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What is the best way to govern a complex and plural society?


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The Conversation

David Thunder |

Ramón y Cajal Researcher & Lecturer in Political Philosophy, Institute for Culture & Society, University of Navarra, Universidad de Navarra

We live in increasingly large, complex societies with many internal differences, so finding the best way to govern them is a challenge challenge. For example, should actions to address a pandemic be coordinated through a global authority such as the World Health Organization, or should they be flexibly coordinated internationally? Should there be a global regulator to manage environmental sustainability, or should local actors take the lead? Should we design cities from the top down or from the bottom up?

Arguments for and against centralizing one or the other governance function may be based, to some extent, on the advantages of each governance technique. However, they are often based, consciously or unconsciously, on certain assumptions about the foundations of civil order.

Often, these are not made explicit. But there is more than one way of approaching civil order. Two ideas in particular have played an important role: on the one hand, the idea of social order as the product of top-down central planning (monocentrism) and, on the other, the idea of social order as the product of many diverse bottom-up initiatives that gradually crystallize into a plurality of governance systems united by emerging customs and norms (polycentrism).

These two categories are, in a way, reductionist. They imply a certain simplification of real-world thinking and practices. Nevertheless, one of these two often predominates on discussion and this explains many aspects of how a person or an institution approaches governance problems.

Monocentrism: complexity as the seed of anarchy

The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1651) could be considered one of the most trenchant representatives of monocentrism. For him, if human communities are not subject to the control of a powerful public authority they quickly tend to insecurity and anarchy. From agreement with Hobbes, many people would pursue their own interests selfishly and aggressively and would even be willing to lie, cheat, steal and kill to reassert their power over others.

This generates a dangerous cycle in which an eye for an eye and violent conquest prevail, which can only be broken if authority is given to an irresistible sovereign power, represented by Hobbes as the Leviathan, an imposing sea monster mentioned in the Book of Job. The sovereign ruler of a society is the court of last written request to resolve all imaginable political disputes and keeps the citizens under control by punishing anyone who rebels against his rules.

For many citizens and scholars, Hobbes is too absolutist. Nevertheless, much contemporary political thought continues to be influenced by two characteristics of monocentrism: first, the belief that the most appropriate way to solve highly complex social problems is to pool resources and knowledge in a centralized governing institution; and second, to associate high levels of institutional complexity and diversity with anarchy and inefficiency.

Polycentrism: the value of complexity

Polycentrism takes a more positive view of social complexity and pluralism than Hobbes. Among its most influential advocates is the economist Elinor Ostrom, who has argued the extent to which complex and decentralized public administration methods, such as decentralized police forces, provide superior services to highly centralized ones. Other authors offer polycentric approaches through advocacy of federalism and a variety of forms of social, political and constitutional pluralism.

Polycentrists do not see institutional and social complexity and differentiation as a threat to public order, but as a potential value that can contribute to solving social problems and to promote human freedom. Consequently, they deny the monocentric ideal of a meticulously coordinated top-down social system - as a dangerous chimera - and also refuse to automatically associate high levels of social complexity with chaos and anarchy. Instead, they propose a social order managed by a plurality of independent actors cooperating within a broad, flexible and revisable institutional or metainstitutional framework .

Historical examples

It is quite easy to find historical examples of monocentric and polycentric conceptions of order. For example, highly decentralized political systems, such as the Cantons of Switzerland, were originally based on a collegial model of bottom-up politics that seemed to have a polycentric spirit. Meanwhile, the Napoleonic State model implemented in France, with its idea of a hierarchical public administration imposed from the top down, was clearly monocentric in its conception of civil order.

The urban planning movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States-criticized as a blight on neighborhoods by activist and writer Jane Jacobs in her book Death and Life of Great American Cities- was based on a highly monocentric approach of order. Urban planners imposed technocratic plans to remake the fabric of cities from top to bottom. For its part, the "new urbanism" movement could be described as polycentric, insofar as it seeks to construct urban life in ways that respond directly to the interests and priorities of citizens and communities on the ground (see, for example, the "Charter for New Urbanism").

Debates about the merits of centralized and decentralized government have to do with the search for efficiency in administration, but they also touch on deep questions of ethics and political Philosophy . In particular, social and political Structures based on one or the other idea of order condition the staff and political freedom of citizens in very different ways.

Consequently, how one positions oneself in such debates depends on how one understands the value of human freedom and what priority one gives it over other values such as efficiency, security and political stability. It is unlikely that these debates will be resolved to everyone's liking in the near future.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

The Conversation