“The attitude of the well-to-do classes toward local self-government was profoundly influenced by the extension of the suffrage…the removal of property qualifications tended to divest the old ruling class of its control in local affairs. Thereafter, property owners regarded with distrust local government, in which they were outnumbered by the newly enfranchised voters. The fact that they may have believed in a large measure of local self-government when there were suitable restrictions on the right to vote and to hold public office, did not prevent them from advocating an increase in state control after the adoption of manhood suffrage.”

From: The Growth and Decadence of Constitutional Government, by J. Allen Smith, 1930

Chapter IX – Centralization and Popular Control

The growth of centralized control in the United States has been rapid, especially since the Civil War. In less than a century and a half, a group of loosely organized communities have been welded into what is essentially a national state. This has been brought about largely through federal control of the constitution-interpreting power. …the early struggle between the advocates and opponents of centralization was over the right of the federal Supreme Court to act as the final interpreter of the Constitution of the United States. The acquisition of this power by the federal judiciary made the general government supreme. Thenceforth, it determined its own authority and that of the states as well. A foundation was thus laid for the assumption of powers by the federal government which might in time strip the local subdivisions of all authority and make the general government national in all but name. This process of centralization was retarded in the first half of the nineteenth century by the states’ rights sentiment; but since the Civil War there has been a marked acceleration in the growth of federal authority.

There are two ways in which the courts have contributed toward the centralization of political power in the hands of the general government. Both depend upon the right of the Supreme Court to act as the final interpreter of the federal Constitution. By the simple process of interpretation the Court has read into the Constitution a larger grant of power to the general government than was originally intended or previously recognized as properly belonging to it. In this way, there has come about a vast accession of federal authority. The other way in which the judiciary has aided in the growth of federal power at the expense of the state has been indirect and no doubt often unintended. The Constitution denies to the states certain powers, as in the provision concerning laws “impairing the obligation of contracts” and in the Fourteenth Amendment. Through the interpretation which the judicial branch of the federal government has placed upon these provision, the power of the states as regulative and protective agencies has been seriously impaired. Moreover, by depriving the state governments of the power to enact much urgently needed legislation, the Court has compelled the people to look to the general government for relief. The immediate purpose of this limitation of state authority by judicial construction was probably in most instances to prevent the contemplated regulation; but the final result of this restriction on the powers of the states has been a compensating increase in the regulative authority of the federal government. The people, thwarted in their effort to secure adequate state regulation, have turned to the general government for protection, since its powers are not abridged by the Fourteenth Amendment or the constitutional provision concerning laws “impairing the obligation of contract.”

There is another aspect of the movement toward centralization, which has to do with the relation between state and local government. Just as the general government has in recent decades been rapidly extending its powers at the expense of the states, so have the various states themselves been taking more and more power away from the purely local governmental units.

Generally speaking, conservatives favor a centralized form of government while those who believe in popular control wish to keep political power largely in the hands of local authorities. This was true even at the beginning of our history under the Constitution. It was perfectly logical for Jefferson with his democratic viewpoint to desire a weak general, and strong local, government, as it was for Hamilton with his pronounced aristocratic bias to be the apostle of centralization.

The liberal political philosophy of the eighteenth century was fundamentally opposed to centralized control. The very essence of the philosophy—the doctrine of individual liberty—could be reconciled only with a decentralized form of government. The belief in self-determination for the individual was based on the assumption that he was better able to judge concerning his own interests and needs than was any external authority. The theory of individual liberty recognized that in any properly organized society self-determination was subject to certain limitations and restraints imposed in the interest of the general welfare. But in the choice of governmental agencies to protect the public against the abuse of individual liberty, the principle of self-determination required that political power should never be removed farther from those affected by its exercise than the extent of the interests involved made necessary. According to this principle, local government should have as much power and the central government as little as might be consistent with the safeguarding of the general public interests. Collective determination by governmental agencies would then be so exercised that the individual would have the largest possible influence in the imposition of necessary restraints on his liberty. To centralize political power would endanger individual liberty by placing all authority in those governmental organs farthest removed from effective control.

