In big and diverse countries, it is important that smaller units adapt their laws to the local peculiarities and specifics of the economic and public health situation. That is why Donald Trump, when announcing the plan to get America back to work, allowed for states to decide when to reopen, for a single nationwide lifting of restrictions will prove to be too early in some areas and too late in yet others.
However, the problem stemming from the centralization of decision-making power is not limited to the inability of bureaucrats in a distant capital to understand the peculiarities of a local situation. It is that civil servants in centralized states deal with abstract and theoretical numbers rather than interact with real people; they are detached from reality.
Individuals, communities, and state governments make better decisions than bureaucrats in a distant capital thanks to local sensitivity.
As Rodion Raskolnikov, the main hero of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, put it, referring to the woes of ordinary people in imperial Russia as well as state officials’ cynic attitude: “But what does it matter? That’s as it should be, they tell us. A certain percentage, they tell us, must every year go… that way… to the devil, I suppose, so that the rest may remain chaste, and not be interfered with. A percentage! What splendid words they have; they are so scientific, so consolatory… Once you’ve said ‘percentage’ there’s nothing more to worry about. If we had any other word… maybe we might feel more uneasy…”
Individuals, communities, and state governments make better decisions than bureaucrats in a distant capital thanks to local sensitivity. For evolutionary reasons, it is harder for people to grasp the abstract; we are more swayed by emotions and physical interactions rather than statistics. After all, for the vast majority of people, seeing even a stranger run over by a car will likely elicit more emotions than news informing him that the number of people who died from the coronavirus has risen. After all, statistics are “just” numbers, “percentages,” theoretical constructs that reflect reality but are not reality itself. There is, therefore, emotional bias: people are inherently more easily swayed by emotions than by reason, our feelings are often blind to statistics.
Not everything can be reduced to data, and on a local level, people realize this.
That is why decentralized governance based on municipalities better provides for people’s needs and desires. As Nassim Taleb notes in Antifragile, “eye contact with one’s peers changes one’s behavior”: “someone you see in church Sunday morning would feel uncomfortable for his mistakes — and more responsible for them. On the small, local scale, his body and the biological response would direct him to avoid causing harm to others.” In contrast, “on a large scale, others are abstract items; given the lack of social contact with the people concerned, the civil servant’s brain leads rather than his emotions — with numbers, spreadsheets, statistics, more spreadsheets and theories.”
After Nassim Taleb explained this idea to his co-author Mark Blyth, he pointed out that “Stalin could not have existed in a municipality.”
As Erich Remarque remarked in his novel The Black Obelisk, “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” Norms of behavior change as you move closer to the top: at the very bottom, where vis-a-vis interactions occur daily, human life has a supreme value; in contrast, at the very top layer of power, utilitarian calculus becomes predominant.
Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy that prioritizes “the greatest good of the greatest number”; in other words, it aims to maximize people’s utility, or happiness. While there are many variations of the framework, it serves as an inspiration for totalitarian dictators: in a country, there are many groups that advocate their own interests, often intersecting with each other, and the dictator usually resorts to the easiest way of “reconciliation”: suppression or extermination of one of the groups, for this will, according to the utilitarianism-inspired authoritarian logic, bring about “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” make the majority happy at the expense of the minority (though no one can ever know for sure whether the increase in misery and suffering of the minority will not outweigh the enhancement in the utility of the majority). For example, Saddam Hussein regularly killed hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Shia people to reinforce his (and the Sunni minority’s) grip on power in Iraq. Statistics and the desire for “maximization” often disregard apparent and hidden costs and trump the ethics.
Many of the problems the United States — and, indeed, the world — can be resolved if decentralization and localism are implemented. Let people, and not bureaucrats, rule.
Data is a theoretical construct that plays a huge role in shaping our decisions. There are many issues for the overcoming of which we simply need more data; this is the way of reasoning of a bureaucrat in a distant capital. But not everything can be reduced to data, and on a local level, people realize this, unlike in a centralized system. We need to pay attention not only to evidence-based intelligence but also to emotional intelligence.
In centralized countries, government officials mainly deal with numbers, not real people, unlike heads of municipalities. After all, historically, people lived in tribes, closely-knit communities, where each member felt a strong sense of personal responsibility before others, for a community was small enough for everyone to know each other. Face-to-face interactions with other humans are restrained by our physical closeness to them, while with big imaginary entities, like the state, there is no such physical feeling of responsibility.
At the top, all societal problems seem abstract, and we do not grasp the abstract as efficiently as we do the emotional and the physical. Many of the problems the United States — and, indeed, the world — can be resolved if decentralization and localism are implemented. Let people, and not bureaucrats, rule.
This article was originally published on FEE.org