Don’t Get Caught In The Middle

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 29 2014 @ 9:02am

Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Gregory F. Treverton argue that a super-centralized infrastructure is a marker of instability:

The first marker of a fragile state is a concentrated decision-making system. On its face, centralization seems to make governments more efficient and thus more stable. But that stability is an illusion. Apart from in the military—the only sector that needs to be unified into a single structure—centralization contributes to fragility. Although centralization reduces deviations from the norm, making things appear to run more smoothly, it magnifies the consequences of those deviations that do occur. It concentrates turmoil in fewer but more severe episodes, which are disproportionately more harmful than cumulative small variations. In other words, centralization decreases local risks, such as provincial barons pocketing public funds, at the price of increasing systemic risks, such as disastrous national-level reforms. Accordingly, highly centralized states, such as the Soviet Union, are more fragile than decentralized ones, such as Switzerland, which is effectively composed of village-states.

States that centralize power often do so to suppress sectarian tension. That inability to handle diversity, whether political or ethnoreligious, further adds to their fragility.

Although countries that allow their sectarian splits to remain out in the open may seem to experience political turmoil, they are considerably more stable than those that artificially repress those splits, which creates a discontented minority group that brews silently. Iraq, for example, had a Sunni-minority-led regime under Saddam Hussein that repressed the Shiites and the Kurds; the country overshot in the opposite direction after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, took office in 2006 and began excluding the Sunnis. Indeed, research by the scholar Yaneer Bar-Yam has shown that states that have well-defined boundaries separating various ethnic groups experience less violence than those that attempt to integrate them. In other words, people are better next-door neighbors than roommates. Thus, in countries riven by sectarian divides, it makes more sense to give various groups their own fiefdoms than to force them to live under one roof, since the latter arrangement only serves to radicalize the repressed minority.