Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: centralisation

The Devolution of Blame

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood – I am not blaming Devolution, what I want to talk about is the opposite problem.

Emilie Whitaker coined the term “blame devolution” to describe, I think, the way in which bureaucracies or other hierarchical systems seek to devolve blame to the point of least resistance. For example, ‘Let’s blame the social worker.’

This fact corresponds to the principle outlined by my Greek grandfather-in-law, Petros Protopapadakis: The fish always rots from the head down. In other words, in any system, the likely point of responsibility for any failure will lie with its leadership.

There is a dreadful paradox which plays out behind these two truths: The centre tends to exploit the periphery, and so we grow to mistrust the periphery and try to push power and accountability to the centre. But we can end up with the worst of all possible worlds – more centralisation, giving the centre more power to abuse its power.

A better framework for dealing with such abuses is constitutional or legal. We must have rights to protect us form the abuse of power. And any necessary powers must be located with those who are best able to meet those rights. (This sometimes means central power, sometimes local and sometimes just personal freedom).

We must be on guard against the policy soundbite – the lazy assumption that decentralisation always means better. But at the same time we must also ensure that power and control are properly devolved outwards, as far away from the centre as is possible, and in a way that is consistent with our secure rights.

Odysseus and Taxation

Sometimes, like Odysseus before the Sirens, we seek to limit ourselves, to put ourselves under the control of others, because we do not trust ourselves.

Insurance has this function – we tax ourselves in order to put something aside in case of adversity. While this strategy can be useful it can be also dangerous.

In a democracy we see the same phenomenon when citizens are taxed from afar, that is passing their resources far away, to higher authorities – only to have them come back (or some proportion of them come back) with strings attached.

Some people like this process, it encourages national uniformity and if you trust those who further away more than you trust yourself or those who are more local it makes sense. But this indicates a kind of weakness and an unintegrated mentality. This encourages centralisation of power and undermines the community’s own development.

Sometimes, as with health care, we are right not to trust ourselves – we would be better to trust others. But we must be wary of unfounded faith in ‘the system’ and ‘the powerful.’

From Pooling to Differentiation

If I were constructing a Utopia, which God forbid, I should describe a higher civilisation in which every human being had a hundred names; in which each had a particular name known only to a particular friend; in which there were more and not less ceremonies differentiating the various kinds of love and friendship and in which the suitor had to go through ten names before he got to Glory. That would be a Utopia really worth constructing; for it would be a real question of construction. Most of the Utopias represent only a dull sort of destruction; the sort of destruction we call simplification. It would really be something like fun to invent a ritual; but since the neglect of religion, no man has really had the courage to invent a ritual. It would be a great lark to draw up a code of law, decorating Tom, Dick and Harry with their Seven Secret Names. But these things will not come until the modern world has realised that its cure lies in distribution and even in differentiation; and not in mixing up everything together in one great mess. Comradeship has become a sort of Combine; bearing the same relation to true friendship that a Trust has to a true trade. Nobody seems to have any notion of improving anything except by pouring it into something else; as if a man were to pour the tea into the coffee or the sherry into the port. The one idea in all human things, from friendship to finance, is to pool everything. It is a very stagnant pool.

G K Chesterton from On Calling Names

Chesterton is the great advocate for the road to social justice less travelled. He believed that the path of the Fabians, the communists and the social democrats towards social justice was the same path taken by the great capitalists: to destroy diversity and so to achieve a greater centralisation of power and control in their own hands.

One hundred years later Chesterton’s path remains untravelled. But could we not rethink social justice? Could we seek fairness, while still respecting tradition, complexity and diversity? Could we build, without destroying?

People with learning difficulties have already shown us the way. People who have been excluded, victimised and disempowered, do not want revenge or some meaningless token of ‘equality’. They want to be included, to live in freedom, to be safe and to make their own contribution, in their own way. People want citizenship and world that enables them to find their own honoured place within it.

The Limits of Centralisation

Centralisation imparts without difficulty an admirable regularity to the routine of business… in short it excels in prevention, but not in action. Its forces desert it when society is to be profoundly moved, or accelerated in its course; and if once the cooperation of private citizens is necessary to the furtherance of its measures, the secret of its impotence is disclosed…

These are not conditions upon which the alliance of the human will is to be obtained; it must be free in its gait and responsible for its acts, or (such is the constitution of man) the citizen had rather remain a passive spectator than a dependent actor in schemes with which he is unacquainted.

Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America

I love ‘free in its gait and responsible for its acts’. Politicians tell us they want our participation, our citizenship and our contribution. But one feels that they only want us to get involved on their terms – not when we’re ready – but when they’re ready.

Citizenship must be rooted in local experiences of active engagement. We cannot be expected to spring into action only when our masters decide they are ready for us.

The fact that the UK is the most centralised welfare state in the world should give us all cause for concern.

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