A Pattern of Failure

Near the end of his column on David Cameron, Ross Douthat makes a provocative point and then walks away from it:

Even if they manage to pull out a win, the Tories will have to actually execute the transformation that they’ve promised. Here the American experience is not encouraging. From Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, almost every modern Republican president has pledged to decentralize government and empower local communities. But their successes have tended to be partial, and their failures glaring. Cameron’s decentralizing vision is much better thought out than Nixon’s “new federalism” or Bush’s promise of an “ownership society.” But it’s easy to imagine it meeting the same unhappy fate.


It seems to me that this is a topic worth exploring. Why is it that the slogan of decentralized government and empowered local communities has, despite its appeal, consistently failed to deliver on its alleged promise? Or alternatively, why is it that despite the repeated failures of this decentralization agenda that conservatives keep on pushing it? I think the political right raises a lot of good and important points about the limited efficacy of the public sector. But what’s needed is some kind of real effort to address and remediate these problems. In America, the right tends instead to simply revel in them, or else to put forward warmed-over versions of ideas that, as Douthat says, don’t actually work.