The opponents of popular control were not always in favor of centralized government. Intelligent conservatives at the close of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth could, and many did, consistently believe in a large measure of decentralization. In fact, the main reason for conservative advocacy of centralization at the present time did not apply under the conditions which then existed. Local government was not then in the hands of the popular majority. The suffrage and officeholding qualifications of that time were a sufficient guaranty of the predominance of the property holding class in local affairs. And, inasmuch as the popular majority was effectively subordinated in local government, a centralized governmental organization was not necessary for the protection of property rights. Moreover, during the first half of the nineteenth century, the existence of slavery in the South made that section of the country pronounced in its support of state as opposed to central authority. The emphasis on state rights throughout the South during the pre-Civil War period was due, however, less to a belief in the theory of decentralized government than to the fear that federal authority might not be sufficiently representative of the slaveholding interests.

In the growth of governmental systems, the distribution of powers between central and local authorities is more likely to be determined by expediency than by the desire for logical consistency. Practice may be, and of course often is, determined by theory, but when the interests of the dominant class cannot be reconciled with generally accepted doctrines, theory is certain to yield to practical considerations.

The early liberal view which associated individual liberty and adequate popular restraint on political power with the decentralized type of political organization is no longer predominant. More and more, the people are coming to accept the point of view implied in centralization of political authority. A number of influences have combined to bring about this change of attitude, chief among which has been the desire of the more conservative classes to safeguard the country in so far as possible against the supposed dangers of democracy, by removing political affairs as far as possible from the danger of popular control.

The attitude of the well-to-do classes toward local self-government was profoundly influenced by the extension of the suffrage…the removal of property qualifications tended to divest the old ruling class of its control in local affairs. Thereafter, property owners regarded with distrust local government, in which they were outnumbered by the newly enfranchised voters. The fact that they may have believed in a large measure of local self-government when there were suitable restrictions on the right to vote and to hold public office, did not prevent them from advocating an increase in state control after the adoption of manhood suffrage.

American legalistic theory has from the beginning of our history as a nation reflected the view that the state legislature is the source of all legislative powers both state and local, and that all local powers are conferred by the legislature and may be withdrawn at will. Local government, according to this conception, is a creature of the state government and, except for such rights as a granted by the state constitution, owes its existence and its powers to the state legislature. This view of the powers of the state legislature was, of course, merely an application of the state government of the English theory of parliamentary supremacy. After the extension of the suffrage the influence of this theory on local government was supplemented by judicial fear of the consequences of local democracy. Not only was all legislative power centralized in the state government, but the effort to decentralize it by constitutional amendment was largely nullified by hostile judicial interpretation. Our state courts have, in fact, persistently opposed local autonomy. Even the so-called home rule provisions included in some or our state constitutions to ensure municipal self-government have been largely ineffective, owing to the judicial construction placed upon them.

The refusal of the courts to recognize local self-government as a right has compelled dependence upon, and developed a habit of looking to, the state government for the exercise of many powers that ought to be under strictly local control. That we should distinguish more clearly than we have in the past between matters of general and matters of purely local concern is obvious to anyone who has given much attention to the question of political organization. The rapid increase in governmental functions during recent decades, the constantly growing volume of public business, and the consequent inability of the state government to deal in a satisfactory manner with the great number and variety of interests, general and local, for which it is responsible under any scheme of centralized control, make it necessary to relieve the state government of such functions as a purely local in character. It is clearly in the interest of economy and efficiency to leave the decision of all questions of local policy to the community directly concerned, subject, of course, as every exercise of local authority always is and of necessity must be, to such general supervision as may be needed to ensure adequate protection of the larger general interests.

