Who Gets Local Control?

James Scott writes convincingly about the tendency of large institutions, like states and private enterprises, to pursue their own interests by abstracting away the complexity of the actual world:

The necessarily simple abstractions of large bureaucratic institutions, as we have seen, can never adequately represent the actual complexity of natural or social processes. The categories that they employ are too coarse, too static, and too stylized to do justice to the world that they purport to describe.0{#ffn1 .footnote}^

According to Scott, any organization that works on a large scale, across different populations or a wide geographic area, will find systematic ways to work on its own terms. This could be people, natural resources, land–it doesn’t matter. The point is that large organizations work with the tools they have available: standardization, which is achieved through quantification and measurement, and control over the environment that makes up the local system. Large organizations pay very close attention to all these variables so that they can exclude or pay a lot less attention to everything else on the ground.

Scott argues that no state has ever come into existence through asking all its people what they need and want. Instead, it brings people under its control, who already have purposes, goals, and ideas of their own , and treats them according to what it thinks they need to do and be. In the past, this meant making them grow crops or serve in a military. Today, these same states might get people ready for compulsory schooling, provide employment, and supervise their health and wellness. Some aspects of these programs may be beneficial, but still, the state only offers the benefits that it has the tools to administer.0{#ffn2 .footnote}^

Most of Scott’s research focuses on how states use their power, but he does devote some attention to how private enterprise has reached a status similar to the state. I could not read Scott’s account of scientific forestry and agriculture without thinking of modern computing. Everything that has become digital over the last few decades has also become some combination of simpler, more abstract, and more amenable to what can be logged in a database (i.e., measured) and represented on a screen (e.g., images, videos). The face of a powerful, expansive-as-a-state private industry today surely has to be the company known Facebook–and “big tech” in general.

But the state persists. As a result every locality is now caught in multiple forms of abstracting, monolithic power, from federal and regional government, to globe-level tracking and surveillance, to the expansion of warehouse-based logistics and ever-more-concentrated factory farming.

Once multiple schemes of rationalization compete, interesting things happen. Scott writes that “today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety.“0{#ffn3 .footnote}^ I think of the recently passed French law to protect the sounds and smells of the countryside, or the policies many other countries have to protect distinctive regional cultures.

The average person lives under multiple centralizing forces, and this is a good thing–maybe one of the basic escapes from what would otherwise be an unbearable life dominated by a single authority. Most institutions of modern life acknowledge, in principle, that even they have limited powers, and that there are other legitimate spheres of action over which they ought to cede control. Scott notes, for instance, that the original justification for classical economic liberalism (i.e., “the free market”) was “not only that a free market protected property and created wealth but also that the economy was far too complex for it ever to be managed in detail by a hierarchical administration.“0{#ffn4 .footnote}^ According to this version of events, earlier states, which sought to control the use and allocation of resources, simply could not be as productive as those which ceded control over economic decision-making to local economic actors in the field. In an authentic free-market economy, local peoples achieve some independence because it is in the ultimate interests of the state to let individuals exercise their judgment.

Going further, it seems to me that the battle to achieve some level of local control is one of the most important and contentious issues in politics today, one that arguably cuts across both the developed and developing world.0{#ffn5 .footnote}^ To stick with my own country, much of the dysfunction in American politics can probably be explained by looking at what local control looks like to real people, who is allowed to achieve it, how much of daily life is conducted outside the view of distant authorities, and how local peoples think about the centralizing structures in their lives. Scott’s argument made me think harder about some tentative answers to each of these questions.

Two schools of thought in the U.S. about the reason for local control

I see two main flavors of argument used to justify local control in the U.S. The first is that a group needs local control because it is in the best interests of the country or wider society to do so. The second is that local control is a foundational good in itself.

To give an example of the first type, one of the highest collective goods in the US is the economy (i.e., “the market”). Favorable treatment of financial entities and liberal capital allocation are justified by the belief that they allow worthy smaller actors to receive investment that might later have broad national rewards. This can be seen in the “startup” model of US corporation. The startup is a business model in which ambitious, innovative small groups operate within a relaxed field, outside of existing corporate or other bureaucratic structures. Investor support relieves this group from the normal business pressures of breaking even, allowing them to take risks and pursue unconventional measures according to their own judgment about what is valuable. The eventual expectation is that the business will meet or exceed the normal standard of success (monetary profit). And the country will benefit by allowing this form of temporary local decision-making through increased economic competitiveness and greater wealth. It is no accident that the character of the free-spirited, eccentric, brilliant software engineer is tied to the paradigmatic modern startup, the software company, the field where creativity appears to promise greater profit, faster, than almost any other business ever.

Other justifications of the first type that come to mind include:

The second argument for local control, that it is an intrinsic good, can be seen in the American historical tradition of religious freedom, and the small religious sects that was the basis for many local communities in the early American republic. The idea remains in action today, whether through distinctive regional communities like the Amish or as an idea like the “Benedict Option.” The idea that religious peoples are a unique group whose interests are fundamentally different than the mainstream, secular United States, carries a lot of weight with Christian groups in the US today.

The American emphasis on individualism also represents the maximization of the principled argument for local control. By this logic, if every locality is itself composed of individuals, each with their own slightly different positions and stakes within the locality, then the individual is the purest expression the most particular local interest. But there are more powerful reasons to reject the individual’s connection with localism which I will discuss below.

Arguments made on behalf of local populations are often nationalized in the U.S.

