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New Bottom Line Volume 5.10 – Decentralization, Preemption and Ideological Consistency

May 7, 1996

I try to keep these columns out of the purely political, and try to keep a more international than purely US focus. But recent events make it hard to avoid certain topics. So begging your indulgence, I’m going to probe some US political territory–hoping that we’ll find its relevance to our main topics of “business and environment,” and suspecting that we’ll strike a chord with our international readers as well.

Emerson observed that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Well, if that’s the case, we must have alot of big thinkers in Congress. Grand political battles seem to swing hither and yon across the ideological landscape, blown by some wind other than philosophy.

For example, the political conservatives who now hold the balance of power in Washington rhetorically favor devolution of power from the national government to the states, and in many cases from state government to local. And decentralization of power has many practical as well as ideological arguments in its favor. The fall of the ossified Soviet state is merely one argument among many.

Yet these proponents of “less government, closer to the people” seem perfectly willing to invoke central state power when the locals go “astray.” Case in point: the doctrine of preemption, by which the national government tells the states (or a state tells its counties and cities) that they cannot issue laws or standards tougher than the larger government’s standards.

Stricter food inspection laws? sorry Michigan; you’re “pre-empted” by the Feds. Local rent control? Outta luck, Berkeley and Santa Monica; the State of California decides, not you. Community standards on pornography? Maybe, depending on whether the big boys happen to like your community’s standards or not. (And with Communications Decency Act–banning even discussion of abortion over the Internet, it’s clear they sure don’t.)

Could you imagine a company telling its employees that they will not be allowed to exceed the company’s productivity targets?

Preemption is at work on the global scale as well. The World Trade Organization (née GATT), in its quest to facilitate global commerce, now sets lowest common denominators of environmental protection–above which your country dare not rise. Just ask the United States, a forceful advocate of free trade, which has had a sequence of national environmental regulations tossed out by the WTO.

The common feature linking all these examples, of course, is power. And not just political power, but economic power. The unifying thread that ties these ideological oscillations together seems to be impact on commerce. If devolution of power removes constraints on making money, that’s good. If centralization of power removes constraints on making money, well, that’s good too.

(Most of the examples I’ve cited take potshots at the political right; sitting in power makes for easy targets. But the political left is historically no more consistent. The left too sometimes seems to get it backwards in its quest for justice, lowering the ceiling instead of raising the floor. News stories sometimes seem perilously close to Kurt Vonnegut’s sarcastic tale of a future of strong people required to wear weights, and good-sighted required to wear blurry glasses, in order to reduce their “unfair advantage” over those less able.)

Actually, ideological consistency could be a unpredictable and dangerous thing. (Emerson actually said “Foolish consistency is hobgoblin of little minds.”) What if anti-abortion forces came to see that toxic pollution could pose as serious a threat to the lives of the unborn as abortion itself (see NBL 5.9, “Endocrine Disrupters: It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature”), and formed an alliance with the environmental movement to fight toxic releases? Unlikely, perhaps, but likely to have a dramatic impact on commerce and policy.

And no more unlikely than the insurance industry finding common ground with Greenpeace and other organizations in their joint concern over the risk of global climate change–an alliance that ultimately may do more to shift global energy policy than years of research, lobbying and public education.

It’s ironic that, as many political institutions move in the direction of lowest common denominator governance, a few companies see strategic advantage in swimming profitably against the current. Some companies have taken a creative response to the regulatory maze by committing themselves to a single regulatory standard worldwide, choosing to meet–or even exceed–everywhere the toughest standards they will face anywhere. The driving standard, coincidentally, is the same as that of the preemptors–it makes good business sense.

(c) 1996 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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