The people who wrote the Constitution were proto-scientists and -engineers, all practical men of business. They used the best thinking of their time to construct the system design that is the Constitution. They were not creating a Holy document, rather laying out a social technology, the intellectual foundation for government that fulfilled more requirements, opened more avenues to human happiness.
The predecessors to our many guides to good government and management were writings by natural philosophers, some we would now describe as ‘failure analyses of government’. The educated among them knew of those from reading Latin and Greek commentators from antiquity. They corresponded energetically, early bloggers.
Good job, that. The US has lasted far longer than most governments. Moynihan, when he was US Ambassador to the UN, wrote a book that said the average nation at that time had been 12 years since their last change in form of government.
We are 250 years past the science and philosophy that informed our Constitution. We have new science and engineering as well as far more practical experience with a wide variety of government and social structures analyzed with all of the tools of moderns scholarship.
Failures are most illuminating. Most social, political, governmental and international structures have not endured, so suggestions for avoiding failures are well-tested.
Set as a search through a huge state space of possible evolutions of configurations, that isn’t bad at all. We have only had the following major failures :
- Civil War killed all of the ‘voluntary federal union’ possible futures. From what I think we know about stable systems, that was the first major bad move in direction. We are still on that very bad road.
- Indian Wars wiped out a lot of possible social understandings and points of view, e.g. ‘counting coup’ as measure of an individual’s fighting prowess. I am not a sociologist, but read in ‘1491’ or ‘1943’ that the Iroquois nation’s freedom from coercion made a lot of captives like that society better than their their English-derived class-driven version, and that influenced the Constitution. Very good books, btw, the kind that widen your view of many things.
- Spanish-American etc —
- Drug and alcohol prohibition : we lost all of the social learning about the use and abuse of opiates, cocaine, ether, nitrous oxide, … that the previous generations had accumulated. We have had to relearn those as drugs swept through our populations in successive waves of contagion, virulent in generations un-innoculated by personal observations and experience of the dangers. We are still losing 10s of 1000s of people a year to prescription pain-killers, a number greatly reduced by the legalization of cannabis.
These failures of governance killed 100s of millions of people, blighted a 100s of millions of lives, impoverished 10s of billions of people, enriched 100s of 1000s, all unpredictably. Huge failures of government, failures to make wise decisions that often cost the rulers themselves their lives. Their predictions of the future were un-reliable. If they had known they were going to lose, they would have escaped with whatever they could take along rather than dying. And the victors would have received far more, fine palaces rather than burned ruins. And wasted wealth could be employed in advancing knowledge, science, medicine, new industry, better environment, enjoyment. How wealthy we would be today, all of that compounded growth in those goods?
Looking backward, as historians do, it is easy to view our path as ‘progress’. Without question the average person today is very much better off than 2 generations in the past, but looking forward from decision-points our nation has made in my life time, as an engineer, I see lost opportunities for more optimal paths to more universal happiness*. I see that we burned many bridges in front of us.
The two views are just opposite sides of the same window, but the goal in the here and now must be to avoid problems. If we can detect and categorize problems, we have a huge advantage in progress toward more universal happiness. We are perhaps fooling ourselves, but it seems we could easily have gotten to this level of civilization sooner by being more peaceful people, less prone to seductive ideas independent from careful assessment of risk and the realities of similar experiences.
Politicians made political decisions. Engineering decisions would often have been different.
This seems to me to be the end of the era of centralized power in nation states, and it is past time to begin the postmortem, the failure analysis that will lead to the evolutionary design of the next social compact. From my point of view, we need to use better mental tools to avoid the previous failures. The tools I use in my professional career are those of systems, especially electronic computing systems and the disciplines that surround that, processors, languages, communications links, control systems, complexity analysis, queuing theory, and others. In my professional work, I use those tools to establish the constraints within which systems must operate.
Government is a system, and the tools apply to government as a system.
In terms of systems analysis all of those failures were failures to recognize and adjust to a constraint, the total limits of those constraints define possible successful paths through the maze. It is an ‘and gate’, pass them all and your system evolves into the future, fail any one and your story is recorded in the history books.
This is my attempt to begin that using mental tools from the study and analysis of systems to think about various aspects of the real world of management and politics. Should we not expect our political and social systems to not repeat mistakes such as the German Officer Corps in WWII who could not bring themselves to violate their sacred honor, and instead let that insane man lead their country to very terrible ruin and kill a lot of foreigners in the process? Such blindnesses, such terrible decisions, how can a society let that happen? But it has, again and again, different intensities and durations.
All political decisions. Some engineered buildings have fallen down, some ships have sunk, some bridges vibrated apart, but on the average, those failures are new, and future iterations avoid them. Countries fail from the same reasons again and again, as ours now is.
Humanity took a long time to see the color blue, to learn to play more positive-sum games with more people and so achieve wealth and happiness together. We have made progress toward universal happiness precisely in proportion to our use of positive sum interactions with a wider group of people. Failures to play positive-sum games well produce economic losses higher than ever. We aren’t that good at it yet. So we need to think and achieve more wisdom.
Lets start doing engineering in our integration of human knowledge in wisely achieving a more optimal course. That avoids the moralist’s justifications of escalation, the politician’s persuasive rhetoric appealing to short-term interests and base natures. Engineering is dispassionate analysis and explanation of alternatives’ costs and risks, and understands system constraints arising from considering signal-to-noise, computational complexity, limits of models, system control technology. Engineering is building on what works, extending and improving and adapting. Engineering understands sunk costs and sunk sins, to stop digging when in a hole.
Politicians and generals depend on the future turning out a certain way. Engineers understand the limits to knowledge, especially the limits to knowledge of the future. Those limits make it dangerous to depend on the future going a certain way, and history is a long-running series of examples of those dangers.
I see that positive sum games are the best strategy. I see that all progress has been produced by reductions of arbitrary power over people lower in the social and economic hierarchy. Civilization is a bottom-up process, and flourishes when top down constraints are removed.
My understanding of systems and history suggests that taking cautious steps in the world, leading with friendship and goodwill, avoiding squandering the social, intellectual, financial or physical wealth you have, much less risking everything on politically persuasive hand-waving. Those have been winning Conservative strategy since cities arose.
*I am an engineer, I have to have a metric. Philosophers have not provided a comprehensive answer to this 8).
So mine is :
Better to do good than nothing, better to do nothing than harm. A spirit of humble arrogance. Arrogant because you dare to do something to improve your own and thereby our joint futures, humble in careful testing your moves against the here and now reality, a reality always changing. Do good by avoiding doing harm, a naturally defensive strategy. Make progress by small steps, back away from un-profitable ventures, exploit the successful.
Historically, systems relying on coercion have not worked well, and should be avoided.
People must be responsible for everything in their environment, beginning with their own safety.
When carefully harnessed, the judgment of groups can be much better than that of any individual in the group.