Why Do Progressives Like Centralization?

The idea:
There seems to be something in progressives’ DNA that inclines them to want to centralize, globalize, homogenize. It had its value once, but it’s rarely appropriate any more. And the better answer, helping communities revitalize themselves, with no strings attached, will be hard for progressives to learn to do.

I mentioned last week that, at my recent meeting on community-based renewable energy, one rabble-rouser wanted such projects banned in favour of centrally-managed, efficient ‘wind farms’. Turns out he’s a capital-l Liberal, and a self-professed small-l liberal. Our former alderman wanted to merge our exurban/rural community with Canada’s two fastest growing cities next door to make a super-regional community that would ‘have everything’. This misguided soul was also a self-professed liberal. In one Canadian community, a proposal by a prominent liberal to close all the community centres and replace them with regional Super Wellness Centres has, thankfully, been vetoed by clearer heads. The very pragmatic and progressive Peter Singer, writer of One World, likes the idea of a single, global government replacing the nations whose boundaries are largely historical accident anyway. Socialists have always had a passion for centralized, planned societies. What is it about progressives that makes them so averse to the idea of autonomous, self-managed communities?

In my earlier post on Balkanization I mentioned four reasons why small community political units tend to get supplanted by larger, more centralized regional and state governments:

  • Defense: In a heavily populated, resource-constrained world, despots and imperialists will inevitably arise. The easiest way to defend against attacks from these tyrants is through political union. Federation can also work, but it’s harder and more tenuous, since both political will and defense financing must be raised in each member country.
  • Economies of Scale: There’s lots of evidence that there is no such thing, especially in today’s connected world, as ‘economies of scale’. Bigger is as likely to mean less efficient as more efficient. But even if such economies are illusory, there remains a consensus that reaching a certain ‘critical mass’ allows delivery of services more cost-effectively per capita, and as long as enough people believe it, it will constrain balkanization. And it is true that the more governments you have involved in projects like transportation, energy, and even social policy and environmental protection, the harder the coordination gets.
  • The ‘Once You’re So Big You Might As Well Get Bigger’ Rule: To be truly responsive to individual people’s needs, a government needs to be really small and local. Is a state or provincial government looking after a million people really any closer to the needs of its constituents than a federal government looking after a hundred million? If not, the argument goes, it would make more sense to get rid of state and provincial governments than to devolve most political power to them. If you’re too big to look after a community, you might as well at least exploit your size and get as big as possible. This is the argument for some kind of loose ‘global’ government, and it’s hard to dispute.
  • Local Tin-pot Dictators: In the days of hunter-gatherer cultures and even more recently in pioneer settlements, communities were self-selected and their members knew each other intimately. More recently, local governments are often selected to represent disenchanted and politically active minorities, and local power often goes almost by default to those with ruthless ambition, wealth, or a propensity for influence-peddling. The consequence is that the reputation of local government is dreadful — they tend to be even less representative of the people than governments of larger political units, poorly trained and skilled for the job, biased, corrupt, remote and inefficient.

Defense can be handled by coalitions and alliances, rather than political union. But the myth of ‘economies of scale’ continues to have a strong hold on progressives. I think it’s the political creature in all of us: If our community model is wonderful, surely expanding it so it covers more people and more land and more resources would make it even better. We all want our personal models of the right way to do things to thrive, and we want to persuade others that ours are the best models available. This is healthy — it’s how ideas spread and how we learn from each other’s successes and failures. But in today’s networked world it is no longer necessary, or wise, to ‘grow’ infrastructure. We need to resist the impulse to push our ‘best practice’ on others. Every community is capable of designing its own best practices, and if they want help they can take advantage of the astonishing communication and information resources available globally now, to ask for it. But progressives are social creatures, and they like to get together and build stuff, big stuff built on big dreams. Progressives are also compulsive planners — we like to think things through in advance, rather than charging ahead and doing rapid prototyping and learning fast from our mistakes. And we’ve been taught to believe getting together in larger and larger groups and pooling resources is efficient, an economical application of the division of labour.

