Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism

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One thing learned across many decades and landscapes is that best practices in government seem to crumble without competition, policy innovation, checks and balances, constraints upon coercive power, and the express preservation of semi-autonomous jurisdictions for ongoing choice. According to most political historians, the world is yet to find a substitute for decentralization and federalism in these regards. As an expression of limited government under the rule of law, the revised system delegated essential functions to the national government or concurrent federal-state arrangements while reserving the broad remainder of power to the states or the people, as expressed in the Ninth and Tenth constitutional amendments Taylor, As Jeff Taylor shows, history amply demonstrates how concentrated power fosters serious ills, especially when the administration of the power is largely unfettered.

Under the original plan for the U. Senate undermined with the Seventeenth Amendment states were to have access to critical national information while retaining independent judgment.

As Germany learned painfully during the Nazi totalitarian regime, once a would-be dictator takes decision-making autonomy out of a federal apparatus, checks and balances between legislative, executive and judicial branches at the national level no longer count for much , At the behest of national special interests with their encompassing political agendas, policy centralization has raised both the stakes and spending in national political affairs.

Indeed, national pressures for a few faddish brands of diversity increasingly threaten the prospect of self-realization for individuals seeking wholesome social norms in communitarian environments. As Professor Taylor explains, decentralized federalism made it possible for people to vote, as it were, with their feet.

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If, for example, in a particular state the rewards of public policy were favoring benefits for the few while widely dispersing the costs to the many, the disaffected many could migrate vote with their feet and congregate in another state. If, in the target state the newcomers were to become part of the jurisdictional majority, they would reap the benefits of majoritarian democracy; that is, within the policy purview and parameters allowed by the federal constitution.

Traditionally, this aspect of decentralized federalism offered a potential check on the politics on inequality: if a state facilitated crony capitalism, persons disenchanted with exploitative injustices could move to a fairer place Now, however, with the centralization of crony capitalism, middle-class Americans are left with little refuge and few options for creating preferred social environments. Errantly, the blame is placed too narrowly upon the American South. A fairer reading of American history would observe a complex set of attitudes and circumstances in the North as well as the South that slowed the full inclusion of American blacks in the rights and privileges of citizens.

The hands of history move religious, racial and other identity groups along differing trajectories, the consequences of which cannot be laid upon any single cause, especially federalism. Dye, added momentum with the college classroom text: American Federalism: Competition Among Governments. Dozens of thoughtful books emerged alongside these works, broadening a scholarly literature that had gained considerable visibility through the academic quarterly, Publius: The Journal of Federalism.

Powerful national interests were at work to elevate one brand of diversity over others.

At stake was one nation-spanning version of pluralism in which all political participants would be required to cede space to liberal conceptions of tolerance. In demeaning traditional wisdom, community-based intolerance for moral errors would no longer be sufficiently tolerated, especially when the specification of moral error was religiously informed.

In one particularly interesting exchange, the prospect for inclusive, ecumenical and secularism-friendly sects or platforms in America was contrasted with that of conservative, fundamentalist and allegedly divisive sects. More than thirty scholars from widely varying religious and secular backgrounds weighed in on the matter in a Pew Charitable Trusts forum that produced the book, One Electorate Under God?

Interestingly, the role of federalism in creating space for highly divergent religious policy commitments is hardly touched upon in the forum. The reason is fifty years of work by the U. Supreme Court in weakening federalism as one of the key operational supports of religious freedom starting in with Cantwell v.

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Little wonder, then, that an erudite Catholic scholar, Thomas J. Curry, saw the criticality of the loss of decentralist religious liberty in his book, Farewell to Christendom: The Future of Church and State in America. Ominously titled, the book posits that real world losses occur when the natural law foundation of religious liberty protected under the decentralism umbrella of subsidiarity is supplanted by discretionary and fiat court pronouncements. Around the same time, accusations began rising in the business world that federalism complicated capitalism, constrained corporatism and hindered globalism.

In essence the assertion was that federalism impeded higher growth rates and the financialization of the economy a dubious prospect for communitarians. Thus hindered, backlash against the centralization and concentration of power in national government apparatuses was short-lived. With the imperative of economic growth near the top of the federal agenda due to increased government spending and debt loads, Republicans as well as Democrats were willing to further centralize government powers following the attack upon the World Trade Center towers. Noting the spectacular rapidity of the move, Robert F.

Nagel saw fit to place a headstone for traditional decentralism in his book, The Implosion of American Federalism. The new consensus, supposedly, was that global policy imperatives leave little leeway for local problem-solving in an interconnected world. Purportedly, solutions that stop at state lines leave externalities, inconsistencies, loopholes and loose ends. Using these challenges as political leverage, leadership elites assume they must retain sufficient power to wrest away from the distracted electorate any maladroitness that might slow the gears of global trade.

