If you happen to agree that our systems, structures, and institutions are not working well, then you probably agree that they ought to be fixed. What are the odds that we are going to fix them? The odds are probably zero unless we can first understand why they aren’t working. How likely is it that you can fix your car by replacing a randomly selected part? Pretty low. Thus, we need to ask, “Why are our systems, structures, and institutions failing us in significant ways, and not living up to their potentials?” Let’s consider four possibilities:
Maybe it is physically impossible for our systems, structures, and institutions to prosper/succeed. For example, perhaps physics dictates that employment levels cannot exceed 90%, that no form of large government can run without incurring a large debt, that no planet can continue too long before the climate is destabilized and water is poisoned, and that no communities can exist without major alienation and strife. In other words, maybe there are laws or limitation of physics for systems, structures, and institutions, almost like the laws that dictate the speed of light and the forces of magnetism.
While this argument might seem to have some potential validity, further inspection indicates that it is faulty. For one thing, deterministic physics does not necessarily operate at the level of higher-order systems or complex systems such as governments, communities, and corporations. In fact, complex systems exhibit unpredictable behavior, and if you believe that humans have free will, then that also means a given complex system (such as a government) probably doesn’t have a predetermined fate.
As additional evidence against the “laws of physics” argument, there are many cases where nations are not beset with the bourgeoning problems of ours. In fact, our own nation in prior years is an example of relative success, making this explanation seem weak.
Our systems, structures, and institutions could prosper and succeed, but unqualified people with poor attitudes and selfish behavior are in charge of operating them. If people are continually bungling and incompetent or looking out only for themselves, they will display poor judgment and will do simple things incorrectly, like not following installation instructions, taxiing to the wrong runway, or making mathematical errors. This is causing our systems, structures, and institutions to fail. Is it possible then that most people are simply so self-centered or careless that they fumble through work, planting the seeds of destruction?
Like the prior argument, further consideration suggests this simply does not explain the fix we are now in. Professional mistakes occur, but those usually stand out because they are not the standard. There are exceptions, and everyone is imperfect. But on the whole, this nation is filled with people who are attentive, well intended, and sufficiently qualified for their occupations—construction workers, teachers, surveyors, marketers, nurses, mathematicians, policemen, mayors, truck drivers, welders, human resource managers, journalists, administrators, engineers, computer technicians, air traffic controllers, accountants, etc. This list could include roles such as mothers and fathers as well.
Even if you still believe in an explanation of personal incompetence multiplied, there isn’t strong supporting evidence for this, such as perhaps a high proportion of the ordinary citizenry in jail, a high proportion of firings from skilled jobs, or a lack of motivation or work ethic, which is instilled in all school children or job trainees. An explanation of selfishness or incompetence can explain some individual situations, but it cannot explain the broad pattern of failure and difficulty that seems ubiquitous now. Finally, to believe that we are all this incompetent is also to forego hope of long-term achievements.
Collectively, we have been unconsciously seeking our own demise. To suit a somewhat hidden psychological drive, we have been designing systems, structures, and institutions to deliver negative outcomes.
It may seem illogical that people would put so much effort into things that won’t satisfy them. But if you have ever watched someone defiantly forge ahead with destructive choices, despite pleas or warning from those around them, then you might agree that this can occur. This cannot explain all the malfunction we witness, but it is a critical piece. This explanation is discussed further below.
A fourth potential explanation for the bind we find ourselves in is that under current conditions, and as currently designed, our systems, structures, and institutions are simply incapable of producing the results that we want. This isn’t just saying that “something isn’t working.” It is going a step further, and saying “something cannot work,” at least not as intended.
What does this mean? If you saw a huge sailboat with a main sail the size of a bed sheet, or a car with really big tires on the left side and really small tires on the right side, or someone trying to carve a pumpkin with a door key, you’d know immediately that you were looking at things that cannot work well, even with the best of efforts. Is it possible that our systems, structures, and institutions are in a similar situation?
It is easy to imagine a failed ship powered by a tiny sail, a failed car with lopsided tires, and a failed pumpkin carved with a little key. But when it comes to complicated systems, structures, and institutions, failing designs aren’t so obvious. What would these failing designs look like? What if the local town simply isn’t laid out very well for current conditions, and the layout is interfering with the formation of a healthy community? What if the university is teaching too few subjects and is thereby stifling the culture? What if the average workday is too short and is creating economic hardships for families? Maybe food prices are too high, and it’s impacting the availability of labor.
But how would anyone know how a town should be laid out? One person might like the layout, but another might not. Who can gauge the number of subjects that the university should teach? Isn’t that just a matter of preference for university administrators, and unrelated to culture? And the same for workday length and food prices. Some people might find them suitable and others might not, but what does that have to do with family needs or the availability of workers?
The argument that will be focused upon herein is based upon the fourth explanation—that indeed our systems, structure, and institutions are failing in their objectives because they aren’t well designed for existing conditions. Further, a hypothesis will be presented. The hypothesis is that these complicated systems, structures, and institutions have real functions and processes that are patterned. This means their functions and processes are not arbitrary, and not random; nor are they based upon whimsical opinions, or upon what any of us happens to want.
Thus, the town’s layout might be interfering with the community, even if everyone in town “is used to” the layout. The university might be stifling the culture without intending to do so at all. The workday length might be causing financial stresses, even if everyone has agreed to the same schedules. And yes, perhaps food prices are affecting worker availability, even if nobody is aware of the connection.
More than anything, this project is an attempt to help people make these connections, and to help them understand why their systems, structures, and institutions are producing the results that they are.