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The Limits of Self-Governance: Practicality Objections

In this video, Professor Mark Pennington explains the practical arguments against self-governance.
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Throughout this course I have set out some of the arguments in favour of self-governance solutions to various social problems. It’s important now though that we consider some of the limitations to the self-governance approach and some of the objections that have been raised against it. There are two sorts of objections that are most commonly raised against self-governance solutions – the first are what we might term practicality objections, and the second are what we might term ethical or moral objections rooted in concerns about inequality. In this session we will consider the practicality objection and in the next session we will turn to the inequality objections.
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One of the most widely cited objections to the self-governance approach is that it is often inefficient to rely on a complex array of polycentric mechanisms. If there are many different governance structures delivering a service or addressing a particular problem in the same way, then this may lead to an unnecessary duplication of efforts. In these circumstances, we may be better off relying on a monocentric approach where there is a single governance agency responsible for managing a service or addressing a particular social problem. The second and perhaps most important practicality-based objection to the self-governance approach is what we might call the problem of scale.
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For collective action problems that occur on a relatively small or medium-sized scale – for example, responding to problems of litter, the management of forestry or fisheries – then we may not need to rely on a central government agency; self-governance may be effective at these relatively small scales. When we turn, however, to issues that transcend local boundaries, not just at the regional or national level, but perhaps at the global scale, then self-governance mechanisms may be inadequate because decisions that are made in one jurisdiction may have negative consequences for other jurisdictions.
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Climate change is perhaps the clearest example here – it might be argued that it is no use leaving it to localities or even countries to devise their own approach to limiting emissions because the problem is inherently global in scope. In these circumstances, self-governance may lead to a situation where some localities or nations don’t even bother to limit emissions at all. So what you need is some kind of supra-national mechanism to limit free-riding behaviour by requiring that all localities and communities try to address the emissions problem. Supporters of self-governance such as Elinor and Vincent Ostrom were aware of these objections, so how did they respond to them? Let’s take the duplication argument first.
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If it is self-evident how a particular good should be supplied or how a particular social problem should be addressed, then it would indeed make sense to rely on a monocentric approach which avoids a duplication of efforts that you may have in a more polycentric setting. From the Ostroms’ point of view, however, in most circumstances the solutions to delivering goods or to addressing social problems are not self-evident. It’s precisely because we don’t always know what is the best mechanism for addressing a governance problem that it makes more sense to rely on a polycentric approach to allow for trial-and-error learning through a constant process of experimentation. What about the arguments arising from the problems of scale?
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Well, the Ostroms would recognise that as we saw in the case of the coronavirus pandemic, not all collective action problems can be addressed effectively through self-governance solutions. Just as we can’t rely on markets or states to solve all social problems, neither can we rely entirely on self-governance mechanisms. Nonetheless, while there may be some problems where centrally organised solutions work best, we should recognise the limitations to these solutions even in circumstances where there may be no self-governance option available. There may be some problems where beyond a certain scale it may be difficult to organise higher level solutions just as it is difficult to organise self-governance solutions.
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You might, for example, argue that the problem of climate change requires some kind of global government to force all the various countries in the world to do their bit – but there doesn’t seem much chance of governments agreeing to the creation of such a framework. We might therefore, if we want to address the problem now, have to rely on a different approach. Although self-governance mechanisms may be imperfect, they may be the only option that we have. In the case of climate change, the trick may be to find ways of encouraging local communities to see the benefits to themselves from reducing emissions rather than focussing on the global benefit – a benefit that may seem too distant or remote.
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If for example it can be demonstrated to people that switching to renewable forms of energy has benefits at the local level that can improve quality of life, then people may be willing to switch to those energy sources irrespective of what other regions or nations do. This will be an imperfect solution to the problem of climate change, but given the difficulties of organising some kind of global governance approach, it may be the best option that we have.

We will now consider the first set of possible objections to the case for self-governance.

Two of the main practicality objections are that 1) self-governing institutions can lead to an unnecessary or inefficient duplication of public services, and 2) that they cannot be effective beyond a relatively small scale.

Elinor Ostrom gave these questions considerable thought. In this video, we’ll consider these objections and Ostrom’s response in greater detail.

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

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