Decentralize!

Posted March 27, 2013 @ 5:00 pm | Filed under: Floor It To The Next Stop Light

Quite unexpectedly, one of the ideals that stuck with me from college came from a business management class. This class focused on being an effective manager… something I’m rather uninterested in, but the class still resonated with me because of the management style that was most highly praised: decentralization.

Management theorists have two main theories about motivation, which are unhelpfully dubbed Theory X and Theory Y. To boil each theory down: Theory X says people must be told what to do and directed from the top, and Theory Y says that people can be motivated and make decisions themselves in the right environment. From the class, I learned that a manager with a Theory Y approach tends to empower the managees and make them feel more responsible, leading to a greater sense of reward which increases productivity and their satisfaction with their jobs, not to mention greater respect for their manager because he/she treats them with the dignity they deserve. Inadvertently, this ideal meshed in my mind with several other observations, coming both from my personal experience and from other classes I took at around the same time. Whether warranted or not, I now tend to apply the Theory Y ideal, decentralization of power, to several (all?) other areas.

Warning: this won’t be remotely exhaustive, because there is so much to say about each subject.  But I’ll just touch on a few of my thoughts.

Politics

Sometime in the last few (five-ish) years, I went from being a conservative* to being a libertarian. The main force driving this move was the realization that no form of involuntary coercion, i.e. unjust violence, is ethically acceptable. I realized that the group of people who call themselves the “government” is really just a gang of self-righteous thieves. Why does someone in Washington DC get to decide anything about how others should run their lives? When I set up a contract with my employer, exchanging labor for a salary, why does somebody else get to step in and decide how a percentage (which they determine) of my earnings should be spent?

Decentralizing politics means putting the power back in the people’s hands, and not just those in the majority. The problem with democracy is what has been termed the “tyranny of the majority”: That laws which go into affect are almost always disagreeable to some significant portion of the population.  The way to fix the problems in this country is not democracy, it is through decentralization: i.e., repealing any laws not expressly stated in the Constitution, which is a contract meant to restrain the government rather than the people.

*The term conservative has changed meanings over the course of history, so I should clarify: I held the view that the free-market is superior to a centrally managed one, but that military spending and certain public social spending was justified. I didn’t yet realize the inherent contradiction: That taxes, i.e. government-sanctioned theft, was necessary for military operations and to enforce unnecessary policies like drug prohibition. I had also not yet realized that the free market would provide better solutions to society’s problems than an organization with a monopoly on the use of force.

Corporations

We all love and hate our corporations. They provide wonderful and necessary services that we all rely on, and a the same time they abuse their power to gain market dominance.  On closer examination though, you’ll realize that corporations are entities whose existence is made possible by a central authority, the government. It is the government that recognizes corporations as real entities, when in actuality corporations are just groups of people. So essentially the responsibility for the actions of these individuals is removed and/or abstracted by the government. Not only that, but corporations gain power through lobbying and intellectual property warfare. If we didn’t have a government that gave corporations these powers, we wouldn’t have corporations who are in bed with the government, and we’d have more mom-and-pop businesses. We’d still have big companies too, which I think are necessary — would you fly in a mom-and-pop airplane? — but they would be more respectable because they would be held responsible for the consequences their actions. Also, with no minimum wage, employment would increase and the job market would tend to stay local.

Money

I’m no monitary theorist, but I do know one thing: centralized money, or fiat money, is extremely dangerous.  Every fiat currency of past civilizations has failed, because when a currency is worthless except by government decree, the government will ultimately inflate it into oblivion because that is the only tool in the toolbox which it believes can “stimulate the economy”, even though no real value is being created when it does so.  It’s happening right now with the US dollar.  Currency, just like other aspects of the market, are meant to be two things: Honest and organic.  Fiat money is neither:  its value is constantly manipulated by the Federal Reserve which intentionally causes price and interest rate distortions, and makes people much more likely to go into debt rather than build up a savings account.  My hope is that someday we’ll return to decentralized money — or at least the gold/silver standard, which is a sort of pseudo-decentralized system — before all of our retirement accounts are rendered worthless, but that doesn’t seem likely at this point, at least not until the entire world economy collapses and reboots.  To protect yourself when that happens, your best bet is to diversify your investment portfolio:  Keep some money enumerated in dollars, both in the bank and out in physical form, but also have some in other currencies — especially decentralized ones like gold, silver, bitcoins, etc.

Religion

While I think that there can only be one correct set of beliefs**, no one particular group of people has a monopoly on truth. We’re all in the search for truth together. While most people see the division in the Christian Church as a problem, I see it as a strength: as long as we can have civil theological discourse, and seek to understand before we judge, we approach a greater understanding of the truth faster than if we had only one governing body telling us what they think is true. (This even holds true of the ongoing debate between theists and atheists — or at least it did at one time, before the so-called new atheists made it socially acceptable to abandon logical and civil discourse.)  The many schisms in the universal Church have always led to a better understanding, by the laymen and the clergy, of theology and scripture… thereby putting power in the people’s hands. Only God himself can be a top-down source of truth because he is omniscient, but unfortunately he’s not here right now… and I’m not convinced he would just tell us everything even if he was, because collaborative discovery is part of the joy he intends for us.

