The Birds, the Bees, and the Swiss Do It, So Why Can't We?

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C. Clarke’s First Law of scientists can be slightly modified to
illustrate a similar truth about central planners: “When a distinguished
but elderly central planner states that something is possible he
is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible,
he is very probably wrong.”

the one thing central planners know is impossible is getting along
without them. This is true among the entire brotherhood all over
the world. In The
Sword and the Shield: The Secret History of the KGB
, Christopher
Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin reveal that KGB leaders in the old Soviet
Union never could grasp how the US could produce such a high quality
of life without "a strong central direction and a command economy."
A KGB defector named Arkadi Shevchenko wrote:

“Many are
inclined to the fantastic notion that there must be a secret control
center somewhere in the United States. They themselves, after
all, are used to a system ruled by a small group working in secrecy
in one place. Moreover, the Soviets continue to chew on Lenin’s
dogma that bourgeois governments are just the ‘servants’ of monopoly
capital. ‘Is not that the secret command center?’ they reason.”

central planners in Washington DC are probably scratching their
heads over the recent news that Mercer Human Resources Consulting
has released its annual list of the most livable cities in the world,
and once again, the Swiss Confederation has come out on top. Zurich
and Geneva placed first and second while Bern tied for fifth. The
poll takes into account factors such as the political and social
environment, the level of education, the efficiency of transport
systems and standards of recreational facilities. No American city
made the top 10. The best the US could do was number 20 for San

where is the Swiss secret command center responsible for such a
high quality of life?

has hers, and its name is the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
HUD Strengthens America’s Communities. We know this because the
HUD website says so. One of the chief ways HUD creates more livable
cities is by promoting "affordable housing" through Section
8 programs, which encompass an array of "Housing Choice Vouchers"
for welfare recipients. Former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros called
Section 8 “a wonderful mechanism because it gives people tremendous
choice and mobility.”

HUD's annual spending has reached $38 billion, America's cities
should be the model for the rest of the world. But they aren't.
James Bovard, the author of Freedom
in Chains
, explains that HUD's heavy hand is actually harmful
to America's cities. By financing welfare recipients so they can
live in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, HUD is destroying
the cohesiveness and integrity of communities. Bovard says that
Section 8 is "a symbol of government welfare run amok –
of social workers using the power of subsidies to forcibly change
the nature of hundreds of suburban neighborhoods.”

only are the Swiss spared the costly machinations of an Alpine version
of HUD, they do not even have a unitary state to support a bureaucracy
of that magnitude. The Swiss Constitution of 1848, modeled on the
American Constitution, created a confederal system that recognizes
the autonomy of its 26 constituent cantons. All powers not specifically
delegated remain with the cantons, a provision borrowed from the
American Constitution’s 10th amendment.

more puzzling to the central planner is the seemingly unstable composition
of the individual cantons. In 2002, the citizens of Geneva and Vaud
considered merging, but rejected the proposal. In 1996, the village
of Vellerat seceded from Berne and became part of Jura. To a mindset
that views economies of scale and uniformity as ultimate goals,
the cantons' right to realign appears a recipe for chaos. Instead,
it is a source of vitality and self-renewal.

autonomy and self-reorganization are now seen as regular features
in all organized systems, whether natural or human. Organization
science, which grew out of the work of ecologists and systems engineers,
teaches us that the health of the overall organization is optimized
when its constituent components have the freedom to realign themselves
as they see fit. Central control, then, is now seen as not only
impossible in the long term, but counterproductive. Organization
scientists point to spontaneous self-organization in nature to illustrate
how organized systems maintain their own quality of life. When bee
colonies become too large to sustain themselves, part of the hive
will break away and establish a new home. Tuna schools that grow
beyond 50 members will split into groups of 10 to 20. Reconfiguration,
then, is a common behavior of all healthy organized systems. But
reconfiguration is possible only because the constituent members
(which organization scientists refer to as "sub-systems")
possess some degree of autonomy.

Forrester is a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and
has written and spoken extensively on the application of organization
science to the problems municipalities face. Local autonomy, he
says, is essential in creating livable cities. He argues that the
positive or negative repercussions of actions must inform future
actions; otherwise, mistaken policies can become institutionalized
when they should be discarded. He would likely characterize HUD's
Section 8 program as an example of suboptimization, which organization
scientists define as overdevelopment of an isolated component of
a system without regard to overall system vitality:

allows different groups to pursue their own ends independently,
with confidence that the total good would thereby improve. But
as the system becomes more congested, the solution of one problem
begins to create another. The blind pursuit of individually laudable
goals can create a total system of degraded utility."

a situation can continue to exist only so long as those responsible
for implementing it do not have to confront its effects. Local autonomy,
says Forrester, not only sets a limit on the harm bad ideas can
do, but opens the way to creative application of local intelligence
to solve local problems:

control through such self-interest is acceptable, and ways are
available to exercise control, there is no incentive for any city
or state to solve its own problems. Its efforts will be swamped
from the outside. There must be freedom for local action, and
the consequent differences between areas, if social experiments
are to lead to better futures and if there is to be diversity
in the country rather than one gray homogenized sameness."

Collected Papers of Jay Forrester

for local governments in the US is closer than the lessons from
Switzerland and the natural world. The news that Killington, Vermont
has voted to secede and join low-tax New Hampshire illustrates that
the impulse to reconfigure political ties in the pursuit of self-interest
has sparked backed to life here in the US. With the specter of the
Soviet Union permanently eradicated as an overarching restraint,
local autonomy movements may again rekindle in the US. In 10 or
so years, who knows what new ideas and solutions empowered citizens
can create at the local level? Watch out, Zurich!

19, 2004

C. Tuggle [send him mail]
is a project manager and software trainer in Charlotte, NC.
His first book, Confederates
in the Boardroom
, explores the implications of organizational
science on political systems, and is published by Traveller Press.


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