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Monday, May 29, 2006

Limits to the authoritarian/centralising mindset

There are lots of other adjectives that I could have used ('illiberal' for legislatures, 'patronising' for some charities, 'political opportunist' for representative democracies, ...), and the idea is not a new one, but two examples that I came across this morning struck me as sufficiently interesting to inspire comment: Bunker Roy's assertion that the present model for pursuing the UN Millenium Development Goals are "the ultimate recipe for disaster" and Fred Wilson's suggestion that free markets may be able to help find a way out of the environmental mess that we appear to be in. In both cases, what struck me was the abject failure of "from above" or "from outside" approaches to the problems in question.

I came across the reference to Bunker Roy's claims in Fast Company; he wrote in an Op-Ed piece in the International Herald Tribune in September:
[the present top-down model is] the ultimate recipe for disaster, and that's why the MDGs will be achieved only on paper.
Roy's "Barefoot College" takes an absolute grassroots approach to empowering the poorest of the poor, for example training unemployed rural youth as teachers to run schools within the villages in which they sleep, thereby empowering a community to develop itself (feed its own teachers) rather than remain the dependant beneficiaries not only of aid granted by foreign governments, but of the caprice of the in-country (but not in-village/community) bureaucrats employed by those same governments, or their aid organisations. In reading Roy's IHT piece, I was reminded of Noel Pearon's railing against the curse that passive welfare has become (ugh, it's a Word .doc linked from here) for indigenous communities in Australia. Pearson is also not shy about stating his concerns in stark terms:
A major contributor to the weekly drug habits of young Australians is Centrelink.

This may be an outrageous thing to say, but it is the truth.
(Explanatory note for non-Australians: Centrelink is the agency which distributes most (all?) federal welfare payments.)

These are two quite different problems, but in both cases the problem arises and/or is exacerbated by thinking about how to solve the problem from the perspective of outsiders:
[this will cost money, so let us (outsiders, residents of wealthy nations) throw money at it, so now let us (in-theater bureaucrats, who are still outsiders in that they don't reside in the communities that they "serve") manage the spending of this money on projects that make us look good?]
rather than that of insiders:
[how can we (poor family in a poor community, or poor community as a whole) get ahead (eat)?].
In both cases, it is at least plausible (and both Roy and Pearson claim that it is true) that the latter mindset, although less attractive politically, is essential if progress is to be made.

Fred Wilson is an unabashed Capitalist (indeed, he makes his living as a venture capitalist), who suggested yesterday:
I think capitalism can help us find a way out of this mess just as it got us into it.
(Note that while he wrote 'capitalism', I believe that he meant free-markets; firms operating under tight regulatory regimes are unlikely to be able to innovate along the lines that he suggests, regardless of whether they are in private hands. Capitalism is a neccessary, but not sufficient, condition for free-markets to operate.) Reading this reminded me of Barry Holden's thesis in 'Democracy and Global Warming', that authoritarian responses to environmental problems are not merely unlikely to succeed, but are likely to seriously worsen the situation. He never states his thesis in exactly these terms, nor does he explicitly identify his audience, but 3/4 of the way through his book it appeared to me that he was making the case to those greens who pursue an authoritarian approach to solving environmental problems that this was not a long-term sustainable approach (it's been more than a year since I read his book; apologies to Holden if I've misunderstood, mis-remembered or misrepresented his thesis). His primary example was the group of environmental catastrophes that are part of the Soviet Union's legacy. Places like Magnetogorsk and changes like the near-elimination of the Ukraine's soil fertility (through over-irrigation required to support a centrally-dictated cotton-growing monoculture) don't get much media attention in English speaking countries, but their existence at least supports the contention that when locals have no control over local events, bad things happen. Bad things happen in relatively liberal, affluent societies too, but he compares the twelve worst contaminated sites in the USA - the so-called "superfund" sites - and points out that there are several sites in the former Soviet Union that are far worse than any of them.

At first glance, Holden's examples appear to have more to do with Roy's and Pearson's claims than with Wilson's, but Holden extends his argument to establish a link between local empowerment and global thinking; that it is in those societies in which individuals have some measure of control over their destinies that broader concerns have some hope of being contemplated and addressed, the obvious example being that the environmental movement both took root initially and thrives today in such societies. Another interesting implication of Holden's argument is that capitalism did not get us into this mess at all, as Wilson tacitly accepts; rather it delayed the creation of the mess and resulted in the creation of a smaller mess than might otherwise have resulted.

In fact, the connection between the examples is tighter than I realised when I started to write this article. It is my belief that some measure of capitalism is a necessary (but not sufficient) pre-condition for democracy. Democracy has only ever arisen amongst peoples who had the means to support and defend themselves, and to do so somewhat independently. In those places where the people do not have any substantial control of their destinies, nor even of their local institutions, holding elections for representatives to a state legislature/government in which millions of such people reside hardly creates a democracy. In each of the examples above, there appears to be some correlation between the degree of freedom (/power to act) of individuals and of local communities and the desirability of the outcome. In three cases (Aboriginal substance abuse, widespread poverty in "the South", environmental destruction in the former Soviet Union), there is a connection between local empowerment and local outcomes and in the fourth (global climate change) there appears to be a connection between widespread local empowerment and a global outcome.

It has long been self-evident to me that authoritarian approaches frequently do more harm than good. These are a few data ponts that support this impression.