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In praise of devolution

Mark Steyn is one of those writers whose effortless prose intimidates me into not taking up a writing career. An expat Canadian who lives in New Hampshire, he has a very nice piece on the apparently permanent supine position that conservatism has assumed in England. Starting about halfway down, though, he gets to the really interesting part, when he talks about the dangers of centralization and the benefits of devolved power:

Conservatism should be committed to as decentralised a politics as possible. If my town has lousy policing, it’s no skin off my neighbours 15 miles down the road. Conversely, if my town hits on a good idea, my neighbours are happy to borrow it. Decentralisation is the best way to ensure a dynamic political culture, full of low-key field studies. That’s one reason why every good idea Britain’s law-and-order monopoly takes up was started in a local American jurisdiction (the ‘broken window’ theory) and every bad idea was cooked up by the national Home Office bureaucracy (the gun ban).

Decentralisation is also the best way to get new politicians in. London’s Euroleft conventional wisdom disdains not only the rude unlovely electorate at large but also any representatives chosen from without the full-time political class. As the Guardian sniffed, ‘Putting Arnie in charge of the world’s fifth largest economy is like making Benny Hill Chancellor of the Exchequer: quirky but unreal — and not very funny.’ Get a grip, lads. Benny Hill would have made a terrific chancellor.

Go for the wit. Stay for the ideas. Ponder how to raise decentralization and devolution on the political radar screen.

There is an enormous hill to climb, of course – politics seems to be subject to a law of centripetal gravitational convergence, where power naturally centralizes, but only devolves during catastrophes or revolutions. Still, devolution strikes me as a fundamentally libertarian project, if for no other reason than it lays the groundwork for that bane of statism – competition between jurisdictions.

8 comments to In praise of devolution

  • Ron

    Supposing the Conservatives shut down Central Office. What would they lose?

    * A well documented postal address (loss)
    * Conservative Research Department (loss)
    * A huge drain on financial resources (gain)
    * A hotbed of plotters (gain)
    * ?

    It always amazes me that large institutions don’t price their large initiatives and fixed costs in terms of their primary income units.

    So, when the Tories pay X million pounds on running Central Office or stupid poster campaigns, has anyone bothered to express the value of X in terms of units of “profit per membership renewal”?

    How many extra members do the local parties have to go out and gain to pay for even ONE stupid poster?

  • “…power naturally centralizes, but only devolves during catastrophes or revolutions.”

    You say “revolutions” like this is A Bad Thing.

    Keep destroying those surveillance cameras and cutting off the traffic “boots”. More ideas will come to you…

    A tax revolt might be a good move (another idea from a decentralised entity).

  • R. C. Dean

    Didn’t mean to imply that revolutions are necessarily a Bad Thing, Kim. Whether they are or not depends, of course, on the outcome. American Revolution – good. Communist Revolution – bad. French Revolution – hmm, lemme think on that one.

    I am just at a loss to remember any significant devolution that happened without major upheaval. The history of the US shows a long and pretty steady trend toward centralization of power, for example, ever since the Revolution.

  • Thon Brocket

    Right on the money. Think of devolved jurisdictions as increasing political biodiversity, and providing more “genetic material” for trial-and-error evolution to work on.

  • Guy Herbert

    Aren’t the CRD and the hotbed of plotters one and the same, Ron?

  • Ron

    “Aren’t the CRD and the hotbed of plotters one and the same, Ron?”

    OK, I meant the function and the accumulated data rather than any specific personnel (not all CRD staff are destructive jumped-up kiddiwinks), since the CRD was so lethally effective during Thatcher’s time.

  • Ron

    Further to my last message, there seems to be a We Love IDS website…

  • Tom

    Competing jurisdictions are essential. A couple decades ago Wisconsin had one of the worst tax & regulatory climates in America. The legislature basicly told high income executives that taxes (personal income & business & estate) were just about right, except maybe a wee bit too low, and certainly the pols were not about to cut tax rates on bloodsucking capitalists.

    So, one day one of the biggest forest products companies in the country decided to move the headquarters from Wisconsin to Texas. Instead of paying less income tax to Wisconsin they payed no tax. Not less estate tax but no estate tax.

    The interesting aspect was that they did not go quietly: They bought a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal to tell the executive/investor class of America WHY they were going to the expense of moving.

    The state politicians thought that companies and their top executives were serfs. They got a very rude awakening, and subsequent elections brought in some new ppl who actually improved things a bit. Now we are only 3rd or 5th most highly taxed in America, depending on who you listen to. That is an improvement, sad to say.

    Anyway, things would never have gotten any better if we had a uniform tax and regulatory climate across the country- exactly the problem with uniform taxation of Internet purchases. Tax & regulatory uniformity is the death of freedom.