The way in which a government aligns itself with its people varies markedly between nations. Some nations have a distinct hierarchy the advantage of which is the leader’s accountability for his actions, and his responsibility to the citizens. Other Nations approach government locally, dispersing power as far as is necessary to ensure representativeness and responsiveness. The continuum on which centralization and decentralization rest is dynamic, and nations may stand somewhere in between a centralized and decentralized approach. Using history as a guide, one can compare the situations in which centralization and decentralization were effective and analyse the effectiveness of each and the implications this has on modern politics.
Centralization holds power in the ability of a leader to accomplish goals promptly and effectively, while providing accountability and responsibility to the citizens. In the evolution of a government from medievalism, centralization allowed a monarch to overcome the conflicting ideals of aristocracy. “Monarchy became the magnet, attracting local loyalties to the capital and the court, and overriding the separatist tendencies of competing institutions. Hence, with centralization came integration”. The effect of this centralization became so supreme in Europe that “Louis XIC of France, the Sun King, in his remark “L’Etat, c’est moi,” a comment whose boast of personal pre-eminence exceeds even the claim of Adolf Hitler: “for 24 hours I was the supreme court of Germany”” This supreme power through centralization allowed these European leaders to summon an unprecedented nationalism from their people, and allowed them to accomplish their personal goals in a way no other form of governance could.
Only through the strength given by centralization did the thirteen British colonial states successfully break ties from its parent and become an autonomous union of states (1775-1783). The significance of centralization in the success in the American Revolution is illustrated by William Anderson “all powers of government were brought for the time under a single control, that of the convention or congress in each state. Perhaps in no other way could the quick and decisive measures have been taken that were needed to sever the bonds with Great Brittan”. History clearly illustrates the ability of centralization to allow the leader of a nation to accomplish their goals, and summon an unprecedented nationalism from their people. The disadvantage of this centralization is the lack of involvement of the citizens in their governance.
Decentralization was the Greek response to extreme centralization, under (Tyrannos) Peisistratus there was such an intense distaste for “the title of rex (king) and any type of one man rule, that the roman constitution evolved with a pattern in which authority was elaborately subdivided and distributed”. This form of divided government was advocated by Montesquieu as a device to “make the government safe for the governed” because of the citizens involvement in the creation of policy, and the distribution of wealth. In effort to distribute power, the American constitution appropriates the bulk of each function to a branch, but “smaller slicers were given to each of the other branches” (L. Lipston). Imbued in American policy is the thought of individuals like James Madison
“The accumulation of powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the
same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary,
self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of
The conclusion drawn from a historical analysis of centralization as put by L. Lipson is “fraught with abuse”. Decentralization has proved an effective antidote to the shortcomings of a centralized government. The dispersion of governmental powers is a meticulous task that must be done with extreme care lest excessive decentralization dilute power or excessive centralization bring tyranny.
There is no one answer to the question of how far does a government need to decentralize to prevent tyranny while retaining power. The conclusion those have drawn in the past is only relevant in their historical context. An important safeguard against rogue leadership was developed by the Brittan’s in 1688- after the discharge of the Stuarts, the Brittan’s introduced a parliament so that “the supreme institution was henceforth a legislature”. This theory was proposed by Locke who originally said “there can be but one supreme power, which is the legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate”. This proved to be effective and was adopted by the American government, Madison warned that the collection of executive and judiciary power by the legislative branch makes room for abuse. “by assembling all power in the same hands must lead to the same tyranny as is threatened by executive usurpations”. Madison’s warning further illustrated by Locke’s statement “it may be too great temptation to human frailty, apt to grasp at power, for the same persons who have the power of making laws to have also in their hands the power to execute them. The passion with Americans instilled decentralization in their government was too great, their system became so complex that it became possible for a party to “control the courts because of their role in law enforcement plus their power to review legislation... the parties determined the selection of candidates and ensured the support of the voters... a boss was able by his mastery of the party machine to achieve a concentration of power that violated the fundamental concepts of American democracy” (L. Lipson). Modern governments have evolved an antidote to this over-decentralization- dividing the government further into two institutions; the political party and the civil service. The synergy between these institutions creates an environment resistant to the “intruders” that circumvented the checks and balances within the American political system. In this system the head of a party “ceases to be a chief executive in the narrow sense and becomes in addition a party leader, chief legislator, and mobilizer of public opinion”. With the support of a judiciary and legislature, a party and civil service have the power to resist corruption and server the people better than all previous institutions. Governments will continue to evolve with the citizens in the society that it governs, learning from history and finding a balance where power most effectively lies between centralization and decentralization. The only sure conclusion that can be drawn about the choice to distribute power about a nation is that power in politics is not enough; it must be used with wisdom.
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