THE DANGERS OF CENTRALIZATION IN GOVERNMENT
By FRANK M. DIXON, Governor of Alabama
Delivered at Governors' Conference, Asheville, N. C., June 21, 1942
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 621-624.
IT is well understood that, in times like these, any discussion of federal-state relationship, or of the principles of American self-government is likely to seem academic. The minds of all of us, the time and the strength of all of us, are taken by the effort of the war. Our sons are in uniform, the free institutions of free men in desperate danger, that American way of life so highly valued by us one of the stakes of a brutal and merciless war. Our very survival as a free people is in the balance, our men fighting and dying on foreign fields, the thoughts and energies of all of our people turned, in desperate need and haste, to the calls of a war-time economy.
Those of us who are Governors are, of course, in the midst of the turmoil. To us was delegated the choice of the Selective Service Boards, of the Rationing Boards, of the formation of the State Guards, of the selection of the many defense councils, of all the great body of work comprised in the term Civilian Defense. Added to our normal administrative duties, made more difficult in times such as these, the new responsibilities have long extended the working days of all of us. We are extremely busy men, glad to be busy in the service of our people.
Yet in the midst of all the difficulties, of all the labors of our offices, to me it seems that the very safety of the Democratic principles requires alertness and caution on our part. To me it seems that we have developed definite
tendencies in our national life which, if not restrained, will ultimately result in the loss of that Democracy we are now so anxiously striving by force of arms to make secure.
In the beginning let me make plain what I think is the point of view of all of us: every single power which is necessary for the federal government to exercise for the successful prosecution of this war should be accorded instantly, cheerfully. We seek to engage in no battle, whether theoretical or not with the federal government in times like these. But two principles should be borne in mind. First, that the power should not be surrendered unless it is actually and directly necessary to win the war and, second, that it should be clearly understood that the return of that power from the federal to local governments will come with the end of hostilities.
All of us are familiar with the theory and the early practice of federal-state relationship. All of us are familiar with the constructions placed by the courts on those constitutional sections conferring federal power, sharply limiting and circumscribing its extent. Of the three great bodies of power, that remaining in the hands of the people was by far the greatest: that committed by the people to the states was next in importance, and that committed by the people in the states to the federal government was the smallest in extent. As the nation grew and the state lines became more and more imaginary divisions, as the commerce between the states became ofgreat importance with the necessity of federal control gradually, by the normal processes, the balance of power began to shift toward Washington.
The power of the federal government steadily has grown. That growth had to come from somewhere, either from the states or from that great reservoir of ultimate power which had been in the beginning carefully preserved for the people themselves. I have heard it said that the tremendous increase in federal power came through the entry by the federal government into new fields, not at the expense of the states and local governments. All of us who have dealt with the problem and who have felt the sharp curtailment of state authority know that this contention is not true.
The history of the movement presents definite interest to us. In 1791 Congress granted to the states public lands for the erection of schools. In 1862 the Morrill Act inaugurated the congressional policy of making grants for specified types of education, under which the Land Grant Colleges was passed. In 1879 Congress authorized contributions to the states for the care of the blind. In 1887 the Hatch Act establishing Agricultural Experiment Stations and making direct appropriations became the law. In 1888 Congress authorized money grants for the establishment of state homes for aged war veterans. In 1890 the Morrill Act was amended to make direct appropriations for the Land Grant Colleges, with authorization to the Secretary of the Interior to withhold funds if the state did not fulfill its obligations. In 1902 the Reclamation Service was established. In 1911 federal aid was extended for forest fire protection to the states. In 1914 the system of county agricultural agents was established. In 1915 the Farm Loan Act gave federal subsidies to farmers. In 1916 the Public Roads Act was passed, which was the first important "dollar-matching" act. In 1916 federal aid to the states for the maintenance of National Guard equipment was inaugurated. In 1917 the federal program for vocation education was set up. In 1925 the appropriations for agricultural experiment stations was largely increased. In 1932 the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was created to provide loans to industry. In 1933 the powers of the federal government were extended to cover relief to the unemployed under federal control, subsidies to agriculture and control over industry. We are all familiar with the recent acts. It suffices to say that federal subsidies, with their inevitable federal control even prior to the war, had extended the powers of the government in Washington until it had to do with the life of the great majority of our citizens from the cradle to the grave.
