The curse of centralization


Decentralization depends on trust but, most importantly, it fosters trust and enhances the funds of moral capital. In contrast, centralization weakens personal responsibility and initiative. Inexorably it drains the community of crucial moral resources. Spontaneous initiatives melt away, individual responsibility evaporates, reforms become ever harder to implement and ultimately impossible when the ratchet of centralization has run its course.

The bureaucratic instinct

In 1492, when Columbus sailed for America, the capture of Granada had just sealed the fate of the Muslims on the Iberian peninsula and all Jews and Moors were expelled from Spain by royal decree. This marked the culmination of several hundred years of national ascendancy. The empire no doubt waxed for another hundred years, sparkling in the splendors of precious metals brought in from the New World. Two resounding national bankruptcies at the beginning of the seventeenth century exposed for all the world the waning caused by the centralizing pull of an authoritarian government and the spiritual conformity imposed by the Inquisition.

The ruling stratum generally perceives economic, political and religious freedom as a source of instability and a threat to its position. The concentration of power may offer short-term benefits but also implies the unlearning of civic virtues and capabilities. Spontaneous initiatives melt away, individual responsibility evaporates, reforms become ever harder to implement and ultimately impossible when the ratchet of centralization has run its course. The government has by then wedged itself into a dead end and a new regime can be introduced only at the price of a societal collapse. The collapse of the Soviet Union serves as an instructive example. Alexis de Tocqueville saw the French revolution as the ultimate consequence of administrative centralization.

Big corporations have similar problems with their bureaucracy. Staffs are usually mushrooming, centralization is like a force of nature power without responsibility is an irresistible lure. You can always make the case for better coordination by central organs whereas the downside of impaired flexibility, muddled responsibility, escalating paper work and loss of motivation is hard to quantify. When organizational sclerosis eventually ensues, a comprehensive decentralization is high on the agenda if the company is still afloat. The burden of proof should always be carried by the advocates of centralization.

The bureaucratic instinct is to control everything and to avoid mistakes at all cost. The dangers of excessive centralization should be obvious but the temptation seems to be well nigh irresistible. For egomaniac executives, personal ambition and thirst for power gets the better of fair play and good judgment. Hierarchy trumps factual insight, self-importance and vain conceit prevail.

Democratic decentralization

The Renaissance saw the re-birth of classical antiquity in new and revolutionary forms. The equality of all men before God was implicit in the message of Jesus, but it was not clearly stated until the Reformation. Later on, the evolving humanism reinterpreted the charitable message of the gospels. Scientific advances enhanced the skepticism and rationalism of the enlightenment philosophers. All this and more besides combined to prepare the ground for a fundamental decentralization of political power. This did not, however, take place in Europe, but on the virgin soil of the British colonies in North America. Actually it was not a revolution, but a carefully reasoned evolution.

From the very beginning the constituent states of the federation of The United States of America jealously guarded their rights, and the subsidiarity principle was scrupulously observed. Everything which was not explicitly a federal concern was managed by the states. Latterly the balance has, in the name of equality, shifted towards joint responsibility. Accordingly the federal welfare programs are about to inundate the taxpayer. It is politically very difficult to decentralize by pushing responsibility back, closer to the consumer of welfare services.

The European Union has so far kept income transfers within reasonable bounds, and social policies are, for the time being, the unequivocal responsibility of the member states. A healthy competition is emerging in the area of taxation and social benefits; in the end the efficiency of the public sector is on the line. But the pressure is increasing within the Union to synchronize tax and social policies. Demands for global income transfers are also on the rise, never mind the political corruption they have fomented in the receiving countries.

The lifeblood of democracy is free self-organization with power and responsibility decentralized to the lowest feasible level; democracies convert complexity to an asset.

Global governance

We should hold on to a wide degree of decentralization in global affairs. Every nation must in the long term pull its own weight and be answerable for its own follies otherwise we will never learn. What we could and should aim for, at this juncture, is a loose but world-wide coalition of perhaps a dozen democratic super powers or confederations in a state of self-disciplined collaboration. A new international order can never provide full coverage against catastrophe but it could give us a flexible, pluralistic arrangement, sorely needed for ecological co-operation and open to unlimited cultural evolution. Closer integration by a global government would presuppose exalted, extra-terrestrial goals for mankind, such as the systematic colonization of space.

It would be interesting to carry out a strict game-theoretic analysis of the problems of a world government. It is hard to believe that a stable homeostasis could prevail in a worldwide society; change is what keeps societies on track. And without competition between nations there is no need for change in the long term. Imperial China in its self-sufficiency is an instructive simulation model for global governance. Time and again, the country was driven into anarchy by way of stagnation.