XI.1: Jane Jacobs and the Growth of Government

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The Growth of Government

Conventional wisdom says the nature of government makes it grow more and more complicated, and that makes it grow bigger.

But is that true? Can we think outside that box? Jane Jacobs – housewife, city hall rabble-rouser, and natural-born genius – took this problem of the growth of government and turned it inside-out:

The English biologist, J. B. S. Haldane…. pointed out …that size has much to do with the equipment an animal must have. Insects, being so small, do not need oxygen-carrying bloodstreams. The oxygen their cells require can be absorbed by simple diffusion of air through their bodies. But being larger means an animal must take on complicated oxygen pumping and distributing systems to reach all the cells.

[So,] big animals are not big because they are complicated. Rather, they are complicated because they are big.

Haldane’s principle, it seems to me also applies to institutions, companies, governments, organizations of all sorts. The larger they are, the more complications they require: coordinators, liaison people, prescribed channels of communication, administrators, supervisors of supervisors, whole extra departments devoted to serving the organism itself. A small organization can get along without a bureaucracy. A big one cannot.

Big organizations are not big because they are complicated. … But they are complicated because they are big. (Jacobs 1980, 32)

Jacobs applied Haldane’s principle (Haldane [1928] 1929) to organizations like government.

She continued:

People who don’t understand what I’m calling Haldane’s principal are forever being disappointed that making big units out of many small units does not necessarily save money. (Jacobs 1980, 33)

[I]ncreased centralization should not be combined with added or multiplied responsibilities. On the contrary, added governmental responsibilities should be combined with looser federalism or else separation. (Jacobs 1980, 36)

Jacobs said that contrary to conventional wisdom, the growth of government happens naturally, and that makes it grow more complicated.

This ingenious bit of common sense takes the idea that complication grows naturally, making organizations bigger, and turns the idea inside out. So Jacobs says reality works in the opposite direction to conventional wisdom.

It is true that technology becomes more complicated as it becomes more powerful. But that should not cause us to make our governments more complicated. Actually, we should use our more powerful technology to simplify government.

Furthermore, if Jacobs is right then she begs the question, “Why does the nature of government cause it to get bigger?”

One reason for the growth of government is that politicians need high-paying jobs for gifts to those who help them get elected.

And the cronyism all goes downhill from there.

Do you think Jane Jacobs is right that the growth of government happens naturally, and that growth causes it to become more and more complicated? Or is it the other way around? Would you believe that there’s a way to use our modern technology to make government simpler, and at the same time more responsive to the people?

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Haldane, J.B.S. [1928] 1929. “On Being the Right Size”, in The World’s Best Essays, ed. F.H. Prichard. New York: Albert and Charles Boni.

Jacobs, Jane. 1980. Canadian Cities and Sovereignty Association. Toronto: CBC Merchandising.

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