Rhode Island Fix a Philosophical Shift; Contra Renn, Part 6 of 6


[Following up on the fifth post responding to Aaron Renn’s “toolkit” for Rhode Island policy.]

“6. Is Rhode Island setting policies and making investments like an integrated urban region (a city state)?”

Aaron Renn criticizes the fact that Rhode Island’s “39 cities and towns are treated similarly, and as completely autonomous independent entities, not part of overall urban or metropolitan region.”  For my part, I wonder:  What better way could there be for a small state whose natural advantages were rendered obsolete by technology and geographic expansion a century ago than to have 39 laboratories in which residents can look for any advantage that might exist?

Even more: As I’ve noted before, there is broad agreement that the variety of locations available in such a small space is a great asset of Rhode Island’s for tourism, but such variety doesn’t arise from central planning.  It arises from the freedom of individuals and discrete communities to define the area around them.  That principle applies not just to scenery, but to occupations, as well.

The central planners aren’t entirely off base to consider the advantages of a region, particularly toward developing a critical mass for some initiative or other.  The point that never seems to be explicitly stated by the technocrats proposing formulas for the gradual (and somehow not disruptive to the status quo) improvement of Rhode Island is that having critical mass is only crucial if the region is pulling in a single direction.  That requires somebody’s deciding what the direction should be.

One way to make the decision is for policy experts to incrementally decrease obstacles to innovation while looking for homegrown opportunities that meet their approval, and then to give those opportunities a structural advantage versus alternatives.

A better way to make the decision is to allow Rhode Islanders the ability to innovate within acceptable boundaries drawn as locally as possible.  If they’re successful, and if other Rhode Islanders agree with the innovation and the boundaries, then they’ll adopt them.  If the innovation capitalizes on an advantage that applies to the entire state, then it will become a priority for the entire state.

Perhaps if this point were explicitly stated, Renn or somebody else could offer a compelling explanation for why the first method — top-down direction from central planners — is more likely to produce a healthy community, or at least why the people of Rhode Island can’t be trusted to control their own lives.  As it is, the only advantage I can see is that the centralized method allows special interests and the types of people who orbit around government to put their own interests before those of everybody else.