The world is becoming less connected. And, it is becoming less centralized. This has both political and social implications and relates to the newly erupting fight over abortion in the United States which I will come back to later. In short, in a decentralizing world, where you live will matter more, a lot more. Overarching supranational institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—long focused on integrating the world into one large economy and increasingly one common commercial culture—are now seemingly less relevant than choosing sides in the Russia/Ukraine conflict or choosing no side at all (which is just a third grouping).Many countries are now frantically trying to make themselves more self-sufficient in food and energy, the supply of which have been seriously disrupted and curtailed because of the war between Russia and Ukraine and the far-reaching economic sanctions which followed. (See my previous pieces here and here.)
The push to decouple from a global system that serves the few at the top so much better than those in the middle and at the bottom was already happening prior to the Russia/Ukraine war and even prior to COVID—which made the world acutely aware of the vulnerabilities of being closely interconnected and interdependent when it comes to crucial basic resources, goods and services.
I expect the deglobalization trend to continue as more countries and people reject the one-size-fits-all ethos of a globalized world and seek out solutions and practices that they believe will serve them well in their countries and locales.
When I say “locales,” I am hinting that this trend toward decentralization does not stop at national borders. Where different ethnic groups live within one country, we have seen breakups as mild as the so-called “Velvet Divorce” of Czechoslovakia into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And we’ve seen the terrible violence and war that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia. Many other civil wars and other conflicts have raged since that time for similar reasons. Some have come in the aftermath of one of the greatest decentralizations of our time: the breakup of the Soviet Union.
There is also a less violent, but nevertheless profound decentralization taking place within countries that have so far remained intact even as their localities either ignore dictates from the national government or seek to take back powers for themselves. In the United States this took the form of localities refusing to assist the federal government in enforcing the Patriot Act which vastly expanded the surveillance powers of the government. Many so-called sanctuary cities have also chosen to limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities in enforcing immigration laws. Their reasons vary; dependence on immigrant labor and the need to maintain the trust of immigrant populations in order to police communities effectively are two reasons that are often cited.
More recently, decentralization took the form of cities and even entire states rejecting mask and vaccine mandates meant to curb the spread of COVID. In addition, pressure from federal health agencies to discourage the use of the drugs ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine for the treatment and prevention of COVID has led several states to consider legislation that explicitly allows these drugs to be used for so-called off-label uses including treating COVID. This is possible because the practice of medicine is regulated by states.
Decentralization is also seen in new voting rules in some states that previously were prevented from changing their laws under the Voting Rights Act without getting approval from the U.S. Department of Justice. This arrangement effectively prevented changes which the authors of the act and officials at the Justice Department deemed discriminatory and/or designed to reduce voter participation. In 2013 that changed when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the part of the act which mandated pre-approval of election law changes for certain states with a history of discrimination. With that decision the Supreme Court aligned itself with the forces of decentralization.
Whether you agree or disagree with the decisions of your local and state authorities regarding the issues mentioned above and many others as well, this decentralizing trajectory seems set to continue. The consequence is that, generally speaking, where you live in the coming decades will matter more and more when it comes to medical practice and public health, the effects of immigration, voting laws, and now (possibly) abortion. Expect other issues to follow.
Ten years ago, wherever one lived in the United States, federal laws and court decisions determined policy for the entire country on a wide array of issues and these issues seemed settled. A woman might face many more restrictions on abortion in Mississippi than, say, New York. But Mississippi could not outlaw abortion altogether. That may change if the recently leaked draft of a Supreme Court decision that returns abortion law to the states becomes the final ruling of the court.
The trouble is that decentralization will ultimately be regarded by most people as a mixed bag. A pro-choice resident of California will support the state’s law allowing abortion, but might also wish to avoid the state’s vaccine-related mandates. Moving to Tennessee which bans employer vaccine mandates will solve that problem, but the state’s abortion laws are set to become some of the strictest in the United States if the Supreme Court chooses to return the abortion issue to the states. (See here and here.) Abortions for rape and incest victims will be outlawed. Doctors performing abortions could face up to 15 years in prison.
There is also the problem of unintended consequences. If you prefer to live in a state which bans abortion, your state may experience a shortage of doctors specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. Uncertainty about what such doctors can say to their patients, about what constitutes an abortion versus a miscarriage, about whether some problem pregnancies can be terminated, and the inability to obtain training related to abortion and pregnancy complications is likely to lead such doctors to seek work elsewhere.
What doctor wants to spend a career guessing whether authorities will arrest him or her for “aiding and abetting an illegal abortion” by simply discussing the option with a patient? Better to practice in a state where one has certainty.
I have not discussed what I believe are the underlying forces behind decentralization which I’ve covered in some detail elsewhere. (See a recent example here.) In brief, I believe that complexity which can serve human societies by unlocking resources and creating efficiencies has now turned against us. Instead of positive returns on increasing complexity, we are reaping negative returns, that is, we are creating more problems with increased complexity than we solve. Second, complexity is a product of energy availability. As energy becomes more scarce (as indicated by high prices), it will become more and more difficult to maintain complex systems.
There are certainly ideological and moral reasons behind what the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court seems likely to decide about abortion. But in the background of this and so many other decentralizing trends is the deeper belief that our complex centralized systems are no longer serving us well. What we replace them with on a smaller scale will matter a great deal. There is no guarantee of enlightened leadership at the local and state level. And so, there is no guarantee that you will get the results that you like on a given issue and certainly not across the board.
What this means is that policies we have previously been obliged to abide by because they were under the authority of the national government will now be for us and our state and local officials to decide. Your influence on such issues will actually be far greater than before—but only if you choose to be involved.
Photo: Protest against abortion restriction in Bielsko-Biała, November 2020. Via Wikimedia Commons.