The great political project of our time is the rebellion against giantism: against the state, corporate, and professional leviathans that strangle individuals and communities. Of all the ways to injure those monsters, the single least effective one may be to write a book about it. Or, at least, to write the book that Thomas Naylor and William Willimon have written.

I don’t want to be unduly critical of this volume. After all, I agree with most of it. Its chapter on schools is sensible and forceful. Its discussion of big charities is biting and spot-on. And its investigation of religion actually breaks new ground. Relatively few decentralists have called for reversing the bureaucratization of faith, despite the living examples of deprofessionalized congregations all around them, from foot-washing conclaves of Primitive Baptists to spell-casting covens of Wiccans. (If that’s not all-encompassing variety, I don’t know what is.) Naylor and Willimon show that big religion is facing the same crises as big government and big business, for much the same reasons, and they do this so insistently that even nonbelievers (such as me) will emerge sharing their concerns. But the book also has its share of problems, each of which overwhelms the authors’ exemplary intentions.

First, and perhaps worst, is its banal, platitudinous prose. This may seem like a minor trouble, but it allows sloppy thinking to sail through under the cover of cliche. “Our nation has lost its way,” begins one passage.

We suffer from meaninglessness, which in turn leads to separation, alienation, and ultimately to despair. Our political, spiritual, academic, and business leaders have no vision of the future. We have no sense of connectedness. The specter of nihilism looms over us, as evidenced by the Los Angeles riots, the bombings in Oklahoma City and Atlanta, the Unabomber, the O.J. Simpson trials, and the Heaven’s Gate cult.

By this point, the typical reader’s eves will have glazed over, lulled into suspended animation by the cascading mush. He thus might not notice that those all-too-familiar phrases do not, in this context, make much sense. How, for example, are the Heaven’s Gate suicides a sign of “nihilism”? The cultists certainly believed in something, albeit something destructive and absurd. The same goes for the Unabomber, and for whoever attacked the federal building in Oklahoma City. And why mention the O.J. Simpson trials? Members of the first jury have offered many reasons for their decision to let Mr. Simpson go free, but not one has declared, “Nothing is real. Everything is permissible.” As for the second jury, I don’t see why Naylor and Willimon bring it up at all. This is not a coherent list of nihilistic events but an almost random list of recent news stories, selected more for familiarity and fright value than anything else. Unfortunately, it is typical of this book. Cliche follows cliche as winter follows fall; a single paragraph contains the phrases “we must act now,” “we must act decisively,” “it’s later than we think,” “the stakes are particularly high,” and “for the sake of our children.” Egad.

There are also many inconsistencies in the text. A little self-contradiction isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Naylor and Willimon are large; Naylor and Willimon contain multitudes. But why should a book that celebrates the messy diversity of local disorder offer passages like this one?

Houston, Texas, with its crazy quilted hodgepodge of beautiful residential neighborhoods, churches, schools, and universities laced with unsightly oil refineries, petrochemical plants, strip malls, and convenience stores, is the quintessential example of the result of a combination of unlimited growth, no zoning laws, and a Pollyanna “anything goes” attitude —uncontrollable, dehumanized, concrete-and-steel chaos.

Heaven knows, Houston has its problems, many attributable to over centralization. There is, most obviously, the constant influx of federal dollars. Until recently, it suffered from an over reliance on a single industry, oil. But chaos is precisely its charm, especially from a decentralist point of view. If Naylor and Willimon disagree, they ought to explain why.

A similar problem comes when they stick up for the many small businesses that have gone belly up because of competition from Wal-Mart. I hold no brief for the Walton empire, but I can’t help noting that many of the business practices Naylor and Willimon praise—employee participation in management, for example—are partly in force within the Arkansas-based chain. Does this preclude Wal-Mart-bashing? No. Should it be addressed? Absolutely.

Then there are the many places where Naylor and Willimon simply fail to prove their claims. First they say that corporate America is overgrown. No argument here. Then they praise small, environmentally sound enterprises like Ben & Jerry’s. Who wouldn’t agree? And then they declare that as the first group of businesses downsizes, the second will pick up the slack. I wish that were so, but it will take more than mere assertion to prove it.

Finally, the book makes a striking omission. Naylor and Willimon exalt the rural at the expense of the urban; it is in the countryside, they say, that the prospects for human-scale living remain the strongest. Maybe so. But decentralization is not incompatible with metropolitan living, and the authors are wrong to describe country life as “our last hope” while there remains at least some promise for revivifying the cities. I would have liked to learn the case for municipal federation, for transforming cities into confederations of self-governing neighborhoods. Given economic conditions, that’s no more Utopian than a return to agrarian glory, and it’s more inspiring than Naylor and Willimon’s weak proposal that cities simply set population limits and give people incentives to leave. (To their credit, they do discuss the advantages of neighborhood secession.)

I don’t mean to sound so relentlessly negative. And as I said, there’s a lot here to like. No book that bashes AT&T, the welfare state, and the Pentagon is all bad. It’s just that the decentralist bookshelf already contains many volumes far better than this—works by Jane Jacobs, Ivan IIlich, Karl Hess, Colin Ward, Leopold Kohr, and more. It may be tempting to break into hozzanahs each time a book appears that supports our side, but I’d rather save my cheers for projects that actually advance the cause.


[Downsizing the U.S.A., by Thomas A. Naylor and William H. Willimon (Grand Rapids: VVm. B. Eerdmans) 289 pp., $25.00]