Over the past several decades much of the world has been experiencing the growing power and dominion of centralized national leadership. The word “nation” itself, having once described a loosely governed confederation of territories or people, now increasingly refers to a fixed geographical area where a central authority assumes mounting responsibility for a range of social and economic activities formerly left to localities, tribal groups, or individuals. Empires have fragmented into nations or, as in Russia and China, old divisions have been obliterated under the imperatives of single rule.
Since this is a modern process, it tends to be most advanced in those countries most firmly committed to industrialization and national power. Africa, on the other hand, still struggles against tribalism, while some Latin American countries battle to assert national authority over historic enclaves of independent power and wealth. It may well appear from a distant point in history that the principal barrier to national progress in our time was simply the lack of a nation. Certainly one reason that many Latin American countries have not developed despite 150 years of independence and a Western heritage is that they have not been countries at all, but collections of independent principalities.
This process of centralization has not been confined by ideology. It has occurred under democracy and dictatorship; it has been guided by capitalism and socialism, Communism and Fascism. For it is imposed by the fusion of technology with the psychology of power. In making the concentration of power possible and expanding its uses, technology helps to liberate more forceful and sweeping impulses in those individuals who seek authority.
The process is global and differently shaped by the innumerable varieties of culture and circumstance. My discussion, however, will be restricted to the United States. It is what I know, and it best illuminates the most troubling political fact of our age: that the growth in central power has been accompanied by a swift and continual diminution in the significance of the individual citizen, transforming him from a wielder into an object of authority.
Although the problem is larger than politics, I write of it only in that single dimension: one, however, which is steadily more pervasive. Of all human activities, politics—the process of acquiring and using governmental or official power—is among the most responsive to shifting values and situations, always reflecting the dominant and visible themes of the human turbulence which creates it and which it attempts to govern. Hence politics cannot be understood or analyzed apart from the wider society which gives it coloration and direction. An artist may be an age ahead of his time. Even the greatest politician can only be a step or two ahead of his, although important action can spring from his ability to penetrate the obscurity which always enshrouds the real demands of any period. Actions and public words based on a more profound vision than this may suit a prophet, but not a politician. His material is the desires and attitudes of living people, and even the most violent revolutionary cannot escape that constraint, as Lenin knew and Alexander learned.
The growth of central, or federal, power in America during the past few decades has been phenomenal. Only thirty-five years ago, Mencken could write: “The rewards of the Presidency are mostly trashy. . . . The President continues, of course, to be an eminent man, but only in the sense that Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, and Henry Ford have been eminent men.” He describes a typical Presidential day: “All day long the right hon. lord of us all sits listening to bores and quacks. Anon a Secretary rushes in with the news that some eminent movie actor . . . has died, and the President must seize a pen and write a telegram of condolence to the widow. Once a year he is repaid by receiving a telegram on his birthday from King George. . . . It takes four days hard work to concoct a speech without a sensible word in it. Next day a dam must be opened somewhere. Four Senators get drunk and try to neck a lady politician. . . . The Presidential automobile runs over a dog. It rains.”
We still mock our Presidents, sometimes brutally, but not because they are futile, comic, or unimportant. The springs of today’s satire are fear and rage rather than condescension. For the target is immense.
The federal government spends about one-seventh of our national wealth and creates more of it. Between 1950 and 1960, nine out of ten new jobs were created by the public and the private not-for-profit sectors, and only one out of ten by private enterprise. Today, one-third of the entire labor force works for someone other than a profit-making institution. The towering apparatus of scientific and technological research which is remaking our society, and causing apprehension in Europe, is increasingly fueled by federal funds. It is the government, not private business, that is held responsible for the condition of the economy: credited with prosperity; blamed for recession and inflation; expected simultaneously to make the country prosper, end unemployment, and keep prices down. Of course Washington’s power and skill are not equal to such expectations, but it is inconceivable that any President today would greet economic dissatisfaction by pleading, “There is nothing I can do,” or even worse, “It is none of my business.” The first to assault any such forfeiture would be the conservative members of the business establishment, rapidly joined in an improbable chorus by liberal democrats, the New Left, and the editors of the New York Review of Books.
But today’s government is not only expected to maintain prosperity; it is also expected to ensure justice. Those who are denied their fair demands by our society look to Washington for help in righting felt wrongs, or scorn it for inaction. The hopeful and contemptuous alike have little doubt where the main responsibility lies. Social ills, from benighted cities to polluted air, are regarded as the charge of government; and Washington is also expected to lead the way out of the automobile-choked tunnels in which we are incarcerating ourselves.
The 1966 elections dramatized yet another important responsibility now assigned to government: keeper of the status quo. It is expected to be the protector of all those who are both delighted and unsure about their new affluence—the suburban houses, new cars, and television sets. They command the government to restrain any social turbulence which seems to threaten their personal position. This demand, which might be called Reaganism, finds its most violent expression when it combines with racial fears and bigotry into the “white backlash.” Increasingly, the obligation it imposes conflicts with the aims of justice and with the more embracing effort to modify society in the direction of an enlarged individual existence for all.
We have, for the most part, tried to extricate ourselves from this clash of aims by a kind of tokenism: pretending to make war on poverty or to enforce civil rights while confining resources and power to a dismally inadequate level, thus easing conscience and subduing fears while making real sacrifice unnecessary—all often accompanied by a spurious rhetorical evenhandedness which equates the violence of a few frustrated Negroes with the huge oppression of millions. Fortunately the tokenism extends to both sides of the social clash, as we substitute “wars on crime” or exhortations against “violence” for more vigorous repression. However, in a relatively nonviolent country, where the most urgent interests are those of a minority, tokenism is not neutral. It is a powerful ally of existing inequalities.
Augmenting the swelling domestic authority of government, there is the conduct of foreign policy, which gives to a few men, often acting in partial secrecy, the power to commit our country to action in all parts of the world, send hundreds of thousands to fight in distant lands, and entangle the resources and honor of the nation in adventures, promises, programs, and acts in every continent. This control culminates in the numbly familiar power to decree our destruction—a power less real because it is beyond the grasp of consciousness, but present and infusing all the other acts of government with majesty and terror.
We usually associate all this centralization with the Presidency, both because the power of that office has increased disproportionately and because the President is most visible to our expectations and our rage: we find a personal target more congenial than an institutional one. Most of our discontents are therefore directed at an individual’s defects of character, temperament, or intelligence, rather than at the structure which permits such qualities to rule or, at least, leaves a great deal of our welfare in the hands of chance. The more that power is concentrated, the greater the stakes on the always obscure gamble of selection.
Yet the Presidency is not the only part of our government whose power has grown. The Supreme Court helped lead the social revolution of the Negro: an astounding role for an institution whose previous incursions into the political process had nearly always been to check the affirmative action of government (e.g., the New Deal Court, the Income Tax Cases, and, more ambiguously, the Dred Scott decision). Sharing in the general euphoria of power, the nine justices of the Supreme Court make major political decisions, unresponsive to the democratic process, in secret meetings on Friday afternoons. Both the number and the scope of such decisions steadily mount. Liberal critics have generally approved this development because they approve the content of the decisions, while the fundamental reshaping of an important institution seems not to trouble them. But it is a transformation which almost certainly will come back to plague us as judicial personnel and social attitudes change, and as an institution which has become more and more political develops an even greater sensitivity to transitory shifts in the political temper.
