“It takes a village to raise a child” (African proverb). “Government is just things we decide to do together” (Barney Frank). These two sayings get combined today as though the nation-state was a village and as though the things that often corruptly pass our legislatures were things we had decided to do together.
Certainly Deuteronomy speaks to the benefits of village life. According to Stephen Cook in Reading Deuteronomy, the laws about leadership that begin at 16:18 seek to disperse the enforcement of justice to the villages and avoid its centralization in the monarchy.
In his work on the Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism he pointed to sociological and anthropological studies that showed how in several places and times around the world a centralized government had coexisted with a village and tribal system of local administration. He thought that is what developed in Israel after the rise of the monarchies. The king appointed officials and set up administrative districts. But the system of village elders and leaders of kinship groups endured.
Then beginning in Deuteronomy 17:14 we have an attempt to sharply curtail the powers of the king. He is just supposed to read Deuteronomy everyday (v. 19). His main concern is supposed to be the application of its laws.
One of the things these laws show is that the traditions behind Deuteronomy are suspicious of the power of kings. These traditions include the so-called B source for Samuel (1 Samuel 8:7). It seems to include Hosea (13:10), and Micah ( 5:1) as well.
Presumably, Hilkiah and Huldah hoped Josiah would be the kind of king who was a scholar of the scroll. But when Josiah got older he asserted his autonomy.
Cook says that even though Josiah played a role in lifting up Deuteronomy, he resisted the way it fenced in the monarchy:
“His aggressive exercise of kingship runs roughshod over Deuteronomy 17:14-20. Especially his entanglement in worship, including his heavy-handed supervision of the Passover (cf. 2 Kgs 23:21), is strikingly non-Deuteronomic. Adopting a brazen revisionism, he appears to have harmonized Deuteronomic law and the interests of the crown. . . .”
So is there an inevitable conflict between political power centered in the village and that centered in the nation-state?
I am leery of applying this at all to contemporary politics. I guess the advocates of big government would say that it is different in a democracy. The nation-state somehow takes on the characteristics of the village. The civil rights struggle convinced many that the central state must override states rights. But for every instance where national law has set right local misbehavior, there seems to be another instance where the officials of the central state have been incompetent and controlling. So Deuteronomy doesn’t settle for us the big government-limited government controversies.