more residents
of particular states than of the United States as a whole. Its reputation has not been
enhanced when its rhetoric is used by state leaders seeking to defend the most distasteful
and exploitative practices against their own citizens, as was long the case in the American
This centralist prejudice is mostly just that - a prejudice. There is more to
federalism than a justification for cracker politics. And racist politics Southern style
cannot be justified by a theory of democratic federalism. This essay will outline a theory
of federalism which argues it is necessary for understanding a coherent model of
democracy and constitutes a practical alternative for dealing with contemporary political
problems. More speculatively, I will argue that the unitary nation state is showing
increasing signs of declining importance, and that the most desirable alternative will not
be world government, but rather an increasing devolution of power within increasingly
The widespread failure of political scientists to appreciate the implications of
federalist politics is due largely to the modern history of our discipline. We have grown
up around the study of the sovereign state. Hobbes is more influential than Locke, and
his positivist conception of law and sovereignty strengthens this bias. Our discipline has
generally sought to make states more "rational" in their operation, and has sought to
apply models of instrumental organization in analyzing how they function and how that
functioning can be improved. All these biases encourage a misunderstanding of the
nature of federalism in a democratic context.
Historically the modern nation state has its roots in undemocratic polities where,
regardless of the rhetoric, regimes ruled primarily for the benefit of a small and distinct
portion of society. Modern undemocratic polities share the same characteristic. These
forms of government are most appropriately grasped as institutions of domination where
one group rules over others for its own benefit. Much modern political theory takes this
model of politics as universal, and so is intrinsically incapable of adequately grasping the
democratic federal principles initially developed in the writings of Alexander Hamilton
and James Madison.
2 November 24, 1999
On these matters the bulk of modern writers have advanced little beyond Thomas
Hobbes, who saw sovereignty as an attribute of power, the supreme power within a
society, one able to dominate all others. Most democratic theorists seem, often
inconsistently, to agree with Hobbes about the nature of sovereignty, but disagree with
him as to the best form of government for exercising it.
A politics of domination, if done effectively, requires the polity to be ordered as an
instrumental organization wherein the politically relevant sectors of society are organized
to serve the interests of those who rule. People become resources to be utilized with
greater or lesser degrees of efficiency in attaining the leadership's goals. It is this model
of the polity which flows from the traditional model of sovereignty as the supreme source
of law. A state is considered sovereign when it is the final authority for making law
within its borders.
Federal political systems, such as that developed within the U.S. Constitutional
Convention, divide governmental power among several authorities, each possessing only
a portion of the power to make laws. Each government is autonomous in the sense that it
cannot be abolished by another level, its leadership is selected from its own citizens, and
it has independent authority to tax, and to make and enforce laws. Each acts directly on
the citizen. Within this conception, ultimate authority rests with "the people," a complex
entity I will examine below. In such a political system there is no body which can claim
more Constitutional authority than its rivals to represent "the people." Rather, each part
of a federal system represents different aspects of the people - a unity incapable of
adequate representation by any single body. Indeed, even if everyone voted in a
referendum, "the people" would not be fully represented, for they comprise a political
community which exists over time.
In such a system there is no single apex of power in the Hobbesian sense. What
meets the eye, instead, is that decision making arises out of many different autonomous
centers. It is a polycentric rather than unitary polity.1 This view of federalism makes
little sense from the perspective of much modern political thought which has been overly
impressed by the historical character of most states as instruments of domination,
reinforced by a theoretical framework conceiving sovereignty as domination. For
example, Robert D'Amico and Paul Piccone write that
A contradiction between centralism and particularism was reluctantly embedded
in the U.S. Constitution when, because of the fragility and disorganization of the
newly independent states, this federal document had to be based democratically
1 On polycentricity see Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty: Reflections and Rejoinders,
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). For a more recent discussion, see Vincent
Ostrom, Charles M. Tiebout, and Robert Warren, "The Organization of Government in
Metropolitan Areas: A Theoretical Survey" and Vincent Ostrom, "Polycentricity: The
Structural Basis of Self-Governing Systems," both in Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of
American Federalism: Constituting a Self-Governing Society, (San Francisco: Institute for
Contemporary Studies, 1991) pp. 137-161; 223-244.
3 November 24, 1999
on "the people" rather than the federating units, as is normally the case in
In fact there was no contradiction of this sort. The tensions which ultimately
brought on the Civil War had less to do with the weaknesses or contradictions within the
federal principles underlying the Constitution than with the attempt to unify two different
types of society, one of which, the ante-bellum South, developed increasingly in
directions fundamentally antithetical to free democratic principles.3 That flaws in the
federalist conception as such were blamed for this tragedy is largely due to the fact that
even today, more than two hundred years after The Federalist was written, most political
theory has not caught up with the largely intuitive innovations which underlay their work.
Federalism and Democracy
The central problem, both theoretical and practical, with applying federal principles
in a democratic polity has been succinctly put by Carl Schmitt
Both democracy and federalism presuppose homogeneity. The necessary result of
a federation of democratic states is the correspondence of democratic and federal
homogeneity. Thus it is only natural in the development of democracy that the
homogeneous unity of the people transcends the political boundaries of member
states and replaces the equilibrium between the federation and the politically
independent member states with a general unity.4
Indeed, it is not going too far to say that both Hamilton and Madison anticipated
(and hoped) that this unity would be to some extent the long term outcome of a successful
American union. Madison personally favored the new constitution giving the general
government the right to veto any state law, and obviously believed such a power in no
way violated federal principles. Hamilton noted in Federalist 27 that "I believe it may be
laid down as a general rule that [the people's] confidence in and obedience to a
government will commonly be proportioned to the goodness and badness of its
administration." Revealingly, he added that
Various reasons have been suggested in the course of these papers to induce a
probability that the general government will be better administered than the
particular governments. . . .
2 Robert D'Amico and Paul Piccone, "Introduction" to a Telos issue devoted to federalism.
Telos, No. 91, Spring, 1992, p. 4. D'Amico and Piccone's history is in need of correction as
well. See, for example, Forrest MacDonald, Novo Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of
the Constitution. (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1985) and William Lee
Miller, The Business of May Next: James Madison and the Founding, (Charlottesville,
Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1992).
3 For a pro-slavery argument which illustrates this point, see George Fitzhugh, Cannibals
All! Or Slaves Without Masters, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960). For a
discussion of this issue during the Constitutional Convention, see Miller, op. cit., pp. 117-141,
4 Carl Schmitt, "The Constitutional Theory of Federalism," Telos, No. 91, Spring, 1992, p.
4 November 24, 1999
I will . . . hazard an observation . . . that the more the operations of the national
authority are intermingled in the ordinary exercise of government, the more the
citizens are accustomed to meet with it in the common occurrences of their
political life, the more it is familiarized to their sight and to their feelings, the
further it enters into those objects which touch the most sensible and put in
motion the most active springs of the human heart, the greater will be the
probability that it will conciliate the respect and attachment of the community. . . .
The inference is that the authority of the Union and the affections of the citizens
towards it will be strengthened rather than weakened, by its extension into matters
of internal concern. . . .
In Federalist 46 Madison observed
If . . . the people should in [the] future become more partial to the federal than
to the State governments, the change can only result from such manifest and
irresistible proofs of a better administration as will overcome all their antecedent
propensities. And in that case, the people ought not surely to be precluded from
giving most of their confidence where they may discover it to be most due. . . .
Hamilton and Madison rested their case for federalism within a democratic
republican foundation. They both preferred that the central government be given more
authority over taxes than in fact it was. Yet Madison in particular is rightfully regarded
as the American theorist of federalism. Usually this judgment ignores Madison's evident
lack of concern with growing national supremacy over the states. Indeed, many making
it would be profoundly discomfited by his true views, for Madison's anti-federalist critics
adopted the rhetoric of "states' rights" a rhetoric Madison opposed.
