Belgium and the Global Polycentric Order

I highly recommend Alex Massie’s reply to Jonah Goldberg’s column on how the EU has enabled the fragmentation of states like Belgium.

Goldberg seems to think that the EU has failed since it wanted to destroy national identity but that’s not really true: it wanted to change the way we think of nationality and, in the European context, it’s largely succeeded in doing so, decoupling patriotism from nationalism in ways that have been overwhelmingly healthy.

Matt Zeitlin also has a smart retort:

The EU is not about dissolving nationalism or national feeling, but sensibly moving certain supra-national market functions and policies up to a larger level so that markets and regulatory policies can be more easily integrated and harmonized. Thus, these states like “Britain” or “Belgium” or “Spain” which have a history of jamming together disparate ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups largely in the pursuit of some great power struggle, are less and less necessary.

The question is about the optimal size of public goods jurisdictions. There are very local public goods, such as a sewage or mass transit systems, and supranational public goods, like legal frameworks for international trade. The jurisdictions for various goods can overlap or not and in various ways. A polycentric system allows for the provision of public goods at the efficient level of administration for the good’s geographic scope without imagining that jurisdictions are nested one inside the other like Russian dolls. The Age of Nationalism has created vast inefficiencies by inflating what should be local jurisdictions, on the one hand, and, on the other, by insisting on “sovereignty” — that is, on the national level as ultimate and authoritative — basically leaving many supranational public goods to go unprovided.

Elinor and Vincent Ostrom are our greatest sources of wisdom on the matters of the scope of jurisdictions. Here [pdf] is Elinor Ostrom:

The presumption that locals cannot take care of public sector problems has led to legislation throughout the world that places responsibility for local public services on units of government that are very large, frequently lacking the resources to carry out their assignments and overwhelmed with what they are assigned to do. One should stress that this is not the way that Europe developed. Since the 11th century, thousands of independently established Waterboards were established in the delta of the Rhine River with their own rules and physical structures, drained the swampy land, and protected the land from being inundated except during extreme storms (Toonen, 1996; Andersen, 2001). In Switzerland, alpine peasants devised a variety of private and common-property systems to gain profitable income from an extreme and diverse ecology (Netting, 1981). More than 1000 free cities with their own charters and legal traditions flourished in Europe during the middle ages and were the foundation for modern constitutional democracies (Berman, 1983).

Contemporary legislation assigning regional or national governments with the responsibility for local public goods and common-pool resources, removes authority from local citizens to solve local problems which differ from one location to the next. We need to unlock their capabilities and enable them to be recognized as citizens and local public officials with the power and authority to take action to solve local problems. We need to think of the public sector as polycentric system (V. Ostrom, 1999) and not as a monocentric hierarchy.

Now, there’s a good case that moving central banking, and some trade and labor market regulation up to a supranational level makes good sense. That’s a better level. And if other public goods are most sensibly provided relatively locally, as Ostrom emphasizes, then some European states, as presently configured, may make little sense as public goods-providing jurisdictions. Now, many badly confused people think a sense of collective identity is one of the goods states should provide. But then why shouldn’t Scots, Basques, Walloons, etc., have their own states — especially if that these turn out to be, in practical terms, something like a very grand garbage collection jurisdictions with monetary policy, defense, and other big ticket public goods outsourced to the larger supranational jurisdiction? If the more encompassing jurisdiction reinforces a cosmopolitan sense of identity that balances local ethno-cultural identities, then all the better.

Discussion questions:

When the North American Union finally arrives, should we expect Quebec finally to successfully secede? How about the Western provinces? California?

If Bob Wright is correct about the inevitably widening scope of positive sum games, isn’t polycentric federalism the structure the global order will take?

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center