Forgetting Jefferson: the long decline of the decentralist political tradition.

AuthorMcClaughry, John
PositionPolitics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism - Book review

Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism, by Jeff Taylor, Lexington Books, 581 pages, $54.99

Is America's Jeffersonian decentralist tradition alive, comatose, or irretrievably dead? With Politics on a Human Scale, the Dordt College political scientist Jeff Taylor offers a well-informed, near-encyclopedic examination of when and how America's once-dominant political tradition receded.

Taylor begins by laying out the decentralist's core beliefs: "Power distribution should be as wide as possible. Government functions should be as close to the people as practicable. In this way, individual human beings are not swallowed by a monstrous Leviathan. Persons are not at the mercy of an impersonal bureaucracy led by the faraway few. Decentralism gives us politics on a human scale." The underlying philosophy, he writes, has four key components: democracy, liberty, community, and the affirmation of an underlying morality.

This quadratic package clearly includes more than the libertarian passion for individual freedom. Reconciling democracy and liberty has always been a problem, as Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice ably showed in his 1993 book Grassroots Tyranny. There is a similar tension between communitarianism, which focuses on mutual obligations within a group, and the individual's liberty to follow his or her own path even if that means disrupting community equilibrium. Traditional morality often parts company with liberty on such issues as gay marriage and abortion.

Taylor's great exemplar of this decentralist tradition is Thomas Jefferson, in whom most of these tensions can be found. The first modern political leaders he focuses on are two late-19th- and early-20th-century figures, one from each major party, who without being libertarians nonetheless defined a "path ultimately not taken by the Progressive Era and the New Deal."

One is William Jennings Bryan, a man widely remembered today as a quaint prairie populist whose most famous moment was his 1896 peroration that "you shall not crucify mankind upon a Cross of Gold." After losing three presidential elections as the Democratic standard bearer, Bryan served two profoundly unsatisfying years as secretary of state while President Woodrow Wilson lured America into World War I. He concluded his career as the tragicomic champion of creationism who was made a laughingstock among sophisticates by his arguments at the 1925 Scopes evolution trial.

Libertarians find little to approve in Bryan, viewing him as a consistent statist who embraced both social and economic interventions. They note his support for the Prohibition and income tax amendments, his demand for "free silver" to inflate the currency, and his lifelong battle to use the government to control corporate and financial influence. That's certainly true--especially the latter part.

But Taylor, who has studied Bryan carefully, notes another side to the Nebraska Democrat. At a time when Jeffersonianism was already starting to lose its grip on the public mind, Taylor writes, "Bryan's concern for the common people--many of whom were relatively poor--did not include using the federal government to solve their poverty problems. He believed in a laissez-faire economy through which industry, thrift, cordiality, and honesty would be...

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