Decentralization is the silver lining

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what makes societies successful and productive as opposed to regressive and teetering on the brink of collapse.

The Keyes Constant is an intriguing idea that partially explains how this happens. In short, there’s between a quarter and a third of any society that’s, simply put, stupid. There’s no real hope in swaying them out of their stupidity.

Carlo Cipolla’s The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity goes a bit deeper, but it still doesn’t give the full picture.

The key question I keep coming back to is how to explain the difference between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both countries have sizable minorities of religious fundamentalists — likely in about the Keyes Constant range. Yet Israel is a functioning, albeit flawed, democracy, has some of the most tolerant attitudes to gays and lesbians in the world, has an innovative and dynamic economy and has true diversity. Saudi Arabia is a brutal and repressive dictatorship, its economy is limited to oil and there are constant attempts to homogenize a previously diverse land.

I’m more and more convinced that answer lies in centralization. Successful societies aren’t overly centralized.

Let’s take a step back. The approach of progressives in the United States has been to fight tooth and nail for federal power and then use that power to impose their agenda on the entire country. There’s a naïve belief in progress and that once “the good guys” are in power, there’s no going back. It’s a sort dictatorship of the enlightened technocrats.

It’s a fine theory, and the general concept has echos as far back as Plato’s Republic. The related Indic concept of a wheel-turning monarch goes back even further. It’s a lovely idea, but it’s fatally flawed. The centralized power that allows good to reign can equally by seized by the banal, vain and downright evil.

Modern Israel’s saving grace is that nobody has complete political control of the country. The progressive secularists have no intention of driving out or suppressing the ultra-orthodox. Whereas a country like Iran with a large, educated and secular urban population is doomed to theocracy because of its centralized power structures. In the rotations of power the secularists will eventually land in control, but they’ll also eventually fall out of control. The only defense is such a thoroughly decentralized society that one group can’t control everything.

The European Union is wonderfully messy and decentralized organization, and I hope it stays that way. Even Germany or France have little power to meddle in the affairs of smaller countries. The system’s not perfect, the Euro might still be a bad idea, but the level of integration makes life simpler for common people without erasing local identities.

So it goes that abortion is illegal in Malta and Poland. That’s what voters there want, for now. Fine. If either country does decided to change their stance, it will come about via internal democratic processes and likely to be a stable, long-term decision. In many EU countries there’s something similar to the abortion on demand that’s common in many US states. In many others there’s a sort of grey area with some restrictions but the procedure is generally accessible.

There’s an understanding that not every country in the EU has to conform to my position on the topic. This sort of tolerance is absent from the American left. There’s a sense that they feel every corner of the country ought to be governed by their laws and customs, regardless of what local communities want for themselves.

This level of decentralization allows for a lot of interesting things and experiments to happen. The Netherlands and Portugal have been leading the way on how to deal with illegal drugs. These experiments never would have been possible had it been required to change the law across the entire continent. Likewise a few smaller countries have explored legalized euthanasia, which wouldn’t have been possible in a centralized system.

Even similar societies can take different positions. Sweden and the Netherlands have polar opposite approaches to soft drugs. This is a good thing as it creates control groups for each social experiment.

It’s true that social change is slower in decentralized societies. Even though the Netherlands was the first country to recognize same-sex marriages, Europe is behind the US on the issue (looking at the data in Wikipedia, it’s a bit surprising how long it took in some seemingly progressive countries). But, once the tide has turned it feels like the right to equal marriage is more secure in Europe. Even if an election or two goes the way of regressive parties, there’s simply no mechanism in place to ban same-sex marriage across the entire EU.

In the wake of the United States Supreme Court overturning the federal right to abortion access, I can’t help but being apathetic. In fact this has the potential to be a good thing in the long run. This should cause progressives to focus on winning local elections with a locally inspired form of progressivism. This is the opportunity of a generation to win majorities in local legislatures in all but a handful of the most conservative states in the country. My guess is that the progressives won’t do it, though. They’re more interested in navel gazing about calling abortion a birthing-person’s right rather than a woman’s right.

This isn’t limited to abortion. Progressives should use state’s rights and decentralization to enact healthcare reform, build better infrastructure and enact the policies they want such as police reforms. Instead it seems like it’s more fun to whine about Florida.

Coming back to decentralization more generally, the near impossibility of a constitutional change in the US and even the difficulty of getting 60 votes in the senate mean that most state-level issues are safe from interference. Robust state rights are the most secure way to bring progressive policy to the majority of Americans.