Modern Laws and Institutions Do Not Fit People

It seems to me that the modern world that humans have constructed is one which we cannot operate effectively enough to maintain.  We mere mortals are not suited to the world our predecessors have constructed for us, it is too hard on us individually and we have too high a failure rate, a huge waste of human talents and capability.  Some of the indications that our society is too hard for too many of its people are:

  • High suicide rates.  Countries with the most stringent school systems have highest rates among students.  Countries with the lowest employment levels, especially among older people, have the highest suicide rates.
  • High crime rates and the rising power of crime relative to governments.
  • High rates of using antidepressants, pain pills.
  • High drug and alcohol problem rates.  Also high rates of other ‘addictions’ such as to pornography, computer games are strongly associated with stress.
  • High rates of failure in school, marriage, business, child rearing.
  • Rising rates of dishonesty of all kinds.
  • Decade by decade, those failure rates have climbed the socio-economic ladder.

These are usually discussed as individual failures, and indeed social systems fail one individual at a time failing first in one area of their life, with cascades at the individual and social levels.  Without minimizing the importance of individual responsibility in well-functioning social systems, it seems to me that we are beyond the point where individual failure is a useful tool of thought, because the cost of the failures is social and economic overhead and is too high and the pattern of individual failures exists in all social groups, few can avoid all of the risks or consequences.

Any society that improves its social-wastage rate will have a large advantage in wealth generation.  This society seems to be sliding in wealth, not rising.  The average person’s economic position is falling, not rising.  As individuals, we are not doing well within this Status Quo system.

The other view of the situation is that the system we humans are jointly operating is not working well.  Wherever you look, there are strong signals that human capabilities are mis-matched with human motives and conditions.  The news has been filled with them for at least the last 15 years. To use just one example of our most-educated elites failing individually and as entire professions.  Physics is another.  Psychology worked with torturers, drugs are deadly, … covers them all very well.

When an entire group falls to the same weakness at the same time, that has to be a system-level design failure.  This one is connected to the growth of big science, big pharma, centralization of medical care, government payment programs, government funding mechanisms and oversight for science, the rewards of being a full professor in big universities, the positive feedback (people can’t avoid it) between social prestige and scientific prestige and power, all combining to  conflicting motives in funding and publication that FUBAR all of science.

In short, human judgment has not withstood the complexity and positive feedbacks, the short-term incentives relative to the possible penalties long-term.  The leadership of science, the great experts, failed to restrain themselves, to retain intellectual and professional purity by giving up power of the purse and direction of the profession.  They trusted themselves to do what they should have known humans always fail to do.  We are all suffering for their failures, for our lack of power relative to theirs, for our failure to discipline them.

Our government and oligarchies, nearly the entirety of the Status Quo, consist of self-selected experts failing in the same ways.  Their control systems don’t control, expertly, a trend more often and more obvious as time passes.  This is the way we do things, always have, why should we try to hide it?

Occam suggests we use the same explanation for such classes of individual failures.  We should be asking how how systems mis-use people rather than assigning blame.

That the modern systems we live within are not tailored to people shouldn’t be a surprise : The government, social and economic structures of the world were never designed as a system.  They grew as a long series of local solutions to local requirements, scaled and generalized according to other local requirements.  No single mind can ever have had an overview, because the complexity we build in our culture is incommensurate with the complexity of the minds of individuals within it.

That progressive process of developing institutions is very different than the natural evolution of systems-with-people that a Conservative would prefer.  In natural evolution, changes begin locally, slowly spread through a local area, and are thus well-tested as they are adopted more widely.  Even the edicts of a king were frequently re-considered, re-matched to the actual balances of power.  But this modern politics-hiding-as-experts process doesn’t allow much negative feedback, shortrun.  Government budgets increase monotonically, apparently forever.  Laws are very difficult to get changed.  Considered as co-evolving systems, bureaucracies are most like intestinal parasites, mainly contending with healthful processes in the host and with other species of parasites, occasionally getting it wrong and killing the host by taking too much of the energy flow of food through the gut or as a consequence of war with a competing parasite.

The problem is often discussed as ‘complexity’, but is rather the standard problem of conflict of interests.  Humans have a very difficult time balancing their individual interests with those of others when in positions of power : elder, child, spouse, student, patient, … abuses through control fraud and corrupt political systems result from these individual failures.

‘Clean’ control systems don’t allow conflicts of interest to significantly affect the overall system.  Banks and other businesses are normally resistant to control fraud by design : incentive plans for executive’s individual positions, accounting systems, board oversight and independent auditing work together to reward and insure honest behavior.  However, that can easily be undone by changes in the legal system that change the CEO’s incentives.  Thus the wave of fraud through Savings and Loans in the 1985-1995 scandals, in which 1/3rd of the 3200 S&Ls failed and 400 executives went to prison.

Problems in system controls cannot be fixed by prosecuting individuals, although we certainly should do that.  We need to fix the overall financial-industry incentive system, in this case the Fed’s willingness to bail out banks.  If economic entities are too big to to allow to fail, they are too risky to allow to exist.

Political systems are very hard to make clean and keep clean unless the power of the government is very limited.  I believe there are no examples of large, clean government.

One of the things the US Constitution got right originally was the emphasis on clean control systems via the separation of powers and mutual oversight. It has failed because there was no effective pushback from citizens, so Congressmen now have more interests in common with the other branches of government than with their constituents.

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