Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil: in its worst state, an intolerable one. (Thomas Paine)
This is what I wrote in March 2011.
Having entered the seventh decade of my life I often find myself becoming very cross with those who are running our country. Indeed, the whole process which once seemed so reasonable now seems awful – mendacious, self-serving and (most importantly) grossly inefficient. Over the years I have come to believe the following statements:-
It is beyond the wit of man properly to govern the sort of complex, multi-layered society in which we, in the UK, now live (or we aren’t as clever as we think we are!).
The form of representative democracy that we have in this country no longer works in the best interests of the people as it fails to meet the needs of many members of the electorate and has handed too much power to central government – as opposed to parliament – and to innumerable unaccountable bodies.
If, as seems likely, the problem is one of scale then the solution is to reduce the size of problems until they are small enough to be understood. Small problems, analysed as close to the source of difficulty as possible, with decisions being taken at as local a level as possible are far more likely to result in sensible decisions being made. Put it another way: all decisions should be taken by the smallest competent authority accepting that that could be anything from a town or parish council to the a multi-national authority such as the U.N.
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After that blog appeared, I received a very interesting email from Marek Kubik which included the following.
“From reading your more recent blog posts I see you’re a fan of local governance. Breaking down the problem into smaller chunks and making it easier to solve. I can see the logic behind this, but I also didn’t see consideration for the potential pitfalls; namely:”
He then lists three points which I would like to take one at a time. The first is this:
“Centralisation is arguably better for efficiency (as one amalgamated office for say, the treasury is more efficient and cost effective to run than a separate one in every constituency).”
My first reaction is that this is not always true. Clearly where the requirements are identical in all respects (such as all the branches of a chain of opticians) and there are no local variations, savings can be made by centralising design and purchasing. However, that is generally not true when it comes to governance. Areas are different: they have different needs, different local suppliers and there is likely to be a difference when considering what the people of the area need and want. This is true even within the NHS. Every hospital has (or I assume has) a stand-by generating plant. Should they all buy the same model or even from the same supplier? I would argue that the answer is ‘no’. For a start, not all hospitals would need the same size of generator – so there can be no ‘best’ manufacturer to cover the entire range. Secondly is the question of the proximity of a service facility: If you are the western end of Cornwall you do not want to rely on a service engineer coming from, say, Bristol.
Here is the second. “Letting my engineering background shine through, a local based government system could be considered sub-optimal from a systemic point of view. The sum of local optimums may be worse than a single global optimum. By this I mean if every local community only looks out for and funds itself, the poorer communities will struggle most. Under a centralised system the taxes from the funding can be coordinated that the wealthiest constituencies can be redistributed to the poorest. I guess I’m talking about the concept of ‘the greater good’ here, and that is something that I guess depends very much on your political philosophy as to its relevance.”
Here I absolutely agree in that Marek hits on a problem that would arise unless it were to be properly addressed. My preferred solution (at the moment and very much work in progress) is that all income related taxes and property taxes should be collected on a local basis – both personal and business – whilst VAT, Customs and Excise and other taxes should be centrally collected. In this day and age of computers that should not present any administrative problems (but would, of course, if the IT is unreliable). One of the functions of central government would be to administer a levelling grant to local areas based on a formula taking into consideration a range of factors (each area’s average income, population, etc). Incidentally, at this stage I am deliberately not defining what I mean by ‘a local area’ as that is a complex subject requiring more consideration.
Marek’s third point was: “Re-emphasis on localism could potentially detract from national unity. This sounds like a very authoritarian statement from someone like me (I’m slightly left of centre and slightly libertarian on the political compass), but what I mean here is a danger of different laws and legislation being ratified in different parts of the UK. So, to take an extreme example, one liberal area supports and legalises full rights for gay marriage, and a very conservative one overturns and outlaws it.”
Yes, but that is the whole point. To put it bluntly, what is localism? Looked at on a global scale, were there a global authority which pronounced on, say, gay rights I would hazard a guess that there would be more against such rights than for. Whether or not that is true, I would be most upset – I am also a libertarian but swing wildly between left and right as I go from subject to subject – if gay legislation ion this country were to be reversed as a result.
All of which assumes, of course, that if the local authority is a major tax raising authority it will be taken more seriously by the electorate – but that again is another subject.
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Reading through that piece again today, I remain convinced that central decision making far from what we have come to call ‘the coal face’ is at best inefficient and at times utterly wrong. This is true, I believe, in all walks of life, not just the government. There are two problems with it. The first is that the information from said coal face to the decision maker will have passed through a number of hands and some of those hands (if not all) will have an agenda. They may not even realise that they have one but everyone has one even when they honestly do not realise that they do. Indeed, then it is even more dangerous. Anyway, it means that the person who has to take the decision takes it on false data.
Then there are the distortions in the command as they travel back down through the various layers of managers and administrators, each layer will want to see how these instructions fit with their working practices and will seek to amend or even reverse certain parts of the instruction before passing it on.
And we wonder why each and every decisions seems to result in extra cost, a number of (often expensive) unexpected consequences and not very much actually changing in the intended direction. It is, I feel, reasonable to say that these costs are greater than the so-called savings that may or may not be achieved by centralisation.
One final thought which I do not intend to pursue here. Some of us have been discussing a reverse flow of tax. In other words local collection and the amount that filters trough to what would (in essence) be a federal central government would depend on the relative wealth of each locality. This is work in progress,