Writing a post that doesn’t quite compute is one of the perils of blogging, so let me expand upon a point I was trying to make here.
I once heard someone (a cursory Google search fails to reveal his or her name) explain the benefits of the modern financial system thusly: “In my father’s day (and I’m paraphrasing here), his good name did not carry weight beyond the town in which he lived. Now, credit scores and modern communications technology have made it so a bank anywhere in the world can gauge my father’s reliability. His good name, in other words, has been universalized.”
Of course, it’s not really his good name that we’re talking about here. Whatever reputation so-and-so’s father enjoyed in his hometown was personalized, and a credit score or a computer algorithm doesn’t take that type of thing into account. It can tally up withdrawals, deposits or car payments and then spit out a reasonably accurate assessment of your financial reliability, but that’s not the same thing as a reputation for probity. Sometimes that’s a good thing – reputations, after all, are occasionally hooey – but sometimes it’s not so good. A human might understand the extenuating circumstances that made you late on your payments a few months back. But a credit score won’t, and so our good names have turned into financial balance sheets that are both far-reaching and brittle.
This shift away from personal interaction isn’t something that’s restricted to government or a particular industry. Businesses prize scale and efficiency, and it’s more efficient to design a computer program or implement a universal set of customer service protocols than to train a workforce to be genuinely responsive. Amazon’s approach to customer service is a remarkable example of this trend – instead of responding to individual complaints, they tally and categorize queries they receive from customers and post responses to the most frequently asked questions.
In government, memories of a genuinely horrific program of segregation – aided and abetted by local custom – have accelerated the trend towards centralization. In the context of American history, a defense of localism or personal discretion sounds like a thinly-veiled excuse to empower bigots with no oversight. As a consequence, our civil servants are either detached from the communities they serve or no longer empowered to make the sort of decisions that require a light human touch. I may have unfairly singled out DC’s head of consumer and regulatory affairs for criticism on this point, but his unwillingness (or inability) to reconsider city-level regulations highlights the difficulties of a system that prizes uniformity and centralization over flexibility and personal discretion.
There are genuine advantages to centralization, scale, and efficiency that I won’t get into here – the benefits of a professionalized civil service or a banking system that allows you to withdraw money from an ATM anywhere in the world should be obvious to just about everyone. But there are also downsides, and what I meant to suggest in my original post is that perhaps it’s time for the pendulum to swing back in the other direction.