The Bloomington School and the Crisis in Ferguson

23 12 2014

I use concepts taken from the Bloomington School of Political Economy in some of my research on the history of environmental regulation. I also think that the Bloomington School offers a number of really important insights for many pressing political-economic issues. That’s why I was delighted when I found that Jesse Walker has published an article that introduces readers to the ideas of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom and then applies them to the problems plaguing the St Louis suburb of Ferguson.  The conventional wisdom right now is that the residents of Ferguson would benefit if its police force were merged into that of a neighbouring municipality. Policing in Greater S.t Louis is notoriously fragmented because of the absence of a single metro-wide police force. One of the results of this fragmentation is that policing in the predominantly African-American suburb of Ferguson is provided by an overwhelmingly white police force that extracts wealth from the local population through predatory fining. Ferguson’s police force is often contrasted with the more professional and civil-rights respecting police forces in the area.

After noting that a wide range of observers on the left, right, and centre of the political spectrum have called for the end of the patch-work quilt of policing in Greater St. Louis, Jesse Walker describes why this seemingly reasonable proposal may actually make a bad situation worse:

Technocrats are constantly calling for consolidated regional governments, so it’s no surprise to see them taking an opportunity to do it again…

Consider a series of studies conducted by the economist and political scientist Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues in the 1970s. These came at a time when academic and political opinion on local power was being tugged in two different directions. On one hand, there was a drive toward merging municipal governments and tightening their professional standards, moving away from the sorts of part-time work and volunteerism that many small communities rely on. On the other hand, a vocal group of dissidents—some on the right, while others came out of the New Left and black power movements—pushed hard for decentralization and community control.

Ostrom, who would later win a Nobel Prize in economics, decided to put the arguments to an empirical test. The results helped convince her that highly centralized government was inferior to what she called “polycentric” systems, in which political units of varying size can cooperate but act independently, without a clear hierarchy

The full article is well worth a read.