Congress, too, shares in the mounting power of the federal government, exercising its authority to frustrate the will of the President, or to collaborate with him in denying redress. Congressional action is often spoken of as negative power, a sort of reverse veto. But that is because we are trapped in the liberal rhetoric which defines positive action as increased spending, greater regulation, or new programs. Freed of that semantic trap, we see that the judgments of Congress are extraordinarily powerful affirmative ones: to direct more of our resources toward private consumption than public needs, to cut taxes rather than increase spending, to calm the fears of the homeowner against black invasion, to deny assistance to developing countries, or to support isolationism and chauvinism. At times its judgments are—from a liberal standpoint—more benign, although this is often not perceived, since it tends to take the form of support for the administration. (On the other hand, congressional leaders helped decide that we should stay out of Indochina in 1954, and that the right to some privacy overrode the need to wiretap.) More important than its specific actions is the fact that Congress sets the limits and framework for Presidential action. Perhaps the most effective restraint on social legislation, increased spending, and other liberal measures is not any sense of popular opposition, but the foreknowledge that Congress will reject such proposals or that the effort to pass them will eat up so much political capital as to endanger measures thought more essential, or even erode the zealously guarded prestige and power of the President (as in the case of Harry Truman and “socialized” medicine). Presidents would often be far more radical if they thought Congress would let them get away with it. Nor are such assumptions about the limits of congressional tolerance usually made explicit in discussions between congressional leaders and the administration. They are so much a part of the political atmosphere that they dominate and restrict discussion at even the most private meetings. It is not that proposals are rejected. They are not even put forth for analysis or debate; and the process of innovation is one of constantly and cautiously probing these invisible boundaries. Of course, Congress has not shared to any comparable extent in the conduct of foreign affairs. However, the President’s concern with foreign matters has probably increased congressional importance in the domestic field since, especially in times of crisis, he must often seek support by moderating his domestic demands, in a sense “buying” allegiance. As most congressmen are far more interested in these issues, they find the division satisfactory.
The reality of increased federal power is undeniable. The events and circumstances which have created it are more tangled and ambiguous. Most obvious is the necessity for federal leadership in the conduct of foreign affairs, accepted by even the most conservative. Thus, as America became a global power with swiftly spreading burdens and ambitions, government waxed. Our relations with other countries, deeply and even mortally consequential in themselves, inevitably seep into a hundred areas of national life, shaping the structure of our industrial system, setting priorities for education and scholarship, pushing us toward technology and away from other pursuits.
Through this indirect effect on other institutions, and through the immediate impact of particular decisions and acts, the conduct of foreign affairs pervades the attitudes of the nation, contributing to a national mood of enthusiasm or resignation, anger or despair, which unavoidably carries over into a wide range of unrelated public problems and private sensibilities. The war in Vietnam has crippled and drained the drive behind civil rights. The presence and potential of nuclear power has entered into our art, and probably into the psychological structure of every citizen. Yet this towering power is for the most part in the hands of a single man and his employees. Even the normal checks on public dissent are partially sterilized by ignorance, central control over information, and the fact that immediate self-interest is usually not involved, thus depriving protest of the passion which comes from simple personal engagement. It is part of the naivete of the conservative position to believe that foreign affairs can be compartmentalized—that enormous power can be granted in the world arena while being withdrawn from domestic affairs. The truth is that authority over foreign affairs carries with it a new, wholly modern, ability to alter the nature and direction of our society.
In some measure the increase in central power is attributable to the converging flow of historical and psychological factors. The New Deal, out of necessity, created large new authority for government. More importantly, it led citizens to expect a great deal more than they previously had from Washington. Once this process had begun, it could not easily be arrested. For the natural inertia of the American system resists all but the most critical and revolutionary conditions, such as the Depression itself. The single conservative administration since Roosevelt could only consolidate, and not reverse, the flow. In our nation popular expectations and political power ride side-by-side. As demands increased, the central government was compelled to seek fresh authority. Those who chose conservative principle over political response met the fate of Taft and Goldwater.
Strengthening this domestic “revolution of rising expectations” is the natural tendency of political leaders to add to their power, to relish the “anguish” of decision, and to resent any effort to oppose their will. I do not mean this as criticism. It is a psychological condition of great leadership to want power and receive satisfaction from its exercise, just as a great artist must desire command over his materials. (Justice Frankfurter once told me no one could be a great President who didn’t enjoy the job—even if he was occasionally tormented by its burdens. Of course, the fact that a man enjoys power does not in itself make him great.) It is natural for a leader, once in possession of power, to resist frustration. Our system is deliberately and instinctively designed to restrain this ominous psychological inclination. The great number of institutional “checks and balances” are combined with less formal limitations grounded in national traditions and values, political realities, popular sentiment, and the power of the press to criticize and expose. These are often the most potent restraints, not only limiting what a leader can do, but what he would think of doing. They are accepted and even cherished by men whose indoctrination in the American system is stronger than inner drives to power. Like most important political guides, they are rarely articulated, having been absorbed into character and personality. (For example, no one doubted that President Truman would relinquish the steel industry when the Supreme Court ordered him to do so. Yet it is hard to think of another country where a President would yield to a judicial body on a matter of such magnitude. Nor could the Court have made him act if he refused to. It was simply “unthinkable” that he should refuse.)
The price of this system is often inaction, or very slow progress. For radical and swift changes require great and concentrated authority, which, in turn, is extraordinarily dangerous in the wrong hands. We can see today how the concentration of power over foreign affairs in a single man—long a goal of that liberal thought which was contemptuous of congressional conservatism—has dissolved the normal checks of our institutional structure. And these restraints have been neutralized precisely in the area where political checks—public opinion and the press—are weakest, poorly informed, most prone to emotional reaction (especially since personal economic interests are rarely affected in any obvious way), and most willing, in resigned bafflement at complexities, to accept Presidential direction on faith. It is possible that conservatives have something to teach about the value of institutional arrangements, and the unwisdom of sacrificing them to immediate desires. At least we should understand that the hope for pure self-restraint in the use of power can be a very feeble guarantee, and often weakest in the temperament which wishes to accomplish the most for the country.
This interlocking psychological and historical process has been given a greater momentum by our increasing ability to shape events from the center. Economics and, to a far lesser extent, other social sciences have enabled us to achieve an improved mastery over the operations of society. We now try to control economic conditions in every section of the country, using newly refined tools of fiscal and monetary policy—raising and lowering taxes and interest rates in response to computerized projection and the counsel of experts and businessmen. (These tools are more doubtful than a few recent successes have led us to believe, and as presently used they have serious social costs, depriving the government of revenue to support needed social programs and generally aggravating maldistribution of income.) Mass communications and swift transportation have enabled government to bring its authority and assistance to bear in a detailed and specific manner, allowing it to construct the rapidly responsive bureaucracy hitherto thought impossible in a nation of continental dimensions, and encouraging the natural tendency of local officials to turn to the federal government. Hardly a day passes without a phone call from a mayor asking for concrete advice or help. Task forces and experts are constantly dispatched to states and towns, not only in flood or famine, but to examine housing programs, evaluate complaints about pollution control, and to decide whether new power lines are going to blight a suburban area. Computerization of government, the next stage, will increase the possibilities of central control and influence and, unless we make some fairly radical structural changes, will in fact bring about such an increase.
Many of these new mechanisms and techniques are more efficient and result in greater justice—at least in the abstract sense of that term. It is hard to argue that we should not make sure everyone pays his taxes. Yet the knowledge that a giant computer in West Virginia is making a detailed analysis of the economic status of every American will add an inevitable, subtle, and pervasive tension to the financial transactions of each citizen—just as the sight of a police car in the rear-view mirror makes even the law-abiding motorist wary and self-conscious. That is a rather high price to pay to catch a few cheaters, especially when our tax laws give advantages to the privileged which no system of automation can remedy.
Access and communication, however, also work in reverse, occasionally yielding a political influence to disadvantaged groups greater than their economic and social power. We are past the time of the 1920’s when millions of farmers could languish in desperation and cause scarcely a ripple in Washington. For example, the civil-rights movement owes much of its impact to the television cameras which displayed the cruelties of Bull Connor and the violence of Selma to an audience for whom racial injustice in the South had seemed as remote as apartheid in South Africa. Through modern communication, Negro leaders have become national celebrities, enhancing the power and possibilities of leadership. Similarly, the poverty program owes a great deal to books and articles: a series in the New York Times on Kentucky, Michael Harrington’s book, and a piece by Dwight Macdonald in the New Yorker—all of which helped to stimulate conscience and political action by introducing thoughtful citizens and national leaders to the agonies of the previously unnoticed millions trapped beneath the surface of affluence.
