Coordination Is Hard

When we tell our limited-government friends that we have written a book … about how government can better accomplish what it sets out to do, the reaction is often horror.  “I don’t want to make government work better, I want it to go away” … This way of thinking is deeply misguided. … This is not to disparage the argument that government is too large, for which the case is strong. But holding government in sneering contempt is a misinformed corruption of that sentiment.

More here.  Will Wilkinson agrees, as do I.  Two ideological attitudes are common, but insensibly stupid:

  1. All government activity is bad, no matter what it does.
  2. The only reason to oppose a government program with a purported goal is because that goal is bad; program opponents must oppose its goal.

The key thing to understand is: governance is hard, especially in a democracy.  Fundamentally, this is because coordination is hard.

It can be very hard for even a single owner to coordinate with a dozen subordinates that each coordinate with a dozen employees in an ordinary firm to achieve a simple clear goal like making and selling a simple product at a profit. Organizations fail at this task all the time, and for thousands of different reasons.  Most new organizations attempting this fail, and most that are succeeding now will fail in a few decades.  When they fail, they will fail so badly that it will not be worth trying to save them; better to throw them away and start anew.

Once one appreciates the difficulty of coordinating even small organizations, and that bigger coordination is harder, one can see why it can be extremely difficult to manage the vaster coordination required by government.  How can ordinary citizens continue over centuries to coordinate to support interest groups that coordinate to support politicians who coordinate to approve and manage policies that empower agency heads to coordinate to manage thousands of agency employees to achieve the vague incoherent goals of many millions of citizens?

Types of government activities vary both in how valuable are their possible impacts, and it how difficult is their coordination task (both relative to private coordination and to doing nothing).  If your politics were about policy, and you were reasonable, then you’d support programs with high value impacts and easy coordination, and oppose programs with low value impacts and difficult coordination.  Ideologues who oppose all government programs no matter how valuable or easy, or who support all programs with laudable goals no matter now difficult their coordination task just don’t get it.  That might signal their values and blind faith or hatred in leaders, but not their reason.

One can more reasonably disagree about the value of possible impacts, and about the coordination difficulties of particular programs.  But reasonable people should also admit others may hold different values, and that coordination techs continue to improve, both in and out of government.  New ways to coordinate government can make its programs more reasonable, and new ways to coordinate private action can make once-reasonable government programs obsolete.  We should also keep trying new programs, just to see.  The devil, as always, is in the details.

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  • J

    “The key thing to understand is: governance is hard, especially in a democracy. Fundamentally, this is because coordination is hard.”

    Also, at least in our democracy, because our government is intentionally designed to inhibit large, rapid changes.

  • kebko

    I see what you’re saying here, and I agree, more or less. But, I still wonder if there is something to the seemingly fatalistic libertarian argument. As a start, if you lived in Communist Russia or Chavez’ Venezuela, would you still say it was misguided to dismiss practically all the proposed “improvements” in governance. Obviously, we’re a far way from those poor examples. But, consider that government at all levels spends something like $50,000 per household now, which is roughly equivalent to the entire US economy of 1980. This seems quite unreasonable to me. Clearly government should be able to accomplish everything most of us would want it to, including many progressive services, for much less than this. It seems that practically any improvement in governance would necessarily lead to a reduction in the size & power of government. So, it might be reasonable to apply a heuristic that says to be very skeptical of any proposed improvements which will increase the scope & power of government.
    This might be fatalistic, and it might miss some actual improvements. But, lacking this heuristic, it seems that we are destined to be the victims of all of the failed improvements that are implemented. In fact, that really is what most of my $50,000/year seems to go to.

    • Michael Turner

      kebco, $50K is about the average household income in the U.S. Do you honestly think that deficit spending is approaching that number? On the federal side (by far the largest portion), Obama proposes $3.8T for 2010. The U.S. now has about 110M households. Need help with the math? That’s about $32K per household. And because of progressive taxation, your average household is not paying that much.

      “Clearly government should be able to accomplish everything most of us would want it to, including many progressive services, for much less than this.”

      As, for example, the European experience with healthcare clearly shows: the Swiss have the system most private-sector involvement, but almost the highest per capita costs in Europe. (Highest: Luxembourg, a very rich country even by Swiss standards.) But the Swiss government-mandated system is still cheaper than ours by a wide margin. So clearly we should be in favor of European style improvements regarding the governing of health services. But, uh-oh, trying anything European (even Swiss-style, like Obamacare) would require (*shudder*) more government. And that defies your dogma “heuristic” of refusing more government at all costs.

