In just a matter of days, President Donald Trump went from expressing the desire that we get the economy going in just a few weeks to announcing that “social distancing guidance” would remain in effect until April 30 to help us battle COVID-19. That was a welcome and important change, but neither decision was truly in his hands. Thanks to our long tradition of decentralized decision-making, that power lies primarily with our state governors and local leaders.
We can take some lessons from that tradition to understand how our governments have responded thus far to the pandemic. More importantly, these lessons can inform our thinking—and give us encouragement—about how our elected officials can and should act in the weeks and months ahead.
Though there’s much talk about the horizontal separation of powers among our federal branches, we can take for granted America’s vertical distribution of authority—among Washington, states, counties, cities, towns, non-governmental bodies, and individuals. But decentralization has a profound influence on how we go about the public’s business and solve problems. Thanks in part to our settler, revolutionary, pioneer, and immigrant roots, we have developed habits and institutions related to freedom and proximate self-government. So for more than 200 years, Americans have been acclimatized to liberty, local democracy, and civil-society activity.
Everyone wants a measure of control over their own lives and to be able to help shape their communities. Decentralization offers that by providing efficacy and agency—a sense that we can make a difference and the tools to do so. But in a highly diverse, continental republic like the United States, decentralization is even more important. Our citizens and their associations will always possess a vast array of needs and priorities. Close-to-home decision-making maximizes our capacity to have government action reflect this diversity.