These varied forces contributing to central power have a unifying theme: the mutually reinforcing concurrence of national demand and expectation with the assertion of power and the capacity to exercise it. There is, however, a more subtle, pervasive, and probably more significant factor. It is the gradual dissolution of alternative outlets for grievances, demands, ambitions, and inner needs. It is as if many small magnets and a single large one were scattered on a floor. If the smaller magnets steadily lost their force, particles would break away and take their place in the stronger field of force. Something like that has happened to American political life.
There are, after all, many ways for a man to change the conditions of his life or modify his environment. He can act through local government, social institutions, and private organizations. Or he can gain access to opportunities which do not rest on official action—by, for example, “going West” to an unsettled frontier.
All these possibilities have been dissolving. Large-scale opportunity outside settled institutions began to disappear when the West was closed. After that, migrants and minorities sought a path into society through unskilled labor. Its virtual elimination in modern times may prove as momentous an event as the end of the frontier. Certainly the distress of northern Negroes, and their struggle, would have taken a different shape if this same opportunity had been open to them. Today it is no longer possible to avoid conflict with society while gathering strength to force an entrance. The confrontation must be direct and immediate, and the unequal odds in such a clash require the intervention of the federal government, now the necessary agent of social change—and thus more powerful still.
More important to the growth of central power than the destruction of frontiers is the dwindling influence of local government and private associations. This erosion has been produced by two major social changes. The first, and most obvious, is the enormous resistance and complexity of many modern problems, requiring an antagonist of great force and resources. The second is a loss of connection: the fraying of human, civic, and territorial bonds between the individual and the disembodied structures which surround him. In consequence, the individual loses confidence in the capacity of local structures to modify the political conditions of existence, a self-fulfilling distrust which accelerates the weakening process. Diminishing faith turns people, not away from authority, but toward a more powerful center. This is certainly one of the reasons that totalitarianism finds its moment of opportunity at times of relative chaos.
Added to the many social and psychological conditions which have assaulted these historic structures are the growth in population (diluting participation in local government) and our fantastic mobility (making it hard to retain local allegiances). Therefore, individuals again turn toward the central government where, it seems, grievances and hopes can be effectively aired, and to which citizens in all parts of the country, even the rootless and displaced, feel some connection.
These weakened structures confront a social order whose growing rigidity closes off many traditional non-governmental outlets for change and for those personal ambitions which depend on social justice. The power of large corporations, the sanctity of the search for profits, the desirability of swift economic growth (we measure our success by our Gross National Product), and the exaltation of technology, are all virtually beyond serious challenge. Private citizens, communities, and even states feel helpless to deal with abuses resulting from an unchallengeable ideology and, being small, they are most vulnerable to the interests which benefit from this ideology. Thus our suburbs become horrors of ugliness, discomfort, and spiritual devastation because the right to buy land and build on it is sacred. The blurred advance of technology makes it impossible for any but the most sophisticated and endowed to weigh the advantage of change against the social ills it may bring. Since so much of our system is fixed, it is necessary to turn to the one authority still capable of channeling our institutions, through coercion or guidance, toward desired change: the central government.
Rising wealth also adds to central power. Although new affluence encourages conservatism, the “new conservatives” are usually far more concerned with the content of authority than the fact of its exercise. They find it possible to oppose welfare programs on the ground that they are against big government while supporting larger police powers and a range of new coercive authority for the state. In addition, many modern conservatives favor an interventionist and aggressive foreign policy which would inevitably lead to more formidable and sweeping powers for the federal government. This is far less principled than the conservatism of Jefferson or even Taft. It is rooted in economic self-interest, but whereas the dominant emotion of classical New England conservatives was confidence in themselves and in local institutions coupled with resentment at intrusion, the dominant feeling behind much of the new conservatism is fear (reinforced by a temperamental preference for abstraction over compassion). Behind the paradoxical conservative contribution to growing central power is the desire for protection of the newly affluent against unpleasant, troubling, and threatening social forces. Much of the root of today’s liberal-conservative tension is the clash between fear and confidence, which is why conservatism tends to rise in times of felt danger and crisis. Certainly some of the most successful reactionary and conservative movements have rested on uncertainty and apprehension, while liberalism has generally tried to fuse popular desires with elitist confidence. (This gives us some hope that the second and later generations of the newly affluent—even in California—will be less conservative.)
Central power is not in itself contemptible or hazardous, but must be judged by the extent to which it enlarges or constricts the possibilities of individual existence. Difficult as it is to untangle relationships and sources, we can be certain that rising central power has been accompanied by the diminishing significance of political man. In part this human lessening flows from the increase in central power itself; in part from the changes contributing to that increase; and, in incalculable part, from the general nature of the modern world.
The individual’s confidence in his own significance rests on the share of mastery he possesses over his life and environment. An internal ability to come to terms with the world, to seek a place in the drama, is imperative. Still, even the most intense and controlled awareness of self will not suffice for the person who is constantly denied, rejected, and ignored by his world, unless he possesses those rare inner resources which allow him to create his own. But that is not politics. As political affairs become more centralized and as personal, group, and local responsibilities are absorbed, this vital sense of mastery is eroded. For, in fact, the individual’s ability to control circumstances is diminished.
This is not simply a political phenomenon. It saturates our philosophical, technological, and social environment; and even as politics, it cannot be discussed apart from the commanding values of the time. These values differ radically from those which in one form or another have been dominant since the Renaissance—a historical moment, Michelet explained, that was characterized by “man’s discovering of the world and of man.” Before this, Burckhardt says, man had seen himself as a part of a series of categories—a member of his people, party, or family. Now “man became a spiritual individual.” As this focus shifted, there was an effort to comprehend the essence of man, along with a search for a fresh synthesis of the new “spiritual individual” with the world around him. There was a growing faith that incomplete human understanding resulted from an imperfect knowledge we could labor to complete.
One of the last glories of the Renaissance, and one of its destroyers, Albert Einstein, when faced with theories that assumed the essential role of chance in describing the existence of basic units of the material world, asked: “Do you really believe God resorts to dice playing?” He spoke in the tradition which encouraged the conviction that the free play of the inquiring mind would lead to a complete and harmonious account of reality. In that tradition philosophers and artists alike had struggled to grasp man’s nature as incorporated into systematic statements of faith and organic representations of reality. Now the belief in the possibility of such unity and wholeness is fading. We live, instead, at a time of fragmentation and dissection, in search of the components of our sensible world. The concept of God as a source of moral authority dissolves into mystical generalizations or disappears. Efforts at systematic philosophy are scorned, ignored, or become the province of esoteric technicians. Saint Augustine and Spinoza become Norman O. Brown and Marshall McLuhan.
Art continues and reflects the process of fragmentation, reducing objects to light and form and regarding constituent elements as ultimate realities rather than as parts of a large reconstruction. In literature and films we dissect emotions and actions alike, casting them as isolated fragments in order to evoke confused sadness at absurdity. Our hunger is more for experience than for meaning, for expanded sensation rather than coherent understanding. Even the insistent quest for the nature and meaning of man begins to yield, as psychology and biochemistry break us up into instincts, drives, creations of other beings, molecules, chemical codes, and electrical patterns, until the question, What is man?, begins to lose meaning in its historic sense. Man becomes a physical phenomenon, different from other forms of life only in degree and power, all his complexities ultimately describable and predictable. We look for the truth in the pieces of the puzzle and not in the picture they make. For that picture is largely the random, purposeless assembly of myriad components in a single unit of living flesh.
