This post begins where the preceding post ended. I suggested there that conditions most favourable to human flourishing would emerge in “self-organizing and self-governing societies” in which each person “is first his or her own governor and is then responsible for fashioning mutually productive relationships with others”. That is the description of self-organizing and self-governing societies provided by Vincent Ostrom in The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (1997, p 84).
Ostrom argued that it is “within families and other institutional arrangements characteristic of neighbourhood, village, and community life that citizenship is learned and practiced for most people most of the time”. This is where people learn to be self-governing, by learning how to live and work with others. (p x)
He explained that in face-to-face relationships associated with activities entered voluntarily for mutual benefit people also learn to exercise power with others rather than power over others. The exercise of power with others implies a willingness to take account of the interest of others in "patterns of social accountability." The democratic form of governance that evolves under those circumstances is likely to be characterised by “mutual understandings grounded in common knowledge, agreeable patterns of accountability, and mutual trust” (p 287).
Vincent Ostrom’s views on the benefits of decentralized governance for human flourishing were based partly on the empirical research on governance arrangements conducted with Elinor Ostrom at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. Aspects covered in this research included urban policing, irrigation systems, and forest resource management. Lin Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work showing that common pool resources could often be successfully managed by user associations.
The history of decentralized governance, particularly in the United States, also provided Vincent Ostrom with evidence that self-governing societies were practicable. He observed:
“The American federalists and Tocqueville were able to conceive how democracy as a form of government could be used to craft the architecture of authority relationships in ways that were constitutive of what could appropriately be conceptualized as self-governing societies. Such concepts drew on prior experiences in constituting free cities, monastic orders, religious congregations, merchant societies, craft guilds, associations among peasants, markets, and other patterns of human association” (p 280).
Why have many functions previously performed by voluntary associations and local government been centralized, leaving citizens to be passive consumers of services with no direct role in management? It is easy enough to identify who might benefit from centralization. Access to central pools of funding have offered service providers the prospect of higher pay. Bureaucrats have been offered vast opportunities for career advancement. Centralization of funding has offered many consumers the prospect of getting someone else to help pay for services they consume.
Centralisation of service delivery has also promised lower cost service provision resulting from scale economies. However, such benefits have been offset to some extent by inefficient work practices associated with centralized bureaucracies. Lower costs could have been achieved with greater certainty if decentralized governance had been retained, with service delivery contracted out to the private sector.
Some readers might suspect that Vincent Ostrom was a reactionary, vainly seeking a return to the village life of a bygone era. He is more appropriately viewed as a scholar seeking progress toward a science of citizenship. In the final chapter of this book he writes optimistically:
“A quest for conflict resolution consistent with the reestablishment of communities of associated relationships based again on precepts of covenantal relationships is the way for maintaining the covenantal character of self-governing societies through time and across generations. Such an approach is facilitative of innovations consistent with standards of enlightenment, freedom, justice, reciprocity, and mutual trust in patterns of order in human societies” (p 280).
It is hard to know how sufficient numbers of citizens might eventually decide to insist that assignments of authority under current legislation be made subject to challenge and contestation by groups who want to be self-organizing and self-governing. Perhaps this will emerge from the slow train wreck now occurring in bureaucracies of even the older-established democracies as they experience increasing difficulty in meeting the expectations of voters. To reduce costs, greater efforts may be made to provide social safety nets in a manner consistent with contestable service delivery. Increasing efforts may be made to involve community groups in service delivery. Volunteers, who are still active in many areas of service delivery, may seek greater involvement in decision-making. We may also see more community groups seeking to opt out of centralised provision of social services to obtain services more closely attuned to their requirements.