Decentralizing America: a trend with global roots

Down in Leesburg, Va., there's a new sort of Minuteman developing. He doesn't carry a musket, or wear a tricorn, or dislike the British. He uses a telephone, wears a sports jacket, and dislikes centralized bureaucracy.

He's a retired government worker, and in this case he's helping the Loudon County District Court track down delinquent fathers who aren't making child-support payments. His name is Richard Thomas. And like 52 percent of his fellow Americans (according to a 1982 Independent Sector/Gallup survey) he donates a chunk of time to worthy causes.

''I go around the county yelling 'Volunteer! Volunteer!' '' he told Deborah Churchman, whose story on the Virginia program begins on today's front page. Why? ''Because I feel a lot (of problems) could be handled without setting up some sort of bureaucratic department,'' he said.

That answer - that desire to defend community initiatives from the central planners - puts Mr. Thomas squarely into a trend. It is a trend toward decentralization, and it is being felt far beyond Leesburg. Lucia Mouat's recent Monitor story from Chicago, describing the efforts of the century-old Community Renewal Society (CRS) to help with local poverty, unemployment, and racial tension, focused not on state or federal support but on volunteers and private funds. And, as Earl Foell's recent analysis of reforms behind the Iron Curtain makes plain, the thrust toward decentralization evident in Budapest and Peking is being felt even in Yuri Andropov's Kremlin.

Centralization, in fact, is no longer the great hope it may have seemed when, in 1919, Lincoln Steffens returned from Russia to proclaim that ''I have seen the future, and it works.'' Part of the problem with centralized planning is explainable in political terms. As bureaucracies mature, they become more reluctant to take risks - and less responsive to the needs of local communities below them than to political pressures above.

But much of the explanation for this trend toward decentralization surely lies in deeper human longings - in the desire for self-respect, self-determination, and independence. In their cruder forms, these motives can lead to bitter nationalism and sectarianism. Yet even those impulses (currently on view in Beirut, Belfast, Kabul, N'Djamena, and dozens of other global hot spots) sometimes have behind them a desire to escape the oppression of outside authority. And in more refined forms, these motives help shape an impressive array of community-based efforts - ranging from the highly organized structure of the Chicago CRS to the informal activities of parents helping with Cub Scout troops. Thickening the mix of motives may be still another: the desire for participation, increasingly felt in nations where television tends to make mere spectators of us all.

Will the trend toward decentralization continue? Its success would seem to be tied to two things:

* Volunteerism. Grass-roots community"initiativms depend on voluntary support. They require more than a recognition of the inability of distant governmental bodies to cope with close-up problems. They also need the contriButions of those who care deeply about the place in which they live.

* Education. One excuse for centralized planning is the (sometimes well-meaning) assumption that people cannot think very well for themselves - and need to have their thinking done for them. As educational levels slip, the allure of centralization - that of having an enlightened few steer the benighted multitude - grows correspondingly strong. The most potent antidote for that fallacy is a consistently high standard of education.

So the renewed nationwide interest in volunteerism (evidenced by President Reagan's earlier call for increased volunteer efforts), and the growing national debate over educational standards, bode well for the future of the trend. As for the present, Dr. Donald Benedict, summarizing his 22 years as executive director of CRS, puts it simply. ''What we've learned,'' he says, ''is that you really have to trust local people to do what they have to do.''

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