If local self-government is to have any real existence in the country, we must find some way of securing, at the hands of legislatures and courts, recognition of the fact that cities are local communities with distinctly local interests, and that, as such, they are making only a reasonable demand when they ask that they be allowed to control their local affairs in their own way. Just where the line should be drawn separating local affairs from those subject to state regulation is a question about which there is at present much difference of opinion. But although it may be difficult to determine in some cases whether state or local control is the proper policy, there are some important functions so clearly local in character that he propriety of leaving them in the hands of local authorities is obvious. In matters of this sort, the policy to be pursued should be determined by the city or community concerned, the state having only such supervisory power on appeal from local determination as may be necessary for the protection of public and private rights.

The status of local government in the United States, though largely due to legal theory as it has been developed and applied by the courts, may be regarded as in some measure the consequence of purely historical facts. In continental Europe many cities had an independent existence before the states of which they are now a part were formed. In the process of political evolution, consequently, the extension of central control over cities has not entirely obscured the fact that the city was an original political corporation, and as such possessed and exercised powers and functions suited to its needs. The tendency is to regard it as having, by virtue of its existence as a municipal corporation, and independently of any grant of powers by the central or state government, such authority as may be needed for the exercise of municipal functions. The question is not so much what powers have been denied to it by the central authority. In America, on the other hand, the state as a political corporation antedates the city. It is in some measure due to this fact that the city is regarded by the courts as legally the creature of the state legislature which has granted it incorporation; that it has no clearly defined sphere of activity in which the state government may not intrude; that such powers as it may be permitted to exercise are delegated by the state government; and that, in exercising these, it is in legal theory acting, not as a local political corporation with original powers of self-government, but as a mere agent of the state government.

In America the state is the only local unit having original powers of self-government. Nevertheless, the state is a purely arbitrary division, while the city, on the other hand, is a natural and organic unit with interests peculiarly its own. For this reason, self-government is a question of supreme importance to cities—more important for the adequate protection of their interests than is self-government for the state.

No state government is competent to determine questions of local policy. This is particularly true where the state legislature is so apportioned as to overrepresent rural at the expense of urban communities. As our state governments are now organized, it is not infrequently the case that cities have very inadequate representation in the state legislature and are, therefore, at a great disadvantage as compared with the rural sections of the state. [in the 21st century, the balance has reversed, so that urban centers effectively set policy for rural communities. Keep this in mind while reading further on this point – Ben] This disproportionately small representation of urban population has not only facilitated the assumption of local functions by the state government, by depriving urban communities of the power to offer effective resistance to this extension of state authority, but it has also made the state legislature less competent to deal with local affairs. But a legislature even when properly apportioned is not, and can not be, representative of the various local interests of the state. It has a representative character in the true and democratic sense of that term only in so far as it deals with matters which concern the state as a whole. In all legislation relating to municipal affairs, rural members are politically responsible to no one. What interest, for example, do the people of a purely agricultural community have in legislation relating to municipal utilities? The people of such a community have no problem of this kind, it is not a matter which concerns them, and the part which their representative may take in the enactment of measures of this sort may not attract even so much as a passing notice. With respect to such legislation he can vote and as he pleases without the risk of incurring the criticism or displeasure of his constituents.

Centralization of power has not only made government irresponsible in so far as implied powers are exercised, but it tends to make popular control ineffective even in the exercise of functions which democratic theory clearly assigns. The development of present day social and economic life has so greatly increased the demand for governmental regulation that even under a decentralized form of political organization, the volume of business entrusted to governmental agencies is too large and too complex for the public to follow intelligently. To load a government down with a multitude of functions which it is not fitted to perform, tends to further confusion and renders it a less efficient instrument for the exercise of those functions which necessarily concern it.