Religious decentralization also helps to cut through the “label bias” and ad hominem which often occur when we’re told what to believe by an authority; i.e., the bias that occurs when all of a person’s or group’s beliefs are dismissed as incorrect simply because a certain label can be applied to some of them.  For example, as I’ve mentioned before, one of the most honest perspectives of evolutionary theory I’ve ever been presented was by a self-labelled creationist.  I learned more from him about the strengths and challenges of the various theories about our origin than anyone who called themselves a Darwinist or naturalist.  So you never know where truth will come from.  Additionally, while I am a Christian, and as such I believe that Christ is the ultimate truth (for reasons I have outlined elsewhere), I am certainly open to the idea that other religions contain truths.  For example, certain forms of Hinduism have a lot in common with Christianity, and I don’t doubt that someone could be a “Christian Hindu.” So what’s more important than saying a set of beliefs with a certain label is “right” or “wrong”, is examining the individual units of truth that each belief system contains and finding common ground between them.

**Alternately stated, there can be only one set of beliefs in which each belief is true. This as actually an axiom, a statement that if held to be false all logic falls apart. Tagging along with this axiom is another stating that no true belief can contradict itself. This rules out relativism, empiricism, and logical positivism among others, but that’s a subject (epistemology) for another post.

Science

While allowing science to be initiated at the lay-level seems dangerous because misinformation can abound, the only real problem is that information had spread very slowly in bygone eras. Now, with the proliferation of the internet, it’s much easier for theories to gain verification and rise to the top of the heap. Unfortunately most science is done at the university level, which is probably limiting a lot of potentially cool discoveries from gaining the attention they deserve. The status quo is always changing, as we should know by now after the incredible progress made by science over the last several centuries… why should we be so arrogant as to think that we’ve got even a fraction of this universe figured out now? I tend to think that the mysteries of this universe are increasing as we learn about it, not decreasing. As such, we should allow unconventional ideas a chance to prove themselves. Just remember that all currently accepted theories were once unconventional.

Education

All education should be private and driven by local authorities (e.g. a school board made up of local parents). Who would disagree that our public school system is terrible? It was once very good, way back before the department of education was created. Now that schools get their mandates from the top from people who know very little about educating children and everything about “standardized tests”, education has gone right down the crapper. Instead of being micro-managed by idiots, our schools should be free to figure out how to educate on their own. This includes allowing controversial things (creation/ID/evolution anyone?) to be taught! As with science, the solution to miseducation isn’t to dictate some imagined consensus, but to let information spread organically… therefore communication and understanding are the primary roadblocks.

Software

This is kind of a random one to throw in, but it’s actually more relevant than you might think. Control of most software is centralized these days: When you “agree” to a typical EULA (end-user license agreement), you are relinquishing your rights to a central authority, i.e. the software company. But in 1984 Richard Stallman launched the GNU project, which is essentially an operating system (a Unix clone) that was developed instead on the principles of openness, freedom, and decentralization. In achieving this goal, he established what he thought to be the four key freedoms that a user must be granted:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The GNU project kept going mostly underground, but was lacking a well-developed kernel (the key piece of software that talks directly to the hardware), when Linus Torvalds came along and released his own operating system kernel called Linux. From there, in a true “intelligent evolution” fashion, the project quickly gained programmers who volunteered little bits of their time and eventually hundreds of variations of the system were developed (and are still being developed). In many ways, the GNU/Linux project proved itself to be superior to proprietary, centrally-managed operating systems, and is currently the system running the bulk of the internet. The do-it-yourself mentality hasn’t quite caught on in the business world, but we may yet see a time when there is no single monolithic authority behind the software you use, rather it’s information that we all share, something like our DNA.

The classic work on the effects of software decentralization is The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond.

Technology

There’s similar thing happening in hardware that’s happening in software: Tinkerers and hobbyists are moving the cutting edge of technology and coming up with unique solutions to their problems. The main thing that keeps them from totally turning the world upside-down is the patent gauntlet: I.e., if you build something useful and innovative at home, that’s one thing, but if you try to mass-produce and sell it you’re probably going to get slapped with a patent lawsuit. And we live in an unfortunate period of history when it’s easier to settle outside of court than to actually go through with a trial, so even if the lawsuit is invalid many cool products never make it to market. And you thought we had a free market! Far from it, and patents are just another form of centralized authority that we don’t need.

Music and the Arts

I’m a musician, so this one hits home for me.  For the past century, musicians have had basically no choice but to sell themselves to record labels to make a living.  They subsequently lost control of their music, and ultimately the labels made an order of magnitude more money than the musicians did.  Now, for the first time, we’re seeing musicians gradually become more empowered because of the internet and other technology:  Distribution of music is essentially free, meaning the traditional expensive distribution channels are less and less necessary.