The process by which this federal power was achieved is no secret. It is well known to all of us. It is possibly best expressed in the words of former Governor Ritchie of Maryland when he said:
"Through the expenditure of prodigious sums of public money, and through the conditions the government imposes upon the states before they may receive these funds, American self-government is being destroyed before our eyes." Before Pearl Harbor the entire Social Security structure, including all of its ramifications, the Road Program, the Forestry Program, Extension Service, the Health services, to a limited extent the schools, all of these and many other activities touching directly the people, through the system of federal financing which prevailed, were in large part dominated by the bureaucracies at Washington. The WPA, the PWA, the CCC., the FSA, and scores of other alphabetical agencies, dealing directly with individuals and smaller governmental units, short-circuited the states and thereby the established governmental system. Where activities of federal agencies ran counter to the opinion of the governor or other state or local official as to what was best, the simple methodof punishment for the state or localities was put into use. You know how it is done.
With the declaration of war, the trend, growing throughout the years and continually becoming more definite, has taken rapid strides. It is a very difficult thing, in times like these, for the governor of a state to say No to one of the high officials of our federal government. Every single demand of the federal bureaucracy is treated as a demand based upon the necessities of war. It requires strength and courage to separate those demands, the true from the false, and to hold fast to basic principles.
There are many types of thought represented in the wartime Washington of today. There are those who believe sincerely that local self-government is a failure, that the nation has progressed to the point where state and local lines should be eliminated, that the good of the nation requires the elimination of social customs and habits of our people where those customs or habits run counter to the thought of the majority. There are those who sincerely believe that the free competitive system of the past is and should be as dead as the dodo, who believe that the average citizen will be infinitely better off if his destinies are taken out of his own hands and he becomes the ward of a great paternalistic state. There are those who believe, sincerely and honestly, that our American civilization has failed and that the solution lies in some type of state socialism dominated by the federal government. The major difficulty with those who seek those changes is that they continue their determination to bring them about even in a time when the very foundations of the earth are being shaken, when the liberties of all of us are at stake.
To me it seems that in peace time every advocate of every social, economic, or political reform has the right to be heard. Every believer in the dictatorship of a powerful central government, every advocate of the destruction of the balance of powers, every bureaucrat who seeks his own aggrandizement has the right to the forum of public opinion to present his case. If the majority of the people in this nation want socialism, you and I can live as well as anyone else. If the majority of the people want a labor government, then you and I can go along, and in times of peace you and I will be the first ones to champion the causes of any one to be heard.
To me it seems very definitely that war times are different. All of us are busily engaged in trying to win a war. All of us are anxious to devote all of our energies to the emergency. Our own flesh and blood is in the uniform of our country, as we were a generation ago. For a pressure group, in these times, to insist on special advantages for itself, for a social reformer to press his designs, for labor to seek to retain peace-time advantages, for capital to seek to break down the right to organize, for labor or capital to stop production by reason of their disputes, for capital or any individual to seek one penny of profit from this war, for the bureaucrats in Washington to seize the opportunity to break down still further the federal-state relationship, that federal-state relationship which is one of the foundations of local self-government, for any one to seek to permit any of the organized groups to secure an advantage in the economic structure, for any person or group of persons to seek to secure any advantage for themselves or others, these acts or any of them in these times are simply unpatriotic in a time of national peril. These things strike at the national unity, they cause us either to surrender our liberties at home or deflect necessary attention from the war and the national emergency. These things are going on in this nation today. They should be stopped.
Is there anything of value in self-government? Is thereanything of danger in a strongly centralized government in Washington? Let me read to you what three men, fairly well known in our political life, have said on this exact subject. Thomas Jefferson used the following language:
". . . Were not this country already divided into States, that distribution must be made that each might do for itself what concerns itself directly, and what it can so much better do than a distant authority. Every State is again divided into counties, each to take care of what lies within its local bounds; each county again into townships or wards, to manage minuter details, and every ward into farms, to be governed each by its individual proprietor. . . . It is by this partition of cares, descending in gradation from general to particular, that the mass of human affairs may be best managed for the good and prosperity of all." Woodrow Wilson, in 1912, said as follows:
"The history of Liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it. When we resist, therefore, the concentration of power, we are resisting the processes of death, because concentration of power is what always precedes the destruction of human liberties."