The extension of the suffrage was followed, as we have seen, by a marked increase of state interference in local affairs. The underlying cause of this movement to centralize authority in the state government was the fear of municipal democracy. But the extension of the suffrage, so much dreaded by conservatives, did not after all make municipal government responsible in any effective way to the majority of the voters. Organized in many instances on the check and balance plan, like our state and federal governments, municipal government was a very unsatisfactory instrument of democracy. In response, however, to a popular demand for reform in the forst and second decades of the twentieth century, cities were being reorganized in accordance with democratic principles. It is an interesting coincidence that just at this time a fresh impetus should have been given to the movement toward state control of local affairs. It was urged that local control of such matters as public utilities was inadequate and unsatisfactory. But the fact that this objection was not raised until after the movement to democratize local government had begun probably indicates to some extent, at least, both its true source and real purpose. Though ostensibly designed to give cities more effective protection against public utility abuses, it did not originate in any popular demand from urban communities. The initiative in this matter, however cleverly it may have assumed the guise of a popular movement, came largely from the interests which were opposed to effective regulation by either state or local authorities.

Satisfactory regulation is not, as seems to be implied in much of the discussion favoring the substitution of state for local control, merely a question of placing this function in the hands of that governmental agency which has most power and prestige behind it. The power to exercise a particular function is of little consequence, unless there is an adequate guaranty that such power will be exercised in the interest of the local public for whose protection it is designed. It may be regarded as a well established principle of political science that to ensure a satisfactory and efficient exercise of a given power, it should be lodged in some governmental agency directly responsible to the constituency affected. Here we find the weak point in the policy of centralizing control in the state government. A state agency, theoretically responsible to the entire state, may be safely entrusted with powers which concern the state as a whole; but when a state government assumes powers that are essentially local, it is not responsible in the sense that it is when it exercises powers in which the state as a whole is directly and vitally interested. The community or communities affected by its exercise of local authority lack the power to control it. It is for this reason that the extension of state control over local affairs fails to meet the requirements of democracy.

The assumption of local powers by the state government has greatly increased the opportunity for corruption in American politics. Advocates of centralization, however, have entirely ignored this aspect of the question. As a matter of fact, they have even defended the extension of state control over local affairs on the ground that it tends to remove the main sources of corruption in municipal politics. This argument was advanced in support of the recent public service commission movement by which cities have throughout the United States been largely deprived of the power to regulate local utilities. The contention that such a transfer of power would eliminate certain sources of corruption in local politics may be admitted, without conceding that it would be beneficial either to the local public or to the state at large. It is obvious that interests seeking privileges at the expense of the people would not be tempted to corrupt a local government which had power to grant them. Instead of doing away with corruption, however, it would merely transfer that corruption to a larger political arena. And when a state government as such assumes and exercises purely local functions, it is much more liable to corruption than is a local government directly responsible to the local public. This is, no doubt, one important reason why public utility interests favor state control.

Democracy, in any true sense of the term, is possible only when there is the largest practicable measure of local self-government. This is evident from the fact that the problem of establishing and maintaining government responsible to the people is least difficult in the small local subdivisions. The difficulties in the way of effective popular control increase with the size of the governmental unit. Not only is the citizen’s vote more effective in a local that in a state or national election, but the officials are more directly under his influence. Nor is his influence in the case of local government confined to election day. The town or city hall is near at hand and local officials may be easily reached by such as wish to voice approval or disapproval of official conduct. By reason of this proximity of the officials to the public they represent, local government is more likely to be influenced by the opinion of all important classes in the population, the poor as well as the rich, than is either state or federal government. The poor are, of course, always at a disadvantage as compared with the rich in making their influence felt, even in the case of local government. But the farther those entrusted with political power are removed from the people they are supposed to represent, the more likely they are to fall under the influence of organized wealth. So-called representative government is most considerate of those interests which keep constantly in touch with it through an effective organization. The large business interests have long recognized the fact that their profits are directly affected by governmental policies, and have consequently used the power of such organization to obtain desired legislation or to defeat measures to which they are opposed.