States have no rights, only people have rights. This was why Madison and
Hamilton emphasized that "the people" rather than "the states" would adopt the
Constitution. However, theirs was a much more subtle sense of how "the people" are
comprised than is usually the case in democratic theory. Madison argued in Federalist 39
that "assent and ratification is to be given by the people, not as individuals composing
one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they
respectively belong. It is to be the assent and ratification of the several States, derived
from the supreme authority of each State - the authority of the people themselves." The
people exist in two capacities: as citizens of respective states and as citizens of the nation
as a whole. In this way they sought to reconcile the independent states of the Articles of
Confederation with the national government they sought.
It is not going beyond their meaning to say that "the people" also comprise the
polity over time. No single election could give working control of the national
government. At a minimum, it would take two elections to change a majority of Senators
since one third are elected every two years. Even in this case the Supreme Court could
still stand as a barrier to rapid and precipitate changes in basic policy. Nor could the
Constitution be easily or quickly amended without overwhelming public support for
5 November 24, 1999
Because the people existed over time, their interests were best represented in large
and highly complex polities which made any simple polling of opinions a difficult task at
best. The most un-American way possible of referring to the people is "the masses" for,
in fact, it is no mass at all. The people constitute a complex unity whose intricate internal
structure and differentiation is rendered invisible by such crude terminology. Madison's
classic statement of this view was in Federalist 10, and recent research has suggested it is
even more complex a unity than he envisioned.5 The people were not simply a collection
of individuals, they were the society as a corporate entity extending over time - "the ages"
the Founders hoped.
American federalist theory's foundation in popular sovereignty rather than on the
sovereignty of the states or the nation as a whole marked a major innovation and advance
in political thought. By comparison, the thinking behind the Confederate Constitution
marked a giant step backwards - even without taking the issue of slavery into account.
The Confederate Constitution was not a "restoration" of Constitutional principles
supposedly violated by the North, but rather a rejection of them and a return to an older
view that federal unions arose from the coming together of sovereign states.6 The
Confederacy was exactly the sort of federation which Madison and Hamilton described in
Federalists 18, 19, and 20 as ultimately doomed to failure.
The complex conception of popular sovereignty which Madison and Hamilton were
developing led to a profound break from earlier ways of conceiving political power.
According to the Founders, the people themselves belong to more than one political
community, and no single such community enjoys theoretical precedence over another.
The model of relations between the State and General governments which the Founders
described is not a hierarchical one, even if they personally would have preferred it to be
so. Indeed, they were at a loss of words for what they were describing. In Federalist 39,
Madison pointed out how every major aspect of the Constitution possessed both "federal'
and 'national' aspects. Later, in 1824, he wrote that "It is a system of government
emphatically sui generis for designating which there consequently was no appropriate
term or denomination pre-existing." In 1831 he still argued that "the Gov't of the U. S.
being a novelty and a compound, had no technical terms or phrases appropriate to it, and .
. . old terms were to be used in new senses, explained by the context or by the facts of the
Theory from Practice
At this point a reader might reasonably ask, "Wasn't the Constitution a document
growing out of compromises and hard bargaining? Isn't it a bit fanciful to read a coherent
5 See for example, Benjamin I. Page and Robert Y. Shapiro, The Rational Public: Fifty Years
of Trends in American's Policy Preferences, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) and
Gus diZerega, "Elites and Democratic Theory," Review of Politics, Spring, 1991, pp. 340-372.
6 See Roy Franklin Nichols' discussion of the provisions of the Confederate Constitution in
his The Disruption of American Democracy, (New York: Collier, 1962) pp. 462-463.
7 James Madison to Robert S, Garrett, February 11, 1824, Works, Vol. IX, p. 177; Madison to
N. P. Truist, December, 1831, Works, Vol. IX, p. 475; see also Madison to Edward Everett,
August 24, 1830, pp. 384-85; Madison, "Notes on Nullification," Mind of the Founder: Sources
of the Political Thought of James Madison, Marvin Meyers, ed., (Hanover: University Press
of New England, 1981), p. 437.
6 November 24, 1999
theoretical framework into a document which was regarded by Madison and Hamilton
alike as deeply flawed? The answer is "no" and the reasons for my answer are important.
Compromises can take two forms. First, the different parties can come to an
agreement upon rules for cooperation which they regard as generally fair. Because their
interests will differ, and occasionally clash, fair rules will have to be procedural, like the
rules of a game which seek to give no particular advantage to any player at the outset.
Alternatively, the compromise can seek to safeguard particular interests in advance, by
giving them a privileged position. The Constitution mostly exemplifies the first sort of
compromise. The second kind can be found in the provision prohibiting the national
government from banning the slave trade for ten years. Other privileges incorporated
into the document, such as giving the vote to men and the weighted representation given
slave states in the House of Representatives, were susceptible to amendment. As suffrage
was widened, these privileges were removed, further strengthening the Constitution's
purely procedural character.
Procedural rules for action that apply to a wide variety of interests on the basis of
fairness carry their own internal logic. This logic was picked up on and developed by
Madison and Hamilton, even if they were not personally enamored by all its provisions.
The internal logic of such a system of fair procedural rules results in what I term a selforganizing
system, a concept largely lacking at the time they wrote.
It is a historical irony that the principles ultimately able to make theoretical sense of
America's federalism were first extensively discussed in the year 1776, but in George III's
England, not the New World. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations was the first major study
of what today we term social self-organizing processes.8 Smith's subject, of course, was
the rapidly developing market economy. But with the advantage of over 200 years of
hindsight, we can see that the market is in fact a single instance of a broader process
which was transforming the societies of Western Europe and North America. This
transformation rendered their basic institutions increasingly incapable of being grasped
by traditional ideas about instrumental organization, status, and hierarchy. More and
more the modern West has been characterized by the dominance of the self-organizing
systems of the market, science, and liberal democracy. I suggest that the modern age is
not so much the age of organization as it is the age of self-organization.
Smith and the economists who came after showed how orderly social processes
could arise out of individuals pursuing personally chosen, and often narrowly defined,
purposes by means of abstract procedural rules of contract within a framework of clearly
specified property rights. The result of their actions was a complex and ever changing
network of economic coordination able successfully to handle more information and
harmonize more diverse aims than could ever be the case by attempting consciously to
organize the whole from a single center.
8 Although its roots are in Hume. See F. A. Hayek, "The Legal and Political Philosophy of
David Hume," Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1967), pp. 106-21. Hume was also a pioneering thinker on federalism who
significantly influenced Madison. See Miller, The Business of May Next, op. cit., pp. 55-60.
7 November 24, 1999
Unlike an instrumental organization, the market process pursued no specific goals
or hierarchy of goals. This meant that, strictly speaking, no guarantee existed that any
particular person's project would be attained. On the other hand, this same process
increased the likelihood that any randomly selected participant's goals would be more
likely to be attained within a market order than would be the case if all economic
transactions took place within the framework of an instrumental organization.
As with other self-organizing social institutions, the market places minimal
demands upon the knowledge and judgment of those participating within them. A
principle characteristic of self-organizing systems is that they economize enormously on
the knowledge people need in order to act effectively within them. No one needed an
overview of the whole in order for a coherent framework of relationships to arise within
which people could cooperate, even with strangers whom they would never meet. No
one needed a view of the whole in order to be able to successfully attain their ends and do
so in ways which assisted others in attaining theirs.
As F. A. Hayek, perhaps the most important theorist of social self-organization,
observed: "The whole acts as one market, not because any of its members survey the
whole field, but because their limited individual fields sufficiently overlap so that through
many intermediaries the relevant information is communicated to all."9 As a result, it
became easier for individuals to cooperate together in increasingly intricate networks
ultimately spanning the globe. Consequently, a much greater complexity of information
and relationships could be integrated within a market order than could ever be the case
within an instrumental organization.
The very complexity of such interactions make its order impossible to grasp without
the aid of theory. Too many factors are integrated in a continuing kaleidoscope of change
for anyone to be able to grasp them deliberately in their particulars. Yet as we act within
a self-organizing system we nevertheless are easily able to make use of local
manifestations of this order. We need not be economists to act effectively within the
market, even if we need to study economic theory to understand how the market works.
