Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Polycentrist Party?

In starting, I want to make something very clear: I am very uncomfortable with the idea of participating in electoral politics (and also, that I apologize for the poor quality of the writing in this post; it's like 1 AM). I believe that a free society will always be characterized by reasonable disagreements about even the most foundational issues, and that in most cases, the proper response to this state of affairs is to work towards peaceful coexistence rather than to attempt to find some sort of consensus or majority opinion and then impose it on the group. If this is so, then a model of governance which gets everyone together for a vote, and then imposes the results on everyone, is fundamentally flawed. This, I think, is true even of groups like the Libertarian Party, which too often seems to advocate removing important mechanisms for collective decision-making from people's lives, whether or not those individuals value those mechanisms or the outcomes that they promote, on the basis of a particular view about the appropriate role of government in the lives of citizens which many of those citizens do not support. The idea of imposing a solution on everyone is objectionable, even if the solution might foster certain elements of the kind of society I might ideally like to live in.

That being said, a few things seem worth acknowledging:

1) Most people do not question or critique the institutional framework in which they live beyond the point where these issues are debated in the realm of national politics.

2) If we can all agree that violently overthrowing the government is out of the question, the likely mechanism by which institutional change will be affected will be through national politics in one form or another.

3) If we do not participate in electoral politics, it is likely that those who will participate will continue to behave in opposition to our beliefs.

4) Our government has, in recent history, been characterized by a two-party system. But one of those parties seems like it might be falling out of favor, as a particularly collectivistic and vulgar brand of Rawlsianism has seemingly taken hold, and people are increasingly moving towards the idea that a just society includes mechanisms for supporting those who are less fortunate. (I don't mean to suggest that Rawlsianism is an unacceptable view, or that a just society would not include mechanisms for promoting the wellbeing of the least well-off; my objection is to the idea that redistribution and planning by a centralized authority is an appropriate mechanism for operationalizing these ideas.) If the Republican Party falters -- particularly if this represents an increasing appeal to the more anti-intellectual and religious groups within the party's constituency -- a vacuum will be created in national politics which could potentially be filled by a third party.

Accordingly, I think we are faced with a genuine quandary. Those of us who seek polycentric solutions to life's problems are understandably hesitant to participate in electoral politics. However, if we don't participate, our goals will be very difficult to obtain. Further, we find ourselves at a peculiar point in history where it may actually be possible to affect real change, and without having to fundamentally dismantle our core beliefs in order to be heard over the roar of the traditional two-party system.

A Polycentrist Party could exist to promote the decentralization of collective decision-making away from the federal level. This would need not happen by removing government from the lives of citizens in areas where most people thing government should be involved. Rather, the Party could focus on working with state and local governments to facilitate a transition from nationally-administered programs to more polycentric ones, and from state-administered programs to programs administered at the local level (or, of course, not administered at all).

This strategy would make sense for two core reasons. First, decentralized political action would to avoid some of the most obvious knowledge problems associated with political action (how can someone make a proper decision for 300 million people?), and would encourage competition between policy-making regimes. This would enable the party to appeal to people from a range of different perspectives -- even those who see a large role for government involvement in solving social problems -- without compromising the integrity of its position. The whole idea, after all, is that we'd be trying to promote a view which seeks to accommodate different views about the ideal form of social organization without demanding a one-size-fits-all solution.

Second, and perhaps most importantly for the kinds of people who I have in mind in writing this, a decentralized system of collective decision-making would likely be more amenable to secession and division. It seems reasonable to expect that for a town, opting out of a county program would be easier than opting out of a state program, and much easier than opting out of a national program. And for an individual, or group of individuals, opting out of a town program might actually be possible, where opting out of a national or state program seems all but impossible in today's world.

So what about it? Thoughts and criticism would be greatly appreciated here.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

what about the self-interest of the individuals in government that often directs them to collude and cooperate together to further centralize power?

i think if the goals you have described for this party were to actually be achieved we would have something similar to what this country has already seen in terms of decentralized government. perhaps you could argue that with today's technology people could be more mobile and able to "vote with their feet" more effectively, but i would still be skeptical.

something about land keeps people from moving much. maybe seasteading would work better:

http://seasteading.org/

Danny Shahar said...

I totally hear where you're coming from, and I'm well versed in a number of the Public Choice reasons why this project would be difficult to accomplish. But unfortunately, we don't live in a society where people have stripped collective decision making mechanisms of their power to expand, or where people would even really be willing to try to do so. I'm focusing on a first step in the right direction rather than on an ideal society. Under a more decentralized system of government, I would imagine that more radical reforms would be much easier to affect, given that they would not need to be imposed on huge swaths of the population. That's pretty much the focus.

That being said, I don't mean to suggest that all other attempts to realize a freer society are misguided or wrong. I personally don't believe that a substantial proportion of the population would actually want to go through with something like the seasteading idea you brought up, and so I don't think that seasteading represents a complete solution to the problem at hand. But I would be vastly overstepping my bounds if I supposed that no one would be happier trying to find a new life in international waters. So Godspeed, sailor!

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