Sketches of an evolutionary constitutional economics: Part I

Gerald Frug has coined a nice term: The architecture of governance. He uses it to describe the vast array of service delivery arrangements at the local government level; the way that authority is allocated to a variety of different kinds of institutions – city neighborhood associations, city governments, private enterprise, and the like. See him speaking about this here.

The term architecture has also been applied to organisations; most notably by Carliss Baldwin and Kim Clark in their work on the power of modularity in organisation design. Their work has spawned an entire sub-genre of study on organisational structure and performance.

I am interested in meshing these two approaches into what might be termed a kind of ‘evolutionary constitutional economics’. In content, this is more closely aligned to Frug’s work; but in practice it would look a lot more like the Baldwin and Clark approach.

To get things started here are some passages from Frug that I have shamelessly edited/rearranged/paraphrased/co-opted to introduce the architecture metaphor:

The most serious design problem facing the world’s large social organisations, such as governments and nations, is the design of their governance system. Without an effective governance regime, no idea for institutional innovation and improvement can be implemented with any degree of success or confidence.

I suggest that we think of the construction of governance systems as a form of architecture. By governance, I am referring to the rules that determine who has power to solve any of the problems engendered by political and social life. I’m not talking about the content of any particular solution or any particular problem. Thinking about the governance system requires us to ask: who has the power to determine what the solutions to political problems are? And, equally importantly, who has the power to frame the rules that govern political and social life?

This brings us to architecture. If, at the most basic level, architecture deals with the design and fabrication of structures, we can think of governance as a particular kind of structure. The governance structure – the organisation of decision-making – is designed, and it can be designed well or badly. Of course, governance systems do not have an architect in the conventional sense of the term. But the people who design governance systems can be analogised to architects. Who are these designers?

Initially, they were the constitutional framers of any given nation. Today, depending on the country, they are either state or provincial legislators or members of the national legislature. These legislators are the people – circumscribed, to be sure, like architects, by others in the society, but nevertheless powerful – who determine what the governance structure looks like. To be sure, the upkeep and retrofitting of the governance structure is in the hands of different individuals than the original designers. But the same is true of architects – new people come in to redo and update what their predecessors have built.

As architects know, when designing a building, it is not easy to ensure that it can be retrofitted – many buildings seem to defy being re-used for different purposes. The only option, it seems, is to tear them down. Retrofitting is harder still for governance mechanisms. Many of our current government institutions were designed decades – even centuries – ago. Everyone realises that there are problems with how they work now. And no one thinks that a radical change in the whole system could happen all at once. The problem is that we do not have a way for re-designing the structure to be a regular, routine part of governance. So, instead of trying to redesign it, we create a series of additions to an otherwise unquestioned structure. At times it seems the only escape from this cycle is to begin to think about the architecture of governance and, then, step-by-step, government-by-government, work on redesigning it.

There is, however, another option: evolvable constitutions.

(See part II here)

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One thought on “Sketches of an evolutionary constitutional economics: Part I

  1. Pingback: Sketches of an evolutionary constitutional economics: Part II | THE DEGENERATE STATE

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