We can now generalize beyond the market to other self-organizing institutions. All
self-organizing social processes possess basic core characteristics which differentiate
them from instrumental organizations. Four are particularly important: they are
unusually open rather than relatively closed systems, they possess a certain sort of
complexity, they have logical depth, and it is impossible to make predictions about their
future specific characteristics, although "pattern predictions" are possible.
Strictly speaking, all social systems are open. Indeed, so are all systems within the
universe. However, within these parameters systems may be relatively open or relatively
closed. A hierarchical instrumental organization is relatively closed, for there is only one
legitimate center for decision making and innovation. In so far as this is the case, all
external influences impinging upon the system must be brought to the attention of the top
9 F. A. Hayek, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," Individualism and Economic Order,
(Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948), p. 86.
8 November 24, 1999
leadership, or to those to whom limited authority to act has been expressly delegated, if
the system is to respond to them effectively.
By contrast, a self-organizing social system possesses multiple centers for
innovation and decision making. Each is relatively independent of the others. Each is
free to interpret and act upon external influences by its own lights. The system can
respond at any point to any influence seen and acted upon by any participant. By
contrast, a hierarchical organization will seek to maintain strong boundaries, limiting the
impact of external influences, in order to protect itself and successfully pursue its
leadership's goals. A self-organizing system, on the other hand, possesses very
permeable and open boundaries for it has no goals or purposes requiring defense against
outside influences. This leads us to a second distinguishing characteristic of a social selforganizing
system: its complexity.
In a hierarchical organization decisions are made by one or a few individuals.
Consequently, there is a clear limit to the complexity an organization can develop,
beyond which it becomes too complicated and unwieldy to manage effectively.10 In a
self-organizing social system no theoretical limit exists to the complexity of the
relationships which can be incorporated within it. Each participant has limits, of course,
just as with the leaders of an instrumental organization. But there is no limit to the
number of possible participants, and so long as each overlaps with the others, the
intricacy of the whole can grow. Each person possesses different information, different
desires and plans, and confronts the same event from a unique perspective. Insofar as
these differences are incorporated into a self-organizing process, its capacity to make
useful use of diverse data dwarfs that of a hierarchical organization.
The enormous complexity of social self-organizing systems means they possess
tremendous logical depth. This term, which originated in information theory, addresses
the quality as well as the quantity of information needed completely to specify a
particular system. Paul Davies writes that in an organized system the quality of
information is determined by the time needed "to compute the message from the shortest
program that will generate it."11 Davies explains that
Simple patterns are logically shallow, because they may be generated rapidly by
short and simple programs. Random patterns are also shallow, because their
minimal program is, by definition, not much shorter than the pattern itself. . . . But
highly organized patterns are logically deep, because they require that many
complicated steps be performed in generating them.12
10 Robert N. Langlois, "The Capabilities of Industrial Capitalism," Critical Review, Fall,
1991, pp. 513-30. See also John Kotter, A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs from
Management, (New York: Macmillan, 1990).
11 Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World, (New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1992), p. 137. See also Charles Bennett, "Dissipation, Information,
Computational Complexity and the Definition of Organization," Emerging Syntheses in
Science, (ed.) D. Pines, (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1987).
12 Ibid., p. 138.
9 November 24, 1999
Far from being random or disorganized, the "anarchy of the market" and other
social self-organizing systems constitute the most intricate achievements of human
society. One important implication flowing from this observation is that social selforganizing
systems are perhaps the most valuable creations of human cooperation.
Shallow systems, lacking logical depth, can be easily reconstructed whereas selforganizing
systems possessing great logical depth are impossible to reconstruct, and
creating new ones is by no means an easy undertaking, as Eastern Europe is discovering.
That it can be done at all is because the rules which generate social self-organizing
systems, particularly those systems characterizing liberal modernity, are remarkably
simple. Indeed, they are simpler than the rules characterizing most instrumental
organizations. Because they apply to everyone while leaving each person free to apply
them as he or she will, they are purely procedural, and open to any purposes which may
be encompassed by them. By contrast, instrumental organizations tend to create specific
rules covering specific contingencies. They are justified in terms of their ability to aid
the organization attain its goals. The Forest Service Manual is many volumes in length
adding up to may hundreds of pages. The U. S. Constitution is only a little over 100
As a result, we cannot predict the specific characteristics of any particular selforganizing
system. All we can do is make what Hayek calls "pattern predictions" that
certain kinds of patterns will appear, but we can say nothing about their specific details.
As Hayek noted, "the range of phenomena compatible with [such predictions] will be
wide and the possibility of falsifying it correspondingly small." He added that "While it
is certainly desirable to make our theories as falsifiable as possible, we must also push
forward into fields where, as we advance, the degree of falsifiability necessarily
decreases. This is the price we have to pay for an advance into the field of complex
phenomena."14 This problem is by no means unique to the social sciences. One of the
greatest of all theories in the natural sciences, the theory of evolution, possesses this same
As we indicated above, the market is not the only social self-organizing system
which has transformed the world. Liberal modernity's other two most unique institutions,
science and democracy, are also of this nature. The scientific community is able to make
use of and constantly revise and enlarge a body of knowledge vastly exceeding the
capacity of any scientist to grasp because of science's self-organizing nature. Scientific
knowledge gains its coherence because the community of practicing scientists pursues
their research while honoring a small number of general principles which are purely
abstract and procedural. These principles we often term the "scientific method" although
it is not such a tidy package as this term suggests.16
13 A classic study of such an organization, and its many hundreds of pages of rules, is
Herbert Kaufman, The Forest Ranger: A Study in Administrative Behavior, (Washington,
D.C.: Resources for the Future, 1986).
14 See F. A. Hayek, "The Theory of Complex Phenomena," Studies in Philosophy, Politics,
and Economics, op cit., p. 29.
15 Ibid., pp. 31-34.
16 Even more than Hayek, Michael Polanyi deserves perhaps to be considered the father of
contemporary social self-organization theory. With regard to science, see his Logic of Liberty,
10 November 24, 1999
Democracy as a Self-Organizing System
Liberal democracies share these same general characteristics as well. Citizens
participate in politics by following a small set of abstract and procedural rules which
determine how they are to act politically if they want to be involved. Being abstract,
these rules apply equally to all in a formal sense, although their impact upon specific
individuals can and will vary. Being procedural, they are silent as to the particular
political goals citizens may wish to pursue by making use of them. Indeed, often these
rules will govern pursuit of mutually exclusive political projects, just as is the case in the
market and science. This is how competition arises in self-organizing systems. The rules
which generate a liberal democracy are freedom of political speech, freedom of
organization, free elections, and equality of the vote.17
"Self-Organizing" should not be confused with "self-governing." Vincent Ostrom,
whose work is in most respects in harmony with the views I am developing, seemingly
does this when writing that "Self-organizing capabilities exist at the village level in all
societies."18 Yet the broader picture he is developing is of federalist democracies as selforganizing
polities. A village's political life is constituted largely of face-to-face
relationships. As such, it can be self-governing, a term Ostrom also uses.
I believe that much is gained in terms of clarity, and nothing is lost, if we confine
"self-organizing" to those social processes characterized by complexity - where no person
or group can grasp much about the system as a whole, except in a formal abstract sense.
Order must therefore rely on processes which are to some degree impersonal, and
independent of the particular wishes and desires of participants, no matter how much
their actions may contribute to these processes. Self-governance, however, means that
we have a significant say in the outcomes of a particular political process.
Self-governance and self-organization are not opposites, however. In fact, in a
complex order self-governance can exist at the local level only if the broader features of
the political system are largely self-organizing (or, alternatively, central government
ignores local events). This relationship has parallels in science and the market. It is the
largely impersonal market process which enables people to have such latitude in pursuing
their self-chosen goals economically. It is the largely impersonal scientific community as
op. cit., and "The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory" in Knowing and
Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi, ed., Marjorie Grene, (Chicago: University of Chicago,
1969), pp. 49-72. Physicist John Ziman has continued Polanyi's work, see particularly his
Public Knowledge, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968) and Reliable Knowledge,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978); see also David Hull, Science as a Process:
An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science, (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1988).