      The Axiomatic Libertarian: “Even good government is bad government, because it might persuade people that government can be good, which inevitably leads to more government, which is inevitably bad.” Or as Reagan had it, at one point: a national health care plan could lead to Soviet America, so it’s not worth the risk. What’s happened since he said that is that Europe has beaten the U.S. handily in keeping health care costs down, while the Soviet Union has fallen. It would seem that the Road to Serfdom has more than a few forks.

      • kebko

        The $50k figure includes state & local, so I think your figure more or less confirms my figure.
        I agree. It’s hard to believe, but there it is. Total government (state, local & federal) spending is somewhere near the size of the entire US economy in 1980.
        I appreciate your example of Switzerland. It’s a great example of how government services should be much more effective & less expensive.
        If you respond, please try to be more civil. I think we more or less agree, but you seem angry.
        My basic point is that most of the time, the proposals I see about actual government activity involve spending another $1,000 per household & spending that $1,000 really well. Instead, I’d like to see the government do the things that Switzerland does for the same amount of resources, which generally means the government would be smaller.
        Is there a point where you would find my skepticism reasonable? Considering what we get from government, would $60,000/household be too much? $70,000? If we weren’t boiling frogs here, I would think you’d be pretty discouraged even by your $32,000 figure. Surely there is some level, though, where you would accept the assertion that this government needs to show that it can be responsible before it goes tossing off new ideas.

  • Almost all government activity is bad, because it probably won’t much benefit those who are its supposed beneficiaries, and will probably cause harm to most. The government’s main beneficiaries now are the government employee unions. About the only thing that could improve the situation is to disallow anyone who accepts substantial funds from the government (employees and welfare recipients) from voting; and there is no way that’s going to happen.

    • Dan

      How is disenfranchisement going to improve things?

      • It would at least stop the hogs from voting themselves more slops.

      • Chris

        It prevents the situation of two wolves and a sheep voting on dinner. Basically, it prevents meat eaters from voting on dinner.

      • Dan

        I fail to see how “Government employees” is going to make up two-thirds of the electorate.
        Also why would two wolves need to vote? What if there is two sheep and one wolve. No voting necessary there too.

        The majority institute “government employees” because they want them to do stuff for them.

  • jonathan

    I disagree with the emphasis on coordination. Governments act on aggregate scales so if one avoids the easy route of nitpicking by finding individual cases where the government does poorly then one needs to judge on aggregate scales. Coordination certainly matters but the real issue is that government is no better at seeing the future than you or I – and this gets at something you are deeply wedded to in your prediction markets.

    Identify cases where government has done notably well. The Manhattan Project. WWII in general. Other wars somewhat less. Certain projects in response to the Depression – though of course not the overall response to it. These share a crucial similarity: they were identifiable goals with clear ends. You built a bomb. You won or lost the war. You got troupes of actors putting on plays or bunches of workers cutting firebreaks. Even if something goes wrong in your war plans – say the cruiser Indianapolis is forgotten, left alone and sunk with great loss of life – then you are still forging toward that goal.

    Most of what government does has goals that depend on assumptions about what will happen when government acts. Those assumptions are often wrong because the results aren’t particularly predictable, even when they scale from pilot projects. The systems involved don’t all share the same focus or goal and there is no way to align them because life rarely generates such large scale goals as winning WWII.

    (Much is made of the lack of coordination in intelligence about terror but that is because we don’t see the times there is coordination. I know that wasn’t your focus but I thought I’d mention it.)

    • floccina

      One thing about using WWII as an example of an efficient government is that you are using a case where governments were competing with other governments. On the other hand if you look at the war on drug and war on crime you might think that Government is not so good at it. People who were in WWII seem to talk as if the the effort though successful was very inefficient. Grunt talk about the stupid orders that cam down the command chain.

    • floccina

      The first positive thing that I can of that Gov. does is road building and maintenance and that I think is because roads are so cheap per mile traveled. It is even cheaper than fuel which is cheaper than the vehicles which is cheaper than the drivers time. I wonder if as things continue to get cheaper is Gov. a way to off load even thinking about them to specialists so that we do not even need to think about them. In this model even if Gov is very inefficient maybe we are better off if the things are very cheap.

      • Michael Turner

        Yes, the so-called “natural monopolies” are where government has many legitimate roles.

        jonathan: “Certain projects in response to the Depression – though of course not the overall response to it. …. You got troupes of actors putting on plays or bunches of workers cutting firebreaks.”

        I see that you’re still under a certain impression of how New Deal deficit spending actually proceeded, as if it were mostly make-work. In fact, the overwhelming bulk of it went to infrastructure (roads and the like) with both immediate and enduring use-value. How can you judge the value of “the overall response” if you don’t even know what that was?

