Against Centralized Power

August 30, 2023 • #

From Tom Sowell’s masterpiece, A Conflict of Visions:

While Hayek regarded some advocates of social justice as cynically aware that they were really engaged in a concentration of power, the greater danger he saw in those sincerely promoting the concept with a zeal which unconsciously prepares the way for others—totalitarians—to step in after the undermining of ideological, political, and legal barriers to government power makes their task easier.

This is one of the key dangers of centralizing power, and why I’m always interested in how people pursue goals versus what specifically they’re after. If, to achieve your objective, you have to bash down existing separations of power to get the work done, you have to be prepared for a successor (with whom you don’t agree) to deploy the same overconcentration of power to pursue ends you dislike. If you approve of presidential executive orders and the executive branch overriding legislative controls to “get things done”, you shouldn’t be surprised when your enemy does the same in the next term. But it’s less important whether you feel bad about or disagree strongly with a successor using the hammer. The lesson is to avoid centralizing authority as much as possible.

Scales of justice

A system designed with constraining barriers — like the American system of checks and balances — optimizes for something many people don’t realize. It’s not about enabling us to pursue maximum upside at all costs. Bureacracy is meant to slow things down, sometimes idealistic ends take decades. It’s about limiting catastrophic downsides: the tyranny of the majority, the slide into totalitarianism.

Sowell’s constrained vs. unconstrained vision model describes a framework for thinking about how certain psychologies will approach a problem solving or policy decision. The “constrained” has just that, a constrained view of what’s possible — of the innate intractability of the universe, of human fallibility. An environment defined by trade-offs. The “unconstrained” sees trade-offs as in our way, things to be disposed of or ignored to pursue our optimal path. Limited appreciation for the fact that we have no idea if what we think is optimal is actually so.

Constrained = seek first to explain the encountered Chesterton Fence.

Unconstrained = get annoyed by said fence, declare it an irritating obstruction, bulldoze.

Topics:   decentralization   FA Hayek   Thomas Sowell   government   authority