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What is Self-Governance?

In this video, Professor Mark Pennington explains the foundations of self-governance as a solution to collective action problems.
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This course is about “The Ideal of Self-Governance.” In order to understand what we mean by ‘self-governing’ institutions, we first need to understand what we mean by the term “governance” in general. In the simplest terms, we can think of governance institutions as the rules that structure the interactions between people in society. These rules include rules of property, of ownership – rules that determine who owns what and who gets to use resources in particular ways. They include regulatory and standards setting procedures that give people trust in the products or services that they buy. They also include rules that help overcome what economists understand to be collective action or public good problems such as the maintenance of clean air.
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And finally, governance institutions involve mechanisms that help to enforce all of these different sets of rules. Governance rules can be ‘formal’ in the sense that they are written down and recorded. This is typically what we see when governments at various levels pass legislation. Formal rules, though, can also occur in the context of private or voluntary associations such as sports clubs which have a written constitution. Governance rules can also be ‘informal’ in the sense that people follow them without thinking about the rules or without any written record of the rules. Examples include social norms such as queueing and holding doors open for people who are immediately behind you. So, what do we mean by a ‘self-governance’ institution?
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Self-governance institutions are ones where the rules of governance are provided and enforced by the people who are closest to the problem that the rule is meant to address. We tend to think that most rules in society come from the government, from the state and its agencies, but this is not so. Governments are an important source of governance but many, if not most, of the rules in society are formed through a process of self-governance. Think about local sports clubs – if you are a member of such a club, it is most likely to be a self-governing organisation.
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Typically sports clubs have rules about the use of training facilities or procedures to pick teams – that are devised by the members of the club itself. The club itself might be a member of a self-governing association at a higher level – if for example the club is a member of a sports league which contains a number of different clubs. In this instance, the sports league – the clubs that are members of the sports league– will typically be involved in determining the rules of inter-club competition. As a further example, think about where I am speaking from – a university campus.
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Universities have scores of rules and regulations – rules and regulations to maintain educational standards, to maintain the appearance of the campus, and even rules on acceptable speech. Typically, these rules are provided by the university itself. In the case of both sports clubs and universities, the rules are considered as self-governing in two important respects. First – the club or university devises many of the rules that help it to achieve its sporting or educational mission. Second – the people who are members of the club or university exercise an element of choice over the rules under which they play sport, research or teach. And they do so internally by participating in various committees that shape the rules of the club or university.
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But they may also do so by choosing to play for one sports team rather than another, or work or study at one university rather than another. Because in many areas there is no single legislator or rule-maker that imposes a uniform set of rules on all sports clubs or universities there is more scope for people to choose and influence the rules under which they live. To the extent that central government agencies impose a uniform set of rules that affect all sports clubs or universities – then the scope for them to be self-governing entities is reduced. Once you pause and start to think about it, self-governance institutions are all around us.
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As an exercise, try to think of 5 examples of rules that are shaped and operate like those in sports clubs or university campuses. I think when you start to realise the range of self-governance institutions that are out there, this might start to change your perception of the extent to which we might rely on these institutions to address many of the social problems that we face rather than always relying on governments – and central governments in particular.

Let’s get started by asking ourselves a fundamental question: What is governance? How does it differ from government?

Use the discussion space below to write down your own definitions of these terms, why they are different, and why the distinction might be important. After watching the first lecture, has anything changed about how you understand these terms? How does the concept of self-governance fit into the picture?

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The Ideal of Self-Governance: Public Policy Beyond Markets and States

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