This drive away from system and toward fragmentation has the force of a primitive religion. No one denies that it must go on, or that science and technology are to be pursued regardless of the values they imperil. They are the values. At one time it was possible to ask whether the fact that the earth revolved around the sun was worth knowing, if knowing it might deprive us of God. But it is Galileo who is our hero, not his foes.
Our American culture, more intensely than any other, reflects the process of fragmentation. A man as perceptive as André Malraux can claim that the United States lacks a national culture, since he looks for that culture in its classical sense—a structure of values and meaning embodying itself in certain forms. Our culture is of a different kind, rooted in our history as a nation. It is a culture of restlessness. Its principal values are change and movement, all continuously feeding the hunger for experience. This culture is sweeping the world, in painting, in theater, in the changing beat of music, in the adoration of technology. It is the culture of an age of fragmentation, at once reflecting and feeding that process. For it does not demand or provide the resting-place that unity and wholeness require. It transforms values into psychology, drives, hungers, and actions; it replaces belief with “authenticity.”
Whatever this process of fragmentation may yield us in scientific knowledge or artistic accomplishment, it is charged with danger for political and social man. In these arenas of human activity there is no possible unit smaller than the individual. And the most vital and passionate need of the individual is for mastery: both over himself, and through some shaping share in the world around him. It becomes enormously difficult to achieve such mastery in the midst of dissolution and constant movement. Yet those who are deprived of mastery for themselves are often driven to cede it to others, perhaps ultimately forfeiting their freedom.
Whether or not the foregoing description has psychological and philosophical validity, it provides an analytic lens through which we can view our political and social institutions. More conservative than science or thought, they still reflect—as already suggested in the above account of the forces behind rising central power—the more profound contemporary currents of fragmentation and dissolution. Family ties stretch and break as the gap between the experience of the generations widens, and as more spacious possibilities of geographical and occupational mobility remove the pressure to reconcile natural hostilities and make it easier to indulge them. The community disappears, as the comprehensible unit of living blends into the huge, accidental monstrosities our cities have become. Science describes our world in terms beyond all but the most specialized understanding, dissolving control in mystery. Most of us know little more about the working of our world than did the ancients who ascribed natural phenomena to spirits. They, however, had the advantage of believing in their explanation, while we are only aware of our ignorance. Cities and technology, production and population, grow and change, powered by forces which seem beyond the control, and even the desire, of the individual person. A handful of men in remote capitals hold our existence hostage to their wisdom or impulse or sanity. The small groups where we could once achieve a sense of belonging and of being needed, because we could encompass them with our knowledge and presence, are disappearing, while the activities they once guided—the life of a town and of its citizens—now seem hopelessly beyond their competence.
As these myriad enemies assault the private stronghold of influence and importance, alienation, rage, desperation, and a growing sense of futility increasingly scar our political life. Two principal forms of reaction emerge. Violent protests and extreme convictions reflect the frustration of many at their inability to assert their significance and to share in the enterprise of society. Men of vitality and passion matched against indifference and encumbered by futility have virtually no recourse but rage. The history of the civil-rights movement reveals how helplessness can drive the pursuit of unexceptionable goals toward violent rhetoric. “Black power” is more a cry of despair and a plea for attention than a signal for battle. Among larger numbers, less endowed with vitality and conviction, there is a rising determination to protect and conserve. They seek security for their present position in the face of receding confidence in their own ability to shape the future.
We see these basic impulses in manifold, sometimes terrifying, forms: more reasonably in the New Right and the New Left, irrationally violent among Minutemen and John Birchers, Black Muslims and Southern Secessionists. They are reflected in the compulsive search for a hero or an enemy, and in a deepening disgust with political life itself. (Nothing more ironically illuminates this point than the contrasting attitudes toward power in MacBird and in the Shakespearean plays of which it is a pastiche.) All these conflicting movements help serve the single purpose of giving the individuals who belong to them the inner sense of significance that comes from being a part of some larger purpose. They reveal how a feeling of impotence is charged with danger, polarizing groups and individuals and creating a nation of strangers, until even those with whom we sympathize glare at us across an impassable barrier of hostility. The gradual decline of the Vietnam debate into competing slogans and invective is our most recent example of this process in action. The result is not merely extremism, but resignation and lassitude embodied in an unwillingness to face problems, make personal commitments, or to act until difficulties have all but overwhelmed us.
Thus, whatever our particular political positions, the one overriding goal of political life must be to help restore and strengthen that faith of the individual in himself which is the source of national direction and generosity of deed.
This may be an illusory goal. Perhaps the machine is already out of control, hurling us toward a future where we will all blend into some grotesque organism, our sensations absorbed by discordant sound and flashing light—where life itself is an endless “trip.” Yet no one who pursues the profession of politics can permit himself to regard the goal as illusory, any more than a novelist can permit himself to believe that the form in which he works is obsolete. Politics alone cannot remedy a condition whose causes are so manifold. But it is at least partly a political task.
There are two mingled aspects of public policy: content and technique, and though they are ultimately inseparable, each has effects of its own. The United States, Russia, and China, for example, have all worked to increase agricultural production, but their differing techniques have shaped the life of the individual farmer in drastically different ways. Thus political methods and structures can in certain cases do more to affect the individual than the substance of policy itself. But before proposing some structural changes in a form concrete and specific enough for immediate political action, I would like to touch briefly on the matter of substance.
The content of public policy in any society is dictated by ideology; there is no such thing as a non-ideological society. All nations, including our own, are governed on the basis of ideas and values, passionately shared and defended, which are not derived either from the necessities of nature or the command of God. If a man snatches his hand from a hot stove, that is not ideological. If he then decrees there shall be no more hot stoves in order to prevent burning, he has imposed an ideology (and one wholly alien to our own). Public affairs cannot be conducted outside an ideological system. “Pragmatism,” as we tend to use that word, may be adequate for a man stranded on a desert island—at least once he has decided to live and seek rescue. Our own world is too complex for that. We cannot hope to grasp all the variables of our life and deal with them anew each time we struggle for decision. We need, and we have, a mixed array of beliefs, values, and ideas to serve as reference points, so that pragmatic action moves carefully within a tightly confined ideological space.
Ours is one of the most ideological nations of all. The very absence of serious and widespread public debate proves how successfully ideas have been woven into our national life. They almost seem part of the nature of things rather than what they are: human choices among a great variety of possibilities. There are many ways to resolve difficulties, but only ideology can reveal what a difficulty is. The elements of our ideology, not the illusory question of its existence, require careful exploration by those who seek change and reform. I make no such ambitious effort here. Yet some of these elements are obvious: nationalism and the democratic process, concepts of individual liberty and obedience to law, the faith in technology and the pursuit of invention, the virtue of rising national wealth, the willingness to reward production more than teaching, or acting more than contemplation, and even the conviction that problems can be solved.
Anyone in government who has had the experience of proposing measures which even cautiously probe the boundaries of our system of belief can testify to the rooted passion which defends it. Often changes that are self-evidently beneficial prove surprisingly hard to bring about even when opposing interests are pitifully weak. When we find that a series of such obstructed reforms has a single theme, we have touched an ideological nerve. Therefore the search for policies which might enhance the individual’s sense of mastery must, in the first instance, be ideological. The only realistic political approach is to build on major elements of existing belief rather than to erase and begin again.
In our domestic affairs, two ideas above all need to be modified and strengthened. One is our idea of justice. The other is the concept of public responsibility for the quality of individual life.
Justice, as equal treatment, or in the more abstract sense of the fulfillment of fair expectations, is a historic goal of the American system. It has generally been enforced by the elimination of formal barriers—property restrictions on voting, racial and religious discrimination—on the assumption that in the absence of such barriers, disadvantaged individuals and groups would be free to fight and work their way into the society according to their individual merits. This idea is no longer adequate; indeed, it has itself become a principal obstacle to justice. For many of the weapons of earlier battles have been seriously blunted.