But just because something is efficient doesn’t mean it’s better. We could all design a better way for plants to produce energy and reproduce, but why? Nature’s extravagant and inefficient way works just fine, and has the advantages of evolution by experimentation, and robustness in the face of sudden change or adversity. Very efficient systems tend to be inflexible, resistant to change, and fragile. So even if there are ‘economies of scale’ (and that’s debatable, but the subject for a different article) doesn’t mean that bigger and ‘more efficient’ is desirable.

The ‘Once You’re So Big You Might As Well Get Bigger’ argument is perfectly valid, but defeatist. It assumes we simply will be unable to make community-based political and economic structures work. It’s the argument for a strong UN, and it’s a compelling one, but it’s settling for second best. As Singer says in giving qualified support for a global super-government:

It is widely believed that a world government would be, at best, an unchecked bureaucratic behemoth that would make the bureaucracy of the EU look lean and efficient. At worst, it would become a global tyranny, unchecked and unchallengeable. These thoughts have to be taken seriously. How to prevent global bodies becoming either dangerous tyrannies or self-aggrandizing bureaucracies, and instead make them effective and responsive to the people whose lives they affect? It is a challenge that should not be beyond the best minds in the fields of political science and public administration.

He’s right, but it’s a challenge that so far has been beyond the best minds on our planet to solve. The reality is that increasing size inexorably makes management harder, coordination more difficult. Why work so hard for one extreme — a global state — when the other extreme — a world of autonomous networked tiny communities — is easier and better?

One pervasive progressive argument for centralization is that larger political and economic entities can compensate for inequities between communities. Is it fair if one community is affluent and healthy and egalitarian, and the one next door poor, full of despair and disease, and repressive and intolerant? Here is where the progressive ideology gets most perverse. Progressives tend to be egalitarian and accept responsibility for those less fortunate outside their communities. The outpouring of support for tsunami victims reflects the preponderance of such progressive thinking throughout the world. But as humanitarian groups have pointed out, more children die from inexpensively preventable diseases every week than died in the tsunami. Where are the progressives in addressing this much greater, and simpler, need? Well, the thinking goes, there’s only so much we can do for other communities. To some extent, unlike the victims of natural disasters, the victims of chronic disease and violence should be taking more responsibility in their own communities, and if we just give them everything they’ll never learn to look after themselves, it will be a black hole sucking the resources out of us until we’re all poor and deprived. But these people do not have political power, they do not have education, they live in ecological disaster areas and what resources they do have are being stolen to repay their governments’ negligent or criminal debts to other nations. They are no more able to do anything about their situation than the tsunami victims.

Progressives need to learn to do intelligent triage with their generosity of time and resources. We need to acknowledge that some parts of the world, like Kerala, India, are going to do well even if we leave them entirely to their own resources. We need to acknowledge that some parts of the world, like Haiti and Afghanistan, are not going to do well no matter what we try to do for them. We should only be throwing money and energy at them when and if the rest of the world is doing well. What we need to do is focus on the middle group, the areas, both inside and outside our own countries, where investment of time and money will make all the difference in the world.

And then we need to focus even more, and choose among the alternative ways we can help this middle group of areas. Some methods, like bombing the country senseless to oust its leader, building giant prisons as the ‘answer’ to crime, and even airlifting food, are short-term solutions that are of dubious long-term effect or value. The most valuable assistance we can provide to most areas is education and expertise. But a great deal of our expertise is not given, but sold to the third world by Western corporations, which merely replaces a knowledge deficit with a financial deficit. We should be requiring corporations, as a condition of their corporate charters, to donate without strings attached a small percentage of their time and profits to teach and train and build infrastructure in any impoverished area, domestic or international, of their choosing. Meanwhile, as progressives, we should lobby governments to provide a tax credit to individuals equal to out-of-pocket costs plus say, a flat $50/hour for pure (non-religious, non-partisan, no strings attached) volunteer activities to areas in need. Not a tax deduction just for cash donations, which is worth much more to the rich and worth nothing to the unemployed — a tax credit that reduces taxes payable and can be carried forward or even claimed as a refund, worth exactly the same amount per hour spent and per dollar contributed regardless of the donor’s tax bracket or income.