17 For a more extensive discussion of democracies as self-organizing systems, see Gus
diZerega, "Elites and Democratic Theory," The Review of Politics, Spring, 1991, pp. 340-372;
"Democracy as a Spontaneous Order," Critical Review, Spring, 1989, pp. 206-240;
"Liberalism and Democracy: Spontaneous Order, Information, and Values," Wirtschaft's
Politische Blatter: Friedrich August von Hayek zum 90, Geburtstag, Vol.\36, 1989, pp. 158-
18 Ostrom, Meaning of American Federalism, op. cit., p. 213.
11 November 24, 1999
a whole which enables individual scientists to choose and pursue their research. Were
either chaotic, it would be hard to know what avenue of pursuit promised to be
productive. Were either an instrumental order, local plans would have to be harmonized
with those laid down by higher authority. It is the same in democracies. Self-governance
and self-organization in complex orders are different sides of the same coin.
Because their rules apply to everyone, all social self-organizing systems are
equalitarian. However, because these rules are purely procedural, and say nothing about
who will use them, or how successful they will be if they do, some people will be more
successful in achieving their plans than will others. Therefore, rules able to generate a
democracy cannot be egalitarian. They cannot lead to identical outcomes for all who act
within their framework. In fact, in a complex order a rule cannot be both equalitarian and
egalitarian. At the systemic level procedural rules serve primarily to discover and
coordinate what is unknown. Consequently, when they are followed, we cannot depend
on any particular outcome. Inequality of input and outcome is essentially unavoidable for
The general outcome served by well-functioning democracies is the public good.
We can better understand this often misused term by first examining its better understood
equivalent in economic theory. The theoretical ideal which the market process is
supposed to approach is called general equilibrium. It is the state of affairs that would
exist if, as Hayek put it, everyone operating within a market order enjoyed perfect
knowledge. Hayek preferred the term "order" for "equilibrium" for it "has the advantage
that we can meaningfully speak about an order being approached to various degrees, and
that order can be preserved throughout a process of change."19
The market generates a coordination process which approximates this never - to - be
- perfectly - attained and always changing state of affairs of perfectly coordinated
knowledge. Thus, the market process is fundamentally a discovery process. If the
market process were to decline in its capacity to coordinate cooperation, that is, decline in
its capability to make knowledge available to those who can use it effectively, it would
also decline in its capacity to self-organize. Fewer people would be able successfully to
pursue their plans within its framework.
Science has an equivalent concept, also based upon a standard of perfect
coordination and knowledge. This is universal agreement among scientists about the
nature of the phenomena able to be studied scientifically. Science is a process by which
scientific knowledge - knowledge able to be justified and defended by the scientific
method as interpreted by the scientific community - is discovered. As with the market
process, this perfect agreement is unlikely ever to arise, but it is only the impetus towards
it which enables us to speak about a body of scientific knowledge at all. Both science
and the market are discovery processes.
In democratic politics the public good is the same sort of concept. It, too, must be
discovered. Often the public good is considered to be some specific state of affairs or
19 F. A. Hayek, "Competition as a Discovery Procedure," New Studies in Philosophy, Politics,
Economics, and the History of Ideas, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1978), p. 184.
12 November 24, 1999
hierarchy of ends which "the people" are supposed to favor. This is to misconstrue its
nature. Beyond the most general formulations, there is substantial disagreement as to
what measures are, or are not, in the public good. Given the enormous complexity of
contemporary political issues, any reasonable person would admit of considerable
uncertainty as to what specific programs will be most in keeping with the public good.
This has lead some political scientists to deny that the concept carries any theoretical or
practical weight at all.
From the perspective of a theory of self-organization, the public good is that
assortment of public policies which would be adopted by perfectly knowledgeable
citizens agreeing unanimously among themselves when asking themselves "What is best
for the community in which I live?" As with general equilibrium and the scientific ideal
of perfect agreement, the political process should always generate an impetus
approaching such circumstances, even though there is no reason to believe it will ever be
completely attained. This is particularly the case because the public good incorporates, in
principle, all of what counts as scientific knowledge and the structure of the market, plus
much more. In terms of specific policies, the public good will be a moving goal whose
content is only partially known.
This conception of the public good, and the Founders' observation that we live in
more than one political community, gives us a different basis for applying federalist
principles than do traditional theories. Further, it is one in harmony with democratic
principles. As Madison and Hamilton stressed, citizens often think of themselves as
belonging to more than one political community. In thinking so, they make it so.
Further, the complexity of public issues renders no single political community equally
capable of addressing all issues effectively, from street maintenance to education to
Indeed, Madison's argument in favor of extended republics incorporating a great
variety of factions and interests is basically an argument that stable and just democracies
must be established in complex societies. It is their complexity which prevents a
majority faction from arising and turning the polity into an instrumental organization
dominating its members for the enrichment of its rulers, which would constitute a coup
d'etat by the majority against the polity. Complexity takes many forms in an extended
republic. Insofar as it is territorially based, the case for federalism is implicit within
democratic republican theory.
At the basis of many contemporary conflicts over public policies and the
institutions that produce them are differences of a more fundamental kind. Some see
democracy as an instrumental organization designed to secure substantial goals such as
greater equality of condition.20 Others, like myself, envision democracy as enabling
people to get together to decide what to do, that is, as a set of facilitating procedures.
Central to those procedures is that they apply to all citizens equally. Procedural equality
is predicated on equal legal respect for all citizens. Thus, equal opportunity leads to
20 See for example, Robert Dahl, Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1956 ) p. 56; and Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1982 ) pp. 84-5. 107.
13 November 24, 1999
unequal results. If one insists upon substantive equality of resources as necessary for
legitimating democratic institutions, neither American nor any other kind of democracy
can qualify.21 Worse, if agreement on policy is required for agreement on procedures,
democracies will be chronically unstable because under such a requirement they will be
incapable of approaching the public good. They will not promote the political
cooperation of all citizens.
The Constitution and the Articles of Confederation
From a perspective enriched by the theory of self-organizing social systems, both
the Constitution and the Articles of Confederation which it replaced offered potentially
viable frameworks for a large scale democratic order. However, the reasons supporting
each differ, and insights derived from both are of continued relevance today.
The Constitution created a federal polity where the people were conceived as
citizens of at least two political communities, neither of which could lay sole claim to
speak for "the people." This was not the case with the Articles, where independent
sovereign states came together for certain common purposes. The central government
could not act except through the states. Any measure passed by the Continental Congress
required nine of thirteen states to agree, and delegates were more ambassadors than
independent decision makers. Amending the Articles required unanimity.
The Articles established a great deal of political equality among the separate states.
All their citizens enjoyed rights to travel and trade, each state recognized the same
privileges and immunities for the citizens of other states as they did for their own. All
maintained reciprocal respect for extradition and judicial proceedings.
The Articles had been established during the crisis of the Revolutionary War. In the
eyes of many, with the coming of peace much of the need for closer relations dissipated.
Quorums became increasingly hard to obtain. Attempts to give the Congress independent
taxing authority failed. Amendments were all but impossible to pass. When John
Hancock was elected President of the Congress he never bothered to show up to take
Had the Articles persisted, the Confederation not been dissolved due to foreign
entanglements or dissension between the states, and the new governments remained
basically democratic, over time a stronger sense of national community would probably
have grown again. We will never know. But unlike earlier confederations, the Articles
created a framework with substantial self-organizing capabilities.
Where the Articles differed from earlier confederations was that the members states
were all democratic in the sense that most white men could vote. It is only because, and
to the extent, the member states were democratic (particularly in the North) that the
Articles created a self-organizing framework. The reason is that when both internal and
21 Gus diZerega, "Equality, Self-Government and Democracy: A Critique of Robert Dahl's
Political Equality," Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp. 447-468.
