20th-century centralization and 21st-century decentralization

Walter Russell Mead recently wrote on the Scottish independence referendum. The real point of his essay, though, was his contrast of the centralizing trends of the 20th century and, in his mind, the need for decentralization in the 21st:

The 20th century was an age of centralization. Industrialization made societies much more complex and increased the demand for uniform national legislation and policy, while the limits on communications and technology made the rise of large, centralized bureaucracies the most efficient and often the only feasible way to manage the affairs of large organizations. Moreover, with only a very small percentage of the population (only 1 or 2 percent early in the century, and not rising fast until after World War 2) having college educations, there was a shortage of people with the experience and breadth of knowledge necessary for many of the functions of government administration. Progressive ideology was all about creating effective bureaucracies and taking key issues out of politics and handing them over to (allegedly) meritocratic and apolitical administrators who would serve as the guardians of the public weal.

The 20th century was the golden age of the centralizing state, and the advanced industrial nations, including ones like the US and the UK where historically governments had been smaller and less intrusive, were marked by strong progressive and bureaucratic governments. This form of government had its problems and limitations, but it did many things well: improving public health and education, providing a framework for the development of a much more sophisticated and technologically advanced economy, organizing for victory in World War Two and the Cold War and so on.

However, in the 21st century it appears that the progressive ideal of the state will no longer suffice. A better educated and more sophisticated population is less willing to delegate important decisions to technocrats. Parents who feel they are as well or better educated than their children’s schoolteachers are less willing to defer to educational bureaucracies. Patients who surf the web want to understand their treatment options and look to doctors more as advisers than as authorities.

Additionally, in consumer societies people are used to getting satisfaction from their transactions with large entities. They refuse to stand in line for hours at the department store checkout counter, so why should they stand in line for hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles? As commercial institutions get better at providing services that are individualized and convenient, our expectations for the delivery of government services also rise. That puts great stress on centralized bureaucracies; making ‘customers’ happy is not the way that government offices and bureaucrats traditionally work.

Beyond that, advances in communications and information management technology both enable and require new methods of working. The immense power of these technologies—whether related to the ability of the state to monitor more and more of what citizens do or to the potential that the collection and processing of vast volumes of data offers—means that government now has more power that can potentially be abused than ever before. (This is not what the naive prophets of the technological age forecast, back when technology was going to free us up into a new kind of benign libertarian anarchy, but life is complicated that way.)

If you favor decentralization, you may find him too optimistic that this is the wave of the future (and you may find his assessment of the 20th century progressive state’s accomplishments to be too positive). Still, it’s an interesting argument and might be identifying an important countertrend against the large-scale movements and identities of the modern period that I pointed to in my last post.


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