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May. 17 2010 - 12:48 pm | 1,020 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Who will decentralize our complex system?

Ross Douthat’s latest column is excellent. The general idea is that the world is increasingly centralized, and that each crisis leads to further centralization:

This is the perverse logic of meritocracy. Once a system grows sufficiently complex, it doesn’t matter how badly our best and brightest foul things up. Every crisis increases their authority, because they seem to be the only ones who understand the system well enough to fix it.

But their fixes tend to make the system even more complex and centralized, and more vulnerable to the next national-security surprise, the next natural disaster, the next economic crisis. Which is why, despite all the populist backlash and all the promises from Washington, this isn’t the end of the “too big to fail” era. It’s the beginning.

Here’s the problem I have with all of this: Who will we trust to decentralize the system? And how do we do so in such a way that the process of decentralization is not itself captured by the special interests who run the show now? Do we trust the Tea Parties and their candidates to fix the system? I don’t. Do we trust the GOP? Not as far as we can throw them. Do we look to the anti-government left? All twelve of them?

And once serious politicians who want to actually decentralize power come into office, will they be strong enough politically to actually do the job or will their efforts be cut off at the knees and captured by other less sincere players who play the game better, have more cash, and so forth?

Lots of questions, and I’m really not sure where to begin. There are plenty of good ideas out there about how we could limit government, but they often leave me wondering how we limit all these powerful non-government entities at the same time. The government may be responsible for many of these too-big-too-fail institutions getting to where they are, but now we’re at a point where simply removing government from the picture will likely not produce a level playing field at all.

I think the first effort of reform, then, should be one of information. We should work to make information as transparent and widely dispersed as possible. After that, I’m really much less certain of the next steps. Should we move tax burdens back toward states and local governments, work toward competitive federalism?  Can we do that before we reform entitlements and defense? What comes first?

I don’t know. Limiting government is much harder than they make it sound on TV.


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  1. collapse expand

    Reality will decentralize society. Without a non-stop supply of resources Industrial society comes grinding to a halt.
    I hate to beat a dead horse, but that non-stop supply will eventually stop. A whole lot sooner than anyone expects.

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