The Encyclopedia of Democracy

Authors: Lipset
Summary: This short entry of about 1000 words defines decentralization with reference to centralization, discusses the relationship between decentralization and democracy, and provides examples illustrating contemporary issues concerning centralization and decentralization.
Decentralization, according to the entry, is the devolution of state power to locally elected authorities. Specifically within the context of centralization, the entry defines decentralization as a process aimed at removing concentrated power from the hands of a single, central ruler. Thus, not only is decentralization a ruling technique, it is also significantly connected to the democratization of authoritarian regimes and plays a central role in liberal political theory. The entry offers a few examples illustrating these ideas.
Decentralization is not unique to democratic systems, any regime can decentralize power. Similarly, classical theory identified decentralization with local community, but it is really an organizational form that governments can use at any level of the political system. Decentralization's close connection with democracy arises from a few different sources, including separated powers and noncentralized fiscal and financial authority. The entry details these factors and provides a variety of interesting examples.
The entry concludes with a look at how the debate about decentralization shifted direction during the 1960s and 1970s. Case studies by political scholars Floyd Hunter and Robert Dahl recast the issue into one between theories of elitism and pluralism, and this debate was further fueled by neo-Marxists such as Manuel Castells and Patrick Dunleavy. Public choice theory dominated the decentralization debate during the 1980s, and by the 1990s, the privatization of public utilities and the national state structure became the two prominent issues.