Centralization and Complexity

Posted on


US Department of Homeland Security Seal

I had a lot of objections to yesterday’s Ross Douthat column, but I think my main objection can perhaps be most convincingly put in terms of a specific area where I sympathize with what he’s saying, creating the Department of Homeland Security was kind of silly:

The C.I.A. and F.B.I. didn’t stop 9/11, so now we have the Department of Homeland Security […] But their fixes tend to make the system even more complex and centralized, and more vulnerable to the next national-security surprise, the next natural disaster, the next economic crisis. Which is why, despite all the populist backlash and all the promises from Washington, this isn’t the end of the “too big to fail” era. It’s the beginning.

The problem here is that “more complex” and “more centralized” are distinct ideas. Indeed, they’re actually ideas that are in tension. Consider the Department of Homeland Security. Basically what its creation did was pluck out a bunch of agencies (Customs and Border Protection, ICE, FEMA, the Secret Service, the Coast Guard) that were previously scattered across different cabinet agencies and put them into one agency. But nothing about having the Secret Service in Treasury and the Coast Guard in Transportation was less centralized than the new situation. Indeed, in a sense creating the DHS flattened the federal org chart and decentralized things.

More generally, decentralizing often makes things more complicated. The governance of the United Kingdom was complicated by the creation of sub-assemblies for Scotland and Wales, and creating English regional parliaments would be further complication. Governance in the United States tends to be extremely complicated, precisely because many functions are performed in a decentralized way. Some things will be taken care of at a municipal levels, others by a country, others by some kind of regional agency, others by the state, others by the federal government. School systems are often run autonomously from the other aspects of local government. This decentralization may or may not be a good thing, but it’s certainly not simple. It would be less complicated to have a French-style hyper-centralized system.

Which is just to say that I think it’s actually really difficult to come up with a general rule of thumb here or even a rigorous and consistent definition of what counts as “centralized” and/or “complicated.”