Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Centralization and Information

I will continue on the theme of centralization from a recent post. Philosophers have definitely favored centralization of power. Descartes favored a state organized by a single vision in his Discourse on Method (I discussed this earlier) and Kant was a proponent of an international cosmopolitan state ("Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View"). Plato believed in centralization in terms of power resting in the hands of philosopher kings. The philosophers, in their wisdom would be able to make the best decisions in light of their access to truth. Unfortunately, this philosophers, as with other centralized power, run into problems of limited information.

Even if it is possible that a leader could have the knowledge to know what the ideal state of the society is, the leader still needs to have information to know how the society at hand is deviating from that ideal state, who and where and how and in what ways. If the leader knows exactly how to address problem x, by implementing solution y, the leader still needs to know whether problem x is occurring and who is facing it. Modern governments expend considerable time and resources trying to collect reliable information, but there's still so much they don't know.

Let's relate this problem to current circumstances. There was an article last month in Time about the debate over whether there is currently a credit crunch in the US. There in fact has been considerable debate among economists and in the blogsphere on this issue. Many economists think credit is extremely tight right now, but there's also much opposition who think that the extent of this credit crunch has been overexaggerated. Some things are clear from this debate: 1) the data is not entirely unambiguous concerning the availability of credit to businesses, banks and individuals, and 2) the situation is complex with different creditors and different potential borrowers facing very different situations. The fact is, that people are getting credit and loans, it's just a matter of whether there is enough credit available. Unfortunately, what exactly enough is in this context is ultimately unknown (they usually just assume a given amount by extrapolating trend lines, but this is not entirely unproblematic).

But it gets even worse, because the credit crunch is just one problem among many. We don't know exactly whether there is a credit crunch, exactly how severe it is, and thus our ability to address it as a problem is very limited. And then there are many other issues and problems that are similar: issues we only partially understand and only partially understand how to fix. Think about the situation with the credit crunch: we're talking about thousands and thousands of individuals and institutions dealing with lending and borrowing. For many, things are fine. For others, things could be improved. But how it could be improved, can vary a lot. If we try a blanket approach, it's going to hurt some for whom things are fine, help some for whom things are fine, as well as harm some for whom things could be better, because it can't be addressed to every last one of these individuals. Problem-solving is best left decentralized because then the various individuals can have a better shot of understanding all the relevant factors in their situation and addressing them, even if they perhaps do not have the grand oversight to see how best to achieve the ideal state of things.

These are the type of issues that a leader would face in Plato's society, even if that leader had perfect access to knowledge and was unclouded by biases and selfish proclivities. In all likelihood, a truly philosophical and knowledgeable leader would ultimately end up doing very little, and would probably much better approximate Lao Tzu's ideal leader:
[The highest kind of leader] completes his tasks and finishes his affairs.
Yet the common people say, "These things all happened by nature.(17, trans Hendricks)

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