This won’t by itself make communities that are currently under-skilled, under-resourced, dependent and poor into self-sufficient communities, but it will be a step in the right direction, where current efforts and energies and strings-attached ‘investments’ are not. Our current physical communities are not ideal: they were mostly selected for us by brokers, or singled out because of proximity to good schools, or because it was the best we could afford, or picked for some other reason that has nothing to do with the like-mindedness of the other community residents. But you have to start somewhere. We should build some Model Intentional Communities to show people what is possible with a completely decentralized, self-selected and self-reliant, sustainable community-based economy and society. But then we need to start applying our learning and our energies to helping today’s helpless and dysfunctional communities transform themselves into something close to that model ideal.

One step at a time. Learning from their many mistakes. Doing things their own way. Horrendously inefficiently. Showing hands-on. Providing examples and role-models. Failing and then getting up and trying again. Answering the difficult questions. And when our work there is done, when they’re doing it for themselves, leaving them alone and moving on to the next community. For progressives, this hands-dirty, painstakingly slow process will be agonizing. But it’s the only way to undo the millennia of dependence, ignorance, subjugation and hopelessness that have left broken, ecologically devastated, economically and psychologically depressed communities bereft of ability and racked by scarcity, where once stood proud and diverse and capable and independent communities amidst astonishing affluence.

It’s the only way that works.

Image: Part of a community of snow geese in flight, from photographer TeeKay.

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13 Responses to Why Do Progressives Like Centralization?

  1. decentralization would naturally lead to anarchy… why not giving a try? who’s still afraid to be free? who would take its responsabilities (as Jonas meant it: http://homepage.mac.com/haroldsjursen/Jonas.htm) and share it with others?

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Yves: Heh…it’s interesting how many people — notably libertarians — like the idea of anarchy but are shocked and revolted by the name. And thanks for the link with the intro to Hans Jonas — anyone who chose to build on Husserl’s philosophic foundation is certainly worth checking out.

  3. Interesting. I’m not sure I agree that an inefficent group of self-sufficient communes is the answer to the world’s problems any more than one singular centralized government would be, but at least it would cut down on bureaucracy…I guess it all comes down to: what’s your personal plan for the future of the world? Perfecting this planet, controlling this planet, or escaping this planet?

  4. Evan says:

    Hm. Dave, I have to say I don’t see a lot of evidence to support your notion that the desire for central control, growth, globalization, and homogeneity is something uniquely–or even particularly–or even “very much at all”–progressive. If that were the case, wouldn’t you think WalMart would be the darling of all liberals? It really isn’t.Yeah, the communists had a fetish for central planning. They were messed up in the head a lot of other ways, too, and they’re really not representative of mainstream progressive thought. Maybe in the 20’s and 30’s–maybe–but definitely not now.In my experience you’re a lot more likely to see progressives than conservatives arguing for things like local barter economies, decentralized energy production, microfinance, splitting up monopolies and monopsonies, etc. Small is Beautiful isn’t a book very often associated with right-wing economic thought.There’s a lot of good stuff in this post, but I just think targeting it at progressives is misguided.

  5. Evan says:

    Hmph. Sorry, folks; that had paragraph breaks before I posted it…

  6. Stephen says:

    Being a centralist means you get to sit on your but managing what other people produce. I think Plato said in his Republic that these people, that didn’t have appreciatable skills to be nurtured, should become merchants.

  7. Joe says:

    An excellent post. One of the best I have read in a long time.It always fascinates me that people who whine about US power and globalization through multinationals are the same people who seem to love the UN. Here in Canada many people like myself are not represented politically

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Evan: Fascinating that you see this as a shot at progressives. I kind of assumed it went without saying that conservatives like centralization — they’re the champions of globalization and oligopoly after all. I was just pointing out that in this area we progressives sometimes seem to have an achilles’ heel as well. And since you mention it, quite a few liberals have a soft spot for Walmart as well — saying that it gave America a shake from the competitive lethargy that allowed it to cede leadership in the car and steel industries to Japan. Joe: Thanks — I buy your concerns about the ICC and your explanation of why the US hates the UN, but I don’t agree that cutting taxes reduces bureaucracy — the US government cut taxes at exactly the time their spending on wars and on corporatist subsidies have skyrocketed, producing a bankrupting level of debt. The answer to more efficient government isn’t to starve it, it’s to move it much, much closer to the citizen, so that every ‘politician’ is directly affected by and quickly accessible face-to-face by others affected by every one of their decisions. That way you get responsibility AND accountability, and an inability to live beyond your means.

