7 Responses to “Fighting Local Corruption”

  1. Robert A. Vella Says:

    >>> “First, economic institutions must also be decentralized, as much as pragmatism allows. A local community, with a giant multinational conglomerate sitting in its backyard, has little chance of effectively regulating such a monstrosity…”

    That is precisely the argument against decentralized government. Workers, consumers, and other regional concerns would be at the mercy of corporate amorality. Furthermore, the only viable mechanism to decentralized economic institutions is centralized government.

    >>> “Nothing, of course, will remain perfect unless civic engagement remains.”

    Civic engagement in the U.S. is, and has been declining for decades. Additionally, voter turnout decreases with scale. Today, voter turnout in presidential election years barely tops 50%, it no longer reaches 40% in congressional midterm elections, and it hovers around 20% in local-only elections.

    The fledgeling U.S. tried decentralized government initially after its declaration of independence under the Articles of Confederation. It failed so miserably that the founding fathers rushed to form a new federal government under the U.S. Constitution. And, that happened during an era when few if any large business entities even existed (the British East India Company excepted).

    While I share the aversion to centralized authority, and am a believer in Lord Acton’s precept (“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”), I simply cannot ignore the quite serious practical consequences of decentralizing government especially in this day and age.

    • E.L. Beck Says:

      Bob –

      “That is precisely the argument against decentralized government. Workers, consumers, and other regional concerns would be at the mercy of corporate amorality.”

      Indeed, you’re right, -as things stand.-

      I originally wrote on decentralization in my 2009 paper The American Republic and last year, the conservative think tank YG Network picked up on this idea of decentralization and started using it in a manifesto they wrote, attempting to attract younger voters to the GOP.

      What they conveniently ignored in their argument was that my call was for the decentralization of -both- governmental and economic institutions -in parallel.- I believe the YG Network uses the decentralization of government as another code word for “deregulation,” which wasn’t my intent at all. Decentralizing government would work only if we didn’t need its national regulatory framework to control national corporations.

      Of course, one of the main problems facing us today is that we face multinational corporations that can operate above national laws. Some would say we need to centralize and globalize our regulatory framework as a result.

      That’s the wrong direction.

      Consider our history over the past 150 years in the U.S. As economic institutions have grown, so too have government institutions in response. These two monolithic entities seem to be the same pendulum, helping each other grow in size and stature and power.

      Yet, look at our outcomes. Government agencies have become highly compromised. Within the Treasury Department, it has a revolving door that empties out on Wall Street, and vice versa. The watchdogs watch the intruders, and the intruders become the watchdogs.

      The Bureau of Land Management was responsible for overseeing the offshore drilling activities of the petroleum industry, but so compromised was the agency that they were throwing parties with petroleum executives in attendance. And as we watched the Gulf of Mexico get destroyed in slow motion, we learned that neither the agency nor the industry had a damn clue as to how to stop an underwater blow out.

      I could recite, over and over and over, failure after failure of the regulatory agencies.

      So how long do we hold onto this chimera that somehow our inept, ineffective, inefficient, blundering, bureaucratic federal government will suddenly see the light and become an effective regulatory entity?

      Or how do -we- engage with such force as to change the compromised and irresponsible behaviors of these agencies?

      It’s never going to happen. It is the inherent nature of institutions that as they grow in size, stature, reach, complexity and power, their inefficiencies, ineffectiveness and corruption grow. The repeated failures of our regulatory agencies are simply the early warning signs of ultimate collapse.

      In addition, we as citizens have absolutely no control over our massive political and economic institutions. We cannot hold anyone accountable at the federal government for its regulatory failures, because -no one is responsible.- We cannot hold corporations accountable for the same reason. Yet we live in the shadows of these institutions, institutions that -control our lives,- and the negative externalities grow, daily.

      As our modern complex society grew, so too did our interests, beliefs, and activities. Considering this complexity, the only proper response would have been to decentralize, not centralize, to break our political and economic institutions into ever smaller and smaller chunks so that some semblance of human scale was maintained. The interaction could have been immediate, on target, and responsible.

      In this fashion, we could have kept those in charge responsible because we could have reached them on the phone, we could have found their office in the hallway, we could have uncovered their e-mail address. In essence, as our institutions decentralize, we the people maintain control over -our- lives because we maintain control over our institutions.

      Never have I meant to suggest that we would ever reach the golden shores of complete decentralization. It simply cannot become a reality. I do mean to suggest, however, that we need to find ways to decentralize, in fits and starts, in bits and pieces. If we can’t, for instance, decentralize the automotive industry, then we will never be able to eradicate the NHTSA. But for those industries that can be decentralized, so too can the corresponding federal regulatory agencies be decentralized for those particular industries, to the state or local level.