This perspective continues to be expressed in high-level conversations within countries, financial centers and umbrella trade organizations. For traditionalists, federalism went awry after , with the high court offering repeated rationalizations for departures from the constitutional text, especially in matters of commerce and national security. Increasingly he concluded that centralization, in opposition to the subsidiarity principal, was eroding the goodness of fit between governance methods and human needs 7.

In short, too much legislation at the national level creates a burden of governance that does not scale well with human traits The Condition of Bigness.

Politics on a Human Scale: Historiography | Front Porch Republic

Beanstalk Violations. HumanScale Services. SteadyState Economy. The Logic of Size. Workplace Democracy. The Decentralist Tradition. The Law of Government Size.

Ecological Hubris Ecological Harmony. HumanScale Technology. For example, the Articles allowed the Continental Congress the power to sign treaties and declare war, but it could not raise taxes to pay for an army and all major decisions required a unanimous vote.

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The movement was greatly strengthened by the reaction to Shays' Rebellion of —, which was an armed uprising of yeoman farmers in western Massachusetts. The rebellion was fueled by a poor economy that was created, in part, by the inability of the federal government to deal effectively with the debt from the American Revolutionary War.

Moreover, the federal government had proven incapable of raising an army to quell the rebellion, so that Massachusetts had been forced to raise its own. In , fifty-five delegates met at a Constitutional convention in Philadelphia and generated ideas of a bicameral legislature United States Congress , balanced representation of small and large states Great Compromise , and checks and balances. James Madison stated in a long pre-convention memorandum to delegates that because "one could hardly expect the state legislatures to take enlightened views on national affairs", stronger central government was necessary.

Once the convention concluded and released the Constitution for public consumption, the Federalist movement became focused on getting the Constitution ratified. The most forceful defense of the new Constitution was The Federalist Papers , a compilation of 85 anonymous essays published in New York City to convince the people of the state to vote for ratification. These articles, written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison , with some contributed by John Jay , examined the benefits of the new, proposed Constitution, and analyzed the political theory and function behind the various articles of the Constitution.

The Federalist Papers remain one of the most important sets of documents in American history and political science.

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Those opposed to the new Constitution became known as the Anti-Federalists. They generally were local rather than cosmopolitan in perspective, oriented to plantations and farms rather than commerce or finance, and wanted strong state governments and a weak national government. Because George Washington lent his prestige to the Constitution and because of the ingenuity and organizational skills of its proponents, the Constitution was ratified by all the states. The outgoing Congress of the Confederation scheduled elections for the new government, and set March 4, as the date that the new government would take power.

In , Congress submitted twelve articles of amendment to the states.


Ten of these articles, written by congressional committees, achieved passage on December 15, and became the United States Bill of Rights. The Tenth Amendment set the guidelines for federalism in the United States. As soon as the first Federalist movement dissipated, a second one sprang up to take its place. This one was based on the policies of Alexander Hamilton and his allies for a stronger national government, a loose construction of the Constitution, and a mercantile rather than agricultural economy.

As time progressed, the factions which adhered to these policies organized themselves into the nation's first political party, the Federalist Party, and the movement's focus and fortunes began to track those of the party it spawned. While the Federalist movement of the s and the Federalist Party were distinct entities, they were related in more than just a common name. The Democratic-Republican Party , the opposition to the Federalist Party, emphasized the fear that a strong national government was a threat to the liberties of the people.

They stressed that the national debt created by the new government would bankrupt the country, and that federal bondholders were paid from taxes paid by honest farmers and workingmen. These themes resonated with the Anti-Federalists, the opposition to the Federalist movement of the s. In short, nearly all of the opponents of the Federalist movement became opponents of the Federalist Party.

The movement reached its zenith with the election of John Adams , an overtly Federalist President. However, with the defeat of Adams in the election of and the death of Hamilton , the Federalist Party began a long decline from which it never recovered. What finally finished off the Federalist party was the Hartford Convention of , in which five New England states gathered to discuss several constitutional amendments necessary to protect New England's interests in regard to the blockade of their ports by the British during the War of The threat of secession also was proposed during these secret meetings.

Three delegates were sent to Washington, DC to negotiate New England's terms only to discover the signing of the Treaty of Ghent , ending the war with the British. The Federalists were then seen by many as traitors to the union. The United States Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall played an important role in defining the power of the federal and state governments during the early 19th century. As the U. Constitution does not specifically define many dividing lines between the layers of government, the Supreme Court settled the issue in New York.

The question was answered particularly in the cases, McCulloch v. Maryland and Gibbons v. Ogden , which broadly expanded the power of the national government. Despite Chief Justice Marshall's strong push for the federal government, the court of his successor, Roger B.

Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism
Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism
Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism
Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism
Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism Politics on a Human Scale: The American Tradition of Decentralism

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