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The Limits of Self-Governance: Inequality Objections

What are the inequality or ethical objections to self-governance? In this video Professor Mark Pennington takes you through the arguments.
In the last session we looked at practicality-based objections to self-governance arrangements. In this session we’ll turn to an ethical objection. Are the inequalities that self-governance arrangements might generate compatible with a moral commitment to the equality of all citizens? The central concern of what be called the ‘inequality objection’ is that if you allow many different communities and associations to devise solutions to their problems, this will generate inequalities between different communities and associations. While some communities might be successful in their self-governance arrangements, others might be less successful or fail to the point where they fall further and further behind their most successful counterparts.
This objection is commonly reflected in the suggestion that ‘post-code’ lotteries would be the most likely outcome of allowing greater autonomy to local communities. According to this perspective, it is unfair that access to services such as environmental protection and crime prevention should be affected by where someone lives. Equality requires that all people, irrespective of where they live, should have access to the same level of service provision, and this might require reliance on monocentric rather than polycentric forms of governance. Reliance on more centralised governance arrangements may also be necessary to avoid the possibility of discriminatory attitudes such as racism being exercised within self-governing associations. The self-governance perspective recognises these objections, but it does not consider them to be decisive.
The reasons for this are as follows: First, inequality itself it not necessarily a moral evil – the ethical assessment of inequality requires that we understand how the inequality arose and what the effects of the inequality might be. Inequalities that arise from some people stealing things from others – or some countries invading other countries – are ethically reprehensible. But for other inequalities, such as for example those that arise from the fact that different communities choose to manage their assets and resources in different ways, this is not necessarily the case.
The philosopher John Rawls argued that inequalities can be morally justified if those inequalities work in such a way as to raise the position of the worst off – or to make sure that the worst off are better off than they would be under a more equal distribution of resources. In the case of self-governance, while inequalities between communities will exist, part of the case for these inequalities is that they may work in such a way as to raise the overall level of service provision for all people, including the worst off, compared to what it would be under a more centralised and standardised governance regime.
The solutions that are developed by public entrepreneurs in some localities will gradually spread out as others start to copy and emulate best practice developed elsewhere. This means that while at any point in time there will be inequalities between the different communities, over time, the overall level of service provision will improve. By contrast, a more standardised and centralised governance regime, although it might secure greater equality in service provision, would result in a lower absolute standard of provision for all of those concerned.
The second response here is to note that while a more centralised and standardised governance regime may secure greater equality on one dimension – equality in access to service provision – it will produce a different form of political inequality – in this case it will give huge powers to those in control of the central government apparatus – to affect the allocation of resources and what other actors can do – powers which would not be available to other people in the rest of society.
From the self-governance standpoint, while it may be advisable to have a central legislative framework that secures a minimum level of service provision for all and avoid various localised forms of discrimination, to give central government agencies powers beyond this will be to secure neither greater equality nor improvements in service delivery for the population at large. In the specific case of discriminatory attitudes such as racism, if large numbers of the population in the society concerned possess these sorts of attitudes, then it is far from obvious why these would not simply be replicated in the national legislative framework as well as within self-governance arrangements.
Debates over which inequalities are or are not justified are a key issue in contemporary politics and the self-governance perspective does not give hard and fast answers to these complex questions. It should be clear, however, from this overview of these issues, that a self-governance perspective should be central to any discussion about the nature of inequality and the justification or otherwise of different forms of inequality within contemporary societies.

The second set of objections to the case for self-governance centre around the issue of inequality.

If citizens are allowed to devise their own solutions to a plethora of collective action problems, some communities will be successful and others will fall behind.

This can generate and compound structural inequalities that otherwise would not exist under a more monocentric or government-controlled allocation of public resources. In this lecture, we’ll consider these objections and potential responses.

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

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