Washington — `I'D like to see Washington shrunk. That would be my dream, my ideal.'' Reclining in an easy chair in the living room of his unpretentious, well-appointed apartment here, Robert Nisbet unravels the thread of his argument for the decentralization of American government. It's an argument that has gained this renowned but modest scholar - historian, sociologist, former Albert Schweitzer professor of humanities at Columbia University, and author of more than a dozen books - a good deal of prominence recently. Earlier this month he delivered the annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities here - the nation's highest honor in the humanities. An expanded version of his lecture, published by Harper & Row as ``The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America,'' appeared earlier this year.
In book, lecture, and conversation, one theme emerges clearly: the danger of what he calls ``the Leviathan-like presence of the national government in the affairs of states, towns, and cities, and in the lives, cradle to grave, of individuals.''
No fire-breathing libertarian, Professor Nisbet preaches balance. ``We've got to have a welfare state of some sort - of course we do,'' he says, citing the grave social problems involving the homeless, the elderly, the indigent, and the ill.
What we don't need, he says, is the familiar assumption that such problems can be taken care of only by an intrusive, all-encompassing national government.
``It is as if the government passed by the social molecules in which most of us actually live - clubs, neighborhoods, families, and so on - to get to the atom inside,'' he says. ``And just that effort worsens the state of the molecule.''
The problem, he explains, arises from the tendency of national government to nourish bureaucracies. ``The danger of large, centralized bureaucracies,'' he told the audience at his May 13 Jefferson Lecture, is obvious: ``the suffocation or strangling of genuine thought, of genuine leadership, or genuine consensus.''
Plenty of thinkers, in and out of government, have railed against centralization and bureaucracy. Yet Dr. Nisbet, with the historian's perspective and the sociologist's analysis, provides a framework for understanding these problems. Bureaucracy, for him, is merely a symptom. The root cause is America's love affair with something he calls ``national community.''
To explain, Nisbet returns to history. ``Prior to 1917,'' he told his audience, ``[America was] the most decentralized, dispersed, regionalized, and localized government to be found among the great nations of Western society.'' With its entry into World WarI, however, ``overnight America became a highly centralized, collectivized war state.'' The war ended in 1918, and the ``war state'' was dismantled. But then, he noted, something strange happened.
``Perversely as it may have seemed, an affection for the late war began to transfuse the veins of Americans.'' Parades, picnics, posters, songs - during the war, the government in Washington radiated a sense of togetherness that unified the nation as never before. ``The national government, heretofore recessive in manner and frugal in the use of its powers, had forged ahead of the states, local communities, professions, businesses, churches, and other traditional sources of close solidarity.''
The legacy, according to Nisbet, was ``the intoxicating idea of a national community.''
Intoxicating but dangerous, as Nisbet makes clear. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the welfare state, the Great Society - slowly, inexorably, the state took on roles once left to families, churches, and local communities. Penetrating ever deeper into the structure of the community, it came to exercise increasing authority over the lives of individuals - often ignoring the rich and complex context in which they lived.
Asked in the interview to spell out the danger, Nisbet cited the example of a national health bill of the sort now being discussed in Congress. How might it deal, he wonders, with the questions surrounding something as intimate and yet as far-reaching as a serious birth defect?
``The adversarial procedure of the court of law is not an ideal place to settle those questions,'' he says. Yet that, he fears, could well be the result of the legislation.
Instead, he says, the central figures should be the parents. ``If they have a clergyman, he should be in on [the decision]. If they have a personal physician, he should be in on it. And if a national health bill can and will recognize the powerful importance of these little communities that are formed on matters of birth defects, that's fine. But if it's going to be settled essentially by a bureau overriding the family and church - this is what bothers me chiefly about national community. It resonates a degree of intimacy, of closeness, of penetration to the atoms in the social molecule, that troubles me no end.
``If we continue to worship the national state and national community,'' he warned his audience, ``we risk exposure to the fatal diseases of empires in history: apoplexy at the center and anemia at the extremities.'' Yet unlike some other recent commentators on America's social and political future - Paul Kennedy, Allan Bloom, and the rest of the America-in-decline set - Nisbet radiates a certain optimism. America's worship of centralization has peaked, he says.
``There is growing evidence,'' he told his audience, ``that people don't like it. They will say to their masters: You promise community but you give us bureaucracy.''
Where, then, is the nation headed? ``I think probably we'll be governed in large degree by how military a nation we find ourselves remaining,'' he says, leaning forward for emphasis. ``War and the military have a penchant - always have had - for centralization. I think the more the national military budget goes down - if it ever does - the greater the likelihood of being able to rely on states, cities, privatesector groups, and so on.''
And that would mightily please the historian in him. ``Maybe in the next century,'' he says with one of his frequent laughs, ``we'll have a dozen or two dozen sparkling cities that are really important - and states where it's just bloody important to be governor - and be more like the Renaissance states. You know, it's good to have a Genoa, and a Pisa, and a Florence, and a Milan - cities competing with each other.''