  • Rather than repeat my comments about the thesis of the original article, I’ll just link to them.

    Milton Friedman wrote that managing M(oney supply) to respond to V(elocity) was so difficult and that central banks had such a poor track record, that they shouldn’t even bother. Robin: what’s your best case against a skeptical anarchist of why we actually need any of the coordination Uncle Sam provides? Shouldn’t we expect voluntary associations to handle valuable and easy coordination tasks (if their plans really are successful they may profit from them) if the government refrained from even those doable ones?

    • Grant


      I think the $64B question is, when can government coordinate more cheaply than markets? The cost of beneficial government coordination should include all of the costs of government: the unjustified wars, the wasteful spending pandering to voters, all that. Unfortunately these costs seem extremely difficult to quantify?

      In the case of mostly-private goods and public goods on a small scale the answer is obviously no. In the case of IT-related public goods (i.e., open-source software provided in an environment which is effectively market anarchy) the answer certainly seems to be no.

  • I oppose government programs, as a general rule, because as you say, governance is hard. Even with good intentions and a good plan, success is uncommon. When problems are addressed by private actors, if things don’t work out, the project disbands and we can try something else. If it’s attempted by government, it’s harder to succeed, and if success is elusive, it’s harder to shut down the project.

    Because it’s hard, we shouldn’t reach for government solutions until other approaches have failed. (In the case of health care, government has been preventing solutions for a long time. more government isn’t the right way to address the problem.)

  • Hrm

    Good post, Robin.

    Governments do some things very well, some things decently, and other things very poorly. Same goes for private companies, community organizations and individuals. Figuring out and constantly renegotiating who does what and where the boundaries lie/should lie is how rational/empirical governance should work; we should have “empirical policymaking” wherever possible.

    It’s too bad some of your readers still have and will have the knee-jerk “all government is bad no matter what” attitude that you rightly criticize. This is the sad result of “process legitimizes outcome” thinking; the same way that ends do not always justify the means, neither do the means always justify the ends!

    • Michael Turner

      “Figuring out and constantly renegotiating who does what and where the boundaries lie/should lie is how rational/empirical governance should work; we should have “empirical policymaking” wherever possible.”

      To some extent, federalism provides the needed laboratory environment. If you can make something work in one state, you have some basis (not necessarily a bullet-proof one, though) for arguing that it might work on a larger scale.

  • Ben

    Since when have politicians been guided by curiosity and the spirit of rational inquiry?

    Let’s be realistic about politicians’ goals. They want to be damaging their opponents, rewarding campaign contributors and placating interest groups. Most government programs are not designed primarily to perform the task they claim to.

    They have to appear to do the thing they claim to, to a certain extent, in order to appear successful. If the policy partly works as claimed, it is because some substance is the easiest way to create the appearance of effectiveness. Alternately, the policy consists of buying off a portion of the electorate, who will then report that the policy works, regardless of how inefficient it is.

    On the contrary, the programs that get passed only do so on the condition that they placate various interest groups. There is very little chance of policy rationality in the present setup.

  • Jayson Virissimo

    All government activity is bad, no matter what it does.

    Robin, would you still support Walmart as an institution if it started threatening to imprison you if you didn’t “buy” its products?

    Anarchists don’t dislike government because it does a bad job, but because it uses means that they believe violate norms of justice and is unnecessary.

  • Grant

    This is a good post, IMO.

    Coordination costs are real. As Coase tried to point out, coordination costs should be treated the same way as other costs. When the costs of a public project exceed the benefit, the project should not be undertaken. The fact that people may complain that the project needs to be done is a symptom of them trying to coordinate people, not any indication that its benefits exceed its costs. Government programs are extremely costly not just in their execution, but in all the other costs associated with the government maintaining power.

    People who hate the institution of government do not have to hate all government programs. I find it unlikely that governments, due to their nature as having been created via coercion, are worth their cost. However this does not mean that I believe all government programs are economically inefficient. I am rather fond of our government-created roads, but this does not mean the institution of government is worthwhile just to create those roads.

  • All, even if you think that government coordination is usually so hard that we’d be better off doing nothing, will you at least join the quoted authors and I in wanting government to work better on the margin?

    J, we have until now not required large rapid changes much, so that limit hasn’t hurt us that much. As I said yesterday, in the em rev that limit will hurt more.

    jonathan, identifiable goals with clear ends do aid greatly aid coordination to achieve such ends.

