We live in increasingly large and complex societies with numerous internal differences, so finding the best way to govern them is a challenge. For example, should actions to deal with a pandemic be coordinated through a global authority such as the World Health Organization or, on the contrary, be coordinated internationally in a flexible way? Should there be a global regulatory body to manage environmental sustainability or is it better for local agents to take the initiative? Should we design cities from the top down or from the bottom up?
Arguments for and against centralizing one or another government function can be based, to some extent, on the advantages of each of the government techniques. However, they are often based, consciously or unconsciously, on certain assumptions about the foundations of civil order.
These are often not made explicit. But there is more than one way to approach civil order. Two ideas have played an important role in particular: on the one hand, the idea of social order as a product of top-down central planning (monocentrism) and, on the other, the idea of social order as a product of many diverse initiatives from below. upwards that gradually crystallize into a plurality of governance systems united by emerging customs and norms (polycentrism).
These two categories are somewhat reductionist. They involve some simplification of real-world thinking and practices. However, one of the two often predominates in the debate and this explains many aspects of how a person or an institution approaches the problems of government.
Monocentrism: complexity as the seed of anarchy
The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1651) could be considered one of the most scathing representatives of monocentrism. For him, if human communities are not subject to the control of a powerful public authority, they quickly tend to insecurity and anarchy. According to Hobbes, many people would selfishly and aggressively pursue their own interests and would even be willing to lie, cheat, steal and kill in order to assert their power over others.
This generates a dangerous cycle in which tit for tat and violent conquest prevail, which can only be broken if authority is given to an irresistible sovereign power, represented by Hobbes as the Leviathan, an imposing sea monster mentioned in the Book of Job. The sovereign ruler of a society is the court of last resort for settling all conceivable political disputes and keeps citizens in check by punishing anyone who rebels against his rules.
For many citizens and academics, Hobbes is too absolutist. However, much of contemporary political thought continues to be influenced by two characteristics of monocentrism: first, the belief that the most appropriate way to solve very complex social problems is to pool resources and knowledge in a centralized government institution, and, second, associate high levels of institutional complexity and diversity with anarchy and inefficiency.
Polycentrism: the value of complexity
Polycentrism has a more positive regard than Hobbes of social complexity and pluralism. Among its most influential advocates is the economist Elinor Ostrom, who has argued to what extent complex and decentralized methods of public administration, such as decentralized police forces, provide superior services to highly centralized ones. Other authors offer polycentric approaches through the defense of federalism and a variety of forms of social, political and constitutional pluralism.
Polycentrists do not see institutional and social complexity and differentiation as a threat to public order, but as a potential value that can contribute to solving social problems and promoting human freedom. Consequently, they deny the monocentric ideal of a meticulously coordinated top-down social system—as a dangerous chimera—and they also refuse to automatically associate high levels of social complexity with chaos and anarchy. Instead, they propose a social order managed by a plurality of independent actors who cooperate within a broad, flexible and reviewable institutional or meta-institutional framework.
It is quite easy to find historical examples of monocentric and polycentric conceptions of order. For example, highly decentralized political systems, such as the Cantons of Switzerland, were originally based on a collegiate model of bottom-up politics that seemed polycentric in spirit. Meanwhile, the Napoleonic model of the State implanted in France, with its idea of a hierarchical public administration imposed from the top down, was clearly monocentric in its conception of civil order.
The urban planning movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States—criticized as a blight on neighborhoods by activist and writer Jane Jacobs in her book Death and life of the great American cities– was based on a highly monocentric approach to order. Urban planners imposed technocratic plans to remake the fabric of cities from top to bottom. For its part, the “new urbanism” movement could be described as polycentric, to the extent that it seeks to build urban life in a way that responds directly to the interests and priorities of citizens and communities on the ground (see, for example, example, the “Charter of the new urbanism”).
The debates on the merits of centralized and decentralized government have to do with the search for efficiency in administration, but they also touch on deep questions of ethics and political philosophy. In particular, social and political structures based on one or another idea of order condition the personal and political freedom of citizens in very different ways.
Consequently, how one positions oneself in such debates depends on how one understands the value of human freedom and what priority one places on it over other values such as efficiency, security, and political stability. It is unlikely that these debates will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction in the near future.