22 On the Articles see Grant Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787; (New
York: Norton, 1972), pp. 354-63; and Forrest MacDonald, The Formation of the American
Republic: 1776-1790. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1967).
14 November 24, 1999
external relations are based upon procedural rules applying equally to all, the same selforganizing
processes existing within each state will progressively blur the boundaries
they have with their neighbors. The distinction between internal and external relations
will progressively diminish as trade and travel increase, leading to ever more economic
and cultural interpenetration. Identification with one's own state, and particularly with its
leadership, will be diluted by other loyalties. We see this happening today among
sovereign democracies in Europe, and increasingly in other parts of the world as well.
It is the strength of these and related processes which shed light on why selforganizing
polities act differently within the international arena than do undemocratic
ones. This explains why liberal democracies, alone of all forms of government, do not
war with one another, have mutually demilitarized borders, and tend to be more
cooperative within international organizations.23 Given these characteristics of the new
confederation, so long as they remained democratic, the fears of Hamilton and Jay that
the states would ultimately recapitulate the miseries of European warfare were probably
overblown. However, it takes time for a society to be transformed by self-organizing
processes. Old habits had to change. The first decades would have been the riskiest.
Certainly anti-federalist sentiment was strongest in the least developed portions of the
states. Even today political scientists have only just begun to appreciate the peaceful
characteristics of democratic polities, so it is hard to fault Hamilton and Jay for being
mistaken about something political scientists 200 years later have only just begun to
appreciate. When Hamilton wrote in Federalist 6 "Let experience, the least fallible guide
of human opinions, be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries" there was no
experience of an international system of self-organizing polities. Western Europe today
is perhaps our best example.
Despite even greater cultural, historical, religious, and linguistic differences than
were the case with the original thirteen American states, Western Europe has been
evolving towards ever greater integration economically and judicially. Her example
suggests the transformative power inherent within societies where self-organizing
characteristics have become dominant in overcoming barriers which once separated them.
(How wisely Western Europeans will react to the changes taking place in their
interrelationships is another question. The analysis here suggests that to the extent they
rely on self-organizing rather than hierarchic and organizational institutions to achieve
greater integration, their results will be better.)
That the Articles might in the long run have proven adequate to their task does not
mean that we were worse off adopting the Constitution. The central weakness of the new
nation - its incorporation of free and slave states - would have bedeviled the
Confederation as well, had it lasted. Indeed, in such a case the ultimate problems might
have been worse, for the Constitution allowed the slave trade to be abolished in 1808,
which it promptly was. Under the Articles it would likely have continued much longer.
The Constitution also solved the dangerous and divisive problem of overlapping
land claims by the various states, eased admission of new states, guaranteed their
23 Gus diZerega, "Democracy and Peace: The Self-Organizing Foundations of the Democratic
Peace" unpublished manuscript.
15 November 24, 1999
democratic republican character, and adopted a Bill of Rights - which even many member
states of the time did not have. The Constitution also provided a more sophisticated
framework for a self-organizing order because it institutionalized the truth that we are
members of more than a single political community, whereas most of the states adhered
to a unitary conception of political power.
Today as we read the debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, we are
struck by the seemingly prophetic utterances of the latter when they warned of the threat
of a large centralized state.24 But before becoming overly impressed with their
prescience, we should consider that it took over 140 years from the Constitution's
adoption to the beginning of the New Deal, for such a state to begin to take decisive
shape. The Anti-Federalists thought the problem was just around the corner. They were
wrong. When centralization did begin in earnest, for better and for worse, the large
national government enjoyed substantial and prolonged popular support, The evidence is
most easily seen in FDR's unbroken string of Presidential victories. It was not imposed
upon a largely unwilling country, as the Anti-Federalists imagined would happen.
Madison and Hamilton proved far more prescient than they.
Even if the Articles had been maintained we cannot be sure but that a similar
development might not have taken place in one of two ways. It is precisely because selforganizing
processes, economic and political alike, tend to enlarge and integrate the
community that even a nation formed on the Articles would likely have come in many
respects to resemble our own today. Including the possibility of a substantial welfare
Nothing could be more plain as a limitation on governmental power than the 9th
Amendment that "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be
construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."25 This is particularly the
case when read in conjunction with the Tenth Amendment: "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." Yet they did not prevent centralization and
consolidation. One hundred forty years of increasing close economic, cultural, and
political ties could easily have led to a similar outcome even with the Articles as a
We should also consider that even very small European democracies have
established extensive welfare states. Denmark, with just over 5 million citizens, and
Sweden, with nearly 8 and one half million, have proven quite capable of establishing
welfare states far more ambitious and inclusive than our own. It is wishful thinking to
argue that a United States with greater state autonomy would have avoided such an
outcome on that basis alone. Indeed, historian Joyce Appleby suggests that adopting the
24 See Herbert J. Storing (ed.) The Anti-Federalist, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1985) and Ralph Ketcham (ed.) The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional
Convention Debates, (NY: Mentor, 1986).
25See the collection of essays in Randy Barnett, (ed.), The Rights Retained by the People: The
History and Meaning of the Ninth Amendment, (Fairfax, Virginia: George Mason University
16 November 24, 1999
Constitution actually inhibited the rise of powerful welfare states at the state and national
Finally, even had the Constitution not been adopted, sooner or later the issue of how
to order an extended republic incorporating a complex and diverse community of
interests would still have needed to be addressed. The larger states would have faced this
problem as their population grew. In 1790 the entire population of the United States was
just under 4 million, smaller than Denmark, but slightly larger than Kentucky today. In
fact, the population of the United States in 1790 was approximately that of the San
Francisco Bay area in 1990. The issues the Founders addressed would have had to be
addressed, and we can reasonably doubt whether they would have been addressed better.
Indeed, the tendency of state constitutions to try and safeguard specific special interests
suggests that a new Constitution would be inferior to the present one.
In short, rehabilitation of many aspects of the original Articles of Confederation
need not undermine the case for the Constitution and the reasoning developed in its
defense at the time. On the other hand, the present day might be a more propitious time
for self-organizing frameworks established along the lines of the Articles because several
of the worst threats that could have torn the federation apart early in our history are now
all but absent. Today's democracies recognize one another's boundaries. Democracies
are now the strongest economic and military powers in the world. Finally, their societies
have now been fundamentally transformed by self-organizing processes, something only
in its incipient stages in the early American states. The longer a polity is ordered
primarily by self-organizing processes, the more fundamentally it diverges from those
which are not.
A democratic polity of any considerable size necessarily constitutes more than a
single political community. A political community may be defined in terms of the
principle political relationships among its members. Democratic political communities
are defined by equalitarian political relationships within a given territory. The size of the
territory can vary, however, and in so doing will render the community more or less able
to deal with various types of political issues.
Given that no single size is optimal for all legitimate political purposes, the
common good of a democracy will necessarily be a complex affair. Some specific
characteristics will apply to the polity as a whole, whereas others will apply to smaller
democratic units within it. The more complex and diverse the polity, the greater the
likelihood that federal principles will be necessary to serve the common good.
When thoroughly considered, a self-organizing model of democracy implies at least
a minimal federal principle. There are those matters most appropriately decided by the
people directly within small face - to - face communities, and those matters best
addressed by more inclusive bodies which are necessarily representative. This minimal
26 Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination, "The
American Heritage - The Heirs and the Disinherited" (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1992). p. 220.
17 November 24, 1999
model is perhaps best suited for very small independent polities, such as Iceland,
Liechtenstein, and Luxembourg - each of which has well under one million citizens.
Most liberal democracies far exceed these polities in population, diversity, and
complexity. The greater the population the more complicated the task of serving the
public interest. The more diverse the population, the greater the possible disagreements
about the values, and particularly the relative ordering of values, to be served by public
policy. Complexity refers to the division of knowledge within a society. Greater
complexity means greater diversity of knowledge and therefore the more complicated the
social field within which public proposals have to be enunciated, gather support, and
emerge to policy.
