Recently, Arnold Kling has produced a number of interesting posts considering whether, indeed, the United States has become ungovernable, a notion that’s been promoted lately, particularly among the bloggers whom Mickey Kaus refers to as the “juiceboxers”. Here’s how Arnold ends his latest post on the subject:

These days, most of the people who complain that the U.S. is ungovernable are looking for solutions that would allow progressive technocrats to be even more powerful. I believe that the solution is to decentralize government, so that the U.S. becomes a federation of hundreds of Swiss-style cantons, each of which can be governed differently, but reasonably effectively.

I think the country has always been ungovernable, at least in the sense in which they’re using the word, and that’s a feature rather than a bug.

However, as I read Arnold’s post it two ideas that had been rattling around in my head, the scaling of government programs and governability, came together in my mind. Is it possible that the cost of governing is proportional to the complexity of interrelationships in a society? In an open society with efficient communications one would think that would be on the order of the number of edges in a complete graph of the network that the society represents and that rises substantially faster than linearly see here.

3 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    Could be. It looks to me as though every country I can think of acquires more government, not less, as it joins the first world and works its way up the ladder. We are kind of an outlier, but I wonder where we would be if WWI and WWII had not occurred? That gave us a major competitive advantage over our chief competitors.

    I think you can make a case that as our economy becomes more complex, it is more likely to cause major havoc. Something needs to evolve to pick up the pieces to prevent chaos.


  • steve, the United States is four times the size (in population) of any country that can reasonably be called comparable. I think that presents a much greater level of complexity and, consequently, cost.

  • Andy Link

    Here’s a hypothetical – just imagine the EU had all the powers of our federal government and the individual EU nations had all the powers our states have. Somehow I don’t think that would work out too well.

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