In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.
Originally appeared on The Morning
Why should we have a limited government? – Part II
By Aneetha Warusavitarana
When speaking of a limited government, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that governments tend to be so expansive. A plethora of ministries and an innumerable amount of departments and agencies spring to mind. However, it is important to keep in mind that when speaking of a limited government, the rationale goes far beyond arguing for fewer ministries and reducing the duplication of work and responsibilities within the government system. A limited government is one that is limited in scope – it identifies its key functions and expends all resources to achieve them. When speaking of the role of the government, its primary functions can be described as the protection of life, liberty, and property. When a government’s main role expands beyond this, there is a strong likelihood that the government will prove to be ineffective and even harmful.
How can a limited government run a country?
It’s all well and good to say that the role of the State should be limited to the protection of life, liberty, and property, but governments also provide a myriad of public goods. Doing all this requires resources, people, and departments. Given that this requires a significant amount of administration, how do you ensure the government does this effectively, while staying within its key mandate and with minimal corruption or abuse of power?
Can decentralisation be the answer?
Why should Sri Lanka move away from a centralised system of governance and increase the levels of decentralisation in the country? While there are some very theoretical explanations for decentralisation (which are important in their own right), we will use a simpler approach. In a population of approximately 21 million diverse people with different interests, preferences, and disposable incomes, how do markets allocate resources efficiently? Any A/L economics student will reply with the brief answer of the “invisible hand”. In reality, of course, there is no puppet master moving fruits and vegetables from one place to another. Each individual business acts in their own self-interest, resulting in a more efficient allocation of resources. Prices signal to these businesses – and the profits or losses these businesses make guide decisions to produce or sell – and thus, without the convening of committees or the presentation of any findings, an entire country is provided with goods and services it requires. William Easterly sums up this phenomenon as such: “The wonder of markets is that they reconcile the choices of myriad individuals”.
Price signalling works well in allocating resources because at any given point of time, it is impossible for one bureaucrat, or even a host of committees of bureaucrats, to have all the information necessary to dictate the production and distribution of a single good in an economy, much less all goods in an economy. This is because information and knowledge are localised, time sensitive, and tacit. In other words, information and knowledge cannot be transferred effectively in their entirety or in time. The fall of the Soviet Union is a testament to this.
What do markets have to do with decentralisation?
The same principle applies. The decision-making in a market economy is never centralised. While decentralisation will, of course, function differently – the spontaneous order created by price signalling in markets will not be making administrative decisions – the principle that centralised decisions are not effective stands. The reason behind this is that the information problems, which plague centralised decision-making of economics, also plague centralised decision-making for administration and governance. As much as a bureaucrat will find it impossible to distribute exactly the number of potatoes required to each province of this country, it is equally difficult for a bureaucrat to be located in a central government and to take decisions on local infrastructure. Any decision taken at a central level will not be ideal. There will always be information and local contexts that a bureaucrat is not privy to, and as a result, the decision will not be as effective.
Decentralisation brings governance and administration down to the ground level – it means decisions are taken by local government authorities who are best placed to make that decision. They are aware of local contexts and have been elected into office by the people in the locality, which would mean they have an understanding of what is needed. Of course, where the rule of law is weak, decentralisation can mean that local government authorities succumb to crony capitalism, as a system it is not without its faults. However, when comparing central governance and decentralised governance, in the case of decentralisation, there is greater opportunity for electorates to hold their representatives accountable, make their demands heard, and push for the reform that they want. In other words, it puts more power with the people and makes elected individuals more accountable to their voters – an admirable objective not only in principle, but also because of its effectiveness.