  • David C

    “It seems that practically any improvement in governance would necessarily lead to a reduction in the size & power of government.” -kebko

    The government of the US (federal, state, and local) currently controls a little over 40% of the economy. It’s a little higher now because of the recession, but that’s the general place we’re at. While there are no doubt many things the government could do to improve, and most of them would reduce the size of government, it seems extremely unlikely that 60% of the economy cannot in any way be improved by collective action measures taken on by governments.

    Also, consider flipping the two halves of the statement:
    “Any reduction in the size and power of government will be an improvement.”
    Do not a lot of libertarian individuals and institutions seem to think in this fashion? A lot of government rules and institutions are coordinated. Even if removing several at the same time would be good, removing them one at a time would be quite bad.

    I notice there aren’t any liberals or conservatives disputing fallacy number two about confusing goals with means. My guess would be fallacy one is consciously made by a lot of libertarians, but liberals and conservatives only make the second fallacy subconsciously.

  • Jayson Virissimo

    The only reason to oppose a government program with a purported goal is because that goal is bad; program opponents must oppose its goal.

    Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

    We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state- enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain. -Claude Frédéric Bastiat

  • >The devil, as always, is in the details.

    Would the devil be our bias? If so, then the question becomes; how do “we” educate people to be ambivalent about their experience and build a robust intuition. Knowing intuitively will help bring about symmetry in the creation of an abstraction (government, etc.) that will allow for the best success.

  • Todd

    Coordination is one of the government’s problems, but it’s not the only one, and there are other grounds for a libertarian to object to government on principle. To take an extreme example, I doubt very much that coordination was the problem in 1984. Abuse of power is something that doesn’t go away as coordination tech improves.

    • Constant

      Libertarians may object on the basis of freedom, but selling freedom – or even wealth – to a non-libertarian is another matter.

      In the nineties I met South Korean students who believed that North Korea was morally superior to South Korea and that the two Koreas should be unified under the North Korean government. One South Korean student told me that poverty was good for the spirit, and that North Korea provided this needed factor.

      I did not know how to reply, and didn’t reply. I simply listened and was horrified.

      • Pio

        Poverty can be good for the spirit at least in the sense that abundance robs you of the factors that drive innovation. I recall some engineer saying that a lack of money and resources forces you to think differently and come up with novel solutions. So don’t fund the struggling AI developers lest they lose their innovative edge! Just kidding. Give them all your money, NOW.

      • Did that South Korean actually go over to live in North Korea? I doubt it. I think many North Koreans would go south of the border if they had the chance. When it comes to “voting with their feet”, freedom sells itself.

  • A human body coordinates 10 trillion cells. It seems as though coordination gets easier if all the agents concerned are clones of each other.

    • what a constraint!!!!!

    • Nathan Phillips

      As Dawkins pointed out in the Selfish Gene, coordination works best when the only way out is shared. If any of the cells could get away without coordinating with the rest of the body and still survive, the incentive for coordination would erode. Sci-fi concepts involving cloning are now popping into my mind. Thanks.

  • nazgulnarsil

    it seems to me that coordination is hard when you continually take resources from some subset and use it for things that subset vehemently disagrees with. coordination is easier among homogenous groups. therefore balkanization and competition among more smaller governments is highly desirable.

  • Governance is easy – good governance is hard, which is why we rarely see much of it.

    I am an anarcho-libertarian, but have changed several times between that and minarchist libertarian. The key difference is an empirical matter and my evaluation/guesstimate has changed over time.

    The justification for minimal government amounts to a reduction in transaction costs (economic, social, and physical risks) over having to buy or self-provide the necessary services (courts, police, military defense, roads, etc) separately. One of the main differentiations between minarchists and anarchists is whether the sum of the transaction costs is higher or lower than the costs and risks of keeping the government minimal and of failing to keep the government from growing.

    Considering the current condition of the world, the cost of government growth is much, much higher than any possible transaction costs to buying and self-providing the services I want from the government, hence I am an anarcho-libertarian.

    The thing the literature of decline all seemed to leave out is that Americans are really good at working around the stupid laws and regulations and adapting our actions to the problems. The reason I don’t think this is necessarily going to keep working is the incredible growth of government over the past couple of decades – it was bad enough in the 1970s, but since the mid-1990s it has really taken off. And directly reduces the flexibility of the economy.

    • I should have pointed out “the pragmatic justification” above. I am a consequentialist libertarian.

  • Businesses that fail to coordinate well often close their doors (in a capitalist system at least). Governments that fail to coordinate well stop… occasionally.

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  • Linda Gottfredson’s Apprentice

    The problems with government are regulatory capture and elite capture.

    The rest of us are correct to view government as worthless.

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