I don’t like politics.
No, seriously, I don’t like politics! I mean, yes, I live just outside of Washington, DC. I worked in Congress this summer. Everything I learn in class seems to relate to political theory. All my close friends and I do is discuss politics and political theory in our free time. But I swear I don’t – oh who am I kidding?
Whether I like it or not, politics is all around me. I can’t escape it…and maybe that’s a good thing. As an American citizen, I have a duty and responsibility to be (somewhat) informed, (somewhat) concerned, and (somewhat) involved in my community, state, and country. Along with every Miss America contestant ever, I just want peace and happiness for all people everywhere. But, unlike most beauty pageant (err…scholarship) contestants, I’m here to acknowledge that it’ll take more than a short interview to get us there.
To pursue world peace, we need to look to economics. Great thinkers in economics have thought about how to combine the insights of economic theory with the reality of politics, bureaucracy, and the modern state. James Buchanan helped start a new field of economics called Public Choice, which applies the same models of economic decision-making to politicians and bureaucrats. The premise of public choice is that people in government respond to incentives just like everyone else.
But the political economist I keep coming back to is Vincent Ostrom. Vincent and his Nobel Prize-winning wife, Elinor, dedicated their entire lives toward figuring out how governments could be arranged in different ways to help foster human flourishing and promote stability and societal well-being.
Vincent looked at how individuals make decisions both independently and in group settings. To what extent do individuals take the interests of the group (and their own interests) into account? More broadly, what motivates individuals to act within their community, government, and society and how do their actions affect the group? Vincent believed the key to changing the political environment is by looking at the rules of the game – the institutions that determine how politics occurs. By studying institutions, he found that the best decisions were made when the group consisted of individuals with vested interests in the ultimate decision. A government, having different functions, could be structured with multiple centers of decision-making, multiple groups of individuals with vested interests. This is called polycentricity. A complicated name, but maybe an example will help explain this concept.
Polycentricity doesn’t just apply to federal government. Vincent’s idea can apply to any group trying to make decisions – including local county governments or non-profit organizations. Think of The Miss America Foundation. Does this charity fix all the problems in the world from opioid addiction in West Virginia to diseases in Africa? No! (Unfortunately.) Even if you were to donate a million dollars, they still wouldn’t be able to solve these issues, because they focus on a specific area (influencing young women and promoting world peace…naturally). It’s a good thing that there are multiple charities. This way, the many organizations can specifically address and solve the multitude of problems globally by focusing on solving one issue in the local community and region. These charities work independently (sometimes in partnerships) to make the world a better place through achieving their goals in their community.
To explain polycentricity as evident in the American government, Vincent wrote The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration (one of Kevin’s favorite books). He believed that polycentricity is what the founding fathers of the United States had in mind when they talked about federalism. The government should have fragmented authority and overlapping jurisdictions to best know and respond to citizens’ wants and needs. Vincent rejected President Wilson’s idea to expand the bureaucracy so Wilson could overcome the fragments and conflicting jurisdictions to solve the problems of the country efficiently.
While Wilson imagined a bigger bureaucracy would eliminate redundancy, Vincent realized that a centralized bureaucracy would be forced to make decisions about communities the bureaucrats didn’t truly know or understand. Vincent believed that by adding more centers of authority to the decision-making process in the government, individuals could meet the needs for themselves and for their groups as a whole. Politicians and bureaucrats do not always have the information necessary to make the best decisions for the citizens they serve, which means decisions they make may actually be less efficient. Vincent showed that there are ways to add more decision centers, more fragmentation, more overlap to take baby steps towards better policy, more effective initiatives, and peace and happiness, of course.
I keep insisting I don’t like politics. And it’s true. I don’t like partisan fighting, the constant name-calling and blame games. It’s easy to want to hide from the onslaught of bickering and scandals splashed across the media every night. But politics is more than juicy headlines and uncomfortable Thanksgiving conversations at the dinner table. It’s a necessary ingredient toward making the world a better place.
While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I can follow Vincent’s example use his theory to apply what I know about economics and individual decision-making to government, both local and federal. Maybe I can’t achieve Miss America’s dream for world peace, but at least I can create peace at the next family dinner.