Countries with diverse populations will stand in greater need for federal structures
than will countries of similar size but more homogeneous populations. For example,
Switzerland and Denmark are both quite small. Switzerland has a little over 6,600,000
citizens and Denmark about 5,100,000. Their physical territories are also quite small.
Denmark, however, is ethnically quite homogeneous, while Switzerland is unusually
diverse, including German, French, Italian, and a small Romansch speaking population.
Although each is a political community with a genuine public good, the public good of
the Swiss is more complicated than that of the Danes. At a minimum it must seek to
respect and harmonize the different Swiss linguistic groups, a problem the Danes do not
It is unlikely that Switzerland could successfully exist without its federal system
allowing for substantial cantonal autonomy. The German speaking Swiss make up by far
the largest portion of the population. They would dominate any unitary Swiss state.
Further, the French and Italian speaking cantons border on France and Italy, respectively.
Were Switzerland a unitary state, this situation would be very likely to be unstable since
whenever the French and Italian speaking portions of the country felt aggrieved, they
would be tempted to switch allegiance to countries where their language was dominant.27
These first two reasons for federalism are easily grasped. The third is more
abstract. Complexity and the division of knowledge are important, but hard to grasp.
The Middle Ages is often considered a time of enormous complexity, as social and
political units were quite small and dialects and ethnic identity varied dramatically over
small distances,. But these elements are not central to what I mean by the social division
of knowledge. In other respects, compared to the present day, the Middle Ages were
quite homogeneous. Overwhelmingly, the dominant religion was Catholicism. The
small number of educated people not only spoke the same language, Latin, they also had
read pretty much the same material. At the local level economies were quite simple, and
variation in technical knowledge from person to person was far less than it is today. In
such a society the ideal of a "Renaissance Man" could be not only appealing, it could be
27 Leopold Kohr has important insights as to why the Swiss federation has worked so well
while many other federations broke down or were taken over by a dominant member. See his
The Breakdown of Nations, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957).
18 November 24, 1999
Today the portion of knowledge a person has, compared to that needed to sustain
the contemporary world, is infinitesimal. Complex interconnected economies generate
problems as fast as they solve them. Many of these problems are relatively unique to
modern times. What constitutes adequate solutions for them is often highly contested and
proof for what does or does not work is hard to come by. Yet, as we have seen, a viable
public policy must tend to use that information necessary most successfully to address
these shifting and uncertain issues.
A comparison with the market and science will be useful. Both market and
scientific orders could function if relevant actors were all large organizations, and there
were only a few in each area of production or interest. But internal organizational
politics favors the status quo and existing leadership. Such market and scientific orders
would be relatively slow to adjust to changes from outside the order and would tend to
repress changes from inside the system. It would "self-organize" slowly and hesitantly.
As the number of active participants increases, there will be an expanding opportunity for
someone to take advantage of new insights and promote new avenues of production or
research. The order will become more quick to adapt and more creative in its activity.
Today both science and the market tend to have hundreds of thousands and millions
of independent participants, linked together by the self-organizing process within which
they act. In democratic politics the norm is quite different, with many participants forced
to act within the orbit of only a relatively few large institutions. To the extent that
federalism exists, more avenues for creative action are opened up, and the process can
make more effective use of the dispersed and complex knowledge of its citizens.
In short, federalism increases the opportunities for successful political
entrepreneurship.28 Entrepreneurial action is the source for all coordination and much
change within self-organizing systems. Entrepreneurs take advantage of opportunities
they see to act within the system, by its rules, to gain their ends. In doing so they will
continually adjust the circumstances around them to take advantage of changes they
perceive or anticipate. And in so doing, they will change the conditions existing for other
people, creating new entrepreneurial opportunities for others.29 This is why selforganizing
systems do not settle down towards perfect coordination of knowledge and
Usually the ends entrepreneurs pursue will include amassing more systemically
defined resources. In the market economy money is the primary systemic resource, for
the more of it one has, the more avenues of participation are opened up. In science
reputation and renown count for more than money. Those scientists most recognized as
28 Robert Dahl, Who Governs? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), p.227.
29 This model has been most completely worked out in economic theory. See F. A. Hayek,
"Coping With Ignorance," Imprimis, 7, no. 7, 1980 , p. 4; Ludwig Lachmann, The Market as
an Economic Process, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986) p. 124; Jack High, "Equilibrium and
Disequilibrium in the Market Process," Subjectivism, Intelligibility, and Economic
Understanding, ed. Israel Kirzner, (New York: New York University Press, 1986) pp. 113-
119; Ulrich Fehl, "Order and the Subjectivity of Expectations: A Contribution to the
Lachmann-O'Driscoll Problem" also in Kirzner, ed., 1986, pp. 72-86.
19 November 24, 1999
creative contributors to their field will have the most influence in their field. Political
entrepreneurs will also generally seek to amass political influence and reputation.
With regard to the issue of federalism, political entrepreneurship has two
dimensions. First, a multiplicity of governments addressing similar problems at a similar
scale enlarges the likelihood for successful innovation and discovery, even within
relatively homogeneous societies. In the U.S. many innovations at the state level have
later been adopted at the national level. In addition, often public programs and policies
are such that it is difficult to determine whether they are failures or whether the issues
they address are simply very intractable. Unlike scientific theories or market ventures,
winnowing out failures and determining how to improve existing programs is relatively
difficult. Perhaps more than with these other self-organizing orders, the powerful
interests that develop in favor of any particular status quo can use these ambiguities to
maintain their position. Multiple points for innovation increase the likelihood that
improvements will be discovered and failures abandoned. This observation applies at
every level of the political community, from that of face to face democracy to state and
provincial politics, and even to that of nation states.30
Secondly, it may not always be clear at what level or scale of inclusiveness a given
problem might be most effectively addressed. Therefore, relative freedom of action
within each political community is desirable. There has been a historical tendency for
higher levels of authority gradually to diminish that of lower levels, usually well beyond
the point that the requirements of efficiency demand. For example, while small European
nations such as Denmark have proven capable of initiating and maintaining a wide
variety of social measures, much larger American states are largely prohibited from
exercising much innovation or initiative in these areas. Similarly, many urban programs
cease benefiting from economies of scale once they serve a population equivalent to a
small town. Nevertheless, they are administered in standardized forms over large
populations by centralized bureaucracies.
Issues tailor made to particular political boundaries do not usually arise.
Jurisdiction is intrinsically uncertain. But a general principle that would seem reasonable
is that the smallest unit able to afford addressing a problem within its borders should have
wide leeway in addressing it. More inclusive units can deal with neighborhood effects,
but not in ways which seriously constrain the choices at more local levels.
From these considerations it follows that the more diverse the polity's constituent
units, the more limited the prescriptive power of more inclusive units should be.
However, their regulatory and enabling powers do not necessarily encounter such limits.
A prescriptive power is the power to require particular actions regardless of their
outcomes in particular cases. A regulatory power, by contrast, sets general goals and
standards, but does not specify the specific means for attaining these goals and standards.
An enabling power either redistributes resources, enabling a person or community to act
effectively when it otherwise could not, or eliminates existing legal restrictions on others'
actions in order to achieve the same purpose.
30 See Martin Landau, "Redundancy, Rationality, and the Problem of Duplication and
Overlap," Public Administration Review, July/August, 1969, pp. 346-358.
20 November 24, 1999
For example, if assistance to poor children were considered a desirable national
goal - as hopefully it would be - the national or state authority could require that every
local authority develop a plan for minimal medical, educational, and other care, with the
goal of turning them ultimately into productive and self-supporting members of society.
Cities and counties could have primary responsibility for designing and implementing the
programs. To avoid the problem of proliferating unfunded mandates, any level of
government requiring another to meet standards would provide enabling funding equal to
the "low bid" required to accomplish that goal.