In the Federalist Paper #51, James Madison writes that any nation will be composed of many interests, some more powerful than others–but most will still be in the minority. Therefore the best chance that any minority has to thrive is to seek out the umbrella protection of a strong centralized authority, i.e., the state. Madison’s assumptions may still be true, but he was perhaps not aggressive enough in imagining the relationship between central power and the minority. It is one thing for a minority seek out the protection of central authority on the grounds of neutral principle, but why should the minority limit its ambition, when it can influence the decision-making processes of that authority, or even take it over? The capture of state and federal decision-making power by “special interests,” whether through lobbying or elected officials with ulterior motives, betrays a situation where specific local interests seek to permanently tilt government power in their direction. Perhaps this is an inherent tension in a democratic republic, where the citizens elected to government are supposed to act on behalf of “the people” in general, but of course also come from a locality of their own, with interests of their own from both before and after their time in government.

One interpretation the American “Culture Wars” is that they are an attempt to elevate local social mores to centralized structures of authority (the legislature, the courts). The issue goes in the reverse direction, too. It might equally be the case that national and regional authorities have taken more interest in social issues that were formerly left untouched by the state.

Even in an age of large bureaucracy, the number of truly centralized powers is small

There are only so many nation-states, and likewise, only an elite few private industries that can exert state-like monolithic power.

Therefore most groups–even many powerful ones–are in a position to claim a local standpoint for their interests. Large corporations, for example, do not necessarily acknowledge their control over immense funds, employees, capital, or resources. Instead, corporations present themselves as representatives of one local interest which faces threats from all the others, from equivalent industries in other nations, and from state policies that might disfavor them relative to other groups. In this way, even entities with a global reach appear to be narrow actors with very limited goals and aims. The special interests of any given group become, in effect, its locality.

New powers often get their start by serving state power; over time they compete with it

A member of the New York Times editorial board wrote a few weeks back about tech companies that seek to take on the powers of governments. He was thinking of Amazon’s purported nationwide contest over the location of its second headquarters, or Facebook’s new “Supreme Court” that reviews controversial policies like Donald Trump’s ban. Those are high-profile examples which go to a more general point: centralization as a process of power consolidation is never moving in just one direction, and it is never finished. New players are always possible, and new forms of control threaten ones that are already established. And there is no difference in principle between the state and other abstracting powers. We are now seeing an accelerating force, “information technology,” that consolidates information across national borders, creating new fault lines along the old human networks. The internet, which originally began as a research project by the state, now promises to be an abstracting, centralizing force to rival it.

This was not inevitable. The beginnings of the internet represented a new potential for centralization, because it required people to accept standard protocols for how information was received and transmitted across the network. But how the network would be used (i.e., what would be shared across it, who would profit from it) and what would be done with the information that resulted (i.e., who would store it and why) was still undecided. The internet was mostly unprofitable in its first decade of existence, because those who sought to control it had not successfully answered any of those questions. There was not yet a drive to centralize because it was not clear what the players on the internet would be centralizing for. Once the business models to profit from information technology became obvious, the character of the entire internet changed dramatically within a few years, toward a centralized model with identifiable goals: aggregation of viewership (advertising revenue), bulk collection of data flows (surveillance) and standardized entry points to the network (“platforms”).

The example of the internet shows that the landscape of centralized power changes dramatically when a new power arrives to consolidate local difference. Usually this is associated with technological innovation, but the innovation cannot be for its own sake. When technology contributes to a problem capable of being measured or achieved (e.g., profit), then centralization achieves the human urgency to push for realization.

Central authority gives individuals the power to understand its inner workings, because it must train some of them as administrators of the system

I wrote above that, at least in liberal societies that have a strong tradition of individualism, individuals might be considered their own form of hyper-“locality.”

An alternative explanation is that strong individualism is actually an abstracting development that makes a good companion to centralized authority. At the foundational of a modern, contract-based, mass society is a type of individual who is stripped of stubborn cultural dialects and local loyalties. The contemporary version of the abstract individual is the administrative mind, ambitious to seek advantage within systems that reward indifference to the past, pragmatism, loyalty and an abandonment of substantive rationality.

On the other hand, even the person who has been thoroughly socialized into centralized state power still retains her agency. Everyone comes from somewhere, and few people live such a deracinated life that they are not in a position to observe local effects–the effects of centralization–on the ground. Some of the most powerful modern testaments to centralized power were created by people who got their start acting on behalf of the state, putting them in a position to observe and understand it. Orwell was an administrator to British colonial rule in India before he became a writer about totalitarianism. In a different time and place, the NSA contractor Edward Snowden was just one mundane administrator of a new scheme to organize information–until he started to look around.

From the Preface to The Free World, by Harvard Professor of English Louis Menand, about U.S. culture during the Cold War:

“Cultures get transformed not deliberately or programmatically but by the unpredictable effects of social, political, and technological change, and by random acts of cross-pollination. Ars longa is the ancient proverb, but actually, art making is short-term. It is a response to changes in the immediate environment and the consequence of serendipitous street-level interactions.“0{#ffn6 .footnote}^

  1. [James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State, 262 ↩︎]{#fn1}
  2. [Among his case studies, Scott uses the beginning of wide-scale agriculture in the so-called “fertile crescent,” where he makes the case that hunter-gatherers, who were deeply skilled at securing a wide variety of foods, had to be captured and coerced into growing monocrop grains. He also writes about the beginnings of modern “scientific forestry” in Europe, where state authorities took apart complete forest ecosystems, systems on which many people depended, so that they could consolidated, inventoried, culled and re-cultivated into regular stands of “natural resources.” ↩︎]{#fn2}
  3. [Scott, Seeing Like a State, 8 ↩︎]{#fn3}
  4. [Scott, State, 102 ↩︎]{#fn4}
  5. [For example, Facebook pursues different strategies for growth in the United States and India, but it is very active–and very interested–in both. ↩︎]{#fn5}
  6. [Menand, The Free World. Preface. (Epub version). ↩︎]{#fn6}