The way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defence of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the state governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the state generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best. What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body.

—Thomas Jefferson. Letter to Joseph C. Cabell, Monticello, February 2, 1816.

Dispersal of power in government is achieved by constitutional structures that spread necessary power so it is held by different people, different branches, and different jurisdictions. This ensures that the different powers act as a check and balance against each other. However, the most important dispersal of all is removing power from government altogether and dispersing it amongst the people by allowing them to run their own lives, educate their own children, and run their own businesses. The art of good government is thus to continually seek out ways to reduce the role of government and in its place to set up structures that allow individuals to govern their own affairs.

Centralized power destroys freedom, yet proponents of the European Union are continually pushing for ever greater centralization and so charging headlong towards despotism. The same phenomenon can be seen in the United States, as more and more legislative power is transferred from the state and local governments to the federal government, and more and more of the economy is regulated and regulated centrally. Although socialists claim centralized power improves trade, human rights, or societal wealth, in truth they are simply following a primitive biological urge for the concentration of power which, while it may have aided survival in Neolithic times, experience proves is destructive of freedom and impractical for civilised society.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville explained that freedom became so strongly established in America because each colony began without effective centralized power; instead, each town and county organized itself. Thus, Americans established freedom not through revolution, but through the absence of centralized control from the beginning. It was only when the British government tried to belatedly impose centralized control on them that the colonists rebelled.

Although the Americans vindicated their right to self-government long ago, the centralizing tendency of power is now moving America towards despotism, just as Thomas Jefferson warned it would: “When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the centre of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.” (Letter to Charles Hammond, Monticello, August 18, 1821.)

The only way to reverse the damage is to reverse the process. Just as the countries of the Eastern Bloc and the former Soviet Union reclaimed their freedom by separating into sovereign countries, so too must the European Union be broken up, and so too must America return to the union of separate sovereign states that it once was, with a federal government responsible only for defense and foreign affairs. As Cesare Beccaria explained: “An overgrown republic can only be saved from despotism by subdividing it into a number of confederate republics.” (Of Crimes and Punishments, 1764.)

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove