When responsibility tips

Communal arrangements are mostly nested. The family unit secures the primal position. Then surrounding neighbors (I like to think of this as the size of an elementary school district) create a group, then the city/suburb, county, state and so on. Overlayed in various positions of priority are people’s associations with religious affiliations, work associations, general interest groups and passions.

For instance, at the federal level there is the US Department of Education with a primary function to “establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on US schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.” Then each state has their Department of Education which gives direction, collects data and funnels money to the School Districts. Despite all these layers of oversight many decisions are left to the most basic unit. The administration of Covid rules, for example, was determined at the building level of a district.

The situation in Ukraine highlights the difficulty in determining when a nested structure requires an outside intervention. In the case of war there is an impulse to violate political delineations, drawn into the foray due to an associational compact of humanitarian compassion. But rupturing the divides between units of responsibility is always controversial. It is not clear when to breach the boundaries of a marriage in the case of suspected domestic assault. It is not clear when to intervene in the administration of a failing school. It is not clear how to restructure a department of human resources which repeatedly fails to administer benefits resulting in human tragedy.

The foundational reason not to intervene is that the unit will come out of a challenge stronger for the experience. A neighborhood which comes together to reduce crime through block parties, cooperative interactions with police and the courts will develop methods for working together. Once they realize the rewards of safer streets, the recompense for their work will further encourage the efforts.

But at some point, the outer group has to call it, and step in. Unfortunately, this often does not happen. The cost/benefit logic says that if the subgroup school is performing at such a low level over a generation or more, then the outer group is taking a hit. The need to interfere is justified in order to maintain a pre-determined threshold.

In Minnesota there is a political debate at the moment regarding the timing of the National Guard’s intervention during the riots following George Floyd’s death in 2020. The mayor of Minneapolis claims he requested help early on. The Governor claims he wasn’t given authority to intervene in the city. This last argument seems to fall flat when three miles of a city in his state is set alight. At some point it is clear that the greater group is obliged to step in.

I believe there is a relative calculus for these tipping points. We just have to find them in the numbers.