Monday, June 22, 2020

#174 / Shake Off Those Shackles

A friend passed on an excellent article from Foreign Affairs. The article is titled, "A More Resilient Union: How Federalism Can Protect Democracy From Pandemics." My reputation as someone who likes both federalism and democracy seems to be getting around! My friend was absolutely right in thinking I would like this article. I did like the article, and as I read it, I fastened on this quote: 

Americans need to shake off the shackles of obeisance to technocrats

Here is the point being made, explained at more length: 

As the pandemic grew, instead of endlessly debating Trump, more Americans should have asked, What questions need to be answered here? Had they done so, they might have realized that neither public health experts nor economists have a monopoly on how to respond. The former know how to fight diseases, but they know little about how to get supply chains to deliver a testing infrastructure on an unprecedented scale. The latter know how to revive a flagging economy, but they know little about which alternatives to stay-at-home orders are effective at controlling a disease. At a time when there was a need to take in advice from two silos of experts and make an integrated judgment, Americans settled into camps, defending the monofocal perspective of one category of expertise or another.

Danielle Allen, who wrote these lines, is a political theorist who serves as the James Bryant Conant University Professor and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. She points out that our federal system lets local experimentation flourish, and thus is better than centralized, top down governance when the "top down" authorities aren't all that capable.

If you have any thought that authoritative national governments (up to and including "authoritarian" national governments) are really the best way to make sure that society effectively confronts and overcomes a national crisis - if you think, in fact, that such centralized structures of governmental power are a  better way to deal with the problems of ordinary life than the decentralized, state and local governments that are given primacy of place in our democratic system - please consult recent newspaper accounts of how well our federal government, under the current administration, has handled the coronavirus crisis. It is not an inspiring set of stories.

In addition to Allen's observations about how a "federal system" is a better system of governance than a centralized national approach, Allen also points out something that I think is even more important. It's that "democracy" thing. 

Allen believes in "self-government," but she thinks we have largely forgotten how to do it. We now seem to think that "experts" of some kind, the "technocrats" in that pull quote I highlighted, are the people who should be making the decisions. We just need to pick which brand we like better. Do we want to "open up the economy?" There are technocrats who can tell us how to do that. Do we want robust and reliable public health protection? There are technocrats who can tell us how to do that, too. 

Unfortunately, these technocrats disagree, and that list I just provided only includes two varieties of technocrat! There are lots of other flavors, too! Furthermore, Allen is absolutely correct that we actually don't want to choose between different flavors of technocratic advice. We actually want to protect public health AND keep our economy humming, AND.... lots of other things, as well. 

So, in a crisis, or at any other time, who should actually be making the decisions about what to do? 

WE should!

If anyone is unclear about how that works, read Allen's article, with its pretty significant shout out to "civic education." Then, that homework completed, think about getting involved in your local government in a more direct way. 

In my own community, the City Council has just spent a lot of money on two competing sets of "experts," architects and consultants, to help the City decide whether to renovate our existing downtown library or to consolidate the library into a new six-to-seven-story parking structure, with affordable housing thrown in for good measure. 

There are some good arguments on both sides, but what's with all those technocrats? What's with all those expenditures for "experts?" The issues, in the end, can't be based on consultant reports from the technocrats. 

Who is supposed to decide? WE are, and if we have, as Allen thinks, forgotten how to do that, we had better start hitting those "civic education" studies pretty soon, because the climate crisis, and the threat of thermonuclear war, make the coronavirus challenge look easy.

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