  9. In the best of worlds, sure. But in this one, if I have a choice between big corporations and big government, I’ll take the second one..

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Yeah, me too, Mikhail, but I’ll bet we’re outnumbered at least 10:1 on that choice.

  11. Yeah.The thing is, this is more or less the fight between democracy (well, far from perfect democracy, but at least we can influence our governments and expect a certain level of transparency and concern for the public interest (if only to get votes)) and authoritarian fascism (private corporations ruled by the few rich and powerful in their own interest) all over again. They’ll frame it in any other way than that, but it would be really hard to convince me that this creation of the mind, the corporation, isn’t totally out of control and posing a serious threat right now. Even benevolent people who start businesses lose all control as soon as they go public because any measure that they take must be justified against the bottom-line and in the short term (f.ex that woman from The Body Shop who was ejected by the shareholders, or the Ben & Jerry guys). Anyway, many have explained much better than I ever could the problems with The Corporation.

  12. Evan says:

    Dave: Aha, I see what you’re saying. Thanks for the clarification.If I may offer a bit of hopefully-constructive criticism, when a post is titled “Why do progressives like centralization?” and includes the question “What is it about progressives that makes them so averse to the idea of autonomous, self-managed communities?”… well, it’s difficult not to read it as a generalization. I think what you were really asking was a different question: Why decentralization hasn’t been universally embraced as a progressive value.(My answer is that sometimes, perhaps rarely but not never, large centralized systems really are the best available solution. Insurance, for instance, works because you’re averaging risk over a very large number of people. Social Security and single-payer healthcare systems, to name only two programs that progressive generally support (and for good reason), necessitate a centralized bureaucracy. That’s not, in and of itself, a bad thing.Of course, more centralization means that a failure is more catastrophic. Bigness requires greater vigilance, exercising that vigilance is, I think, a decidedly progressive value. But if Bigness is necessary and appropriate, we shouldn’t be scared of it.As for that ostensibe “liberal” at your meeting who wanted community-based renewable energy to be banned, I think a good explanation for him can be found in Niven’s Law: There is no cause so noble that it will not attract fuckheads.

  13. To me, libertarians are hidden market anarchists, like “pure” anarchists are (http://www.anti-state.com/article.php?article_id=464&PHPSESSID=ddfd3abbcdcddc68866fa1fa232ab08e). Libertarians have always been afraid of anarchist ideas, probably because they were at first strongly related to some kind of group-oriented vision of the society, when libertarians were praying for an individual-oriented one (like the one of Max Stirner). Human history has always condemned the anarchist philosophy, mainly because it was questionning democracies (represented by the State) in their wish to provide citizens maximum “personal” liberties, while keeping the controling power of bureaucracy. We’re all much more afraid of building our lives, than choosing politicians to represent our life philosophy and sensitivity. But in doing so, we’re just re-inventing the wheel, without working on solutions for “perfecting this planet”. Control or escape would mean that we look for the easiest (but not cheapest!) alternatives… the ones that reduce our liberties, both personal and collective. This is why we should be action- and network-oriented, away from ideologies that can only end up in centralization (the only condition to stay in control of others). We need to share ideas, build free networked communities and be consistent in our daily lives, we need to take the best out from Proudhon, Marx and Stirner, in order to build a State-free society where we could all have the opportunity to become who we want to be, knowing that one’s liberty is never fully accomplished when others are in jail… We went from nomadism until now, so why not asking for more based on what we are? Diverse and impermanent people starving for accomplishment, for a meaning… jesus was one of the first anarchist, buddha too understood we’re our own gods! We’re white dogs… Finally, what shall we do withcapitalism? Is it the best solution for organizing exchanges between communities? What about gift economy? Or a mix of both?

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