Urghh, I have Covid. My 9-year-old bounces down the hallway like the energizer bunny and I feel jealous irritation. It’s day 7 of nasty headaches, sore throats, fevers, aches and exhaustion. 

This makes me grumpy, particularly the expectation that I should report it on a government website, so they can monitor me and perhaps send me patronising advice. But that’s exactly what I’m going to do. 

There are very few things that I think should be run by central government, but a pandemic response is one of them. It feels invasive but the management of our national borders, limiting internal travel and large domestic events are reasonable pandemic measures. 

Having said this, delegating local rules to the regions via their DHBs would have more sensible. The good folk of Hokitika spent many months wondering why the cafés were closed and they were all wearing masks. For 22 months up until January this year, the West Coast recorded no cases of Covid and as a reward should have been entitled to pop out for a flat white unencumbered.

A trend towards centralised government has been underway for many years. Two of the big-ticket centralisation initiatives this term are healthcare and Three Waters. Our DHB and local body control of drinking water, storm water and sewerage will shortly end. 

However, centralisation of public services has a dodgy track record and for several obvious reasons. 

Connection

Powerful central government arose with the formation of nation states. This was a fairly recent phenomenon, mostly occurring during the 19th century. For centuries before this ‘countries’ were really a series of city states. I don’t fancy life back then, without decent heating, flush toilets and electricity, but Canadian historian Francis Dupuis-Déri makes the administration of French city states sound very appealing:

“During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, thousands of villages had an organized assembly where communal decisions were made. This ‘community of inhabitants’, which even had legal status, functioned for centuries by a process of self-management.”

“The hierarchical or aristocratic authorities did not interfere in the affairs of the community, which met to deliberate on political, communal, financial, judicial and parochial issues.”

Such systems worked because there is greater trust within a community and also greater accountability. Everyone knew the local judge and had a fair idea of how he’d see things. If a good deal of the community didn’t like the judge, I bet there was a way of appointing a new one. 

I have the same feelings about the Havelock North gastro event a few years ago. As a victim, then and now, I liked being able to run into councillors in the street and talking directly to them about it. I was also reassured that the likes of Councillor Nixon wrote to the newspaper to share his horrendous experience. You can’t beat politicians with skin in the game.

This feeling of connection, trust and accountability is no trivial issue. Magyar maven, Gabor Maté, suggests that the increasing physical and mental sickness of society reflects stress borne of ‘uncertainty, lack of information and loss of control’.

This happens when decisions are made far away by people who don’t know you and vice versa. Your life feels greatly affected by powerful forces over which – you increasingly sense – you have no influence.

Such a situation creates stress, elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones have helpful short-term effects, but we were never designed to feel stress constantly. When people feel this way constantly they are likely to seek solace in addictive activities that release positive hormones – drugs, alcohol, junk food, porn, online shopping, gaming or simply tiddling with some inane app on your phone. 

The libertarian principle is that responsibility should be delegated to the lowest possible level. Each individual should have as much autonomy as possible. Where that doesn’t work the responsibility should fall to the next smallest group: the family, the community, the city, the region, the nation and potentially a group of nations. 

Underlying this are two concepts. Firstly, the ‘aged-care principle’ – never do something for a person that they can do themselves. Breaking this rule is infantilising and will ultimately make them dependant on help they may otherwise not need. Secondly, the further away from an individual the power structure gets, the less we trust it. 

Centralisation may be more efficient and even occasionally more effective, but the rational argument fails to take into account how it makes us feel. Society is not an industrial machine and centralisation too often fails to respect the human condition and our need for connection.

Transparency

Centralised systems are nothing more than state monopolies. We’d be horrified over a supermarket or fuel monopoly because we’d always be suspicious that we weren’t getting the best deal or that, absent competition, the operator wasn’t very efficient. 

A good example, telecommunications. Prior to deregulation in the 1980’s, they were run by the Post Office. I recall we tried to get a new phone line to a property just on the outskirts of Hastings and were told it would take six months. No one under 45 believes this.