But this argument hides a problem. "General standards and enabling" can be
defined so broadly as to include prescriptive legislation, defeating the argument's intent.
John Stuart Mill encountered the same problem when he tried to argue that liberty should
be inviolate when an act influences only the person acting. In fact, everything we do
impinges in some way upon another. Crashing while riding a motorcycle without a
helmet could cause extreme suffering for family and friends and, to the degree the rider
was a breadwinner, economic suffering for a family and additional demands upon the
social services needed to support them. The conceptual world of politics provides no
protection against the wiles of lawyers and ambitious politicians.
The principle suggested here can provide guidance only when legislation is
considered as existing on a continuum extending from regulating general standards and
enabling acts to prescriptive measures prescribing what to do and how funds are to be
spent. National legislation should usually fall clearly on the general standards and
enabling end of the continuum.
To state this point differently, the more inclusive the political body, the more
abstract its law-making should be - particularly when it limits the freedom of action of
lower level communities. Abstract principles are general principles and, as such, allow
for a variety of particular applications.
Even so, as the Founders argued, paper principles, no matter how clearly enunciated
(and this one cannot be clearly enunciated) cannot stand long against power unless it is in
someone's personal interest to defend them. American states have consistently lost power
and authority to Washington because Americans have come to identify themselves more
as Americans than as residents of the particular state in which they happen to live.
Further, in many instances states lost power because of their abuse of it, as with the case
of racist legislation by Southern states, and others, which ultimately was overturned by
However convincing the theoretical rationale for federalism, if people identify
primarily with their national government, over time, in a democratic system, that
government will acquire ever more power at the expense of lower units of government.
Those who still speak of empowering the states vis-ˆ-vis Washington evidence mostly
their political and intellectual irrelevance. Hardly anyone will fight for their state against
the nation, and so the states will never regain much authority that they have lost.
21 November 24, 1999
This does not mean that federalism is simply a good theory of democracy for beings
other than human ones. It does mean that federalism needs to be freed from over
dependence on any particular institutional form it has taken.
The most fundamental form of democratic self-governance is the democratic town
meeting. They can only take place effectively within quite small communities. A
Swedish study suggests that the maximum size for such a community is around 2500 for,
beyond that size, citizens increasingly do not know who their town leaders are.31 This
number is not much different from Aristotle's recommendation of the ideal size for a
Greek polis.32 When a polity exceeds this size, the representative principle becomes
increasingly important for maintaining effective government.
When visiting America, Alexis de Tocqueville was particularly impressed with the
vitality and importance of town meeting government in New England. He considered it
an invaluable school in politics and inculcator of civic spirit. The New England
township, he wrote
possesses two advantages which infallibly secure the attentive interest of
mankind, namely, independence and authority. Its sphere is indeed small and
limited, but within that sphere its action is unrestrained; and its existence gives
it a real importance, which its extent and population may not always ensure.
. . . without power and independence, a town may contain good subjects, but it
can have no active citizens.33
Tocqueville also perceived the deeper order underlying the confusing profusion of
political bodies and projects in New England. "The appearance of disorder which
prevails on the surface leads [the visitor] at first to imagine that society is in a state of
anarchy; nor does he perceive his mistake till he has gone deeper into the subject."34
Tocqueville believed that the foundation of a viable democratic civilization was
self-government at the township level. In this he echoed an earlier judgment of Thomas
Jefferson. Jefferson had been deeply impressed with the energy and strength of New
England's tradition of town meeting democracy. Even though these small towns had
complicated his own life while President, for they strongly opposed his policies towards
England, Jefferson wanted to extend them from New England to embrace the country as a
whole. He termed this fundamental unit of democracy a "ward republic." In Jefferson's
words, "These wards, called townships in New England, are the vital principle of their
governments, and have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of
man for the perfect exercise of self-government, and for its preservation."35
31 Robert A. Dahl and Edward R. Tufte, Size and Democracy, (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1973), pp. 62-65.
32 Aristotle, Politics, III, iii, 5.
33 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. I., (New York: Schocken Books, 1961),
34 Ibid., p. 90.
35 Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816.
22 November 24, 1999
Jefferson's ideal for the nation was a federal system which began at the township or
small town level, where politics was face - to - face, and extended upwards to the county,
state, and national levels. Each unit was to be responsible for those duties most
appropriate to it. Wards were to provide their own elementary school, a company of
militia with an elected officer, a justice of the peace and constable, take care of their
poor, construct their own roads, provide their own police, elect one or more jurors to
serve in the courts, and provide a means by which people could assemble and make their
Jefferson believed that simple voting was not enough to preserve a viable
democratic order for the long run. Personal involvement was needed not just on election
day, and not just during times of great abuse of power by corrupt representatives, but
Where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward - republic, or of some of
the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not
merely at an election one day in the year, but every day; when there shall not be a
man in the State who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or
small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be
wrenched from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.36
Jefferson saw the principle of direct democracy as an important element within a
representative one. He acknowledged that representation must "be substituted where
personal action becomes impractical. Yet even over these representative organs, should
they become corrupt and perverted, the division into wards, constituting the people . . . a
regularly organized power, enables them by that organization to crush, regularly and
peaceably, the usurpations of their unfaithful agents. . . ." Ward democracies are
necessary since, "No other depositories of power have ever yet been found which did not
end in converting to their own profit the earnings of those committed to their charge."37
To the end of his life, Jefferson lobbied for this extension of federal principles. For
example, in 1816 he wrote Samuel Kercheval, discussing recommended changes in the
Virginia Constitution, that "The article nearest my heart is the division of the counties
into wards. These will be pure and elementary republics, the sum of which taken
together composes the State, and will make the whole a true democracy as to the business
of the wards, which is that of nearest and daily concern."38
Modern times have seemingly moved ever farther away from Jefferson and
Tocqueville's insights. Partially this was because most towns which once had direct
democratic meetings grew too large for these traditions to be maintained. It was also
because people became convinced that cities should ideally be controlled by
36 Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, February 2, 1816.
37 Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, September 5, 1816.
38 Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, Sept. 5, 1816. On ward republics, see also his
letters to John Taylor, May 26, 1810; John Adams, October 28, 1813; Joseph C. Cabell,
January 14, 1818; and John Cartwright, June 5, 1824.
23 November 24, 1999
professionals and the alleged objectivity they bring to their jobs. Democracy at the local
level was eaten away by the technocratic ideal.
Contemporary urban problems of crime, and a decline in the quality of urban life
generally, combined with ever more restrictive financial pressures, are now suggesting
that this professionalized ideal has reached, or exceeded, the limits of its competence.
Cities are not instrumental organizations. They cannot be managed like a corporation, for
they do not exist to do the kinds of things corporations do.
Further, a great many economies of scale cease applying within large urban units.
Citizens generally report that smaller units of government are more responsive to their
needs than are larger ones. Costs are often less. It is easier for volunteer groups to
contribute to the quality of urban life when politics takes place on a small scale.39
Today there is fascinating evidence for the growth of increasingly federal features
at the neighborhood level in many American cities. This is particularly the case in
Dayton, Ohio, St. Paul, Minnesota, Birmingham, Alabama, and Portland, Oregon.
Dayton's 7 priority boards and 74 neighborhoods set the annual agendas for the city to
work on, ensure that the city responds, and work at revitalizing run down areas,
community development, and responsive services. In St. Paul, neighborhood
representatives make all initial funding recommendations on all city capital projects.
Each individual neighborhood is a potent source of political action in its own right.
