A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Various splurges on localism, devolution, state-building, and standardisation

NB: quite possibly conflating issues which are superficially related but really ought to be kept separate. Anecdotal evidence and guys with blogs remain anecdotal evidence and guys with blogs, and should be treated as such.
Also, names have been changed.

Back for Christmas, I've recently been catching up with various people I grew up with. In particular, the half a dozen or so lads who are my age or slightly older at the church in which I grew up. Lucias is my oldest friend, who was my best friend in primary school. He studied Maths at Bristol, did a one-year Masters, and is now doing a Ministry Traineeship at his church there. In a few months he will be getting married to a girl he met there.

Jason and Thomas are a pair of brothers who studied Engineering at Cambridge and Geography at Durham respectively; again, I believe they both have Masters' Degrees. They are now both living in London - Jason putting his degree into direct use in designing things, while Thomas (who was a keen athlete in school, having once placed in the top 30 of the Birmingham half-marathon) is now working in sports marketing - he enthused that next year's World Athletics Championship, which he is involved in promoting, will be Usain Bolt's last race as a professional.

Simon and John are the two older siblings of their family. I can't remember exactly what Simon studies, but am fairly confident that Spanish was part of it; he now works in London. John did Geography and French at Manchester, and is now working for the council there while angling towards going for a Master's.

Finally, there's me. PPE at Manchester, then jetted off to Budapest to study for a Master's in Philosophy. Currently applying for PhD programs, with an eye on Toronto. Long-term, intending to move back to the UK and very vaguely hoping to find a job at Oxbridge.

What, apart from our Christian upbringings, do we have in common? We're all bright, well-educated young men who remember Birmingham fondly and want it to do well. But none of us see our futures here.

This is, I think, the kind of thing Tom Forth likes to go on about on Twitter. We'll come back at holidays, maybe chip in to things - my own contributions are primarily playing piano and organ at church, but people really like hearing that organ played, mind you - but in terms of the lasting contributions that any of us could make to our communities, those contributions will be made elsewhere. Thomas noted that of his friends from Durham, "like 99% of them" have also moved down to London. That's simply where the jobs are.

This doesn't seem good for Birmingham. I don't endorse brain drain as a reason to compel people to stay in the third world, and nor do I endorse it as a reason to compel people to stay in Birmingham. But we've received a lot - of the six people I describe, five of us went to schools run by the King Edwards Foundation - and it's hard to see what, if anything, our home city is getting back.

An interesting essay linked to yesterday by Byrne: "The Strange Death of Municipal England". Key claims:
-government should be doing lots of things
-however, these should be done specifically by local government
-in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this was what actually happened
-however, since WWII local authorities have increasingly had powers nationalised
-the tendency is now towards privatisation of such things, to the detriment of quality/equality of service

The essay is good and worth reading, but at the end I was left with a feeling that if you asked the author why (say) libraries should be government-run but food shops should not, you would not get any kind of a convincing answer. Most egregious is the following passage:
In truth, Britain no longer has a government, but rather a system of governance, the term political scientists use to describe ‘the relationships between governmental and non-governmental forces and how they work together’. This is another way of saying that we live in a half-democracy. 
David Schmidtz has the most articulate and developed response to this way of thinking, which is (roughly) that the fact that we aim to realise particular principles with our institutions does not mean that the institutions ought to aim specifically at the realisation of those principles. This is a line of thought going all the way back to Adam Smith, with the immortal line (and also the only line of The Wealth of Nations that I actually remember):
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, baker, or brewer that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.
That's my key point of disagreement with the essay: I don't think the changes it herald are necessarily bad. But that's not why I bring it up here. It's because of the tension it argues for between the national and the local, and the argument (which I am entirely open to, perhaps even favourable to) that nationalisation of politics is bad for most local areas.

The other evening, I had an exchange with Tom Forth on Twitter. We agreed that there are many types of policies which, in terms of total impact, are bad, but are good (or at least perceived as good) by the communities which make them. Examples include import tariffs, US cities bribing sports teams to stay in town, favouring domestic companies for fulfilling government contracts, etc. We agreed it is good that the EU prevents member governments from such practices. Our disagreement, I think, is whether the UK government should prevent localities from such practices. (I'm not certain what these would be, but let's assume that they exist and that more powerful councils would practise them). I, motivated by an overriding moral commitment to the wellbeing of individuals, think that it should. He, motivated by a belief in democracy and in particular local democracy, thinks that it should not. (At least, this is how I understand the disagreement).

If such beggar-thy-neighbour policies exist at the city level, it seems at least plausible that the success of London relative to the rest of the UK is to a fair extent due to it being the only city able to pursue them. Let us suppose that this is a good model for how the UK actually works. In that case, there are three obvious choices we could attempt:
(a) No-one, including London, gets to play beggar-thy-neighbour
(b) Everyone gets to play beggar-thy-neighbour
(c) The status quo: London, and no-one else, may play beggar-thy-neighbour

(a) and (b) have the advantages of moral consistency: (c) is desperately unfair on everywhere except London. But (a) may be entirely impossible to practice, and (b) is surrendering to the collective action problem. So (c) may well be the best option available; indeed, given this empirical model of the world, I would take (a) to be impossible and so advocate (c): in practice, clamping down on decentralisation.

A discussion of the increase in federal power, in particular since WWII, in the US. Worth reading for itself, but a real "huh, that seems obvious in retrospect" moment for me was the point that what we think of as common law bears little to no relation to law as experienced by most people for most of Anglo-American history. Rather, there was a whole mess of conflicting local norms, which in the early 20th century were standardised and codified by reformers.

On a related note, the professor in a Gender Studies course I audited this semester noted that we have records of men in 19th century England selling their wives. Clearly this wasn't a common thing, but it happened in certain places. Legal standardisation, of course, put a stop to that.

The point that I'm getting towards, I think, is an attempt at rebutting the arguments made by James Scott and Jacob Levy against centralisation of power. Or rather, I want to accept all of their claims about what High Modernism causes, and say that it was probably worth it. Or maybe it wasn't. The problem is perhaps inherently unsolvable, since it is very difficult to know what the average state of society was prior to the building of the nation-state. The standardisation which destroyed local knowledge and practice was also what made it possible, even in principle, to assess how individual people's lives were going.

Some people - including people I know personally - would argue that communities ought to be protected and preserved, even if they are what we would regard as backward. But again, I state my belief in moral individualism: people are what matters, and communities are only a means towards the flourishing of people. Perhaps they are important, even crucial means, but when society holds its members back, society is to be cast into the fire.

Does legal standardisation relate to modern devolution? I think it does, in a sense. Forcing the young men formerly of St. Stephen's Church to stay in Birmingham would have been good for Birmingham, and quite possibly good for the other people of Birmingham. But it's no way to treat individuals, it's no way to turn London into the growth engine which will eventually realise the post-scarcity society (or as near to that as possible), and... I don't know. The world is complicated, I don't know. I don't know.

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