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Posted by on Jul 29, 2008 in Politics | 8 comments

The Conservative Reformation: ‘Starts’

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
— Walter Lippmann

———————

Picking up on the last installment to this series — and once again taking cues from David Cameron (to whom even the far-right Weekly Standard is now paying homage) — I believe American conservatives should start leading this country toward a re-conception of the roles of our federal government: from a centralized, one-stop bank/bureaucracy … to a more tailored, precise, and consistent set of roles, as standard-setter, catalyst, and backstop for dispersed, networked solutions.

From the research conducted and books published by authors I’ve noted in the past — such as Philip Howard, Paul Ormerod, and
James Surowiecki
— we know this much: Centralized, cloistered, finite-group efforts to manage and solve large, complex issues rarely if ever work. In contrast, dispersed, networked solutions often do.

In business, those who are closest to customers generally have the most accurate, timely sense of how to address customers’ wants and needs. In government, the same is true for those who are closest to constituents. In neither situation should local, state, or regional forces act in a vacuum, with no guidance or support from “above.” But it’s equally disastrous for those “above” to assume they know the customers/constituents better than those on the ground.

And that’s where dispersed, networked solutions come into play.

The Internet is a dispersed, networked solution. Scattered across the country and world, a mass of people are connected by computers/servers, common codes/languages (e.g., HTML, XML), fiber-optic and other lines, nodes, gateways, amplifiers, etc. And what exactly does this dispersed network solve? What solution does it deliver? Among other things, it solves or reduces barriers to information sharing, collaboration, and debate — exceeding every conceivable expectation for those tasks.

The stock market is another dispersed, networked solution. With the exception of the occasional bubble or bust, it does a remarkably good job of valuing stocks through a steady stream of millions of dispersed, networked bids and purchases.

Granted, these dispersed, networked solutions (henceforth, DNS) don’t always work; they can be corrupted, especially when — via consolidation, conscription, or extortion — the diversity of the network is lessened by a material degree and independent, localized sets of knowledge are mitigated. Without said diversity of knowledge, the resulting “solutions” tend to be skewed or biased, and are often less effective than the outcomes arising from more diverse systems, as Surowiecki and (to a lesser degree) Ormerod demonstrate.

OK. So what does a DNS look like for government?

In the U.S., we have the basics of it in place, today:

* A dispersed group of municipal, county, and state governments, which operate relatively close to their constituents, their problems and promises.

* A network of collaborative forums connecting this dispersed group, such as the various state and county municipal leagues, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Governors Association, etc.

* Multiple solutions or “best practices,” which this dispersed group shares via their networks and (in some cases) adopts.

Unfortunately, I fear our governmental version of DNS fails to live up to its full potential because the other obvious node in the network, Washington, is dominated by people who prefer to upstage and overshadow DNS with CCS – i.e., centralized, cloistered solutions. Many Washington insiders prefer CCS because their constituents demand they “do something,” and CCS is often an easier “something to do” than DNS.

Who can blame them for taking the easy way out? Consider what they would have to go through to make DNS work: They would have to set broad standards (basic rules of the road); then catalyze (spark) front-line innovations that operate within those rules; and then backstop the most promising of those innovations when they hit rough patches. It may be the more effective approach, but it will likely take longer to yield results and certainly be more difficult to explain than CCS.

Tomorrow, I’ll attempt to more fully define the standard-setter, catalyst, and backstop roles. In the meantime, if you’re thinking this exposition will turn out to be nothing more than a recycled federalism/states-rights argument, think again. Yes, our federalist system lies at the heart of where I’m headed, but I’m the last person to believe the states should be asked or even allowed to do everything on their own.

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Copyright 2008 The Moderate Voice
  • Neocon

    I read this twice and am totally and absolutely clueless as to what your talking about.

  • DLS

    Where one would diverge from constitutional federalism, one must amend the Constitution to make the divergence legitimate (and constitutional).

    In addition to the problem of people having no respect for constitutional federalism for decades and perversely looking first rather than last to Washington (which is not “above” everything else, even if it is possible to conceive of a great deal of overlap with presumed federal supremacy), a related question is just what do people nowadays want the states to be, and what kind of revision to the system is needed for the concept in the USA of the states to be in any way meaningful beyond mere provinces or jurisdictional districts (and a farm system for Washington politicians)?

  • DLS

    “the other obvious node in the network, Washington, is dominated by people who prefer to upstage and overshadow DNS with CCS – i.e., centralized, cloistered solutions. Many Washington insiders prefer CCS because their constituents demand they ‘do something,’ and CCS is often an easier ‘something to do’ than DNS.”

    Or those in Washington believe they know best and they want as much power as they can arrogate, so they prefer to control things centrally and “top-down,” with widespread support of those who find this acceptable or even preferable.

    And a critic would continue:

    “They would have to set broad standards (basic rules of the road);”

    In our system this is only legitimate when the people have agreed that this be done in Washington. Standards or uniformity can be great, but it has to be arrived at the right way, and we don’t want an excess of such basic rules and standards.

    “then catalyze (spark) front-line innovations that operate within those rules;”

    This goes not only into social engineering but industrial policy if you think about it.

    “and then backstop the most promising of those innovations when they hit rough patches.”

    Same as above, as well as flirting with moral hazard and dependency.

    The states-as-laboratories concept is more faithful to our true system and heritage and seems less encumbered.

  • DLS

    “I read this twice and am totally and absolutely clueless as to what your talking about.”

    It’s a more purposeful (and idealistic) role for Washington to play, which could be proposed by the GOP as an alternative to business as usual but still retains much power and control in Washington. (Actually, some of the language in it could be right out of the Obama camp.)

  • pacatrue

    It’s very intriguing idea, Pete, though I do agree that it’s a little too general to really get a firm mental hold of right now. I’ve thought for a couple years at least now that we have to stop thinking of government as a continuum from libertarianism (classic liberalism) to socialism/communism that has dominated at least Western political thinking for about 200 years now. It only appears this way due to our lack of imagination. It sounds like you and some of the people your reading are also trying to find an alternate and I hope you keep posting your ideas on this.

  • runasim

    I found this sentence to be very encouraging.
    “I’m the last person to believe the states should be asked or even allowed to do everything on their own”.

    I’ll look forward to your next installment, when I hope you will explain that. While reading the current installment, that was the alarm bell ringing in my mind.
    The states’ rights’ argument has become something of a cliche’d panacea for a multitude of complex problems, appearing to be an across-the-board solution without facing up to the consequent problems it produces.

    I like the idea of localities being the generators of new ideas, though, with the accent on ‘new’. and the emphasis on situation specific.
    It reminds me of the initiative some factories took to solicit suggestions from ordinary workers as to how the plant could work better, more efficiently and more harmoniously. As I remember (I read about this some years ago) these initiatives were highly successful The best solutions don’t always originate in the board room.
    On the other hand, the workers themselves didn’t decide which suggestions to implement. Populist democracy has its limits, too,

    It’s the back and forth, eclectic mix that appeals to me.

  • ljeff18

    Republicans eating their young; Here’s another take on the indictment news:

    http://www.greenfaucet.com/hanlons-pub/alaska-one-senator-down-one-congressman-to-go/53408

    Interesting take on the debacle.

  • shaun

    While I find the language (“dispersed networks,” etc.) to be off putting, this is a winner conceptually. And very much what Thomas Jefferson envisioned in pushing for local “hundreds” run by citizens themselves as the bottom rung in the government ladder.

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