Reflections on resilience emerging from the shutdown:
You probably saw the story where the State of Arizona did a deal to reopen the Grand Canyon to tourists. New York and South Dakota made similar arrangements for the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore.
Over the last two weeks I have been busy working with state and local homeland security officials preparing for a big regional exercise in late October. (Admittedly important federal funds had already been transferred.)
According to the Global Post, some Chinese envy the resilience of American society in the midst of the federal government shutdown:
Since the shutdown began nine days ago, Chinese social media have been full of wistful, almost admiring remarks about how the shutdown could only happen in a democratic country with a resilient economy and responsive political representation…
Many posts discussed how such a shutdown could never happen in China, because the country would immediately be plunged into chaos. The fact that many state and local government functions have continued despite the shutdown was a particular object of marvel. One Chinese author who resides in the US expressed wonder that “in the days since the government closed, everybody is unconcerned.”
“The reason is simple,” he continued. “Just because the federal government shut down, that doesn’t mean the local government is shut down. The various levels of government do not depend on each other.” Alluding to Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” he concluded that “by understanding local autonomy, you understand America.”
Some see federalism as an inefficient way to govern a modern nation. But as seen during the shutdown, diversity of jurisdictions can be a source of resilience. Moreover, several studies have found that “polycentric” political structures are often more efficient than most centralized systems.
In her 2009 Nobel Lecture, the late Elinor Ostrom reported:
The most efficient producers supply more output for given inputs in high multiplicity metropolitan areas than do the efficient producers in metropolitan areas with fewer producers… Metropolitan areas with large numbers of autonomous direct service producers achieved higher levels of technical efficiency… We demonstrated that complexity is not the same as chaos in regard to metropolitan governance. That lesson has carried forth as we have undertaken further empirical studies of polycentric governance of resource and infrastructure systems across the world. (Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems)
Part of what’s happening here, it seems to me (but I have never read Dr. Ostrom suggesting anything similar), is an echo of the Jeffersonian notion that government closest to the governed is the most efficacious government. What has surely been found is that governance does not always involve government.
Elinor Ostrom and colleagues have found — and confirmed again and again — that communications, trust, and mutual monitoring are crucial in sustaining any resilient system. From the same Nobel Lecture:
Where individuals do not know one another, cannot communicate effectively, and thus cannot develop agreements, norms and sanctions, aggregate predictions derived from models of rational individuals in a non-cooperative game receive substantial support… On the other hand, the capacity to overcome dilemmas and create effective governance occurred far more frequently than expected.
In particular cooperation and shared compliance with self-generated boundaries and rules increase when six specific conditions are achieved. (See page 433 of the lecture text and my final paragraph below.) Having observed these outcomes in a wide-range of different contexts and cultures, Dr. Ostrom concludes her lecture with:
A core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans. We need to ask how diverse polycentric institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.
More resilience emerges from more communication — especially face-to-face communications — with people who know each other or are at least familiar with each other’s backgrounds, where each person’s contribution can be significant and each can come and go without much risk, yet where long-term engagement has a reasonable opportunity for generating greater value than disengagement (regardless of how value is defined), and those involved can largely self-sustain a sanctioning system for boundaries and norms mutually accepted.
What does the evidence of the last three weeks tell us regarding the state of polycentric resilience in the United States?