The President of the United States, when Governor of New York, in contending that the federal government was authorized to exercise no more power within the state than had been granted specifically by the Constitution, said:
"As a matter of fact and law, the governing rights of the States are all of those which have not been surrendered to the National Government by the Constitution or its amendments. Wisely, or unwisely, people know that under the Eighteenth Amendment Congress has been given the right to legislate on this particular subject; but this is not the case in the matter of a great number of other vital problems of government, such as the conduct of public utilities, of banks, of insurance, of business, of agriculture, of education, of social welfare, and of a dozen other important features. In these, Washington must not be encouraged to interfere . . . The preservation of this 'Home Rule' by the States is not a cry of jealous Commonwealths seeking their own aggrandizement at the expense of sister States. It is a fundamental necessity if we are to remain a truly united country."
Why are these three great Americans so insistent on local self-government?
The history of free governments proves beyond cavil and beyond the shadow of a doubt that when men cease to exercise their privileges as citizens in the conduct of their local affairs, they lose the strength and the fiber requisite for the retention of freedom itself. Just as an athlete, when he ceases to use his muscles becomes soft and flabby, just so do the minds of a people not sharpened by the exercise of political freedoms become soft and flabby. Many reasons have been assigned for the weakness which caused the fall of France. Is it not apparent that the organization of the French political system, by which the states of France were simple provinces, governed and controlled by delegates from the national government, exercising none of the prerogatives as we know them of free men, led to the loss of the political toughness necessary in the minds of men who would remain free?
The local governments are the places where Democracy is part and parcel of the life of each man and woman. The men composing the governing body of the average municipality are known, personally, to nearly every individual within its borders. They affect definitely and vitally the life and well being of the people. The governing body of every county is a part of the lives of the people of that county. Its responsibility for acts, whether good or bad, is immediate, definite and understood. As with the government of the county, so the state. As Governor, in your election campaign, you had to go into every hamlet. Your people became acquainted with you, looked you in the face and many of them shook your hand. You are no appointive officials. You live on the level with your people, not at the seat of any far-off federal government. They feel the definite responsibility for you, they look to you for fairness and wisdom in their public affairs, and if you fail them you will quickly hear about it. The political picture in the cities and the counties and in the states is every bit as important a political picture, and to my mind, outside of war conditions, a picture more vital to the continued success of Democracy than the picture in Washington itself. The road to a centralization of power in Washington is a road to a fat government and thin citizens when the end results of over-centralization and tremendous and overpowering bureaucracy are reached.
Strong in their desire for complete centralization of power are the pressure groups, those seeking always their own aggrandizement, their own ends. Many of these ends are good. But the philosophy that the end justifies the means has never been one to which the average citizen subscribes. The federal government is much easier to handle, for a pressure group, than forty-eight legislatures. There are fewer members of Congress, fewer to threaten with defeat. Once the pressure succeeds, all the powers of that government can be used to enforce compliance on the people, however unwilling some may be, however many of their cherished social customs may be ruthlessly discarded.
Naturally, in times such as these, the effort to complete the centralization proceeds with added impetus. Publicity, coming in an unending stream from Washington largely through releases prepared for outside consumption, shows a remarkable unanimity. On the day recently I noticed two articles with Washington date lines, one to the effect that the states were blocking the war effort by state barriers, and the other outlining the theory that all taxes should be collected by the federal government and returned according to some formula to the states from whence they came. The latter article did not state under what circumstances the federal government would refuse to return them and thereby wreck the state.
There was a continued flood of publicity which came out following the recent failure to seize control of Unemployment Compensation. There has been a flood of propaganda justifying the seizure of the Employment Service. I noticed the other day over a Washington date line the announcement the the people of Australia were about to abolish their state lines and establish all control in one government. It omitted to mention the fact that the union was formed only in 1901 and was different in nearly every respect from the Federal Union which has made this the greatest country in the world. There was no publicity, so far as I saw, with reference to the recent attempt of the Forestry Service to take over the state towers, thereby wrecking the State Forestry Services and interfering with the state-manned system of airplane warnings established under the Office of Civilian Defense.
