Tocqueville distinguishes between centralized government and centralized administration. By the former he means concentration of political power concerning matters that affect an entire nation, e.g. rule of law, foreign policy. By centralized administration he means concentration of power concerning local or regional business, majority of taxation, infrastructure and oversight of community organizations and schools. Centralized government he says is absolutely necessary to prosperous life in any nation. However, “centralized administration is fit only to enervate the nations in which it exists, by incessantly diminishing their local spirit.’
The idea is that as centralized administration of things that are of primarily local concern increases the ability of citizens to influence and therefore have a stake in administration decreases. Without perceived influence and participation local spirit or local pride decreases. The citizen becomes in his mind a subject, unable to influence the powers that affect his or her place and life.
The end result of this process of centralized administration is reduced participation and energy from the bulk of the population. Even though centralized administration might be able to do a ‘better job’ at some particular point in time on a particular issue than a decentralized administration, the very act of centralization will decrease the strength of the nation in the future, making the process unsustainable and undemocratic.
Lets take an example to illustrate, though Tocqueville does not give an illustration. At some point in the past there was a thriving local dairy economy in most placed in north america. It was decentralized. It was not unregulated, but it was not formally regulated for the most part and so it was regulated only by local market and local community. This situation meant that many people were involved in production of dairy products and many people had small influence in how that production was carried out. For the most part there were high quality products with few safety concerns.
Centralized administration of dairy was put into effect to more efficiently eliminate the small number of safety problems. The result at first was similar high quality product with fewer safety problems. However, over time centralization caused more and more people to abandon their role in the system, whether in actual production or influencing production standards. At that point the centralized administration of dairy had to do everything on its own. Ultimately, this resulted in more safety concerns than the original, decentralized administration. Centralized administration hurt democracy and eroded the strength of the system over time.