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Structuralism: a movement for good governance

July 3, 2012

The political news cycle is entertaining in about the same way that a tornado watch is entertaining: nothing good comes of it, but there is a lot of noise and activity. I’m sadly addicted. Every time the legislature passes a dictionary-thick bill that nobody likes or ignores another impending financial disaster I struggle to restrain myself from screaming “institutional sclerosis!” at my computer screen.

Political activists of every generation learn the same sad lessons. It’s easy to identify areas where the law can be improved, sometimes with huge social gains. But they soon discover that lawmaking is controlled by a bizarre machine full of biases against good policy. The best of intensions are no match for the force of institutional inertia.

In short, they rediscover some small portion of the classic problems of collective action first written about by Public Choice economists. For example, the case against agricultural subsidies is as solid as anything in economics. But because of the problems of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, not to mention rationally ignorant voters, the subsidies remain – much to the chagrin of policy experts and economics professors.

If our political structures are biased against good law then we should divert resources to discovering better political structures. Researching the policy that an ideal government would implement might be an interesting intellectual exercise, but it has few practical benefits in the reality we live in.

Traditional political conversations consist of arguments over policy and personality. If we want better law, we need to shift the conversation to meta-politics (and even meta-meta-politics). First lets discover a process to drive continuous improvement in our political institutions, instead of the creeping decay we see today. Then we can get back to politics.

Unfortunately “meta-politics” isn’t a great brand name. So I invented a new political philosophy for those of us who recognize the importance of government structure: “Structuralism”.

In essence, Structuralism is the political manifestation of Public Choice economics. Traditional political ideologies are concerned with pushing a set of policy recommendations – taxes should be higher or lower when you sell structured settlement, some activity should or should not be punished with jail time, and etc. But structuralism advocates designing government stuctures so that lawmakers have incentive to create good policy.

Problems of collective action, coordination problems, status quo bias, misaligned incentives, institutional sclerosis, regulatory capture – these are the kind of problems that concern structuralists. We seek to create a healthy substrate for a thousand different kinds of society to grow and prosper. Structuralist ideas for achieving better governance include subsidiarity, dynamic geography, free exit, written constitutions, independent courts, separation of powers, charter cities, seasteading, term limits, built-in sunset on regulations, license-free zones, seo services uk, voting reforms, and polycentric law, among others.

Structuralism is neither left nor right. Structuralists welcome anybody who accepts the legitimacy of the concept of public choice economics – that politicians respond to incentives, so we should get those incentives right. In this increasingly gridlocked political world, plagued by public debt and legacy red-tape, where state and national governments remain paralyzed and incapable of passing urgently needed reforms, structuralism is highly relevant. It is the movement for the needs of our times.

The next time someone asks you about your political beliefs, tell them “I’m a structuralist, I want to make political institutions function better”. When they are intrigued and ask you how you are going to do that, point them here. Let’s move the political conversation away from policy details and holy wars. I’m tired of arguing whether the top marginal tax rate should be 32% or 35% while the machinery of government rusts towards perfect entropy.

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10 Comments
  1. July 3, 2012 1:15 pm

    Here are two other gamechangers:

    1) Linking public sector pay to the health of the private economy, after Singapore’s precedent: http://is.gd/flexiwage.

    2) Using ‘participatory budgeting’ to fund disruptive structural innovation

    To date, participatory budgeting has been used to date mainly as a direct way for organized groups to elbow into the flow of subsidies: http://www.participatorybudgeting.org.uk/

    Yet it can also be turned to very different ends.

    As municipal finance crises grow, citizen and taxpayer groups can use participatory budgeting to get service delivery alternatives launched that outperform the top-heavy incumbent systems.

    For example, neighborhoods might press for pilot projects of municipal divestiture of service and infrastructure responsibilities. In such cases, a portion of the local budget could be set aside for tax refunds, to the degree that newly-forming or established homeowners associations assume responsibilities in the municipality’s stead.

    In education, the pilots might include demonstration projects for reskilling schoolleavers and jobseekers through microvouchers (http://is.gd/microscholarships), student-owned schools (http://is.gd/kidsown), and peer-learning circles (http://is.gd/altfunding).

    A portion of the participatory budgeting funds could also go to engage independent monitoring and evaluation services, to compare the cost effectiveness of the disruptive innovations with the legacy system.

    Best,

    Mark Frazier

    http://MiiU.org/wiki/openworld

  2. Michael Wiebe permalink
    July 3, 2012 2:52 pm

    Can we please move beyond simplistic concentrated costs/dispersed benefits analysis? For starters, at least respond to Wittman’s and Caplan’s criticisms of classical public choice.

    • Jacob Lyles permalink
      July 3, 2012 9:19 pm

      Would you mind posting a link?

      • Michael Wiebe permalink
        July 4, 2012 1:07 am

        Jacob, the references are:
        Donald Wittman, The Myth of Democratic Failure
        Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter

        Here are Caplan’s lecture notes on the subject.

  3. July 4, 2012 10:41 am

    Reblogged this on Drewt333's WordPress.com Blog and commented:
    Defining and applying the principles of good governance.

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