It’s easy to love the ‘free’ healthcare system. It is full of wonderful people and saves peoples’ lives. But is it the best we can hope for in terms of customer service and cost efficiency? Many who work in the sector are deeply unhappy. Without exaggeration, every nurse I know is looking to get a job at Kaweka health. They see it as driven by younger, more innovative people, paying a bit more and providing modern working conditions. The DHB is set to lose some of its best people. 

By nature, centralised systems also centralise any error. If you can’t measure and compare systems it may be a very long time before a major error becomes apparent. 

A recent report by the Education Hub revealed a ‘crisis in literacy’. I took this up with a local school principal. He replied, “No one in education is remotely surprised by this. Standards have been in decline for at least 20 years.” The ministry has had the data but action has been very slow to emerge. The most disturbing comment from this report was that, “There is no system to ensure new advancements in knowledge on effective literacy practice get put into practice in the classroom.” 

The real world understands the risk of this type of centralised error. In IT they talk about a ‘Single Point of Failure’ (SPOF): ‘a risk posed by a flaw in the design, implementation or configuration’ of a system that could cause it to fail. 

In such systems engineers built in redundancy and back-ups to avoid disaster. An obvious example is aeroplane design and now air travel is incredibly safe. Of course, it’s more immediate and obvious you’ve crashed a plane than it is that you’ve crashed the education system. It is curious that continuous improvement processes are not so present in people-centric systems.

Accountability

If a system isn’t very transparent it can’t be very accountable. Central government works hard at not being accountable and is very reluctant to admit when it’s made a hash of things. Hubris and denial are endemic in bureaucracies. 

The most emphatic example of this is post-war Germany. It took a few short years to demonstrate that socialism made everyone poorer and citizens started to slip over the border from East to West Germany. Despite the obvious market signals, ideologically East German officials knew they were right and so they opted for the obvious solution – build a wall. 

A more recent example comes from that most centralised of systems, central banking. The GFC housing bust and the current inflation reflect gross errors in monetary and fiscal policy, but you’ll never hear anyone admit responsibility for them. The central banks simply claim they are doing about the same as similar countries. 

Only in a world where you compare independent performance is it obvious where you’ve gone wrong and what you need to do. 

I’d suggest a governmental role that is far too humble to have much appeal. 

They should create an environment where decentralised systems can be established; systems that tolerate a range of different approaches and encourage innovation. Government should develop a small ministry whose only job is to measure performance and efficiency and to report their findings. This way we can actually figure out what works and what doesn’t and various sectors can spiral the effort upwards. 

Let’s have some council-controlled organisations, some private-public partnerships, some rapacious profiteers – I don’t care as long as we get good services at an efficient cost. Such an approach will allow for communities to tailor systems to fit their actual, varied needs. 

Until you point to a centralised government system that is a paragon of excellence, I’m afraid I won’t be supporting Health NZ, Three Waters or any move by Government to manage community services out of Wellington. 

Join the Conversation

7 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for a cogent explanation warning us about and against government centralisation. I hadn’t seen Gabor Mates’ reflections on our loss of power and control affecting our mental health but couldn’t agree more. I’m not a libertarian as such though totally agree with the principal that we should do for ourselves what we can do and have long been anxious about the worldwide March toward centralisation and it’s control by mega corporations and mega billionaires. The WHO and the WEF, for example, now walk hand in hand. The WHO whose major funded is Bill Gates and the WEF board consists of corporations with literally trillions of dollars in assets more money than most major economies combined are working together to decide for you how to live ‘you will own nothing and you will be happy’ that is according to Klaus Schwab WEF president. I fear what will happen should this trend continue. Stopping centralisation of government is a good start to reclaiming our right of self determination.

  2. In theory keeping things ‘local’ should mean greater transparency, accountability and efficiency etc. But in practice local councils across this country have failed for decades to manage our water utilities which many people seem to conveniently forget! There was in fact no accountability or transparency when the Havelock Nth water crisis occurred so let’s not pretend central govt intervention is all bad. Everyone is quick to take resources and request bail-outs from ‘the Government’ when times get tough but not so keen to acknowledge the benefits of sharing resources and more equitable governance across the country as a whole.