You are very familiar with what happened to the State Employment Services. We have never yet gotten an agreement to return these services after the war. You are also very familiar with the attempt to seize control of Unemployment Compensation. Forty-five governors and the great majority of the Ways and Means Committee of the House were not convinced that this attempt had anything to do with the war effort. You can expect another attempt when the tax bill is disposed of by Congress.
Please do not understand that there is any personal feeling on my part toward any of those who occupy positions as bureau chiefs in Washington. Many of them are my personal friends, and I like them. But for some reason, when some of our country boys go to the big city on the Potomac, they suffer a fundamental change. It may be that they improve, but I somewhat doubt it.
We have several million of our men in the Army. We who remain at home are trustees for them. They were raised under, they left, a form of government of certain fixed philosophies. No one has the right, while they are in the uniform of our country to bring about a change in the social or the economic structure of this land, more than is absolutely essential to win the war in which they are engaged. There must be a stop to those who seek to reform these United States, by whatever scheme, until our men are brought back from foreign battle fields and Democracy itself is preserved.
The forces of those who believe that centralization means dictatorship and the loss of Democracy, and who are not anxious to lose their own souls while they gain the world, are not unimportant in the American life today. You saw what happened in the Unemployment Compensation fight in Washington, when the governors of forty-five states, as patriotic citizens as it is possible to find on the American scene today, rallied as one man. This voice from the crossroads, which is actually the place where the fundamental democratic freedoms still have their being, was heard on Capitol Hill. It can and will be heard again.
Our course is one of action, not inaction. If we do not justify ourselves and our high offices in this crisis, we will lose the faith of our people. There are many things we can do to put our houses in order, and the retention of title to those houses in us requires planning, thought, and the limit of cooperation in all reasonable demands from Washington. We can do the job.
As an example, you remember the recent meeting in Washington, heralded as one to remove state barriers to the war effort. When we arrived and sat through the sessions, to our surprise no single constructive definite suggestion was advanced. Many of the facts stated were inaccurate. It appeared to be a meeting the effect of which would be to lay a foundation for federal action in many state fields.
Realizing the situation, anxious to help the war effort in any way and at the same time to preserve what they could of the democratic process, the Executive Committee of thisConference requested a meeting with federal department heads to ascertain specific instances in which state laws were interfering. At the meeting it was found that truck regulations needed standardizing for the war period. Every state came in line and within ten days the problem was solved. The same course of procedure is open and available every day.
Our difficulty has been lack of realization of the problem and the consequent failure by us to use the means available and at hand. We are extremely busy men. As matters relating to federal-state relationship have come up, the policy of the Washington department head has been to single-shot us, as was recently attempted in the forestry matter. The definite answer to that policy and one which must be adopted is first, to build up a secretariat of the Council of State Governments or of the Governors' Conference to the point where it can correspond to all calls and, second, to communicate immediately with the office of the organization when questions involving federal-state relationship are concerned so that that office may be used as a clearing house and as a means of giving actual representation, in a coordinated manner, to the governors. Only in this way can we give the full measure of cooperation to the federal government in war time and at the same time preserve the proper functions of the states.
That this policy is definitely effective is proven by two instances among many in my own experience. When the Unemployment Compensation fight came up, it was the Executive Committee of the Governors' Conference which came immediately to the battle line. When the attempt to federalize the forestry service first showed its head, I immediately got in touch with Mr. Frank Bane, the Executive-Director of this Conference, and at the same time I communicated with each one of you, and it was through a conference arranged by Mr. Bane in his office that the final adjustment was worked without loss of local self-government and control. Not only in time of war can this clearinghouse be of immense value to us as governors, but when peace comes again, and the inevitable and very wholesome reaction to federal domination starts sweeping the country, the governors of the various states, through their united action, will be in a position wisely to guide the movement so that the democratic process, in its true meaning, may be restored to us.