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The Case for Self-Governance

What is the ethical case for self-governance? In this video Professor Mark Pennington discusses the argument.
In the previous sessions of this course, we’ve defined self-governance, we’ve looked at the scope that there may be for self-governance solutions to collective action problems, and we’ve looked at how notions such as co-production and public entrepreneurship can help us understand what drives self-governance solutions. In the last session, we looked specifically at the role of polycentric institutions in facilitating self-governance arrangements. So far in the course, however, what we haven’t done is to try to explain why we might want to favour self-governing and polycentric institutional solutions to problems rather than favouring a monocentric alternative. Going through the arguments in favour of self-governance and polycentricity will be the focus of this session.
There are two separate though inter-related sets of arguments in favour of self-governance institutions. The first set of arguments are what we might call effectiveness arguments. The second set of arguments are moral arguments which suggest that self-governance institutions are ethically appropriate to the nature of the human condition. Let’s look at the effectiveness arguments first. One aspect of the effectiveness argument focuses on the role of self-governance institutions in mobilising local knowledge. According to this view, local people are much more likely to have access to knowledge which is required to generate effective solutions to particular social and economic problems.
People on the ground facing a situation may know more about the character of the resource that needs to be managed or the character of the space that needs to be managed and also have knowledge about the character of the people who need to be incentivised to change the way in which a resource might be managed. This kind of information may be available to local level actors, but it may not be available to people who are distant from the community in central government agencies. In these circumstances, centrally imposed governance institutions are likely to fail to take into account local knowledge and thus to fail in managing the problem effectively.
A second aspect of the effectiveness argument points to the importance of polycentric institutions in helping to avoid mistakes when designing governance institutions. Human beings are fallible actors – they’re prone to make mistakes. Whether we are talking about scientific knowledge or knowledge of the policies of governing institutions that are most likely to work in one situation or another, there is often uncertainty and disagreement about which course of action to pursue. In these circumstances, it makes sense to avoid “one size fits all” institutions and policies – because if a particular institution or policy is mistaken, the effects of that mistake will be felt universally across the society in question.
If on the other hand we divide decision-making authority across many different self-governing units, some of those units will make mistakes but the effects of those mistakes will not be felt universally. In addition, there’ll be greater scope for trial-and-error learning as successful examples of community governance can gradually be copied and spread through the society at large.
A third aspect of the effectiveness argument focuses on the role of incentives – it suggests that granting decision making authority to those most immediately affected by a problem provides better incentives for those agents to devise effective solutions – or if mistakes are made, to correct them speedily – because their livelihoods or the character of the community in which they live will be immediately affected by those decisions. If, on the other hand, decision making is centralised in distant governance agencies, then the actors in those agencies are unlikely to feel the consequences of any mistakes. It’s because of this relationship that centralised governance institutions are more likely to suffer from systemic failures.
Let’s turn next to the moral argument in favour of self-governance. The moral argument in favour of self-governing institutions suggests that it is a requirement of treating people with the respect they are due as beings capable of reason and thought to allow them to participate in self-governance mechanisms. On this view, it is to disrespect people’s humanity to suggest that some people should be content to be governed while another set of people are those who do the governing. Concepts such as co-production and public entrepreneurship that we’ve discussed earlier in this course are concepts which illustrate the fundamental role that people can play in shaping the governance rules under which they live.
Though it is distinct from the effectiveness argument, the moral argument in favour of self-governance institutions is
closely related to the effectiveness argument: it suggests that institutions that fail to respect people’s ability to figure out problems for themselves are unlikely to be successful.

What are the arguments in favour of self-governance and polycentricity? In this video, we will consider two types of arguments.

The first concerns the effectiveness of self-governance, which can be broken down into several points. Self-governing institutions are uniquely good at 1) mobilising local knowledge, 2) dividing authority so that mistakes in institutional design are not shared universally, 3) increasing scope for trial and error, and 4) providing better incentives for individuals to devise effective solutions to shared problems.

The second argument is that self-governance arrangements are grounded in respect for human reason and agency. Let’s look at these arguments in closer detail.

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

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