It was during a recent tour of a sun-baked Los Angeles schoolyard that theories on state regulations developed by the latest Nobel Prize-winning economist came into focus. The Da Vinci Design Charter School is an oasis in an asphalt desert. Opened this year by the appropriately named Matt Wunder, the school draws 9th and 10th graders from some of the most difficult and dangerous learning environments in the country, and introduces them to a demanding, creative atmosphere.
The school is located just south of Los Angeles Airport. Wunder is taking advantage of the area’s proliferation of aerospace companies, and is building relationships with the likes of Boeing and Northrop Grumman, which offer financial and educational assistance. This is not the standard thinking one finds in the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District.
As we walked the playground we came upon two dirt-spewing holes in the blacktop, spaced about 50-feet apart. We discovered an actual human being with a shovel digging what looked like the beginnings of a mine shaft. The reason?
California State regulations, as established by the California Architects Board, require all basketball hoops on public school campuses to be cemented into 50-inch deep holes. That’s four-feet-two inches for a basketball hoop!
Now I am sure some scientifically sound earthquake testing at a California university found that such precautions are necessary if we are ever struck with a 9.9-Richter scale disaster. Of course, if such a thing happened we would have bigger problems than basketball rims keeling over. But a larger point became clear: In a school where creative leadership is making life-long impacts on the lives of children, the “long arm” of Sacramento has reached into the very soil, regulating how deep to dig ditches for recreational equipment. In so doing the State not only increases “construction” costs, but also incurs our disenchantment, as we consider a government that “trusts” local decision-making on curriculum, but not on hole digging.
The theories of Elinor Ostrom, one of this year’s two Nobel Prize-winners in economics, tie in here with stunning irony. Ostrom, a political scientist at Indiana University, won the prize for her historical and economic analysis concerning the “tragedy of the commons”: the theory that, without some form of regulation, when people fish or farm “common” (non-private) property they will tend to abuse the privilege and hurt all interests in the end.
A major underpinning of this theory is how these rule sets are most effectively developed. Ostrom found, in studies dating back centuries, that local parties –- sometimes non-governmental ones — almost always determine the best regulations, based on deliberated self-interest as opposed to centralized (and, often, distant) institutions.
As Vernon Smith, a past economics Nobel laureate himself, recently commented on Ostrom’s work, “A fatal source of disintegration is the inappropriate application of uninformed external authority, including intervention to prevent application of efficacious rules to political favorites.” As rule-making becomes more removed from the actual location of execution, there's a loss of “local knowledge” regarding conditions. And “interests” that tend to gather around centralized institutions have a disproportionate influence on legislation.
At a recent conference on sustainable planning at Pepperdine University, I sat in on a discussion of “natural resource management” and heard a relevant story of competing, predominantly left-leaning interests. In one corner were the “green” energy folks who had attempted to build a massive solar “farm” in the Mojave Desert. In the same, uh, other corner, were the defenders of the desert tortoise. Not wanting to get anyone in trouble, I will just say that officials from several State and Federal departments were present to talk about how, once again, centralized decision-making had sunk an impressive project.
Apparently, when alerted to the possibility of frying turtles under the heat of these huge solar mirrors, local park authorities provided a proposal to mitigate the loss of these reptiles through a variety of measures from fencing along the highways to moving the turtles to non-developed areas. This was not good enough for State decision-makers who, from the exalted heights of Sacramento, determined that the only legitimate course of conservation would be to land-swap the entire 8,000+-acre land parcel for another similar and suitable section for these animals. As one local official recounted, “If the goal of the policy is to save tortoises, we had that plan, which also kept the solar project alive. But the goal of the policy was to do a land exchange, which is stopping the project, and not doing all that much better for the tortoises.”
My point in raising these two of what could be thousands of examples of overreach by the administrative state is not to dismiss government’s central and important role in advising, and, at points, regulating the actions of citizens in areas ranging from public safety to sustainable planning. Rather, it's to demonstrate what happens when policy goals are subsumed by prescriptive policy created at levels (such as Sacramento in a state the size of California) which cannot possibly allow for unique local conditions. The goal is not just child safety, or saving tortoises, but to accomplish these in a certain way that may, in fact, prevent these greater benefits to the public good.
This style of governance exasperates the well-intentioned in both the private and public sector, as it prevents the liberty necessary for creative and customized policy-making. This common sense approach to policy-making is, apparently, what they give out Nobel Prizes for these days.
It was Alexis De Tocqueville who most famously realized that the genius in American governance was decentralized administration , an aspect directly contrary to the European bureaucratic experience. In words that could have appeared in Professor Ostrom’s classic, Governing the Commons, De Tocqueville wrote over 150 years ago, “When the central administration claims to replace completely the free cooperation of those primarily interested, it deceives itself or wants to deceive you. A central power, however enlightened… cannot gather to itself alone all the details of the life of a great people.”
Let us not be so deceived.
Pete Peterson is Executive Director of Common Sense California, a multi-partisan non-profit organization that supports civic engagement in local/regional decision-making. His views here are not meant to represent CSC. Pete also teaches a course on civic participation at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy.