Over the past 100 years, the American form of government has evolved from a democratic republic to something new: a centrocracy.
For 300 years, we were self-governing, with most decisions debated, made, and implemented locally. Today, we are ruled by centrocrats: long-term Congressional incumbents, who make the decisions; federal bureaucrats, who implement those decisions; lobbyists for the “bigs” (big business, big unions and big special interest groups), who steer those decisions; the media, which markets and sells those decisions; and elite universities, which recruit and train the centrocrats.
This centralization is clearly seen in the numbers:
Now, if the centrocrats could deliver on their promise of better governance, such centralization might be sustainable. But America is so large and diverse that most problems are simply not solvable from the center, regardless who is in charge. And when attempted “solutions” fail, the centrocrats’ response is to centralize control even more.So it is not a question of whether the center will hold. In 21st Century America, the center holds too much.Over the past 100 years, the federal share of government spending has almost doubled, while the local share has dropped by more than half.
The recent debate over raising the debt ceiling is a case in point. Unable to reconcile the political benefits of federal spending with the fiscal consequences of continued profligacy, the 535 members of Congress—rather than returning responsibility to lower levels of government—chose to give control over these decisions to a dozen House and Senate members. A similar trend can be seen in health care (the 15-member IPAB), the executive branch (“czars”), and financial regulation.
This is what the centrocratic mindset yields. Centrocrats never question their right or ability to make these decisions; instead, they hand more and more power to fewer and fewer people, ignoring the complexity and corruption that results from such concentrated power.
The self-governance approach is entirely different. When facing an intractable decision like how to fund massive entitlement liabilities—promises that cannot be kept and are destroying the nation’s fiscal health—the self-governance approach is to break the problem into (at least) 50 parts, leaving it to each state or locality to decide whether and how to fund entitlements in their jurisdiction.
This approach combines two of the great insights by the late Supreme Court justice Lewis Brandeis. It avoids the “curse of bigness” by dispersing power, and it enables “laboratories of democracy” by forcing the states and local governments to compete for the best solution within their jurisdiction.
The Good King Problem
Politically, the distinction between policy and governance is the critical difference between centrocracy and self-governance. Simply stated:
Centrocracy first asks “What should we do?” (policy)
Self-governance first asks “Who should decide?” (governance)
Why should we care more about governance than policy? Because a good policy decision made in a bad governance structure will always mutate into a bad policy.
This is the “good king” problem. A good king can accumulate power because citizens will accede power to those who use it wisely.
But concentrated power will later attract the worst sort of character to the throne (or corrupt those who mean well). This is why a bad king almost always succeeds a good king, and a bad king will do far more ill than a good king can do well.
The solution to the good king problem is to limit what any king can decide. This was the basic idea behind the Magna Carta; by subjecting the king to the limits of the law, the monarchy was never allowed to obtain absolute power.
The need to constrain power is why governance decisions are more important than, and prior to, policy decisions. “Who decides?” must always be asked and answered before asking what should be decided.
But for American centrocrats, the default answer to “Who decides?” is “The federal government.” That’s why they spend all their time debating policy; they’ve already decided that they should decide.
The self-governance movement aims to restore “Who decides?” to its rightful place as the first question in any political debate. And the default answer must be the lowest level at which the issue can be addressed, which is generally the local level, where government is closest and most responsive to the people. The philosophical term for this approach is subsidiarity, and it is the core principle behind self-governance.
So 100 years of accumulated federal power must be dispersed. But this is easier said than done. After all, the centrocrats have the power now. Why would they happily give it up?
The answer, of course, is they won’t. So it must be taken away from them. Fortunately, there is a way to do this: Congressional primary elections.
Congress is the most powerful branch of the federal government, and the House is the most powerful chamber in Congress. The President can veto; the Senate is designed to block; it is the House that is really the motive force of the federal government, and the core of the centrocracy.
To take power from Washington DC, we must restore accountability to Congress. But it is utterly unaccountable: in November 2010, Congressional approval rating stood at 17 percent, while incumbents being re-elected at an 86 percent rate.
Most House seats are uncompetitive in the general election, and virtually all are uncompetitive in the primary. There are relatively few swing districts where seats could change parties – maybe 15 percent. In the other 85 percent, the winner of the seat is determined by the outcome of the primary election.
But primaries have not been an effective accountability system. In 2010, 396 Congressional incumbents ran for re-election; the total number that lost a primary challenge was four. And over the previous four election cycles from 2002-2008, only 12 incumbents lost their primary, while 13 died in office.
So God creates more Congressional turnover than primary elections.
This lack of House accountability is the root cause of the growth of the centrocracy. Members in “safe seats” easily win re-election every two years, and the longer they are in Congress, the more power they accumulate through the seniority system. And as they acquire more power within Congress, they also work to accumulate more power for Congress – and therefore themselves
The Power of the Primary
What has emerged, then, is a system where the long-term, entrenched incumbents in Congress have accumulated enormous power, and have used that power to protect and further extend their influence. They have transformed American self-governance into a dangerous centrocracy, putting the future of the nation at risk.
To restore self-governance, two things must happen at the same time. First, the core debates in Congress must be reframed into debates over “Who decides?”—governance before policy. Most Americans—from local-produce-buying progressives to anti-tax Tea Partiers—want decisions to be made locally. They are tired of the centrocrats telling them what they can and cannot do. And they are tired of the incessant squabbling and rancor that inevitably results from trying to decide local issues at a national level.
Second, the people must re-impose accountability on the House by showing up, in large numbers, for the only elections that matter: the primary of the dominant party in their district. Those incumbents that push authority down should be re-elected; those that continue to accumulate power must be retired.
Without this two-pronged effort, the centrocrats will continue to accumulate power, and the complexity they create and pass off on the rest of us will eventually lead to catastrophic failure.
Every 100 years since our first arrival, Americans have seen their system of self-governance threatened by the forces of centralization. It is time to push back on the centrocrats, and bring decision-making back to the states, the local government, and the citizens themselves.
The most important political question today is “Who decides?” We have to suspend the fights over policy until the citizenry, once again, has the power to decide. We can get to the other questions once we get the right answer to this one.
Leo Linbeck III runs a family business and teaches MBA students at Rice and Stanford. He is Co-Chair of the Alliance for Self-Governance.