The Systems Approach to Governance Quandaries
I’ve been working on a hundred million things lately, so I haven’t even been reading OT as much as I would like, let alone writing.
But a recent thread over at Hit Coffee which was referenced here got me thinking about the disconnect I feel when I start talking with ideological folks and I think it’s time that I put this down in print, so here it goes.
Warning: we’re gonna get all meta.
Also warning: this is about as close to stream of consciousness writing as I get, so read the whole thing before you let your brain decide what I’m writing about.
When it comes to complex systems that involve human beings, most folks have a tendency to view the system from their own standpoint and their own perspective within the system.
Ultimately, this is how almost everyone looks at the government; as either a piece of the thing itself, or as an entity outside the thing that gets tromped on by it, or as an entity outside the thing that gets helped by it.
Since folks usually encapsulate “the system” implicitly, rather than explicitly, the conversation can get very muddied… because one person’s viewpoint of the system doesn’t even necessarily contain all the same parts that someone else has in their viewpoint of the system.
Sometimes the citizen is a part of the system. Sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes we’re talking about government and private interests as if they’re two entirely different and disjoined systems. Sometimes we’re talking about problems as if they’re inherent in one system but they wouldn’t be in some alternative reality.
A big case in point that happened to come up in those threads: the idea, often held by libertarians, that one of the issues with “the government” is that “the government” is regarded as having a legitimate monopoly on violence.
This played out in the comment threads like this:
Well, technically, no entity can simply show up and shoot you over any unpaid anything.
What the government CAN do, is to issue a fine to you. Then when you don’t pay it, issue a warrant for your arrest, and if you resist, shoot you.
A private entity on the other hand, has to sue you. Then get a judgment against you. Then when you don’t pay, the government issues a lien and force a sale. Then when you refuse to move out, send a SWAT team to shoot you.
I don’t know why this idea still has any currency that somehow private power is enfeebled and lacks the violent power of the state.
To which MRS (aka Oscar Gordon) replied:
This, right here, is my safety check. The private entity has to sue, and I have a chance to stop them right there, as well as the opportunity to hit back for legal fees if they’ve really over-stepped.
When the state takes me to court over the fine, I’m already in a criminal trial, where failure is hefty fines and/or my freedom. Also, this assumes that the state does not choose to secure my participation in the criminal proceedings with a SWAT team (which then throws a grenade into the baby’s crib).
To which LWA responded:
And a municipality must ostensibly follow due process as well. So throwing grenades into baby cribs is unpossible.
There is this attempt being made in these sorts of arguments to pit one system against another- public v private, individual v communal.
But this ignores the fact that systems are just words on paper- how they are enforced is ultimately the question.
There isn’t anything about our laws that would suggest that black people would be harmed more than whites. but they obviously are. There isn’t anything that suggests that large private powers enjoy near-immunity from the law, but they obviously do.
The conversation devolved into a discussion of Blackwater and Comcast, but LWA’s final point was:
In your lived experience, I’m sure that’s true. But private employers can, and do, use violence against their employees, landowners against tenants, and only the strong arm of the nanny state (sometimes) prevents it.
See, for you and me and most of the people on this blog, the concept of a private entity using violence against us- white, educated, middle class people- is unthinkable.
Yet for many people, it is the norm, a fact of everyday life.
From a complex adaptive systems perspective: LWA is… mostly… right. The border between “government” and “private actors” is very, very fuzzy. It’s not quite cricket to claim that “the government” has a monopoly on force that “private actors” don’t have… for two reasons.
First, because this assumes that we can draw a big line between one thing and the other, and we can’t really do that without injecting an awful lot of arbitrariness into how we’re analyzing the situation. That arbitrariness will often align with our own biases more than anything else.
Second, because the pathways to power in complex adaptive systems are very often not uniformly accessible by individual agents in that system. O.J. Simpson had a different path through the judicial system than the staggering majority of African-American men. So did Cliven Bundy.
Finally, because it often assumes that something that is a necessary condition of human nature is in fact a necessary condition of the system in question. The question of “legitimate force” carries a lot of this sub-context. The problem with this conversation is that “force” isn’t going away, and “legitimizing force” isn’t going away either, so the question is, if we get rid of the government’s use of force, where does the use of force *go*? And the answer is, nowhere. It sticks around. The people who had privileged access to state use of force (or disadvantaged protection from state use of force) are unsurprisingly going to be overwhelmingly correlated with the same folks who will have privileged access to private use of force or disadvantaged protection from private use of force.
Let’s assume for a second that a libertarian anarchic utopia is where we were at, right now, today… instead of what we have now. So there’s no more “government”, no more entity that has a “legitimate monopoly on violence”.
Does anybody think that there will be no disputes that don’t result in violence?
Framework foundations contribute further to the lack of progress in discussion, because ideology contributes not only in how we discuss the thing, but how we think about it in the first place.
How you react to an incidence where someone is discussing a particular state of the system depends quite a bit on whether or not you embrace your viewpoint before analyzing the discussion. This has a pretty noticeable effect on what takeaways you take away… not to mention how you regard the whole conversation in the first place.
Tod made a couple of comments that make me think he’s savvy to the complexities of the ideology problem and how it colors the resulting conversation. I already thought this, but linking to them for illustration purposes:
I keep going back the post here that I thought was most parallel to Jon’s original, which is my own on my issues with AT&T doing the same to me — all legal and following the rules. The vast difference in responses to each has been interesting to me, and I’m trying to tease out why they are so disparate.
Here Tod’s noticed that his post got a different response – in tone – than Jon’s did.
He’s right. Not because the situations they were talking about were really all that substantively different… but because Tod’s voice and Jon’s voice aren’t heard the same way by the same group of people.
So there’s that whole wrinkle. How we talk about these things suffers inherently both from an inability of all of us to use a common language, and from an inability for us to talk to each other absent our own relationships with each other, as people.
Anyway, that’s a lot of interesting chaff. Let’s get down to the wheat. Tod again:
I have noticed over time that one’s political stripes allow one to forgive or make excuses for one kind of terrible organization (government or corporation) but not the other.
For me, what happened with my city’s bureaucrats and what happened when I was overcharged by many hundreds of dollars by AT&T and couldn’t get them to reverse the charges aren’t really different. Both are simply just part of what happens when organizations get so large that there can be a complete disconnect between the people the organization is set up to serve (citizens/customers) and the people in charge of various parts of the mechanisms set up to serve them.
We need to stop dancing around our favorite maypoles without realizing that the maypoles are fairly polymorphic.
The ultimate reason why I started thinking about this post actually wasn’t from an interaction here at OT, it was from a Facebook conversation. Among the raft of laws recently signed into the books here in the State of California, Jerry Brown signed a law that prohibits homeowner’s associations from passing bans on clotheslines. This isn’t the first time J.B. has come down on the HOA, either. A libertarian-leaning ex-OTer observed that this was two things he disagreed with interacting with each other: private organizational overreach and state government overreach. It’s a bug of governance, not a feature. They are both wrong. The outcome was okay, but the whole process was broken.
I don’t look at it that way, myself, because I don’t see “private organizational overreach” and “state government overreach” as notably different things. Like Tod, above, I see differing organizational power structures competing with other power structures for outcomes. And given that any organizational structure, like an HOA, is going to have exception scenarios baked into its formal structure… ways that power can be aggregated in the hands of a few and used in a case of overreach… having competing power structures that can fight these sorts of fights actually is a feature, not a bug. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes it does.
(image credit: Wikimedia Commons)