The farmers of the country, though representing more votes and more wealth employed in production than all other capital owning groups combined [no longer – Ben], have failed to exercise their due share of political influence through lack of effective cooperation for this purpose. This situation is due in part, no doubt, to the difficulty of securing united effort where large numbers of people are involved. […and the crushing of the Populist Movement by capital in the 1870-80s – Ben] Moreover, from the nature of their occupation, farmers are more individualistic than either business men or wage earners.

The influence of the average individual upon governmental policies may be regarded as negligible inasmuch as his interest in pending legislation is slight. He may think of a proposed measure as beneficial or harmful, but in either case the effects which he anticipates are not likely to be of sufficient importance to him to urge him to political activity. Generally speaking, the effort which he is disposed to make depends more largely upon the way in which he conceives his individual interests to be affected, than upon any consideration of what may be called the general welfare. The laboring man and the person of small means are as individuals unable to exert any appreciable influence over a government as far removed from the people generally as our federal government is. Only by organization and cooperation is it possible for them to protect their interests, and this is very difficult to bring about excepts where much in the way of personal or property rights is believed to be at stake. This probably explains why wage earners in many industries have been more effectively organized than have farmers. Their personal rights have been so clearly endangered by organized capital that the organization of labor was seen to be necessary for defensive purposes. The farmer was slower to respond to this tendency, not only because of his more pronounced individualism, but also because his need of organization was less urgent. [sic]

The preponderance of political influence exercised by capitalistic groups is only in part due to the superior capacity of business men for effective cooperation; it is in large measure due to the highly centralized economic control which has become the rule in capitalistic industries. To some extent, large scale organization may indicate cooperative ability, but the highly centralized control which now prevails in so many industries is no more the fruit of economic cooperation than the highly centralized state is the expression of political democracy. Indeed, cooperation and centralization are inherently opposed, inasmuch as the former implies diffusion of power and would secure the necessary unification of effort without resort to compulsion.

The public interests are likely to receive less consideration at the hands of our national legislature than important special interests receive, for the simple reason that there is no adequate, continuing, active, popular support for the former, while the latter are always represented by an active and aggressive lobby. The purely financial interest of the people as a whole in a proposed measure may be and usually is much greater than that of the particular group that is seeking to have it enacted at the expense of the public; but because the former is a widely diffused interest it is usually unrepresented, while the latter, because it is highly concentrated and more intense, exerts an influence out of all proportion to its real economic and social importance. In industries where ownership and control is highly centralized, the interest of business on politics is certain to be greatest. In fact, it is the desire for power that has been one of the most important factors in bringing about centralized control of industry. This has not only greatly increased business influence in the field of politics, but has strengthened its power to dictate terms to labor and prices to the consumer.

To make centralization of economic power acceptable to the public, it has been represented as a means of achieving efficiency and economy in production. It has, moreover, always been assumed by the defenders of centralized industry that such benefits as are thereby achieved accrue in large measure to the general public. As a matter of fact, however, the concentration of economic control was no more designed to augment the wealth and income of the masses than the centralization of political power was designed to increase popular control.

An intelligent democrat might be inclined to wonder how anyone could believe that centralization of economic and political power would tend to bring about a diffusion of economic and political well-being. But many who have a sentimental attachment to democracy have no adequate comprehension of the political philosophy upon which government by the people is based. If any considerable portion of the general public had all along possessed this intelligence, the sophistry and misrepresentation which have always had so large a place in the discussion and literature of politics would have been much less effective in misleading public opinion.

A highly centralized economic system is inherently opposed to decentralization in the government. If those who control industry are to be free to use this power for their own purposes, they must control the state, since political democracy would definitely subordinate economic power to restraints imposed for the protection of the public. Moreover, large scale industry, engaged as it is in enterprises that are national and even international in scope, is impatient of the diversity in laws and policies which is inevitable under any system of local regulation.
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