Additionally, the world is gradually realizing that music and art are forms of information, and as such they “want to be free”… i.e. the market is pressuring the asking price of digital music and art towards zero because digital supply is basically infinite.  That doesn’t mean that musicians are making less money… The smart artists have realized that when widely distributed, the non-scarce goods — i.e. the art itself — makes the scarce goods like concerts and physical forms of media more valuable.  Though the labels and the RIAA want you to believe otherwise, the music industry is growing more now than it ever has, as multiple studies have shown.  The industry is growing on a local, independent level however, which the big industry players don’t like because it’s cutting into their profits.  And thanks to their ties to the government, the RIAA and MPAA are using manipulative, coercive means (like suing the crap out of a 12-year-old girl) to resist the natural shift towards decentralization and empowerment.  The answer? Decentralize, of course:  reduce or remove government-granted monopolies (copyrights) and make breaking of DRM legal.  Set art free, and the market will flourish.

Health and Nutrition

Like science, our understanding of nutrition has suffered greatly due to the unfortunate insistence of uninformed politicians.  The government’s “food pyramid” which has been in place for over fifty years, is a total disaster and is based on bad or non-existent science.  It tells us to consume 6-11 servings of whole grains and 2-4 servings of fruit per day.  This translates to upwards of 300g of carbohydrates, which is an absurdly high number and it’s no wonder people are getting sicker and sicker all the time. Additionally, it tells us to lower our fat and cholesterol intake, based on the “Lipid Hypothesis” which links them to heart disease, and which the government accepts but does not have a single scientific study to support it.

On one hand, the food pyramid doesn’t necessarily directly affect the average person’s decisions because let’s be honest, who actually follows it?  But on the other hand, the government has heavily subsidized grain and dairy production because of the food pyramid, not to mention sugar subsidies, and these food categories are thus cheaper and more appealing to consumers than they might otherwise be.  Also, restaurants and school lunch programs have used the pyramid as a guide to shaping their meals, giving us all the impression that it’s what’s best for us.  The truth is quite the opposite: high-carb, low-fat diets cause our bodies to resist burning fat even when we do exercise, and not only that, but carbs make us crave more carbs because they burn faster.  Once again thanks to the internet and nutritional decentralization, this truth is gaining acceptance as more people adopt various natural, higher-fat diets such as the Mediterranean and Paleo approaches.  For a good perspective on this subject, check out the documentary Fat Head or this YouTube video presented by the same producer.

News and Journalism

More and more, thanks to the proliferation of the internet, we are all becoming journalists. That is, rather than getting our news from a central media outlet, we’re getting our news from blogs, social media, and niche websites. As such, all sorts of grassroots movements are springing up. The danger, one could gripe, is that decentralized news increases the problem of journalistic bias. But let’s be honest: Who exactly are these “unbiased” people that work for the major media? Aren’t they people too? People cannot function completely separated from their biases. Leaving out important facts, tiny facial expressions, airing segments when most people aren’t watching TV… these are just a few examples of ways bias slips out. What we all need to do instead, is come to the realization that all news is biased and we all have our own personal bias, and embrace it. But we must also be willing to understand other points of view, and critically analyze the differences. This would be much more productive than pretending our news sources are unbiased.

General Centralized vs. Decentralized approach trends

Generally, there are some trends that play themselves out, in various forms, in the above areas when moving from centralized to decentralized approaches. For example:

  • Spread of Truth: In a centralized approach, we tend to “trust” that our authorities have correct information. In a decentralized approach, truth claims get more thoroughly tested organically, by the community involved.
  • Signal-to-Noise: Because there are a lot of competing ideas, there are a lot of wrong ideas (or poor art, in the case of the arts). But thanks to the first point, the superior ones gradually float to the top. We just have to always embrace the possibility that there are likely better ideas out there.

How far can decentralization go?

I don’t know that I would consider myself an anarchist, but at the same time I do realize (thanks to Bastiat) that the existence of any government requires the use of force against innocent people.  Additionally, I think that there are ethical rules built into mankind that would lead to societal collapse if ignored.  So the ultimate societal sweet spot would be that of hovering in the gap between making people as free as possible, and adhering to those necessary rules which I think essentially boil down to what Jesus identifies as the greatest commandments, as recorded by Matthew (from chapter 22):

But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “ ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ “This is the great and foremost commandment. “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

Essentially, we are to love God, which implies loving all that is good because the word good is logically synonymous with God.  As such, we are to love each other, and treat each other as we would want to be treated:  Specifically, we should let each person be free, and do whatever they see fit with their possessions, because God has made us free and we ourselves do not wish to be enslaved or stolen from.  As Jesus mentions, when fully grasped and logically fleshed out, this commandment is like an axiom which implies the entire law, including “don’t steal” and “don’t commit murder.”  Thus any law we try to adopt which does not derive from this central truth is going to be inherently corrupt and cause problems for society.  Ultimately I think a complete lack of societal rules (i.e. moral relativism) would turn us into slaves, while the correct set of rules makes us the most free; just as a small and precise set of divine rules is likely what causes the universe to exist ex nihilo.

We obviously only have one universe that we can empirically detect. Whether this universe and eventually mankind developed in a decentralized, evolutionary way or whether decentralization is just part of God’s plan for our society, I’m not sure. But to my eyes, its superiority, both ethically and practically, is apparent… and for me at least, a principle must be both ethically and practically superior to be held in high regard.