ALTHOUGH CRITICISM abounds concerning the rapid concentration of governmental power, world trade, domestic commerce and police authority - just to name a few - there is a stunning lack of alternatives proposed or even mentioned by media, politicians or intellectuals. Even among those who despise these trends there seems an almost tacit acceptance of their inevitability. A few examples:
- One of the greatest assaults on the Tenth Amendment's protection of state powers - No Child Left Behind - is broadly supported by both Republicans and Democrats. The Tenth Amendment, in fact, has almost become the Forgotten Law.
- America's right to determine the values and politics of the rest of the world, even to the point of invasion, has wide acceptance among Democrats and Republicans, limited only by the caveat that it may not be as big a disaster as is Iraq.
- The gross conglomeration of the American media - the broadcast media in particular - has raised few objections saved from those hardy groups that still believe in a free press.
- Many corporations use America mainly as a mailing address as they seek to do to the world what Starbucks has done to many urban neighborhoods.
- The cultural values of Americans is increasingly based on the idea that bigger is better. We have been taught to worship grandiosity and ridicule the modest.
Obviously, these are not universally held values although one might easily think so. In fact, underneath the surface of mainstream megalomania are numerous examples of groups and people still acting in, or striving for, human scale. They are, in fact, about some of the most important business of a human: reversing the gigantism that has not only hurt our lives but is threatening the whole planet.
Collectively these alternatives can be called examples of devolution or subsidiarity, the dispersal of authority to the lowest practical level, an increasing proximity of people to power, the return of commerce, politics and policing to human scale.
Nothing could be more important and no idea is more in need of a movement.
You didn't have to explain this in the 1960s and 70s when community power and control were well up on the left's agenda only to be wiped from memory by a generation of accumulators, self-aggrandizers and monopolizers preaching the human heresies of Thatcher, Friedman and Reagan like so many hustling evangelicals.
This journal has joined innumerable fights on this matter over the years. It argued for urban neighborhood government, it published a series of articles on devolution in other countries (including a prediction of the break-up of the Soviet Union) by Thomas Martin, and we have raised the flag for more urban states.
The best way to think about devolution is to remember that it refers to what Martin has called "the ideology of scale." This ideology functions in a three-dimensional fashion with traditional ideologies. For example, one can be a progressive decentralist or a conservative who believes in centralized authority. Thus conservatives and progressives may agree that much power needs to be returned to a local level, but might disagree violently on how it should be handled once it gets there.
What works so well in the manufacture of a Ford Taurus -- efficiency of scale and mass production -- fails to work in social policy because, unlike a Taurus, humans think, cry, love, get distracted, criticize, worry or don't give a shit. Yet we keep acting as though such traits don't exist or don't matter. We have come to accept the notion that the enormous institutions of government, media, industry and academia are natural to the human condition and then wonder why they don't work better than they do. In fact, as ecological planner Ernest Callenbach pointed out, "we are medium-sized animals who naturally live in small groups -- perhaps 20 or so -- as opposed to bees or antelopes who live in very large groups. When managers or generals or architects force us into large groups, we speedily try to break them down into sub-units of comfortable size."
Today, if you want to tell it to the boss, you may have to travel a couple of thousand miles just to get to the receptionist. All of our systems appear to be on steroids. And like the drugged athlete, nature eventually pulls the plug. The institutions that have imposed a tyranny of size upon us not only fail to accomplish what they set out to do but are themselves disintegrating. The troubles of such huge institutions is a primary characteristic of our times. Consider the Soviet Union, Sears, General Motors and, yes, the United States itself.
We see it and yet we don't. Our loyalty to our assumptions and ideologies as well as our natural difficulty in accepting mortality even in non-human systems lead us to underrate such changes, to keep trying to do things the old way one more time.
Over the coming weeks, the Review will be presenting examples of devolution that works and some that doesn't. We invite further examples and will post a field guide to these matters on this page.