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  • Top-Down Failure, and the Alternative

    Posted by Jonathan on April 6th, 2013 (All posts by )

    Wretchard discusses recent notorious Type II system failures. The Colorado theater killer’s shrink warned the authorities to no avail. The underwear bomber’s father warned the authorities to no avail. The Texas army-base jihadist was under surveillance by the authorities, who failed to stop him. Administrators of the Atlanta public schools rigged the academic testing system for their personal gain at the expense of students and got away with it for years. Wretchard is right to conclude that these failures were caused by hubris, poor institutional design and the natural limitations of bureaucracies. The question is what to do about it.

    The general answer is to encourage the decentralization of important services. If government institutions won’t reform themselves individuals should develop alternatives outside of those institutions. The underwear bomber’s fellow passengers survived because they didn’t depend on the system, they took the initiative. That’s the right approach in areas as diverse as personal security and education. It’s also the approach most consistent with American cultural and political values. It is not the approach of our political class, whose interests are not aligned with those of most members of the public.

    The Internet is said to route itself around censorship. In the coming years we are going to find out if American culture can route itself around the top-down power grabs of our political class and return to its individualistic roots. Here’s hoping.


    7 Responses to “Top-Down Failure, and the Alternative”

    1. John Cooper Says:

      The harder they tighten their grip, the more we’ll slip through their fingers.

    2. Subotai Bahadur Says:

      If government institutions won’t reform themselves individuals should develop alternatives outside of those institutions.

      That is a definite step. But given the inability of government institutions to reform themselves, or even to react rationally to the external stimuli of reality; two things have to be recognized. Any attempt to create an alternative or to “route around” the inability of the government to function will be seen as a greater threat than any reality based situation, and will bring concentrated attempts to destroy the alternatives and those who created them as a higher priority than dealing with the original problem.

      Secondly, those efforts to destroy the alternatives will eventually [and it may be a real short “eventually”] destroy the entire institution and cause collateral damage to other institutions.

      Subotai Bahadur

    3. Ginny Says:

      What strikes me more and more as a key to productivity & engagement – not unlike the pencil as symbol of broad & free commerce – is the notion of subsidiarity. The closest & most involved are the most invested and the most knowledgeable. They will be more innovative and more efficient.

      A different example that demonstrates the prideful nature of the bureaucrat:
      this is deeply creepy. We don’t love another’s child as we do our own – certainly no bureacacy or crowd will see our children as the miracle each is in our eyes. And if our kin were in potential danger, we would act more quickly and forcefully. The more we take responsibility for raising our children the better society as a whole can be.

    4. Jonathan Says:

      Reminds me of this:

      You know my favorite Phil Gramm story, right? (One of them, anyway.) He’s on MacNeil-Lehrer (I believe) with some woman from the education establishment (what Bill Bennett used to call “the Blob”). Gramm says, “My educational policies are based on the fact that I care more about my children than you do.” The woman says, “No, you don’t.” Gramm says, “Okay: What are their names?”

    5. Ginny Says:

      Jonathan – that’s great.

      My husband’s friends always deep0ly admired Gramm’s economic theories (they studied under him in grad school) but I hadn’t been so crazy about the more personal things they thought were funny. I guess I misjudged him – or perhaps when it comes to our kids, we at least try to do the right thing and trying to find the right thing teaches us a lot.

      Tillie Olsen wrote very little and she was, apparently, not just left-leaning but a true communist; however, her work repeatedly affirms the strong young people who are born into America (they stand with a pride they didn’t in the old country – surprise). And “I Stand Here Ironing” is a pretty moving argument against rhe “it takes a village” mentality.

      The narrator describes her first child: “She would lie on the floor in her blue overlls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur. She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all.” Those lines go through a mother.

      One of my husband’s friends complained that a brilliant grad students’ wife was staying home with her children. The guy must, the colleague contended, have made her stay home. I pointed out that her grad degree was in social work and she’d spent the first years of their marriage inspecting child care facilities for the state. Perbaps tha had something to do with it. I doubt they were bad – or at least uniformly so. I suspect she realized that no one would see her children as the miracle she did.

      That I left my kids a grear deal with their grandmother and early with Montessori may be being commented on by my daughters who want to or are at-home mothers. That’s a topic far gone from this post. It is just if the family goes, then much else is gone or almost gone.

    6. grey eagle Says:

      The Soviet Union demonstrated that modern technology makes it possible to have a totaltarian state that spans an entire continent. Back before telephones, railroads and telegraphs, the size limit for a totalitarian state was the distance a hundred armed horsemen could ride in a single day.

      The internet does not limit the totalitarian state. The only reason the soviet union fell was that its leaders decided they preferred the wealth and safety of the shining city on the hill. Even paranoid Totalitarian leaders have enemies.

      Absent a shining city, a totalitarian state is the only remaining option because the state must protect itself and this requires tax revenue. Althhough peasants created our modern level of technology, their decendents will not be able to maintain it after they become peasants of a totalitarian state.

      In a modern high tech state of 100 million people there are 100 million decision makers making decisions that keep the state functioning. In the totalitarian state there is only one decision maker and, consequently, things fall apart not thru sabotage but thru neglect arising from people waiting for a decision.

      Ultimately, once totalitarianism sets in, everything returns to the style of the very low tech life found in Europe 700 ad to 1300 ad. Yes, we will all be walking. The ruling class will have horses or they will be carried.

    7. David Foster Says:

      Grey Eagle..”In a modern high tech state of 100 million people there are 100 million decision makers making decisions that keep the state functioning. In the totalitarian state there is only one decision maker and, consequently, things fall apart not thru sabotage but thru neglect arising from people waiting for a decision.”

      This is what the village leader in the Soviet Union was getting at, in his explanation to Rose Wilder Lane as to why Communism would never work:

      “It is too big – he said – too big. At the top, it is too small. It will not work. In Moscow there are only men, and man is not God. A man has only a man’s head, and one hundred heads together do not make one great big head. No. Only God can know Russia.”

      This man was probably not very well-educated, nor would he have had much exposure to technology and industrialization…but he could clearly see the Hayekian point that so many people today cannot grasp.

      I have to note that the problem sometimes exists within businesses as well as in government. If Marissa Mayer is really requiring her own approval for every single hire at Yahoo, as has been reported, she is making basically the same mistake as many an economic planner.

      The effects of over-centralization in a corporation, though, are inherently limited by its product market and its labor markets. No such limits apply to the bad effects of over-centralization at the sovereign governmental level.