Bottom-up vs. Top-down

Forget comparisons like ‘government vs. free market’ or ‘public vs. private’. We can all pull out examples from each realm that works and doesn’t work.

I think a better distinction of human interaction systems can be drawn between ‘bottom-up vs. top-down’. Bottom-up systems tend to be driven by decisions and interactions very close to the individual. Top-down systems are driven by decisions made by a few individuals at the top of the hierarchy.

I often hear proponents of a central government — a top-down system — cite bottom-up examples to support their view, demonstrating that they don’t understand the top-down/bottom-up distinction.

Fire departments, police departments and roads are prominent examples of this and sound like, “These things are run by government and they work pretty well, let’s expand Federal government.”

Yes. These are usually run by government entities. But local government is not equivalent to Federal government. Local government is more bottom-up than top-down.

I think it’s helpful for discussion and policy-making to be able to recognize the two different systems. Here are a couple of thoughts.

  • To what degree do individuals have the ‘power of voice’?
  • To what degree do individuals have the ‘power of exit’?

Power of voice is an individual’s vote, purchasing decision or the ability to have the decision-makers hear your voice. Votes carry more weight in local elections than national elections. It’s easier to get in touch with city councilmen or the mayor than it is the Congressman or President. A purchase is a vote indicating that the individual values the product at that price.

Power of exit is the individual’s ability to leave or not choose a certain product. If I choose not to buy a product, I’m signaling that it’s not worth it. If I don’t think the city council is steering my city in the right direction, I can move a couple of miles to the next city over. Same if I’m looking for a better a school district.

Power of exit is a function of how many choices are available to me and the dynamics of competition among those choices.

I have lots of choices of products. Competition among those products is generally high. I can incur little cost for choosing one store over another or one product within a store over another.

In my area, I have lots of choices on cities, townships and counties that I can live in. Not as many choices as I have for different types of beer, but still quite a few. Since I do have a fair amount of choice, competition is relatively high and these cities and townships try to do things to voluntarily attract residents — like providing good fire departments, police departments, schools and roads. The cost to move is higher than the cost of choosing one product over another, but still not terribly high if things get really bad (this is why suburbs suck the life out of mismanaged urban areas).

I have 50 states to choose from, but the costs to move between states is relatively high. I have many countries to choose from, but the costs to change countries is even higher. So, competition goes down as these costs increase and so does my power of exit. I still have it, no doubt, but things have to get really bad before exercising that power.

I think there are a couple other elements of the bottom-up vs. top-down systems that are worth mentioning. I don’t think they are as useful in helping us recognize these systems, but I think they explain why bottom-up system work better than top-down.

1. Lots of independent trials/experiments. It’s hard to tell what will work and what won’t, so it’s best to try a lot of stuff.

2. No single point of failure. Since it’s hard to tell what will work, it’s best not to have a single point of failure, which top-down systems have.

3. How far apart are the benefits and the costs? Or, another way to think about it, how far removed are the decision-makers from the consequences of their decisions? This gets down to, how much skin-in-the-game do decision-makers have?

I will discuss more about these last three in future posts.

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Bureaucrats v Innovators

Here’s a nice piece from the Wall Street Journal about bottoms-up and top-down recovery efforts in two tornado stricken towns, Tuscaloosa Alabama and Joplin Missouri. Apparently, Tuscaloosa is taking the top-down approach, while Joplin is more bottoms-up.

That means that in Tuscaloosa, city officials see themselves as the center of the redevelopment efforts. They want to redesign and rebuild the city to their liking. They want to be the heroes.

In Joplin, the approach is much more practicable. The city officials are doing their job — issuing permits and such — and then getting out of the way to let private citizens do their job.

Instead of encouraging businesses to rebuild as quickly as possible, Tuscaloosa enforced restrictive zoning rules and building codes that raised costs—prohibitively, in some cases. John Carney, owner of Express Oil Change, which was annihilated by the storm, estimates that the city’s delays and regulation will cost him nearly $100,000. And trying to follow the rules often yielded mountains of red tape, as the city rejected businesses’ proposals one after another.

“It’s just been a hodgepodge,” says Mr. Carney. “We’ve gotten so many mixed signals from the get go. The plans have been ever-changing.” Boulevard Salon owner Tommy Metrock, one of the few business owners to rebuild on Tuscaloosa’s main thoroughfare, McFarland Boulevard, says the restrictions created “chaos” as people put their livelihoods on hold while the city planned.

Joplin took a dramatically different approach. According to interviews with local business owners, right after disaster struck the city council formally and informally rolled back existing regulations, liberally waving licensing and zoning mandates. It even resisted the temptation to make “safe rooms” a condition of rebuilding.