Birmingham's 95 different neighborhoods decide how to allocate funds for improving
housing, sewer, street, and utility services. In Portland, 87 neighborhoods with
independent administrations influence land use planning, crime prevention, fire
protection, and transportation and environmental policies. In all these cases, and a
growing number of others, the entire city is divided into recognized neighborhoods where
citizens enter into political action on a face - to - face basis. Neighborhood newspapers,
block meetings, and similar activities serve to draw on all who are interested in
participating. In Portland the city funds neighborhood administrative expenses, but
hiring and firing of staff is in the hands of the neighborhoods themselves. Finally,
neighborhoods have often become major initiators of policy. In St. Paul 70 to 80% of the
projects funded each year are initiated by the neighborhoods.40
These changes are not occurring because of a sudden ground swell of Jeffersonian
values. They are responses to the growing complexities and expenses of modern
municipal government. But studies of neighborhood participation in Dayton, St. Paul,
Birmingham, and Portland suggest that Jefferson and Tocqueville's insights were
profoundly accurate. When citizens are empowered by exercising control over their local
affairs, their sense of their relationships within their community changes. The Tufts
study concludes that "public opinion polls that are a part of our project have shown a
strong relationship between participation in these efforts and development of a sense of
community and tolerance for a range of political ideas. [With] average citizens gaining
39 See The Organization of Local Public Economies, (Washington, D.C.: Advisory
Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, December, 1987), Publication A-109.
40 Two interesting reports are Rob Gurwitt, "A Government that Runs on Citizen Power,"
Governing, December, 1992, pp. 48-54; ands White Paper: New Directions for Community
Empowerment, (Medford, Massachusetts: Lincoln Filene Center, Tufts University), p. 6.
24 November 24, 1999
an understanding of the problems that need to be addressed and coming up with ways to
address them. The relationship between citizens and government is altered."41
A final example is indicative of what can be done in small communities of
empowered citizens. San Juan Bautista is a small town of 1650 in central California. In
September, 1992, the city was forced to lay off its entire municipal staff. Its government
was $150,000 in debt, was spending between $15,000 and $20,000 more per month than
it was bringing in, and couldn't meet its next payroll. Two months later its debt had
fallen to $50,000 and public life was doing quite well. Many town jobs, including
cleaning storm drains, reading water meters, shelving library books, answering the phone
at city hall, and filling potholes in the roads were being handled by retirees, the
unemployed, and volunteers. San Juan Bautista's small size appears critical in enabling
such an outpouring of local initiative.42 San Juan Bautista is about the size of an urban
neighborhood, well within the 2500 number which appears the ideal limit for everyone
having a sense of participation within their community.
The Future of Federalism
Most commentaries on American federalism argue that its long-term prognosis
looks poor. Some celebrate this diagnosis, others are concerned with the fate of
constitutional government within a unitary state the size of our own.43 Certainly many
contemporary political trends seek to make the states errand boys for the central
government and the cities and counties into errand boys for the states. Even mayors who
delight in praising the virtues of localism and citizen involvement draw the line as soon
as anyone suggests that neighborhoods be formally incorporated into an urban federal
system.44 Virtually every politician's definition of political competence emphasizes their
own level of power and denies it to any which are lower. These trends are real and
worthy of concern, for they make the political system less responsive, less able to deal
creatively with the challenges which confront it, and generate ever stronger interests
opposed to adaptation. However, this description may be one sided.
Powerful countervailing forces are at work, and they are fundamentally outside the
power of bureaucrats and politicians. American cities and towns are subordinate to state
governments. They enjoy no protection under the Constitution. But, even without
constitutional protection, once states had reached a certain level of complexity, and
political abuses attained a certain level of indefensibility, reform movements arose which
instilled federal elements into many state constitutions. Progressive reforms freed many
cities from domination by the state legislature, and gave them home rule.45 Nor is this
41 White Paper, op. cit., p. 6.
42 John Flinn, "Town Cashes in on Self-Reliance," San Francisco Examiner, December 13,
1992, pp. B-1, B-5.
43 Ostrom, "Garcia, The Eclipse of Federalism and the Central Government Trap," Meaning
of American Federalism, op. cit., pp. 99-132.
44 As I heard passionately expressed by a mayor just as passionately devoted to greater
municipal autonomy at a symposium on growth management at Simon Fraser University in
45 Vincent Ostrom, Robert Bish, Elinor Ostrom, Local Government in the United States, (San
Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1988), pp. 27-35.
25 November 24, 1999
British Columbia is constitutionally a unitary polity. Even so, it has successfully
experimented with a proto-federalist innovation where regional districts were formed,
composed of the municipalities within their borders. Twenty nine were created, ranging
from the Greater Vancouver Regional District to districts encompassing small towns and
wilderness. Rather than centrally dictating what these districts would do, they were
established primarily as enabling frameworks to facilitate independent initiatives by local
units. Today, over 1500 different service combinations have been created within this
British Columbia is not a true federalist system. This arrangement could be
overturned tomorrow by a new provincial government. But it carries the seeds of a
federalist framework, and if the experience of many American States is any guide, British
Columbia may develop genuine federal features as the complexity of its society continues
But these developments may be only the tiniest harbingers of things to come.
Political scientists are generally infatuated with the nation state. Countless books and
articles are written about state building and the like, but in fact, we may be nearing the
end of the nation state's usefulness as the primary political entity within the world. And
not because we need a world government, either.
The primary purposes of having a powerful nation state has been military. But as
the world becomes more democratic, the importance of large size begins to diminish.
Today there is no serious military threat to the democratic world. This has never before
been the case. China could in the future become a threat, but it is at least as likely that as
she modernizes she will go the way of South Korea, and begin becoming democratic
In addition, particularly in Europe and Japan, the nation state has had a tribal
identity. But this identity is eroding in Europe and may well do so in Japan as well. The
result in the short term is enormous stresses on the self-identities of Great Britain, France,
Germany, Sweden, and other countries. In the long run it will likely lead to a watering
down of the remnants of tribalism, further weakening the importance of the nation state.
The role of cultural and economic concerns becomes stronger in people's lives, and
these are not primarily the product of nation states. They are the product of cities. Hong
Kong and Singapore attest to the economic viability of cities, even when not connected
by sovereignty with a surrounding territory.
Liberal democracy is the form politics takes as it makes an epochal transition from
the hierarchical undemocratic state to self-organizing political processes. But in many
respects, it is not an ideal institutional framework for political self-organization. It is too
centralized, its political units too cumbersome and too vulnerable to exploitation by
higher levels of political power.
States as small as Denmark have proven capable of competently and abundantly
providing the full range of domestic activities we associate with national sovereignty.
26 November 24, 1999
Denmark has fewer people than the San Francisco Bay Area, or Chicago. There seems to
be no economics of scale in providing social services once we get to the size of a large
city. Jane Jacobs argues persuasively that cities, not countries, are the basic economic
entity in human society. Jacobs writes that "in the workings of a city's economy it makes
no inherent difference which of its imports or how many originate within its own country
and which in others, and the same is true of the destination of its exports."46
We have seen that the basic unit of democratic government is the small selfgoverning
town or neighborhood. Larger units are based upon it. We have seen further,
that the logic of modern circumstances appears to favor greater neighborhood autonomy
within the city. The same logic holds for greater city autonomy within the nation. The
natural political unit is the city, not the nation.
Even today some cities are beginning to see that their economic future does not
necessarily lie with the nation within which it happens to reside. In the Pacific Northwest
"Cascadia" is the term applied to the economic powerhouse of Portland, Seattle, and
Vancouver. In many respects the U.S. Canadian border is more nuisance than help.
Nor is this an isolated development. In Europe four major cities are becoming
centers for regional economic networks with little relation to national boundaries:
Barcelona, Lyon, Milan, and Stuttgart. It is quite possible, and probably highly desirable,
for today's cumbersome nation states to slowly dissolve into networks of cities with their
connected regions. Federalism will then apply mostly to urban/neighborhood relations,
and relations between cities will increasingly become purely contractual rather than
hierarchical. At this point the self-organizing potentialities of a democratic society will
have been largely attained. Many independent participants will maximize both learning
and creativity in addressing problems. Politics will be concentrated on human scale
activities. And elites will be bound by economic and political realities to be responsive
and open to a degree which today can only be imagined. Perhaps we can look forward to
a time when the President of the United States will be as well-known, and as important, a
world figure as the President of Switzerland is today.
46 Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, (New York: Random House, 1984), p. 43.
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