Sunday, August 22, 2010

Peter Principle in Washington

A recent David Brooks column declared that we are living in a progressive era, which he defined as a centralized government, alternately run by technocrats of both parties, spreading its centralizing tentacles into more and more decentralized systems. He suggests that this model has little public support and the public may eventually rebel French-Revolution style.

Assuming that happens, it is highly likely that whoever would take power in the aftermath would continue along the same centralizing path. America, and increasingly the world, is already fundamentally centralized in physical, social and psychological ways. The centralizing we see in government is a reaction to that reality, not its cause.

The problem is that decentralized institutions do not have decentralized effects—they impact the whole. Diverse financial services are not centrally controlled in this country but their complex interactions are tightly coupled, making financial catastrophes widely felt throughout the economy. Two skyscrapers are knocked down in Manhattan and people in Missouri become terrified.

In following columns Brooks wrote about the partisan theories to cope with this bipartisan reality. Liberals seem to be able to admit that more centralization is the solution, and that the only debate worth having is over how to make government more efficient and fair in the process. Conservatives seem to have a gut reaction against the fundamental centralization in our society and think that decentralizing government, dispersing power to local control, will somehow change the underlying reality. Put this way, I think the liberals are at least being intellectually realist, while the conservatives serve the purpose of putting the breaks on the centralizing apparatus. Not many republicans—there are a few—are recommending restructuring American society to pre-Civil War levels of centralization.

The fundamental truth of American connectivity remains. The result is that Washington becomes more centralized. The forces Democrats to become more activist to keep pace with the perceived needs of the system. It forces Republicans to become more uncomfortable with squaring their ideological position with the reality of governing. This is probably why partisanship has increased. If that is true, Washington may become truly broken and completely unable to function in the coming years no matter what white knight rides into town promising to change how Washington works.

My Dad likes to say that the Peter Principle has come to Washington: government has risen to its own level of incompetence. There is a sense that things have become too complex. And that a little entropy is not only in order, but inevitable.

One day, when I am my Dad’s age, the liberals and conservatives, out of sheer desperation, may come to a grand bargain: decentralizing the country form the bottom up, while sowing incentives that allow people living in the new decentralized America to have good quality of life. But if that happens there wouldn’t be a need for liberals and conservatives…

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