The word government evokes in Americans everything from visceral hatred to deep respect, with its role in American society as the subject of heated debate.

Many libertarians and conservatives see the scope and size of state and federal government as troubling and unconstitutional.  The socialist left, on the other hand, tends to be more troubled by the failure to bring the principles of democratic governance to bear upon the economic sphere of life.

Although there are other kinds of government - family, clerical - the word is almost always taken to mean either state or federal government.  Many conservatives and libertarians are highly supportive of local governments.  For instance, despite Switzerland’s generous welfare state, Switzerland is ranked the 4th freest nation in the world by the Cato Institute whereas the U.S. is 22nd, and many on the right openly admire Switzerland because most governance takes place at the Canton level.  Thus many disagreements between left and right which appear to be about abstract political philosophy can often be reframed as disagreements about the proper scale of government.

Long ago, Lenin, a staunch socialist if ever there was one, commented upon this very question of the relationship between government structure and freedom:  

"It is extremely important to note that Engels, armed with facts, disproved by a most precise example the prejudice which is very widespread, particularly among petty-bourgeois democrats, that a federal republic necessarily means a greater amount of freedom than a centralized republic. This is wrong. It is disproved by the facts cited by Engels regarding the centralized French Republic of 792-98 and the federal Swiss Republic. The really democratic centralized republic gave more freedom than the federal republic. In other words, the greatest amount of local, regional, and other freedom known in history was accorded by a centralized and not a federal republic."

While apparently coming to a different conclusion than the Cato Institute regarding the efficacy of the Swiss form of government to maximize liberty (at least as it existed then), it is clear that the aim of the Lenin’s analysis was the same: freedom.

Some on the socialist left, then, also see the possibility of reframing some rather long-standing left-right disagreements on the question of “government” by suggesting that the conversation focus more on the degree of democratic accountability than the “size”, per se.  Thus, while most socialists may correctly be understood as advocating “public” or “state” ownership of many different enterprises and services (e.g. health care), nearly all of them would also say that this “socialization” process must be understood, first and foremost, as a process of “democratization”.  Thus a “government-owned” enterprise can only be understood as “socialist” if the reality of this ownership truly translates into more people having more say in, and responsibility for, how that enterprise is actually run.  

The scale, then, at which this democratization is to take place, could be an important and fruitful meeting point for discussion between right and left, keeping in mind that all-important socialist (and libertarian) litmus test of acceptability:  how democratic (i.e. how people-empowering, how freeing) is it?  

Obviously, the bigger and more centralized the enterprise is, the less likely it is that most people working in it, or served by it, will truly be empowered.  This consideration has led many socialists to seek the democratization of the economy in terms more agreeable to the libertarian right, namely, the creation of more employee-owned enterprises that are intimately connected with their local communities.  This socialist principle of minimizing top-down central control and maximizing local government can be seen in what Mr. Bolshevik himself--V. Lenin--wrote (favorably) about Engels’ ideas on “centralism”:

But Engels did not at all mean democratic centralism in the bureaucratic sense in which the term is used by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideologists, the anarchists among the latter. His idea of centralism did not in the least preclude such broad local self-government as would combine the voluntary defence of the unity of the state by the “communes” and districts, and the complete elimination of all bureaucratic practices and all “ordering” from above. Carrying forward the programme views of Marxism on the state, Engels wrote:

"So, then, a unified republic--but not in the sense of the present French Republic, which is nothing but the Empire established in 1798 without the Emperor. From 1792 to 1798 each French department, each commune [Gemeinde], enjoyed complete self-government on the American model, and this is what we too must have. How self-government is to be organized and how we can manage, without a bureaucracy has been shown to us by America and the first French Republic, and is being shown even today by Australia, Canada and the other English colonies.”

Libertarian legal scholar Ilya Somin makes the case that deliberative democracy, in which citizens debate the best policies, is really only possible in small governments (perhaps between 10,000 to 100,000).  At the time of the U.S. founding, the largest states only had a few hundred thousand residents, most of whom could not vote.  The “Vermont town hall” vision of democracy was a phenomenon limited to small towns of a few tens of thousands at most.  Athens, the birthplace of democracy, only had tens of thousands of citizens.  Somin argues that as government becomes larger, special interests are more likely to take advantage of citizens.  He sees small, local government as the best way to ensure that special interests do not take over, with larger state and federal governments restricted to minimal “night watchman” state responsibilities.

Interesting, then, that Marx would himself have described a similarly restricted role for the more centralized scale of government.  Speaking of how a unified republic might keep power as close to the people as possible, Marx said (emphasis ours):

The few but important functions which would still remain for a central government were not to to be suppressed...but were to be transferred to communal, i.e., strictly responsible, officials....."... National unity was not to be broken, but, on the contrary, organized by the communal constitution; it was to become a reality by the destruction of state power which posed as the embodiment of that unity yet wanted to be independent of, and superior to, the nation, on whose body it was but a parasitic excrescence. While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority claiming the right to stand above society, and restored to the responsible servants of society."

Imagine that:  Marx and Engels and Lenin...agreeing with libertarians on the aim of scaling government to maximize democratic accountability.  Might our right-left conversations today find their way to similar common ground?


  • What are the key functions of government?  Which functions can more effectively be managed through local government rather than state or federal government?
Conversation Catalysts: 

Ilya Somin, “Political Ignorance”



Arthur M. Peña, Michael Strong

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