(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Fans of Common Core should read this outstanding article by Kevin Williamson on what we can learn about large-scale reform efforts from the VA scandal.
First, Williamson makes the point that reform efforts are often counterproductive even when everyone wants the same outcome:
Democrats did not want the hospitals that care for our veterans to be catastrophically mismanaged while administrators set about systematically destroying the evidence of their incompetence, and Republicans did not want that, either. Independents are firmly opposed to negligently killing veterans. It doesn’t poll well. Everybody is so opposed to that outcome that we created a cabinet-level secretariat to prevent it and installed as its boss Eric Shinseki, a highly regarded former Army general. We spent very large sums of money, billions of dollars, to prevent this outcome, almost trebling VA spending from 2000 to 2013 even as the total number of veterans declined by several million.
Nobody wanted these veterans dead, but dead they are. How is it possible that the government of the United States of America — arguably the most powerful organization of any sort in the history of the human race, in possession of a navy, a nuclear arsenal, and a vast police apparatus — cannot ensure that its own employees and contractors do not negligently kill its other employees and former employees? Never mind providing veterans with world-class medical care — the federal government cannot even prevent bureaucratic homicide. All of the political will is behind having a decent VA, and there is nothing to be gained politically from having a horrific one. How can it be that, with everybody free to vote as he pleases and to propose such policies as please him, we end up with what nobody wants?
Efforts to reform the VA were not laid low by people who wanted veterans to die. Applications of this principle to the rhetoric of CC supporters should be obvious.
The larger point of the piece, however, is that reformers can’t reform unless they have a mental model of how the universe works, but the universe is far more complex than any model the human mind is capable of constructing. The more centralized control your reform requires, the more the real complexity of the universe will defeat your reforms. Conversely, the more your reforms move toward decentralization, the more success they’re likely to have because you’re working with complexity instead of against it.
Let’s call it Williamson’s Razor, the political analogue of Ockham’s Razor. Just as Ockham would have us adopt the hypothesis that fits the facts with the fewest assumptions, Williamson would have us support the reform that alleviates the problem with the least centralized control.
That’s why school choice succeeds at raising standards where centralized efforts to raise standards fail. Choice first, standards second.