Arnold Kling  

Rebooting America

The Center-Wonk Vote... More Rebooting America ...

Clay Shirky writes,

If I had to pick one method of rebooting civic life, it would be by finding new ways to grant groups the legitimacy essential to pursuing long-term and constructive goals on their own.

This is in the book Rebooting America, in which a bunch of technorati responded to Esther Dyson.

When the Framers met in Philadelphia in 1787, they bravely conjured a new form of self-government. But they couldn’t have imagined a mass society with instantaneous, many-to-many communications or many of the other innovations of modernity. So, replacing that quill pen with a mouse, imagine that you have to power to redesign American democracy for the Internet Age. What would you do?

My overarching goal would be to try to limit monopoly government and to encourage the competitive provision of government services. In the Internet age, bad government needs to be driven out of business. Also, in our "long tail" world, there should be as many varieties of government regimes as we have breakfast cereals.

One key is to limit the geographic monopoly power of governments. Is it necessary for my local government to have a monopoly over water and sewer regulation? Probably--I don't want my neighbors giving me diseases. It is necessary for the national government to regulate vaccination? Probably, for the same reason.

Is it necessary for my local government to have a monopoly on education? No. We could have competing educational franchises. As with restaurants, some competitors might be singel establishments, while others might be part of national chains.

Is it necessary for my national government to have a monopoly on the regulation/provision of retirement benefits? No.

Did our Founders have such a vision of competitive government? I tend to doubt it. I think of the Founders as a combination of Massachusetts types and Virginia types, with the two types persisting to this day (for the former, see the MIT economics department; for the latter, see the GMU economics department). The Massachusetts types did not want a king or a national religion (they did have a state religion, until 1833); otherwise, however, they had in their hearts a desire to improve themselves and their fellow citizens. The Virginia types wanted limited government, in part because they were afraid of the changes that the Massachusetts types might impose on others.

As the nation urbanized, the need for civic institutions grew. Meanwhile, starting in the 1860's, the Massachusetts types overpowered the Virginia types. Occasionally, the Massachusetts types would over-reach and have to retreat a bit, but basically the trend has been their way.

I doubt that the Founders could foresee a society that was overwhelmingly non-agricultural and as intricately interdependent as we are today. I think that the growth of institutions to co-ordinate this interdependence was inevitable. But the form that this growth took, in which monopoly government took over a large share of functions, strikes me as more accidental. And with the Internet changing the opportunity set for communications patterns, large monopoly government could turn out to be downright anomalous.

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COMMENTS (4 to date)

Here's my pie-in-the-sky dream:

Turn administrative agencies into contract clearinghouses like the Delaware Department of Corporations -- i.e., give each agency subject-matter specific jurisdiction over private contracts for the carrying out of public goods.

Patents, tradeable airspace or pollution permits, and taxes (at the level of corporations) are already run this way.

Why not run everything this way? In other words, why not have both geographical and issue-specific federalism?

Alex J. writes:

Jefferson did say "Divide the counties into wards." Overlapping, non-exclusive, jurisdictions probably didn't occur to him though.

James writes:


I can't tell if you are being naive or tongue in cheek when you talk about the benefits that would come with being able to pick and choose governments at such a fine grained level.

What many, perhaps most, people seem to want from government is policies that benefit them at the espense of others. In exchange, they grant their governments popular support, commonly miscalled legitimacy. Why on earth would any government let you opt out of such policies e.g. Social Security, Medicare, etc. and risk losing that support?

More to the point: Why would bad or inept governments let their customers take their money elsewhere, even to the point where the bad or inept governments become bankrupt? So long as those governments have militaries, police, prisons, etc. it seems unlikely that they would be willing to just let people take their money elsewhere.

Arnold Kling writes:

I am not being tongue-in-cheek. I don't think that the idea of allowing people to choose from competitive service providers will come from government officials, top-down. There may be a way to get there bottom-up.

I don't know what would happen if a great mass of people asked for the right to competitive government. Would leaders engage in brute-force repression rather than cave in? Perhaps, but it's hypothetical at this point.

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