Friday, December 21, 2007

Stop Telling Us What To Do!

One of my pet theories (I use the term "pet theories" to refer to ideas I like that I would rather not subject to any actual analysis) is that the real lesson of the 20th century is that as attractive as centralization appears (especially to those doing the centralizing), it almost always less efficient, less effective and less maintainable than de-centralized approaches.

In politics, in manufacturing, and in commerce this lesson seems to keep coming up: putting all the decision-making power in one place never yields the desired results. Autocratic states collapse in on themselves. Decentralizing authority in factories improves productivity. Free markets continue to roll.

Oversight is required, of course, but choosing just the right levers to give the overseers is critical. Monopoly laws hold back one type of imbalance in the market system. Institutionalized lending rates prevent another. One person standing at the whiteboard with a pen does a similar thing in a very different environment.

Perhaps the 2000's will be the century of mass decentralization. Some folks think so. It's interesting to observe this phenomenon popping up in unexpected places.

Like traffic controls. Recently the Telegraph published an article on how REMOVING controls actually improved traffic flow and reduced accidents.

In his book The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey argued that the fear of the "mob" that we take for granted nowadays is a social construct engineered by the elites at the dawn of the modern age, as they insisted that masses of people could not be trusted. This idea is a vestige of classism and lies behind every authoritarian model of government produced. The idea is that common people are too stupid, too foolish and too short-sighted to be trusted with any sort of authority. They must be herded and guided. For their own good.

I reject this idea, and it's encouraging to see actual data that supports it. People are smart, and if they are granted space and time in which to make decisions, they generally do a pretty good job. Folks who try to keep power from the hands of "the masses" do so out of fear. Fear, in the end, that their decision-making ability is no better than anyone else's, and if that's true, how will they justify their elite position?