Chaos in local government

This is being marketed as a blunder. It\’s not though:

Boles replied that he, Cameron and Clegg did not believe in central planning and that it would be a good thing to have different communities offering differing types of services, even if the appearance was chaotic.

\”I mean, bluntly, there comes a question in life,\” he told the audience. \”Do you believe planning works? That clever people sitting in a room can plan how people\’s communities should develop, or do you believe it can\’t work? I believe it can\’t work, David Cameron believes it can\’t, Nick Clegg believes it can\’t. Chaotic therefore in our vocabulary is a good thing.

\”Chaotic is what our cities are when we see how people live, where restaurants spring up, where they close, where people move to. Would you like to live in a world where you could predict any of that? I certainly wouldn\’t. So I want there to be chaotic in the sense I want lots of organisations doing different things, in different areas.\”

Let\’s leave aside that clever people in rooms thing: this is much too close to Worstall\’s Definition of Bureaucracy: clever people being stupid in offices.

Concentrate rather on the word \”chaos\”. In the popular mind this is a synonym for \”random\”. Random behaviour by each component of the system, atoms just flying off any which way, people doing whatever it is that comes into their demented minds whenever something does.

However, chaos more formally defined is nothing like this at all. Particles influence each other (whether at the macro, Newtonian level, or the micro, quantum one) just as the actions of people influence the actions of others. What the whole chaos theory thing is saying here is that we don\’t know, in advance, what states of the system are stable: nor can we predict, in advance, the flip from one stable state to another as a result of a seemingly insignificant change.

We can observe stable states of course: but not the whole set of them nor predict the movement from one to another.

In this more formal sense what we\’re therefore saying when we say we desire a chaotic social system or society is that  we don\’t and cannot know enough about it in order to be able to plan it (Hayek and Chaos Theory in one post! Woo Hoo!) in detail and that therefore it is better to let the individual parts to get on with it and find one of the range of stable positions on their own.

Do note the extremely important qualifier there: \”in detail\”.

Yes, we can indeed plan on the grand scale. It\’s a reasonable assumption that most people don\’t like to be murdered (there was of course that German who enjoyed having his own cock fried and served up to him before he was, at his express desire, killed, but that is an extreme position) and thus we can quite happily proceed to plan that people shouldn\’t murder people, that we should have a system for dissuading those who might, to catch and punish those who do.

But we cannot move further on down to every detail: where that level of unplannable detail is arrived at is of course something we can all shout about. But it seems to be at quite a high level.

GOSPlan never did manage to calculate the 100,000 or so prices needed to keep the Soviet Union\’s economy humming along. The planning (smoking bans, no displays of cigarettes in shops etc) of the anti-smoking campaign in Ireland seems to have led to an increase in the incidence of smoking (yes, correlation ain\’t causation but it\’s certainly not the expected outcome, is it?). The nationalisations, on the grounds of proper socialist planning, of the steel, coal, shipbuilding, car, etc industries didn\’t seem to work all that well either.

So yes, at a certain level we do want a chaotic system: just as at a higher level, we want to have a very planned one. Uncertainty at one level (what do people want in detail?) and certainty at another (What is the law? What are taxes? Who owns this?).

I have the unfortunate feeling though that this distinction is going to get lost in the screaming match about to follow.

4 thoughts on “Chaos in local government”

  1. The term is “organic development”, for communities growing without central planning. Historicaly, this was a deliberately chosen option, as it was considered healthy. “Chaos” was not an option.

  2. In the minds of the popular press chaotic is a pejorative term used when a system breaks down eg the roads are said to be chaotic because the snow clearance system has broken down and people can’t get anywhere. Whenver we get leaves on the track the railways are described as chaotic.

    That’s why his opponents can get away with pushing it as a blunder. Its the same when the “postcode lottery”, which is a perjorative term for individual areas using resources how they see fit.

  3. @SimonF: I saw a quote from some Labour bod about the new proposals the other day – they said they were in favour of localism, but not a ‘postcode lottery’. Go figure.

    Politics is about words, not reality.

  4. Market economies tend to need some simple rules to work well. Its when things get complex (e.g. derivatives, hedge funds, credit default swaps) that things go to hell.

    I work in regional and local government and the levers of power are so small in terms of the economy and private business, so I wouldn’t get to concerned about 5 year plans et al. The real travesty is that responsibilities that should be conducted effectively such as infrastructure, education, planning and housebuilding are likely to be completely f*ck*d up. Another travesty is that appropriate delegation isn’t really occurring – i.e. govt says one day – “more power to local councils!”, the next its telling councils they have to cap their council tax. I’ve seen this on everything from planning to education. So the localism agenda is complete bollocks in terms of living the dream…

    And another thing – it will be hard to sell localism to local people when budgets are being ripped away and services will be cut. The local folks might decide it was better when councils just did what central govt told them to do…

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