Devolving Power

In a previous blog, I argued that the war to gain our independence from Britain was really more of a devolution than a revolution. The colonies had been individually governing themselves for 150 years and revolted over newly-imposed strictures from abroad.

We should keep in mind that the average population of the colonies was only about 200,000, with the largest (Virginia) being only about half a million people. And given that the colonies were in large part rural, there is little doubt that even the colonies governed with a very light touch.

Some would argue for a world with even less governance than provided by the original colonies. They would argue that some form of anarchistic volunteerism would provide the most freedom for the most people. That may be true, but this is not the world in which we currently live. For better or worse, our nation and our states have been organized through a complex system of constitutional requirements, legislated statutes, regulations, and various levels of governmental authority.

It makes the most practical sense to focus on how we might progress from our current condition, rather than focusing too much on an ideal future one.

Spontaneous order among humans naturally springs from complex and voluntary transactional networks. Humans are social animals whose brains have evolved to support highly-complex social interactions. Those interactions were more easily managed when we lived in smaller tribal groups. As civilization has evolved, it has required more and more complex organizations that outgrew hunter-gatherer tribes, culminating in the nation-states that make up today’s world. The success of nation-states as organizational structures has led some to believe that more and more top-down control is needed to deal with the increasing complexity of the world we live in.

That is unlikely to be true.

In nature, plants and animals that are overly specialized will more than likely become extinct when that environment changes suddenly. Top-down approaches to organizations invariably lead to rigid and sclerotic ways of governing. Governments (and for that matter, large organizations of all types) end up being poor at adapting to new situations.

Just as in nature, when there are multiple organizations and multiple individuals engaged, the sclerotic failures of a few don’t result in extinction. When government retains its monopoly on action (especially in collusion with large commercial entities), rigid and sclerotic becomes the only game in town. Those who desire a strong central state often fail to take into consideration such failures from the past.

It could even be argued that today’s levels of centralization have actually led to more chaos, not less. Massive increases in laws (many that aren’t enforced) create an ever-expanding legal terrain that is increasingly harmful to individual action and innovation. 

Devolution is the way out.

And even those who ostensibly favor free markets often prefer strictures that are in fact less free. Some of our largest and most powerful companies prefer a strong central government to have more power over their actions, rather than either local governments or individuals. You have heard the arguments:

“We need to have uniform and predictable regulations across the State.”

“The State’s broad economic benefit is more important than local concerns.”

“Things just work better this way.”

Often what they really mean is that it’s much easier for them to lobby one governmental body than hundreds.

To adequately deal with the complexities of our modern world, we need to let go of our illusion of control. And then let go of our fear of individual and local power. The downsides of centralized governance are far greater than those of dispersed and diverse power in the hands of individuals, small groups, and local governments.

Here are a few suggestions for doing so.

  • Diminish the power imbalances that currently exist between large commercial entities and individuals. If we are to minimize government interference in our daily lives and transactions, we must insist that large commercial interests do not have the power to overwhelm individual rights and property. 
  • Where there are principally local effects, allow principally local control. There should always be extremely compelling reasons (such as protection of personal liberties and property rights) for higher levels of government to preempt local control. Anything beyond those reasons should be considered with great suspicion.
  • When in doubt, move authority downward. Where some governmental action is deemed necessary, action at local levels should be preferred. The more local the government, the more responsive it is to voters. This should be the default action. 

The US Constitution’s Bill of Rights enumerates many basic rights that neither lower levels of government nor individuals should be allowed to diminish. Even though we consider certain rights to be inviolate, exactly what those basic rights are should continue to be the subject of intense political debate. Perhaps there are others that need to be added to the list.

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