      “Civic engagement in the U.S. is, and has been declining for decades….”

      It has, for precisely the reason that our governmental institutions are seen as untouchable, unknowable, past human scale and hopelessly out of touch, not to mention in the clutches of special interests through campaign financing. So why bother?

      We often hear that freedom isn’t free, in a military-service context. Well guess what? It isn’t free in a civic context, either.

      -It takes effort.-

      And more and more will engage when they realize that engagement can actually have an impact. But that can’t happen until we start breaking down our institutions to a human scale.

      My curating of the American Republic and its history cannot suddenly induce Americans to pursue civic engagement. So poor has been our education in civics, -for decades,- that Americans simply don’t even understand how it is all supposed to work.

      So colored have been our history books -for decades- that Americans actually believe this skewed alternative history. It is meant to lull us into complacency. The powers that be want us to remain in our homes, consumed by football or smartphones. They do -not- want civic engagement.

      We have to decide, right quick, just what the hell is important to us.
      The task ahead is more daunting than any climb up Mount Everest.

      Yet, at this stage all I have attempted is to bring a better understanding of what transpired in the American Republic, particularly at its formative stage, and that civic engagement was most certainly implied throughout.

      And I tried to remove this understanding from the bastardization of this period in the hands of contemporary ideologues.

      Only after a more complete picture is comprehended can Americans make a rational decision about the American republic’s usefulness. It is for all Americans, not me, to decide.

      And the whole edifice may very well crumble before we get there. But assuming we can get to that modest point in our future, we will have to ask ourselves, “Is it worth reviving the American Republic?”

      If it is not, then that is our choice, and we will have to live with the consequences, good, bad or indifferent. But for god’s sake, let’s stop kidding ourselves that the American Creed, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence or any of the late Enlightenment ideals for humanity represent anything to us. Let’s call a spade a spade, and let the chips fall where they may.

      At that point, we -will- enter Hobbes’ man-against-all phase.

      I will have to disagree with the characterization of the Articles of Confederation having “failed miserably.” That is a rewrite of history, and one actively taught in our schools. It is a perfect example of what I was discussing above.

      First, the Constitutional Convention was convened to rewrite the Article of Confederation; initially, there was only some interest in writing a new constitution.

      And the convention convened in May 1787 in Philadelphia. It would go on to be a hot summer. Added to the misery was that the windows were kept closed to a) keep out the swarms of flies feasting on the horse emissions in the street and b) to keep prying ears away from the proceedings (Jefferson, at the time in France, was miffed that the convention was held in such a secretive fashion).

      The convention dragged on and on and on….

      At some point, a majority of the delegates sensed it was time to start with a clean sheet of paper.

      The Articles of Confederation failed primarily in one area: It gave our central government no powers to raise taxes amongst the states, so that each could pay off their fair share of the Revolutionary War’s debts. How the central government was to determine these “fair shares” was fraught with peril.

      In addition, the arguments over the very restructuring of the central government brought no end to various plans and ideas.

      One-third of the convention’s delegates either walked out of the convention, or refused to sign off on the final document, not wishing to throw the Articles of Confederation overboard. This division was -not- a north/south fracture. Delegates from across the country furiously disagreed with creating a new constitution from scratch.

      It took two years of heated debate before the ninth state voted to ratify the new constitution, the threshold at which point it took hold. Debates in the other states went on; Rhode Island held out until 1791.

      In short, there was no overwhelming consensus on what to do with the Articles, how to write a new Constitution, or form a central government.

      “I simply cannot ignore the quite serious practical consequences of decentralizing government especially in this day and age.”

      Neither can I, but until we fully understand that we will never be able to change our heavily centralized, monolithic institutions – both governmental and economic – we will never rectify our ship, the one that is slowly sinking in the mire of ineffectiveness, inefficiency, ineptness and corruption.

      To keep doing the same things over and over, the old saw goes, yet expect a different outcome, is the classic definition of stupidity. And by no means is that saw directed at you, but to a general audience. I have, over the past seven years, met with the same criticisms, over and over. It’s time to clear the air.

      It is everyone’s fault that we haven’t been concerned enough to actually do something about the nascent movement towards serfdom in the U.S., and yet it is no one’s fault, because -ignorance has been a part of the elite’s plans all along.-

      But at some point, something has to give because we are losing our country, and the higher ideals it used to represent.

      So do we start?

      If so, when?

      And by what framework?

      • Robert A. Vella Says:

        Well, I agree with all that except your conclusion on the Articles of Confederation. It was a failure because its lack of centralization fostered the very divisiveness which you point to as the reason for its demise. Homo sapiens are a social species, but only within a structured environment. Remove or loosen the structure, and anarchy results when competing interests and ideas clash as they gain in stature. Case-in-point: Somalia.

