Authority and social learning in a supple state

Jean-Paul Faguet[1],[2]      Ashley M. Fox[3]       Caroline Pöschl[4]


We examine how decentralization affects four key aspects of state strength: (i) Authority over territory and conflict prevention, (ii) Policy autonomy and the ability to uphold the law, (iii) Responsive, accountable service provision, and (iv) Social learning.  We provide specific reform paths that should lead to strengthening in each.  Decentralizing below the level of social cleavages should drain secessionist pressure by peeling away moderate citizens from radical leaders. The regional specificity of elite interests is key.  If regional elites have more to lose than gain from national schism, they will not invest in politicians and conflicts that promote secession.  Strong accountability mechanisms and national safeguards of minority rights can align local leaders’ incentives with citizens’, so promoting power-sharing and discouraging local capture or oppression.  “Fragmentation of authority” is a mistaken inference; what decentralization really does is transform politics from top-down to bottom-up, embracing many localities and their concerns.  The state moves from a simpler, brittler command structure to one based on overlapping authority and complex complementarity, where government is more robust to failure in any of its parts. Well-designed reform, focusing on services with low economies of scale, with devolved taxation and bail-outs prohibited, should increase public accountability.  Lastly, by allowing citizens to become political actors in their own right, the small scale of local politics should promote social learning-by-doing, so strengthening political legitimacy, state-building, and ‘democratic suppleness’ from the grass-roots upwards.


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