The classic pathway of unskilled labor is now closed to the excluded. Their potential political strength has been mortally diluted by the rise of metropolitan populations (making their numbers less important), and by the shift in power toward a central government which must weigh their needs against the demands of a huge majority—something mayors of Boston never had to do. The complexities of modern existence are an ever-returning maze through which the underprivileged must wander in mounting frustration: bad education breeds unemployment, unemployment brings poverty, poverty dulls capacity and desire, which in turn insures poor education. The spread of affluence requires minorities to battle, not against a small entrenched aristocracy, but a huge and ever more fearful majority. The essence of social struggle has always been “Which side are you on?” and the sides are becoming steadily more disproportionate. The Negro in particular must also face the darkly resistant racial feelings which are more intense than the hostility ever directed against other American minorities. All this commands government to go beyond the responsibility for an often illusory equality of “opportunity,” and to set itself the job of equipping underprivileged individuals to meet the demands of society while at the same time compelling their admittance. Justice is not merely liberation, but assistance and compulsion. This does not entail a change in expressed American objectives but a shift in the ideas essential to those objectives.
Clashing even more dramatically with the old ideologies is the necessity for government to concern itself with the quality of individual life. In a few carefully confined areas we have made this our concern. The Bill of Rights was not adopted for its economic efficiency, and the conservation struggle is a half-century old. Still, the major goal of our modern domestic policy has been rising national wealth and its wider distribution, with special provision for those kept from competition by unavoidable circumstance—the old, unemployed, and afflicted. These are benign objectives, but they are dismally insufficient. The assumption that private affluence would enable individual citizens to create a decent and liberating environment has collapsed. That failure can be seen in the chaos and degradation of our cities, the pollution of our air and water, the ruthless destructiveness of our highways, and the desolation of our countryside. The same qualitative failure pursues us into every corner of our national life, whether we are hypnotized by the destructive sterility of our government-supported (but not controlled) television networks, or send our children to schools which crush imagination and the desire to learn. Even the sustaining values of community have, in incalculable measure, been destroyed, not by changing values, but by a physical environment designed to obstruct continuing human contact.
The important thing about these afflictions is that virtually no one can escape them. Certainly so many problems with a common theme must have an ideological base—a suspicion strengthened by the knowledge that effort directed at such social ills would rapidly return to enrich the nation, not only spiritually, but in dollars and cents. We would create jobs and useful work and investment, finding it possible to have both private affluence and public improvement. The strength of the obstructing ideology here can be gauged by the fact that, until recently, we not only failed to attack these problems, but rarely thought of doing so. Made invisible by ideological preconceptions, the entire issue hardly reached the level of public debate (though, of course, some social critics saw the problem).
This ideology sets the boundary line between those matters which are the proper concern of government and those which rest with individuals. The barrier is rooted in a passion which transcends immediate self-interest—and we can all think of activities unrelated to economic interests which we wish kept free of government. In this case ideology dictated that commercial enterprise had a right to expand and change. Of course abuses should be restrained. But they were abuses of economic power directed against consumers and citizens—monopolies and price-fixing, child labor and resistance to unions. Abuse was a category which did not encompass the non-economic, social consequences of economic expansion. These were in effect forbidden ground. Once personal liberty was ensured, the proper concern of government was economic expansion, protection against commercial exploitation, and justice as narrowly defined. As if this concept were not confining enough, there were also the inherent limitations of a political system designed to respond to crisis. We could act only when a problem became urgent or an abuse widespread, provoking intense public concern. We had neither the mechanisms nor the habits of thought for any other approach; and except for some rudimentary and permissive economic planning (which fits the ideology), the deficiency remains. Unfortunately, when many of today’s social problems reach the crisis stage they are already almost beyond redemption: New York City.
It is now essential to accept the reality that the public conditions of private life are a matter of public concern, that dealing with them is beyond the capacities of individual citizens, and that they require a major redirection of our energies and resources. The choice between lower taxes and a vast program for the cities is ordinarily posed in terms of the vague and ideologically potent stereotypes of government spending and bureaucracy as against private consumption and initiative. It is natural for citizens, confronted by such a choice, to prefer immediate tangible reward to remote and largely abstract benefit. In truth, it is all private consumption: the choice is between a second car and clean air, between a new television set and a park for one’s children. When we spend billions for space while slums go unattended, and when we lavish attention on computer systems to guide aircraft while breathing poisoned air, we are not simply being wasteful or irrational; we are acting out of a structure of ideas whose modification requires national leadership and education. The time is propitious for such a change, precisely because the affluence which has been created by our old policies allows people to divert themselves from the economic struggle long enough to feel dismay at the world we have been building.
There are already some signs of a shift in belief. We have new demonstration programs for our cities and even a Council on the Arts. Just as this movement began to pick up momentum, it was paralyzed by the Vietnamese war. If times improve, we can hope for an ideological change bringing the demand for public action against those social ills which cripple the quality of individual life. We may eventually view the refusal of a builder to provide parks and trees with the same incredulity with which we would now greet a denial by General Motors of Walter Reuther’s right to bargain for higher wages—an idea easily accepted not too long ago.
Utopian as much of this may sound, it is less far-reaching than the changes required in our policies toward the rest of the world. However, in foreign policy the possibility of radical changes in ideology—and consequently in action—is far greater. Our domestic policies are sustained by a network of resistant structures and institutions, closely identified with the personal self-interest of large and powerful numbers. Foreign policy, on the other hand, is much less firmly tied to group interests or to institutional structures. That is why it can change so rapidly, and why the President has such great power in this area. We have moved from isolation to war, from a relapsing withdrawal to the Marshall Plan, from Kennedy detente to Johnson interventionism, with each shift eventually winning much establishment and popular assent.
Another reason for directing major concentration to foreign affairs is their importance. Our great problems increasingly derive from world conditions. It is on the world stage that America has its opportunity to act a great role in human history—an enterprise to alter the human condition and the relationship among the peoples of the earth.
Such an enterprise is essential to the goal of an enlarged individual existence, and thus to our national health and sanity. Personal fulfillment flows from the opportunity to share in a great adventure, whose aim and conduct can be a source of idealistic pride. A gifted and lucky few find this in their own work and talents. For most of us, nothing is more oppressive than to be a member of a society whose operations we view as menial, self-regarding, cruel, or aimless. Today, especially among the young, the inspiriting sense Americans have had of helping to unfold a noble destiny is fading. Still, even in the harshest criticism there is an undertone of hope which would be impossible in many other more cynical and less powerful countries (their impotence is real). Behind the most passionate contemporary assaults against modern America, we can glimpse the unarticulated belief that with other leaders or with a different system, this country—its people—is still capable of constructive and idealistic action. I share this optimism.
Clearly such a shift in foreign policy cannot be brought about solely by the desire of a rich and powerful country to protect itself from global turbulence—the foreign counterpart of the new conservatism. There is no glory, and little future, in being the guardian of the international status quo. But neither is it necessary to be self-damaging. For we are in the almost unique position where a policy of revolutionary idealism is consistent with our own immediate self-interest as it is most deeply understood.
Before exploring this point, let us clear away some underbrush. People and nations can, and often do, act with irrational lust and violence. Our society and its values have been threatened by military aggression in the past, and may well be again. There are those who would joyfully overrun us tomorrow if they could. Sometimes it may be necessary to resist by force, and it is certainly necessary to be prepared for such resistance. Until there are important changes in the human condition, fear, not love or even reason, will be a principal keeper of the peace. (I am not talking here of our disastrous policy in Vietnam.) It is also true that particular problems require concrete or “pragmatic” responses. However, cult words like “realism” or “pragmatism” should not be allowed to cloud the real problems of foreign policy. They are not wrong, but they are virtually useless. All they mean is that any objective should be pursued rationally and with the widest possible knowledge of the circumstances. They tell us nothing about the objectives which should be pursued.