    1. So true Marilyn but I do place most blame squarely on us for our complacency. Perhaps these days we are just too busy, stressed etc. to take an active role in monitoring and correcting our local governments but the price we pay for centralisation in a steep one. Sadly in the end have no one to blame but ourselves for loosing the privileges of self government. Seems will have to live with the decisions of the ‘elite’.

  3. Like Councils, our government’s answers to the water issues will be yet another failure because the fundamentals aren’t being addressed. All we are seeing is one group of incompetent politicians being changed for another group of incompetent politicians. This will fail as getting rid of qualified and capable engineers is what politicians are good at. When the shit hits the fan our decision makers (politicians) get an out-of-jail card free with their job. That is zero accountability as was the case in Havelock North as this is a classic case of diversion, confusion and lies. It was a single person that was at fault and he got off scot-free. ( the Havlock North Aquifer is only 3 meters below ground and nobody in their right mind would ever consider that to be a secure Aquifer). Now we are faced with a multi-billion $ cost to the country with chlorination and ridiculous fluoridation of all our water supplies. Our DWS only need minor adjustments annually but with two important additions and that is to make the decision makers directly liable for failures and that the DWS be no longer optional. Nonconformity must result in significant penalties. This will result in the rehiring of competent engineers within councils who can’t be bullied by ignorant stupid management and politicians. Napier had a great engineer who knew exactly what he was doing. Our council got rid of him and now we are faced with idiotic solutions that will not meet the needs of our community all at a huge cost.

  4. Paul, while some of what you say has merit, like most “champions of freedom” (ie so-called libertarians) you seem to have no real understanding of what “socialism” actually means – control of community at community level – because on one hand you flippantly dismiss it by raising the specter of East Germany, and on the other inadvertently praise it quoting the French community model… exactly socialism at work! The real reason why “reformists” fail at both ends of the spectrum (centralisation or laissez faire) is because they do not – seemingly cannot – decouple capital from community. That is, they put “need” aside, and build only to “what we can afford”. Until such systems are de-monetirised, they will always fail.

    1. Bruce, Interesting comments. I wasn’t praising the old French ways, just pointing out that community-based governance has been around a long time and proven itself. It’s imperfect but my preference. I did look at definitions of socialism, communism, Marxism, Trotskyism and the like a few years back and found there are a lot of diverging opinions. Centralisation of the means of production is one principle that seems reliable and to that end the French system wasn’t socialism but East Germany was. Likely France back then was an unjust feudal world that has some good components. The problem with socialism across many cultures and times, is that is made almost everyone poorer. That’s because governments don’t allocate resources as efficiently as individuals (or small groups). It also killed off a lot of people, and destroyed a great deal of creativity in both the arts and commerce. The list of groundbreaking innovations from socialist economies isn’t long. I’m interested to learn more about a de-monetised system you should write a piece on it in BayBuzz. To get, say some fancy medical equipment developed and into a hospital takes a lot of effort and when there isn’t an incentive other than the intrinsic value of the work, it strikes me that it doesn’t happen as quick as it might in a socialist world. For ordinary goods and services a black economy exists. I spend a lot of time in Eastern Europe and state services still regularly get done on the back of brown envelopes. As it is in China, it’s not seen as particularly corrupt – just an establishment of effective incentives. There has never been a socialist country that has delivered on the basis of ‘need’, and what they could afford was a whole lot less than in their capitalist equivilent. I’m really open to the model you suggest though; particularly the separation of capital and community that can still deliver good outcomes.
      The great flaw in socialist experiements is that they almost immeidately become top-down tyrannical bureacracies. The manifestation of socialism reveals it was often driven by the pursuit of power and revenge, rather than the justice that was discussed pre-revolution. It seems the truly compassionate socialist, who I have a lot of time for, lose out to the more brutal and power-hungry types. I’m keen for someone to try a couple of new versions of socilaism to see if they can make it work, but they should pick a small country.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.