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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Size and Governance

Gar Alperovitz had a very provocative and thoughtful op-ed in yesterday's NYT.  The central point was that this country is getting too big for centralized government and that it should come as no surprise that big states and regions are getting bolder in efforts at self-governance.  California and its ambitions to address health care, trade, and global warming issues might be seen as exemplary.

There is, however, an interesting equivocation in the article.  Sometimes Alperovitz focuses on the problem of size for "meaningful democracy."  In short, a nation of 300 million simply can't participate in a democracy worth the name.  This helps his underlying normative agenda that local devolution is a strategy supported by democratic principles.  (There is probably another dynamic at work, too, that is underemphasized: States, like California, that are radically underrepresented in the Senate, overpay for the federal government with their taxes, and subsidize small states are much more likely to harbor resentment and pursue their own political agenda outside the federal governmental structures.)

But there is another thesis -- one that is, perhaps, more controversial:  He writes, "Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to have grasped the essential truth that no nation — not even the United States — can be managed successfully from the center once it reaches a certain scale."  The idea here and elsewhere in the article has nothing to do with democracy.  He seems to claim that no nation -- democratic or otherwise -- can sucessfully manage itself through a centralized federal system once the scale of the country grows to a certain point.

This thesis reminded me of my reactions to my trip to China (which I published here), a country four times the size of the US [by population].  I wrote:

First, and most superficially, I was imbued with a deep sense of the ungovernability of such a gigantic country that spans so much territory and includes so many different peoples.  That realization helped me make sense of the fact that we all spent very little time [during a conference about Chinese deliberative democratization] trying to imagine what a national democracy for China could look like, save some final comments by the CCP members.  There was Daniel Bell's vision, but very little of the conversation over the few days gave national democratization its due. We talked a lot of about grassroots activism and ways local communities could get their party leaders to be more responsive and accountable; but large scale institutional design didn't really seem like it was on the agenda.

At the time, I think I was disturbed by the prospect of ungovernability and what that would mean for meaningful democratization.  Upon further reflection, however, maybe, per Alperovitz, radical devolution in China is the road to self-governance -- even if that form of self-governance is not deliberative or democratic.

Posted by Ethan Leib on February 11, 2007 at 01:54 PM in Article Spotlight | Permalink

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The US is marginally larger than China, but its population is less than a quarter of China's. I don't necessarily buy the notion that it is impossible to govern a huge country via a central government. Or rather, conceptualizing the problem as central government biases the discussion. It is necessary to have physically difused entities (many small offices instead of one grand Dept. of _______ building), but the need for centrally reinforced local authority remains. Otherwise, those Duke boys will always git away cross the Hazzard county line.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Feb 11, 2007 2:52:07 PM

Thanks for the correction. I fixed the post to read four times the size; obviously I was talking about population and made that clearer.

I don't think the framing of the question is necessarily biased. The problem is posed as one of size, scope, or extent. The centrality of the government is merely one method to administer in light of size, scope of extent of the nation-state. But I see how one could start with a bias and work to the issue of size as well.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Feb 11, 2007 3:07:32 PM

I guess the distinction I am making is between location and scope of authority. Of course, it is difficult to administer a wide-flung country from a central location with centralized decisionmaking that is divorced from local realities. However, decentralizing authority to regulate behavior only compounds this problem. So, in my view, what is needed is dispersed federal authority. In other words, sure you should not have a thousand employees in the dept of x doing office work, but you should have an office of the dept of x in every region of the country backed by strong federal authority to enforce its actions. Otherwise, once again, the Dukes of Hazzard problem. If the environmental movement has taught us anything it is that actions beyond one's borders still effect life within them. So you have to be able to regulate behavior in a transborder fashion. To paraphrase a saw from the immigration debate, capital flows freely across borders, why shouldn't regulation?

Posted by: Bart Motes | Feb 11, 2007 4:19:12 PM

Recall that there were several Federalist Papers that discussed the size of Congress, the relation to the size of congressional districts, etc. See http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/federal/fed55.htm, http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/federal/fed56.htm, and http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/federal/fed58.htm. I've often thought that one could construct an argument for devolution like this: 1) One congressperson per 700,000 people is not enough for any meaningful participation in government; 2) But if we moved to the original 30,000-to-1 ratio, Congress would have about 10,000 members; 3) As per Federalist 58, that would be far too big; 4) Hence, you need a smaller country to have real participatory democracy.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Feb 12, 2007 6:44:03 PM

> "Otherwise, those Duke boys will always git away cross the Hazzard county line"

To escape Boss Nifogg and his cronies?

Posted by: Tom R | Feb 12, 2007 9:05:35 PM

Ha! The lax professionalism of that prosecutor was certainly a problem.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Feb 14, 2007 12:03:08 AM

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