Self-interest is another word used to confuse and often destroy debate. The physical protection of our population and its material well-being are clearly in our self-interest. Beyond that are multitudinous complications of values and judgment. As between tranquility or ferment, indulgence or sacrifice, the comfort of undisturbed and mounting wealth or the joy of living by ideals, it is far from self-evident which we ought to choose, and our choice will rest on the spiritual circumstances of the country. However, there is a second and more corrupting sense in which the term “self-interest” is used—to label particular actions and policies. This usage is almost always invoked to end debate entirely, serving as it does to imply that an adversary is hopelessly abstract, romantic, or confused. Thus we are told that it is in our self-interest to destroy the Vietcong, or to support the military in certain South American countries, or to be gentle with South Africa. (Conservatives seem to have a genius for winning the all-important semantic battles. Anti-union laws become “right to work”; national health insurance becomes “socialized medicine”; a proposal to eliminate the concentration of the draft on the poor and disadvantaged becomes a “lottery.”) Those who oppose such policies are often cast by this brilliant rhetorical device as betrayers of the national interest.
Yet those policies are not expressions of self-interest at all, but only measures which someone thinks will contribute to it. Moreover, the self-interest they presume to advance is often narrow and shortsighted. To take a simple and obvious example: there are those who wish us to support, or at least readily accept, authoritarian military governments in South America because they contribute to economic and political stability. I believe we should support liberal, progressive forces in South America, even if they are revolutionary in character (I do not becloud the issue by introducing the subject of Communism), because in the long run they are the only force which can both win in their own countries and maintain a fruitful association with the United States; because we will be more comfortable and (again in the long run), safer in a hemisphere dominated by these forces; and because our spiritual health as a country will be enhanced by supporting them. Thus I view my position as realistically and pragmatically in our self-interest, and I look upon favoring the military as a form of self-destructive and quixotic romanticism.
Of course, a general policy is not a detailed guide to specific problems. If the military takes over, its rule becomes a fact which must be dealt with, introducing many complicated questions to be weighed on their own. Nevertheless, the general proposition gives a direction to policies and expressions which will be profoundly significant to ultimate results and will often also have a crucial effect on particular decisions. (Thus, we cut off aid to Peru for two years because it had a dispute with a Standard Oil subsidiary over the division of royalties. That action flowed from a distinct ideological position that was violently opposed to our true interests. A different, and more intelligent, understanding of our goals in Peru would have forbidden such a masochistic deciion.) In short, the imperative questions of foreign policy are: which goals serve the long-run interest of the American people, and what policies are best calculated to move us in that direction. That discussion leads from the most remote and prophetic considerations to specific policies and acts. For example, we can assert that we wish to help in the development of the Third World. Why? Out of charity or fear? Do we really have an obligation? If so, what is it grounded on? Do we believe that the world can’t exist with a poor majority and a rich minority? Why not, when it always has? If we should help, then how much, whom, and under what conditions?
Answers to such questions are implied in the view that a policy of revolutionary idealism is both desirable and practicable for the United States. To begin with, there is the comforting reality that we are almost the first great power whose self-aggrandizement does not depend on dominion over others. Our enormous strength makes us impregnable to any but the largest and most serious threats—for the moment only to a direct attack by the Soviet Union. China may, in some still remote time, be able to transform hostility into danger, but Cuba, Guinea, Albania, etc., unless they should become active and effective agents of a hostile great power, are only an emotional annoyance.
Our economy is also virtually self-sufficient, depending for mounting prosperity neither on control of foreign markets nor on foreign sources of raw materials. So long as conditions permit us to buy and sell in the world market, we need not exercise control or ownership over any other territory. It is true that our gold reserves are in a hazardous position—which, however, could be secured if we were willing to free ourselves from the theology of international finance. In any event that particular danger, real and influential on policy as it now is, does not rest on reality, in the sense that it does not come from any weakness of our economy. It is a creature of habits and conventions which, if changed, would not affect our ability to produce or consume.
The bald statement of these facts does conceal several complexities. For example, the spread of hostile governments to significant areas of the world would have a profound and damaging psychological effect, even if it did not place us in direct physical danger. The facts do, however, make it plain that our foreign policy is potentially freer from the bedrock considerations of national security and economic health than that of any other power in history.
This relative freedom gives us an opportunity to pursue a foreign policy which can engage the pride and idealism of our own people, enhancing their well-being and lifting the quality of our civilization with vastly liberating effects on future generations. The American people are not only willing to support such a policy, but need it. It is no accident that President Kennedy’s best remembered line is the famous “Ask not . . .” or that the Peace Corps received such an overwhelmingly unexpected response. Leadership which appeals to confidence instead of fear will find a great thirst for idealistic mission among the majority. It has been present in times of war, and there is much evidence, especially on college campuses, that it is waiting to be slaked today.
Much of our present foreign-policy debate revolves around clashing espousals of isolationism. They are new types of isolationism, since our strength, our world position, and the decline of other powers make the old style impossible. On one side, to oversimplify, are those who wish our policy to be directed basically at opposition to real or apprehended physical threats. The twin elements of this view are containment and order. Its underlying plea is, “Leave us alone.” On the other side are those who believe we have no right to influence other countries or to interfere in their affairs. This view is often accompanied by a disbelief in the reality of irrational passions, hatreds, and desires for conquest (except, perhaps, when it comes to the United States). Its plea is, “Leave them alone.”
But there is also a non-isolationist strain in American history and culture—a sense of American mission—upon which we can draw. Certainly we cannot presume to dictate how the nations of the world should organize their societies. But we do have something to offer and to teach. We know that it is better for people to eat than to starve and that increasing individual prosperity is better than hopeless misery. We know that human well-being is increased by liberty of expression and belief, and damaged by repression and persecution. Peace is better than war, and the growth of effective international restraints is a necessary condition of peace.
Propositions of this type (and many more are possible) seem self-evident, even banal. So they are—until they are coupled with the assertion that the United States has a responsibility to realize them on a global scale. To the extent that we act on them now, it is in a token and fragmentary way; therefore, for all the rhetoric, they are not an important part of our foreign policy.
A foreign policy grounded on this ideology would look far different from much of our present conduct. We would devote large resources to the economic development of the poorer countries. We would alter the patterns of trade to encourage worldwide industrialization. We would direct our support and friendship to those nations trying to create such conditions, regardless of their shifting political attitudes, unless they were to rise to the status of a real and physically menacing enemy. We would take the lead in mobilizing serious international opposition to large-scale persecution and oppression, and not be content to regard an occasional vote for a diluted United Nations resolution against apartheid as a triumph of idealistic liberalism. We would recognize that revolutionary violence may sometimes be necessary to eliminate deeply embedded institutions and values which obstruct both justice and progress.
None of these policies, or the turbulence they might often help create, would—except in very special and unusual circumstances—endanger either our security or our economy. On the contrary, they would contribute to the emergence of a community of shared values and expectations within which we would undoubtedly be safer and more prosperous than ever. It would be our kind of world. The forceful pursuit of such policies would have an impact on the spiritual welfare of American society which would radiate into every aspect of our domestic affairs. We would stand for something, not just rhetorically but in engagement, and that sort of ideology would generate its own consequences in action.
A foreign policy of this kind would represent realism in its clearest and noblest form. To sacrifice basic beliefs and goals to the apparent demands and interests of every passing problem and conflict reflects both timidity and lack of imagination. In the long run such a course can only lead to a world environment in which even our narrowest material and physical interests are unsafe, to say nothing of its inevitably erosive effect on the idea of American civilization itself. We are fond of historical parallels. They should convince us that in the conditions of the modern world a policy founded on generosity and idealism is the only policy that is pragmatic and realistic, conducive to national grandeur and, ultimately, to national survival.
