Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Microcosm Part 2: Scailures

No proposition produced by human thought is context-independent. Every idea about cause and effect, however ingenious, pertains to a specific domain of applicability, outside which it will fail. Therefore, it is vital to understand both successes and failures in context.

Failure to acknowledge this truth is at the root of most failures in public policy. It's most devastating when an idea that works well in the small is unthinkingly scaled up and fails disastrously.


Let's look at a few contexts for "social systems" and review their differences:

  1. Nuclear family
  2. Compact neighborhood
  3. Village or small town
  4. Large town / small city
  5. Large city or state
  6. The United States in toto

The nuclear family is almost always an autocracy. The breadwinner is the ultimate authority; his decisions are absolute and unreviewable by some higher power. He might not exercise totalitarian control of the rest of the family, but disputes they cannot solve -- especially disputes about finances -- will usually find their way to him. This works because the others are his dependents, and (teenaged children occasionally excepted) they acknowledge it. More, there can be little doubt that the breadwinner has the well-being of all the others as a very high priority. Otherwise he wouldn't stick around, would he?

A compact neighborhood, within which the residents are adequately acquainted with one another, tends to be demographically near to homogeneous. Though there is usually a substantial degree of good will among the residents, such that they will rally to one another's aid in times of crisis, under normal circumstances the individual households are expected to be self-supporting. Such a neighborhood recognizes a few "leader figures." Those persons don't have coercive authority; theirs is the influence that comes from general respect for their intelligence, knowledge, industry, humility, generosity, and other characterological factors. But respect of that sort and degree is harder to gather when one's radius increases to the size of a village or small town.

At the town or small city level, we begin to see the use of impersonal processes to select authorities. The population of a town of several thousand persons can't be intimate enough for neighborhood-style influence and trust factors to suffice for that purpose. More, at the town level demographic distinctions become possible that tend not to apply in a compact neighborhood of a few dozen families. This gives rise to competing attitudes, interests, and priorities that cannot be dealt with merely by the exercise of personal influence and general good will.

A large city magnifies the demographic diversity of the town / small city still further. More, if it is geographically compact relative to its population, there will be practical pressures to collectivize various facilities that in a more dispersed environment would be left to individual choice and effort. Political processes become ever more important, for no one will be disposed to trust decisions over the allocation of collectivized resources to anyone's personal decision making. The political problems of a state will be similar, despite the greater degree of geographical dispersion of its residents.

Note that as the aggregate populations under discussion become larger and (potentially) more demographically diverse, the degree of contention over what the system forces into the political orbit becomes greater and more quarrelsome. Mechanical processes such as elections contain no ingredient capable of damping the animosity that arises over "they got they wanted, but we didn't" outcomes. Worse, the larger the population, the more likely it is to "balkanize" into interest groups with mutually incompatible agendas, which will create a great cacophony (and no small amount of disorder) as they struggle with one another. Still worse, the larger the domain over which authorities, however selected, get to exercise their powers, the greater the draw of power-lust, which pulls in ever more venal, ever less "public spirited" contenders for such powers.

The United States of America, that fabled home of 150 million knuckle-dragging, gun-toting, beer-drinking, flag-waving Neanderthals and approximately an equal number of supercilious twits who dream of "re-educating" the Neanderthals by force, is the largest quasi-coherent social system Americans experience -- and its various mechanisms for making law, enforcing the law, allocating collectivized resources (e.g., national defense), and dealing with unforeseen developments operate in failure mode overwhelmingly more often than not. The number of things the federal system attempts to control is simply beyond the power of any central authority to manage or control. Special interests routinely dominate decision making. Perhaps 98% of Washington's demesne should be delegated to smaller systems -- the original point of a federal system. But at the top of that system we routinely find men who almost literally worship power. Whatever lip service they render to "serving the people," their true agenda is to stay where they are or ascend further in the hierarchy.

The troubles experienced at each level derive in large measure from the common, uncritical assumption that what works at smaller scales can be made to work at larger ones.


Scaling-up failures arise most frequently from the failure to appreciate the emergence of demographic diversity, with all its varieties of traditions, customs, tastes, priorities, and time preferences. These things almost always account for the failure of successful small "pilot programs" to replicate their successes at the national level. However, the last thing any federal officeholder wants to admit is that we're not all alike. They'd much rather claim that "we need more money" or that "the wrong people were in control."

Sometimes the laws of nature come into play. A few homeowners with a few hours to spare each week can effectively protect a neighborhood. However, the thing comes apart when "neighborhood watch" techniques are applied to the protection of the national border. The geometry is simply against them. But even in a case such as border enforcement, there are demographic factors, including the diversity of the populations on both sides of the border, that can render the matter disproportionately more difficult than keeping watch over a compact neighborhood.

The implication for the citizen's proper attitude toward larger polities' tendency to suck power, authority, and resources away from smaller ones -- in particular toward Washington's tendency to suck power, authority, and resources out of the states -- should be clear. To the extent that politicization is allowed at all, decisions over the politicized issues must be forced downward to the smallest organizational unit capable of handling them, such that local assets, especially that of demographic homogeneity, can be kept in play. The demands of power-wielders and aspirants to power will nearly always be opposed to that attitude: a clear indication of the degree of trust any decent American should extend to them.

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