Scalable Government Requires Limited Tasks and Local Control


Francis Turner draws a valuable lesson from computer science, quoting a Facebook friend as follows:

And I realized: every node in a network has to potentially speak to every other node. A classic bit of communications theory is that such a network has O(n^2) potential relationships between the nodes. 2 nodes have 1 potential relationship. 4 nodes (twice as many) has 6 potential relationships (6 times as many). 8 nodes (twice again) has 28 potential relationships.

100 nodes => 450 relationships
1,000 nodes => 499,500 relationships—nearly half a million.

And in a client-server network, the server has to be ready to manage every single relationship. In peer-to-peer, each node has a hand in managing its own relationships, and maybe a few others along the way. The work is distributed.

And it finally got through my head: NO server, no matter how large and how powerful, could keep up with O(n^2).

This applies to people and to government, too, but more so, because people’s relationships aren’t as limited as computers’ data exchanges.  Any two people can have multiple shades of relationship just between them — economic, familial, community, religious, hobbies.  Therefore, any two people can have a relationship that is far less reconcilable than any two computers.  Add in a third person, and already the notion of central planning begins to be exposed as lunacy.

Instead, we need general cultural guides that help us have some baseline level of cooperation (at least to lay down the rules), freedom that allows us to associate with others to the degree that we’re able (including a freedom to create very different legal regimes in different parts of the country), and a very limited amount of government to accomplish things that have to be shared responsibilities.

Frankly, this ought to be obvious unless one’s true objective — one’s true sense of what it means to “work together” — is domination.

I’ve been thinking of this subject matter in the context of Tiverton.  Many folks, around here, don’t like the notion of contentious government.  They’ll look at the Budget Committee’s work this year and laud it for being harmonious, but that overlooks the degree to which it didn’t change anything that the Town Council proposed on the expense side (except to add some).  The year before, by contrast, there were (generally) two factions with a few persuadable members in the middle.  That creates tension, as each side works to persuade enough people to form a majority.

If we don’t have contention in a government representing people who have different points of view, the apparent harmony necessarily means that some views are being suppressed.  A quick look up the steps of government from Tiverton illustrates how this works.  At the state level, in Rhode Island, there’s hardly any real contention, because insiders have the system locked up.  At the federal level, we see arguments that sometimes rise to the level of talking about “a cold civil war,” because conflicting interests can each take power with just enough persuasion that the fight is worthwhile.

In town, some people want to get rid of or make less powerful the budgeting mechanism that makes it possible for people to have as much say in taxation as we currently do.  Those same people have institutional advantages in electoral politics, and fewer others are interested in taking on the extensive duties of the Town Council.  Thus, if the council completely controls the budget and taxes, the unwillingness of others to enter politics will effectively suppress the lower-tax point of view.

If people can vote directly on the trade-off of taxes and services, that’s one thing.  If the price of lower taxes is being demonized in local politics, as well as sitting through interminable meetings about the broad range of topics on which government now stands in judgment, then they’ll accept more taxes.  (Until it’s easier just to move.)

At the national level, the attacks on President Trump are at least in some degree rage at “the deplorables” who elevated him because they could see very clearly that a “bipartisan fusion party” was taking control.  The elites of our nation have been locking up more and more of their beliefs as the law of the land, right down to how your local school committee can conduct its business.  For the sake of “harmony,” they’ve been handing off more and more of their representative responsibilities to unaccountable bureaucracies and courts.

This is why government should be tasked with as little governance as possible and why as much governance as possible should be pushed down to the local level, where at least our disagreements are restrained by the fact of having to interact with each other from time to time.  If we’re apt to overheat even debating issues in the small groups of our towns, the only way higher orders of government can control the even more incomprehensible relationships and interests of our state and our country is by choosing a side and imposing it.