Decentralization is not a new phenomenon, but a recurring theme in human history. Throughout the ages, people have sought to challenge and resist the domination and oppression of centralized powers, and to create alternative forms of organization and governance that are more democratic, participatory, and responsive to their needs and aspirations.
The 19th century was a particularly fertile period for the development and expression of decentralist ideas and practices, as the world witnessed the rise and fall of empires, revolutions, and social movements, and the emergence and expansion of capitalism, industrialization, and nationalism.
In this article, we will present you with 10 books that were written in or before the 19th century, and that explore the concept and practice of decentralization from various angles and perspectives. These books are not only relevant and insightful for understanding the historical context and dynamics of decentralization, but also for informing and inspiring our current and future efforts to create a more decentralized and empowered world.
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (1859): This book is a classic defense of individual freedom and autonomy against the tyranny of the majority and the state. Mill argues that the only legitimate reason for interfering with someone’s liberty is to prevent harm to others, and that people should be free to pursue their own interests and opinions as long as they do not violate the rights of others. Mill also advocates for a decentralized society, where civil-society bodies are the natural products of liberty, possessing inviolable rights and clear responsibilities.
“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” - John Stuart Mill
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835-1840): This book is a comprehensive analysis of the American political system and society, highlighting the role of civil society, local government, and voluntary associations in fostering democracy. Tocqueville contrasts the centralized and bureaucratic administration of France with the decentralized and participatory governance of the United States, and argues that the latter is more conducive to liberty, equality, and social stability.
The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1787-1788): This book is a collection of essays that argued for the ratification of the United States Constitution, emphasizing the benefits of a federal system that balances the powers of the central and state governments. The authors contend that a large and diverse republic can protect the rights and interests of the people better than a small and homogeneous one, and that a decentralized structure can prevent the concentration and abuse of power by any faction or branch of government.
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1776): This book is a foundational work of economics, advocating for free trade, market competition, and limited government intervention. Smith explains how the invisible hand of the market can coordinate the actions of self-interested individuals and produce efficient and beneficial outcomes for society. Smith also supports a decentralized economic system, where the division of labor, the specialization of skills, and the freedom of exchange can increase productivity, innovation, and wealth.
“The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition is so powerful, that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often encumbers its operations.” - Adam Smith
Two Treatises of Government by John Locke (1689): This book is a influential work of political philosophy, arguing for the natural rights of life, liberty, and property, and the legitimacy of government based on the consent of the governed.
Locke also supports a decentralized system of government, where the people have the right to resist or overthrow a tyrannical ruler, and where the legislative, executive, and federative powers are separated and balanced.
“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” - John Locke
The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation by David Ricardo (1817): This book is a seminal work of economics, developing the theory of comparative advantage, the law of diminishing returns, and the labor theory of value. Ricardo also favors a decentralized economic system, where free trade and competition can increase efficiency and welfare, and where government intervention and taxation should be minimized.
“The interest of the landlords is always opposed to the interest of every other class in the community.” - David Ricardo
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848): This book is a revolutionary work of political and economic theory, criticizing the exploitation and alienation of capitalism, and calling for a class struggle and a socialist transformation of society. Marx and Engels also envision a decentralized and democratic system of government, where the proletariat abolishes the state and establishes a dictatorship of the people, and where the means of production are owned and controlled by the workers.
The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762): This book is a radical work of political philosophy, proposing a theory of democracy based on the general will of the people, and the idea of popular sovereignty. Rousseau also advocates for a decentralized form of government, where the people participate directly in making laws and decisions, and where the smaller and simpler the state, the better.
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” - Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau (1849): This book is a powerful essay on the moral duty of resistance to unjust laws and government actions, inspired by Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes that supported slavery and the Mexican-American War. Thoreau also promotes a decentralized and individualistic way of life, where people follow their conscience and live in harmony with nature, and where the best government is the one that governs least.
“That government is best which governs least.” - Henry David Thoreau
Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1651): You may want to consider reading arguments against decentralization. Hobbes argues that in a state of nature, humans are naturally violent and self-interested, leading to a constant state of war. To escape this, individuals must agree to give up some of their freedoms and form a social contract with a strong central authority, which Hobbes calls the Leviathan. This authority is responsible for maintaining peace and order and has the power to make and enforce laws. Hobbes' Leviathan was a groundbreaking work in political philosophy that influenced many subsequent thinkers and remains a foundational text in the study of political theory.
We hope that this article has sparked your interest and curiosity in the topic of decentralization, and that you will find the time and motivation to read some or all of these books. They will can inspire you to act and to make a difference, and to join the growing community of decentralization enthusiasts around the world.
Decentralization is not a utopian dream, but a realistic and achievable goal, if we are willing to learn from the past, and to work together for the future.