        To my knowledge, never in the history of human civilization has any nation-state flourished with decentralized government. The reasons are obvious.

        Regarding the escalating spiral of corporatism and corruption, the size of socioeconomic institutions is primarily linked with population. The more people there are, the bigger these entities get. And, as Lord Acton described, they become more powerful and corrupt as they increase in size.

        Therefore, in my opinion, our population has far exceeded the healthy limitations of our human nature and social organization, as well as the natural resources of Earth which we are dependent upon.

        Given these parameters, I think we’re in serious trouble. It is not in our nature to act cooperatively on such a large scale (decentralization), and the organizational structures which govern us have become corrupted by their sheer size (centralization).

        I do applaud your thoughtful efforts, however.

      • E.L. Beck Says:

        But in her fine work, On Revolution, Hannah Arendt studied the period between the collapse of one regime and before a new regime could take shape. She found that citizens self formed into local committees so that local government could transpire and oversee local needs.

        If we assume lawlessness, then we buy into the corporatist’s viewpoint that humanity is nothing but an unruly primate, ready to take unfair advantage of each other for the sake of gain. Thus, such a diminished view of humanity justifies the corporatist into cheating the individual out of employment, out of property, out of everything we otherwise believe humanity can develop, including beauty in the midst of misery.

        In The Dignity of Humanity, that is my argument: We become animals precisely because we believe it to be true. Our outlook on the the human condition arrives not because it is pre-determined; our outlook on the human condition arrives because -we- choose either a positive or negative outlook on humanity.

        It is ultimately a -moral choice.-

        If we adopt the negative views of our political and corporate leaders, we live down to those low expectations. We buy into the fact that we cannot engage, and thus our lives become diminished and we struggle, severely, to gain and maintain our sense of dignity. When we accept such diminished views of humanity, we allow such effects as a militarized police state to thrive because we tell ourselves humans are not worthy, thus they should be beaten into submission and fear.

        If we truly accept human depravity in our worldview, then why should we fight for anything at all? Why should we care to regain control over our lives at the local level, where -everything- counts since it is in the local community where we live out our lives, not in D.C., and not on Wall Street.

        The American Creed believed in the dignity of the individual, -even if the founders’ personal, 18th century sensibilities did not allow this belief in human dignity to fully develop.- That in no way diminishes the ideals of the American Republic and what it stood for. This is a point on which, for some reason, Americans get entangled. Many who live overseas, with whom I discussed such matters, fully understand human weaknesses, yet do not allow this to cloud their understanding of and appreciation for the higher ideals.

        As for the Articles vs. the Constitution, it was never a matter of decentralization versus centralization. Until 1860, the US had a highly decentralized governmental structure, not because it was somehow less complex, but because transportation and communication technologies limited human interaction, forcing them to concentrate on their local communication.

        The change to a new constitution had no change on that structure. Decentralization thrived under our present constitution.

        Again, it comes down to a moral choice. I do not abide by technological determinism. Simply because we have a TV or smartphone, this should not dictate how we live our lives. It is -we- who accept, or reject, the present conditions. We can, and will, engage the local level, but only if we can perceive our actions are meaningful.

        This meaning cannot arise if we allow centralization to continue, unchallenged.

        Population increase should be dictating decentralization, since it is easier for us to determine better outcomes locally. I can’t possibly imagine what mortal god, resting high on top of some centralized structure, exists that could decide how each community, let alone each individual, should proceed in the daily endeavors of life.

      • Robert A. Vella Says:

        That’s an oversimplification of human nature which is neither “good” nor “evil.” It is the mix of behaviors which are pertinent both at the individual and societal level. These are well understood. People will generally act constructively in positive environments and destructively in negative environments. The former is much more difficult to achieve because it requires the careful balancing of opposing factors. The latter, unfortunately, is the default position. Human history provides ample proof.

        We remain in complete disagreement over our respective assessments of the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution vis-a-vis centralized vs decentralized government. But, that’s okay.

        Best regards,

      • E.L. Beck Says:

        As well as the human condition.

        ” The latter (evil), unfortunately, is the default position.”

        There’s been too much scientific research over the past 20 years that is proving otherwise. Start with Robert Sapolsky’s work, neurobiologist at Stanford, and the Forest Troop baboons for foundational primate work, and then work out to human studies. His footnotes will direct the reader outwards.

        I guess where I’m puzzled is why a progressive would feel this would be the default human condition. What’s the impetus to fight for humanity?

        Consider the question rhetorical, and enjoy your weekend.

  2. Variations on a Civic Theme – Bureau for Social Development, Amsterdam | The Commonwealthmen Says:

    […] So let’s make the entire budget “participatory” by pushing for initiatives such as local financial oversight offices. […]

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