Saturday, July 26, 2008

Directions for Research on Decentralization

From a conversation elsewhere:

I think it's absolutely relevant to explore the ways in which social problems can be solved without a centralized decisionmaker. Ultimately, so-called "market-anarchists" are rejecting the state model for social organization, and are suggesting that it be replaced with a model which relies on decentralized decision-making. Accordingly, it seems worthwhile to discuss some of the ways in which that model can be expected to function, if only to educate the market actors who are being expected to make the system work. After all, keep in mind that anarchy can only function in an ideological atmosphere where people don't want a state. If they do want a state, or don't know how to make things work without one, then they will have a state: you can bet on that.

So as philosophers, economists, etc., it's our job to show why centralized decisionmaking entities like our national governments provide inferior mechanisms for social organization. There are several parts of this argument which need to work in concert in order to truly convince people that decentralized decisionmaking is a truly better alternative. Relying on only one, and leaving out the others, will leave many people unsatisfied, as we're clearly seeing here. As I see it, those in favor of decentralization need to show the following:

1) The model of social organization which holds that everyone needs to get together and find the right answer, and then apply the right answer in the right way, is flawed. There is no "right answer" to social problems which can be discovered, even if we get the smartest, most creative, most honest people together to work on them, and even if there were, there would be no "right way" to implement it that could be instituted by coercing individuals to play their "part" in the solution. As David Schmidtz wrote in his book Elements of Justice, "In effect, there are two ways to agree: We agree on what is correct, or on who has jurisdiction - who gets to decide. Freedom of religion took the latter form; we learned to be liberals in matters of religion, reaching consensus not on what to believe but on who gets to decide. So too with freedom of speech. Isn't it odd that our greatest successes in learning how to live together stem not from agreeing on what is correct but from agreeing to let people decide for themselves?" (6). The advocate of decentralization takes this idea to its extreme, and needs to justify that position. Was John Rawls correct when, in his book Justice as Fairness, he suggested that there are "...profound and irreconcilable differences in citizens' reasonable comprehensive religious and philosophical conceptions of the world, and in their views of the moral and aesthetic values to be sought in human life" (3)? And if so, why is decentralization the proper response?

2) Decentralized solutions can effectively solve social problems, or perform comparably well compared to centralized solutions, or have benefits which make them more desirable than centralized solutions, in spite of their comparative weaknesses. Most people believe that a system of social organization should be judged, at least in part, by its capacity to bring about desirable social outcomes. Economics teaches us that in the absence of cooperation, markets can fail: free riders, externalities, collective action problems, tragedies of the commons, and prisoners' dilemmas can lead individuals acting separately to undesirable outcomes by the standards of all involved (see on this James Buchanan's essay, "Positive Economics, Welfare Economics, and Political Economy"). Advocates of decentralization need not only satisfy the alleged "statists" and "collectivists", who see government as a perfect substitute for a necessarily imperfect market, but also more reasonable objectors who see centralized solutions as having at least some potential for bringing about solutions in instances of prohibitive transaction costs. For example, in his essay, "Market-Based Environmentalism and the Free Market: Substitutes or Complements?," Peter J. Hill writes:

Market solutions are superior to coercive ones because voluntary exchange offers the assurance that social interactions are mutually advantageous. However, transaction costs prevent some potentially profitable voluntary exchanges from taking place. Through the use of appropriate rules, government can provide feasible alternatives. In the standard examples of roads and national defense, the transaction costs of individual exchange are high and the free-rider problem is substantial. Thus, there is at least some potential for using tax-financed provision of these public goods as a corrective mechanism. Of course, government provision of public goods is fraught with numerous problems, and one ought not to be overly optimistic that government will get it right. However, we should not automatically rule out all government intervention (389).

Advocates of decentralization need to show that actually, we should automatically rule out the kinds of solutions that can be produced through government intervention, or that decentralized solutions are capable of effectively emulating government intervention, so we don't lose tools from our policymaking toolkit when we move towards decentralization, or that decentralized solutions can actually produce solutions which work somewhat like government interventions, but are either inherently or more likely to be better suited to solving the problems with which they are charged.

3) Disputes can be resolved effectively and without violence in the absence of centralization of authority. In many ways, international law, corporate and industry dispute resolution, private arbitration, and private security companies set the stage for this conversation. But on the other hand, state imperialism, genocide, human rights violations, and the ineffectiveness of the UN (which lacks sovereignty) bring up questions which demand answers. Advocates of decentralization need to explain how a system without a central authority could bring about the settlement of disputes between individuals and groups effectively and predictably. And further, they need to show that such a system would be adequately resistant to things like bribing, corruption, and caprice, as well as being capable of enforcing rulings effectively. Failing this, decentralists would need to present the case that a decentralized system is more desirable for reasons which are not generally appreciated, perhaps because it would better preserve freedom of choice, it would recognize a lack of objective standards of justice (particularly procedural justice), or it would be better on balance than a centralized solution because of some flaw in the latter.

4) A decentralized system would be beneficial for those members of society who are less advantaged. Any "solution" which explicitly consigns people to death by starvation, exposure, or lack of routine medical care will simply be unacceptable to many people, and for good reason. Advocates of decentralization need to show how disadvantaged groups would benefit or at least not be made worse off by decentralization. And it will not do to demonstrate that those in need can be expected to be generally better off than they would be in other systems. Decentralists must show that there is no reason to worry about the fate of the disadvantaged in a decentralized society, at least any more than we worry in our current society. Alternatively, a case needs to be presented in substantially more convincing fashion that concern about the fate of those in need is misplaced.

5) There is historical precedent for effective decentralized decision-making. This one seems pretty self-explanatory, but ultimately it will not be the advocates of decentralization who actually go out and create the decentralized order which they are promoting. As the saying goes, there is no plan for freedom. Accordingly, it will be important to show that individuals who were not philosophers or "anarchists" have been able to successfully make decentralized decision-making mechanisms work for them, ideally without even realizing that they were doing it. Perhaps more importantly, it will be desirable to demonstrate why the failures of certain ventures in decentralized decision-making do not demonstrate a failure in the general idea.

And personally, I don't think that's such an unreasonable research program. I actually think there's something in there for almost everyone. And luckily, there's a lot already out there to start from. I've actually been toying around with the idea of putting together some sort of association of people working on these issues, and would love to hear from anyone who's interested in joining the effort.

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