As important as the content and direction of public policies are the methods and structures used to carry them out. Initially, the elaborate structure of American federalism mirrored the judgment that a great deal should be left to local authority. For decades we have been moving in the other direction. Not only is this a dangerous and, as I believe, a mistaken course, but it is becoming clearer that certain substantive objectives utterly depend upon fashioning fresh techniques. Modern poverty, for example, cannot be abolished by friendly edicts from remote officials, and even if it could, the result would be sterile, vacuous, and purely material.
The blended goal of structure and policy alike must be to meet specific ills through methods which can in themselves enlarge the sense and reality of individual relevance and participation. The way to accomplish this, at least on the political front, is through decentralization—by assisting and compelling states, communities, and private groups to assume a greater share of responsibility for collective action. In other words, both burden and enterprise must be shifted into units of action small enough to allow for more intimate personal contact and numerous enough to widen the outlets for direct participation and control.
Such a shift, although it faces many problems, is both the most practical and politically realistic of all the ideas discussed here. From the community action program of the war against poverty to the private organizing efforts of Students for a Democratic Society, we are being given tangible proof of the viability of the decentralized approach. If these programs have been inadequate, it is only because they have so far been unable to overcome the ingrown and embedded obstacles to popular participation: the men and interests threatened by a transfer of power.
Notwithstanding this resistance, the idea of decentralization is making its first timid and tentative appearances in political rhetoric. It is possible to predict that the first party to carry this banner (if buttressed by a solid program) will find itself on the right side of the decisive issue of the 1970’s. At the moment the idea hovers elusively between liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans. Both face built-in political barriers. For the Democrats it is the difficulty of overcoming ideological attitudes which place the burden of salvation on Washington. For Republicans it is the more obstructive necessity to mollify those conservative elements which oppose any social action by government, whatever the techniques.
Yet the issues involved in decentralization are remote from the old struggles over states’ rights and big government. Those struggles centered on the question of whether any effort at all should be made to solve social problems through collective action and public resources. Decentralization, however, assumes that this question is resolved affirmatively, and sees the issue as one of structure and organization (and power). Even modern conservatism is moving closer to a benign view of decentralization. In his campaign for Mayor of New York, Mr. William Buckley argued for city action against problems ranging from air pollution to the scarcity of bicycle paths. He opposed federal intervention because it was “none of their business,” making his objections to government action more geographical than ideological.
Although decentralization is designed to help combat the social and spiritual ills of fragmentation, it also responds to the fact that centralized bureaucracies tend to become increasingly ineffective and coercive in direct proportion to the scope and intricacy of the problem they are established to solve. This was less apparent when much of government action consisted of grants, subsidies, or insurance for individuals. It is not difficult to write checks. Now, however, we must apply complete technical and planning skills to wide-ranging difficulties. One need only look at the fantastic labyrinth of welfare programs, the monstrous incapacities of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare—operated by one of the best teams of executives in government—as well as the foreseeable futilities of the new Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation, to realize that something is wrong with the old approach.
Decentralization would not only shift responsibility to state and local government. Private groups would also be involved, either by government (as in the community action program of the war against poverty) or through their own, self-generated efforts. By thus directly engaging individuals, and giving them a sense of participation and commitment, we could stimulate the desire for goals toward which many remain indifferent or even hostile while they are the province of a removed and abstract central government. If, for example, we could involve large numbers of Americans in programs of help to underdeveloped countries, they would become increasingly convinced, and even passionate, about the moral and political necessity for such programs.
Responsibility is the breeder of ability, and by assigning responsibility—real responsibility for important matters—decentralization would help improve the talent engaged in local government. Hours are spent in town councils arguing about the placement of new traffic lights, while the great issues are debated in Washington. It is little wonder that men of vitality and ability are reluctant to serve or else quickly lose their enthusiasm. Even so, the importance of political life is already attracting more able men into local public service, and the ability to solve problems is becoming a requirement of election to state houses and city halls.
Decentralization is not abdication. It is possible, as I will outline, to set standards for local action and by enforcing these standards to raise the level of performance. Different problems will call for different structures, requiring a great deal of political creativity and experiment. But there are common obstacles and methods of approach.
In a moment I will discuss some specific examples, but the guiding principle should be the transfer to local government or private groups of the needed resources, and the responsibility for decision, action, and policy in accordance with national standards of varying degrees of specificity. We are already doing this, to some extent, in programs ranging from the war against poverty to the construction of waste treatment plants on our rivers. (Standards, incidentally, can be educational rather than coercive. Often local groups are unaware of the dimensions of a problem, nor can they command the technical and intellectual resources necessary to devise solutions. A small but fascinating model of the educational approach is the President’s Committee on Physical Fitness. That committee drew up model programs of physical training for schools, community organizations, and individuals. Though it had no regulatory power and hardly any money, the result has been a flourishing of physical-fitness programs across the country. The same technique might well be applied to the formulation of model school curricula, child-care centers, traffic-control programs, etc.)
The fact that local government lacks the resources—financial and human—to cope with even its present difficulties is a powerful barrier to decentralization. Walter Heller has proposed that the federal government simply turn over, presumably on a per capita basis, some of its revenue to the states. I am a great admirer of Mr. Heller and respect the liberal impulse behind his idea. It is, however, a counsel of defeat. It anticipates that Congress will react to rising revenues by cutting taxes rather than by helping the poor or rebuilding our cities, and it hopes to forestall this by transferring revenue out of congressional hands and out of the national budget (an objective which some conservatives have not fully understood). Thus the Heller Plan assumes that the politics of inertia—where programs are neither eliminated nor substantially increased—will dominate the federal structure. It also subsumes the praiseworthy faith that state governments will use this money for critical public needs. Actually, however, some will use it well and some will not. Depending on what the states do with the money, the Heller Plan may or may not increase the resources available for social problems, and could even lessen them. I expect that a higher level of local ability and public purpose will be set by the mounting responsibilities which come with decentralization. This does not mean, however, that the necessary ability and integrity are already sitting in every state house, crippled only by lack of money. It is a notorious fact that many state legislatures are more responsive to private interests, from loan companies to home builders, than is the Congress. Under the Heller Plan, it is quite possible that New York residents may end up paying federal taxes to reduce the tax burden on property owners in Indiana. Moreover, some assurance is needed that revenue collected across the nation is not sent to areas where its benefits are denied to Negroes.
Many of these problems can be avoided, and state competence raised, by turning resources over to the states for concrete purposes and with specific standards of performance, rather than by lump-sum payments. In addition, we may find that it is not the state but the city or smaller communities and private groups which are the appropriate units of action. Decentralization should go further and deeper than the state house. The Heller Plan might be worth trying if there were no alternatives, but there are many alternatives. They vary in the extent to which they restrict and direct state and local use of nationally collected resources. They provide a great deal more flexibility and a strengthened assurance that critical needs will be met. Since I am not an economist, I only speak in general terms about matters which are highly technical in detail.
First, we can establish federal standards and guidelines in specific areas—e.g., housing or pollution control—and allocate funds to the local units which meet the requirements. This is the structure of the anti-pollution program for rivers and the new Demonstration Cities Act.
Second, there is the possibility of credits against federal income taxes for additional state taxes that would be earmarked for particular purposes like education. There would have to be some safeguards against the transfer of state revenues to other purposes in order to reduce local taxes, and perhaps also a rising base line could be established which would take growing state population and wealth into consideration.
Third is a variant of the Heller Plan: general appropriations to local authorities for a variety of specified purposes, such as health, education housing, training, etc., allowing the state or locality to set its own priorities. Of course, tax credits can be used in the same way.
I am sure there are other fiscal devices (for example, allowing states to require tolls on the interstate highway system if the revenues are devoted to certain public purposes) which might also serve to increase the resources available to states as an instrument of decentralization.
Money and programs are useless without competent people to administer them. Although imaginative political leadership will sometimes recruit men of unusual ability (as Richard Lee has proved in New Haven), human skill is harder to find than cash, both because able men are not often attracted to local government and because we lack trained people. As greater responsibility flows outward from Washington, and as the work of states and communities becomes more important, public life will become more and more attractive. We will, however, have to make a generous national effort to train people for public service—something we have been slipshod about even at the federal level, where the defect has become more serious as problems have become more technical.
Again the viable techniques are numerous. Let me mention a few possibilities: federal grants to universities to establish training programs, perhaps even a foundaton similar to the National Science Foundation; federally-financed training institutes, for young men or established civil servants, either under national auspices or under the control of regions or states; subsidies for the salaries and expenses of highly skilled people; model codes for government workers, embracing incentive, tenure, recognition, etc. Perhaps a Governors’ Conference could set such projects in motion. Many similar things are already done in other fields. For example, federal effort—seed money as well as full support—has enormously increased the number and quality of men and women engaged in scientific research. Certainly public service is no less important. Of course, even this effort will not coerce able men into public service, although it may help multiply their numbers and develop their talents. However, the Peace Corps and poverty program, the civil-rights movement, and my own observations across the country have convinced me that large numbers of our citizens are seeking some effective way to serve society, and they are often willing to give up the attractions of private life for such an opportunity. If we do not provide them with the chance, our most valuable national resource will be dissipated.
I do not wish to elaborate on the many concrete areas where decentralization of activity is immediately practical. These will be limited only by our political and technical inventiveness. We already have several experiments to point the way. Still, it would be unfair not to give a few specific examples of realistic applications. I will sketch these examples in general terms. Carrying them out will require rigorous and detailed work. The Peace Corps was a few sentences in a campaign speech. The law establishing it takes up many pages.
To begin with the most difficult area of all, foreign policy: it is desirable and possible, and it may even be necessary, to turn over a substantial part of the foreign assistance program to state administration. Let me give an example of what I mean. The single most important economic problem for the developing countries is agriculture. The large majority of their populations work the soil. Agricultural development is essential for food, to lessen dependence on foreign imports (thus conserving foreign exchange), and to provide a market for industry by raising the income of farmers. The United States has an enormously successful agricultural economy, and the skill, know-how, and energy which built that economy can be found in the states rather than Washington—in the great agricultural universities, state departments of agriculture, and among private associations of farmers and growers. Several years ago it was proposed to President Kennedy that we ask a particular state government to administer our agricultural development program in a specified country or countries, giving the state all federal money set aside for this purpose. He was enthusiastic and wrote two or three personal memoranda to the State Department urging action.
The subsequent inaction was a dramatically illuminating example of the ability of a bureaucracy to frustrate a President. Nevertheless, it could not ignore him entirely. The first project (which was to be “experimental” even though the President had already decided on the general policy) was to ask the state of California to run the agricultural program in Chile. California has many of the same problems and crops, similar variations in climate, and even looks like a very fat version of Chile. Its population is larger, with approximately the same acreage of arable land, and it still manages to export 80-90 per cent of its production while Chile has to import food. I was a member of the team which went to Sacramento to discuss the project with Governor Brown. He was as enthusiastic as the President had been, and nearly all the concerned officials of his government shared his enthusiasm. They devoted many hours to planning and discussion, promised to invest substantial energy in the program, and to hire additional people. All this culminated in the signing of an agreement in the White House by the President and the Governor.
The project has not lived up to expectations, primarily because AID was unwilling to let go of the responsibility for a large part of its program. Yet it is just this kind of delegation of full control with its political and dramatic impact which is essential to any statewide feeling of significant participation. The arguments for it are, in my view, overwhelming. The states are better at agriculture than AID can ever hope to be and would do a better job. Although the states would be spending federal money, the drama, the publicity, and the fact that leadership was coming from the state house would inevitably summon widespread contributions of money and talent from the private sector and local government. Growers’ groups might offer technical assistance, while high schools might establish exchange programs. Communities would “adopt” counterpart communities in the developing country. The possibilities are endless, and enough of them began to appear in California to prove they were realistic.
Such a program would give thousands of individuals and organizations the chance to participate in one of the most important overseas ventures of the American nation. In the process we could help create a broader political constituency for foreign aid. No longer would foreign aid be a remote endeavor through which a few anonymous bureaucrats in Washington hand over large chunks of taxpayers’ money to equally remote people in some unknown capital. There is little doubt of the basic compassion of Americans toward other countries or of their interest in the people of foreign lands. Any foreign visitor who has lived here for a while can testify to that. But the current program does not touch these basic emotions, because it is abstract and removed. As a result, the foreign-aid program, morally imperative and vital to our interest, is doomed. It was that sense of impending doom which helped explain President Kennedy’s interest. And the intervening years have seen a steady erosion of a most generous and necessary concept until its relationship to the problem is ludicrous, pitiful, and tragic. The 1966 election is an ominous augury that we may even be facing its extinction.
Another prospect for decentralization, and one closer to home, is the American city. We know that the problem of the cities is enormously complex. It is not one problem but a hundred: urban renewal and rehabilitation of rundown structures, new financing techniques and private development corporations, control of land speculation and new suburban slums, breaking up ghettos and giving people a place to play in, efficient transportation and mastery of the automobile. We may need to rebuild entire central cities or construct huge new satellite metropolises. The condition and future prospect of our cities are the greatest single threat to the quality of American life. Many who live in major urban areas are already the victims of conditions which confine, stifle, and degrade their daily existence to an extent unthinkable half a century ago. Nor is this a problem for the poor alone. They are the chief victims, but all must breathe the air, fight the traffic, do without nature, and worry about violence.
Instead of a scattered attack on particular problems, we must begin by asking what kind of city we want to live in, and what kind of city we want for our children. As we approach the problem on this spacious scale, we see immediately that uncontrolled growth and change must be replaced by long-range planning which encompasses the entire urban area across municipal and state lines. And we see, too, that the cities do not have the money to meet their problems.
I believe we should adopt a Marshall Plan approach to the problems of the American city. Resources on a large scale would be made available to those urban areas which prepared a comprehensive program for future development, embracing urban policies as diverse as land use, housing codes, tax structures, and water systems. The federal government could give technical assistance in planning, set certain standards, and ensure that the program was being carried forward. But the basic responsibility for decision and action would rest with the city and its people. This would not only help meet the more general imperatives of decentralization, but would provide a powerful incentive for the cooperation across historic political jurisdictions which is the condition of effective action.
There are many other areas in which decentralization is possible. Anti-poverty and job-retraining programs should be increasingly handed over to community groups instead of being drawn, as they now are, closer to the federal government. Aid to education might well be administered to a far larger degree by local boards, subject only to the most general standards. Instead of threatening to draft all young Americans for public service, we could encourage and finance a host of varied volunteer groups to perform public services at the state and community level in order to provide an outlet for those many citizens still anxious to find an answer to the question, “What can you do for your country?” Many federal installations and services could well be subject to greater local supervision. For example, we might establish local boards of directors for post offices, permitting the community to decide, within the limits of available resources, the kind of postal service they require, even hire and fire postmasters and, at least, to air their complaints.
Much of this will appear sloppy and chaotic. Some of it will certainly be confused. It is always easier to yearn for the illusory neatness of central direction and control, under the assumption that it is more effective. That assumption has often proved wrong in the past, and it must now be questioned across the board of federal activity. Even if we do add to confusion, that is a small price to pay for the benefits of decentralization. Confusion may even turn out to be creative. In fact, I cannot remember a single unconfused government organization that ever produced an important new idea.
I do not assume that proposals such as these will cure what Norman Mailer calls “the plague” of modern life or halt the flow toward fragmentation and futility. Politics is only part of the story. The values, ideas, and instincts of our modern condition may be too relentless to yield, even slightly, to leadership and political invention. Perhaps the changes required are far more convulsive and profound than most of us can formulate. As a practicing politician, I can only hope for and speak of those things which seem to reach toward the limits of foreseeable possibility.