We live in a time when everything seems too big or too small. We are told that the federal government is too big, too bureaucratic and too threatening to individual liberties. The same critics say that our military is too small, our oil pipelines are too limited and our economic growth is too constrained. People want houses that are bigger than ever before, but they want them to feel small and cozy. They drive hulking trucks while demanding the fuel efficiency and light carbon footprint of small cars.
The same contradictions characterize international politics today. The majority of citizens in Scotland voted last week to remain part of Great Britain, but 45 percent said they wished to secede. Many of those who voted to stay in the union agreed that the political institutions based in London were too big and too threatening to Scottish freedom. The fact that Scots receive more money from London than they pay in did not deter this argument about alleged repression. At the same time, many advocates of independence believe that Scotland should join an even larger set of institutions: the European Union. They like the trade and currency benefits that could come from integrating their economy more closely with the continent. Many Scots want to be small and big simultaneously.
The Middle East has more tragic examples of the same phenomenon. Sunni extremists in Syria and Iraq want to free themselves from these big, oppressive states, but they call for an even bigger state (a “caliphate”), and they are killing thousands of people who want neither the old states nor the new caliphate. The Kurds show similar, although far less violent, inclinations. They want to free themselves from Iraq, Iran and Turkey, but they are intent on creating a larger Kurdistan. They want to be smaller and bigger, too.
So what is the correct size for political authority? How can we build institutions that ensure local freedoms but still nurture the strength and diversity of large numbers? How do we preserve the specificity of small with the benefits of big?
The founders of the United States thought about these precise issues. Their innovative solution was what we call “federalism”: the belief that big and small powers should be mixed in the same government. According to this system, the United States was to have a series of nested political institutions — nation, state, county and town — that would exercise overlapping authorities for taxation, infrastructure and security. From Congress to the county board, representative bodies of different sizes would share power, working together at times, checking each other more often. The founders believed that this kind of mixed system would allow big and small to coexist for the sake of building a strong nation that protected local freedoms.
Great Britain, many states in Europe and most regimes in the Middle East are highly centralized. They have unchallenged national powers that make governing simpler, but also less responsive to local needs. In an age when media often magnify ethnic and cultural cleavages, they would benefit from implementing the kinds of federal reforms that empower more local governance, on the model of the United States, as well as Germany, Mexico and India. Messy, divided federalist authorities have a better historical track record for national unity and citizen freedom than other alternatives, especially secession.
Federalist systems, like the United States, would also do well to re-examine the other side of the equation. Politicians spend so much time condemning national leadership these days, especially in Texas, that we forget how important central authority remains in a government of mixed powers. Washington, D.C., protects our national safety, it regulates our financial system and it provides the funding for basic research, emergency relief and social security, among many other things. We would be a less prosperous and peaceful society without a strong national government. Big government, balanced by local authorities, has historically contributed to American freedom.
The appropriate debate, then, is not between big and small. Secession for Scotland would not make things better for the Scots. Nor would bigger states in the Middle East solve the problems of factional warfare. Good politics balance big and small, central and local. The correct balance is not formulaic. It changes over time.
The task we face today — at home and abroad — is to rethink how we can get the most from national, state and local authorities. Instead of recrimination and name-calling, we need more creative mixing. Effective politics are about building institutions that are neither too big nor too small. Democracy needs many young Goldilocks-inspired thinkers to help us find the sizes and shapes that are “just right.”
Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History.