Libertarians tend to like political decentralization and the principle of subsidiarity (” do everything at the lowest feasible level”). The standard reasoning is that decentralization provides a check on government, especially when combined with mobility across jurisdictions. Thus, if one jurisdiction becomes too overbearing, people can flee to a more welcoming environment, and this possibility will actually prevent governments from running roughshod over their citizens’ liberties, for fear of losing their tax base. Dressed up in the language of rational-choice institutionalism, this is all Barry Weingast’s “market-preserving federalism” model really is.
I would like to posit that, under certain conditions, decentralization can in and of itself represent an increase in freedom, even if government does not shrink as a consequence (even if it grows!).
Why do radical libertarians think that taxation is theft? Presumably because taxation takes away citizens’ justly acquired property without their consent. But what if they did consent, e.g., through a social contract? Then taxation would be fine, so long as it is levied pursuant to the terms of the contract. But – “I didn’t sign no stinkin’ social contract!” Fair enough, neither have most people – and, eliding a long stream of philosophical argument, it ultimately seems clear that the arguments for empirical anarchism (“very few existing governments have a moral right to rule”) are compelling.
But could a government established illegitimately come to enjoy some legitimacy after a certain period, during which it has performed certain actions? Think about property entitlements. The long history of theft, extortion, and murder in human societies might seem to render virtually all property entitlements illegitimate. But then there are good reasons to think that the moral stain of illegitimate transfer eventually fades as the victims die out and the holdings are transferred justly to subsequent generations. Thus, property entitlements that are illegitimate in origin can eventually be “redeemed.”
In the same way, governments are generally not established by initial unanimous consent (the Mayflower Compact was an interesting historical exception). Therefore, they are morally illegitimate because they violate the rights of nonconsenters. But can governments eventually become legitimate through the establishment of consent? Clearly, no government (that I know of) has ever tried to obtain the signatures of all its citizens to a constitution after the fact. But surely, living under a government can, under some circumstances, convey consent. John Locke’s theory of tacit consent to government holds that “enjoying the dominions of a commonwealth” makes you morally subject to that government – you must obey its laws, or at least not interfere with their enforcement. This theory is inadequate when applied to national states, however, for their very size makes emigration impractical for most. It doesn’t really count as consent if you have no choice.
But what about a condominium association? Let’s suppose a CA was established improperly without all the proper signatures, but carried on governing. It was a morally illegitimate government at its founding. But if you continue to live there for a certain period of time without making a complaint, it seems fair to infer that you have consented to the arrangement. In these circumstances, tacit consent does seem to do some work. Why? Because a condominium association is so small, territorially, that it is easy to leave if you do not like it.
Now replace “condominium association” with “municipal government.” It is reasonably easy to move across municipal jurisdictions. I would venture to guess that there are many towns across the United States where, if all adults were surveyed, none of them would volunteer the belief that their municipal government is illegitimate and has no right to rule. In effect, these town governments enjoy unanimous consent to the basic contract (this does not mean, of course, that there is unanimous consent to every decision the local government makes – but all that matters for “right to rule” is unanimous consent to the basic procedures by which decisions are made).
So if radical libertarians were to go into a town like this and proclaim that resistance to local taxation is just, or that enforcement of ordinances against, say, houses of prostitution is wicked, they would be in the wrong. These policies would not necessarily be violating anyone’s rights, because everyone has consented to the town government’s right to make these decisions. (As an aside, libertarians would probably make more headway with their ideas if they openly acknowledged that local communities should have the right to zone out crack dealerships and brothels, thus cutting the legs out from under the easiest and most unfair reductios of libertarianism.)
In conclusion, decentralization, by placing political decisions in the hands of small-scale governments, can, under conditions of good mobility and respect for basic integrity of the person, inherently improve liberty. “Big government” at the local level need not be unjust, because it often enjoys the consent of the governed. Libertarians need not be complete anarchists, just radical decentralists.
UPDATE: In the comments, Mark LeBar poses a strong challenge to my view that really existing local governments enjoy a moral right to rule. In response, I concede that the right to rule is somewhat impeached by the lack of express consent, but maintain that what matters most is the contents of residents’ “choice sets,” i.e., their real ability to withhold or withdraw consent by moving. In practice, what an impeached right to rule may mean is that there are certain, very fundamental rights that citizens cannot give up except through express consent under conditions of a highly favorable choice set, while there are other rights that may reasonably be considered to be alienated simply through residence and absence of explicit dissent. Local governments would then enjoy a right to rule in the latter areas, but not the former. Levying low taxes might fit the latter category, while imprisoning private drug users might fit the former. This is admittedly a bit arbitrary & not totally satisfactory. Nevertheless, I don’t think I need the strong claim that local governments enjoy any kind of right to rule in order to make the weaker claim that limitations on freedom enacted by local governments are inherently less oppressive (if not totally non-oppressive) than the same limitations enacted by higher-level governments.