Changes in the social institutional and technological landscape ripple through the system, demanding and facilitating adjustments and modifications throughout, which in turn demand and facilitate adjustments and modifications of their own. Choices we make affecting the framework within which this occurs help determine how robust this process is, what kinds of positive and negative consequences it generates, and in what ways and to what extent it affects the human and natural world.
One recent set of technological innovations has had epoch-making implications. Accelerating developments in Information Technologies (computer and communications technologies combined) have rippled through the economy and culture, changing the way we communicate, seek and disseminate information, access entertainments (and the entertainments available), and even conceptualize the nature of reality (with complex dynamical systems analysis, a child of computerized mathematical modeling techniques, transforming several of our underlying scientific paradigms).
These developments have partially displaced and challenged the viability of newspapers and the postal service, vastly increased the liquidity and volatility of financial markets, vastly increased the robustness and diffusion of both the flow of information and the unreliable “noise” that accompanies it, and has become an indispensable tool in virtually every economic, academic, professional, and technological human endeavor.
Other examples abound. The invention of the internal combustion engine led to an enormous demand for oil, which turned the Middle East into a region of vital geopolitical significance, and led to a vastly increased rate of environmental contamination and destabilizing climate change. The invention of the airplane led to the development of a widespread rapid global transportation system, and transformations in warfare, economics, and epidemiology.
Even slight modifications can have rippling consequences. Improvements in the thrust of jet engines, for instance, have necessitated improvements in the strength and heat resistance of composite materials (both giving rise to a demand for their creation and providing new engineering opportunities elsewhere, which gave rise in turn to other systemic demands and opportunities). These together made larger jet airliners both technologically and economically feasible, resulting in new demands on airport designs, requiring more space and creating new challenges for municipal governments seeking to establish international airports, all in turn merging into a vibrant international air traffic system.
Not only technological, but also social institutional innovations have similar effects. The invention of currency, for instance, freed markets from the necessity of a double coincidence of bilateral wants imposed by a barter system. (In a barter system, two people each must have something that the other wants more than they want what they already have, whereas currency allows an unlimited ongoing multilateral exchange via a medium that stores and transports value in the abstract). The consequences of this social institutional innovation have been enormous.
The establishment of the American Political system, codified in the American Constitution, drawing on and marginally refining existing forms and emerging ideas, is another example of a highly consequential set of social institutional innovations. It has proven to be a highly robust general model, not just in the United States but around the world. And it too unleashed myriad complex, rippling, unforeseen and unforeseeable dynamics.
Governments have always been vital agents in these processes. From the great architectural monuments of ancient history (e.g., the pyramids and the Great Wall of China) to our most robust modern technologies (e.g., computers, and myriad technologies emanating from space exploration), governments have been uniquely situated to mobilize massive resources in concentrated purposive endeavors that could not have otherwise been accomplished.
Not all such endeavors have necessarily served human welfare, and not all government functions that do are necessarily massive in scale. But the vital role of governments as concentrations of human organizational action for purposes other than profit or cultural expression is undeniable. The challenge is to free ourselves from the stiflingly non-productive debate over whether government has a vital role to play in the human endeavor, and focus our energies instead on the meaningful and multi-faceted question of what precisely that role is.
The answer lies, of course, in understanding the nature of the social systems within which it is embedded, and how the tandem processes of social institutional and technological evolution can most effectively be simultaneously invigorated and channeled by collective decision-making via the instrument of government. To do so, we face several interrelated challenges, some in tension with one another. At a bare minimum, we must liberate and lubricate the processes by which innovation and its rippling effects occur, while catching and mitigating negative effects (i.e., effects ultimately destructive to human welfare).
Despite the conservative myth that government is in general an impediment to economic growth, the exact opposite is true (and has been proven true repeatedly by historical experience). The obsessive ideological commitment to starve and shrink government is the true impediment to economic growth. This is so because it creates a bottleneck in the system, decreasing the fluidity with which innovations ripple through the social institutional field by eliminating our ability consciously to adapt to them, to facilitate and channel them. It impedes the development of human and material infrastructure which has played such a vital role in the astronomical acceleration in the production of wealth that characterizes the modern era.
Moreover, it forces an unconsciousness onto these robust, highly consequential, constant and constantly accelerating transformations rippling through our social institutional landscape. It relies on an empirically discredited certainty that these transformations automatically always serve human welfare as long as we close our collective eyes tightly enough. It relies on a set of idolatries (see “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry) rather than on living minds taking on living responsibilities, within a legal and political framework that has developed from the Constitution, and faithful to the Constitution. It eschews the responsibility that comes with freedom and self-governance, the responsibility of thinking, and understanding, and acting in a world that poses constant challenges to those who exist within it, and cannot simply be relegated to blind ideologies and false certainties posing as patriotism.
Social institutional and technological evolution occurs not only through chain reactions of adaptations and innovations rippling through our social system, but also through our own collective adaptations to it. Coordination of efforts and imposition of consciousness and foresight upon them have always been vital, if insufficiently employed, ingredients. Government is nothing more or less than one such organizational overlay of human consciousness on these processes, providing one more vehicle to harness and channel the dynamo that we have created, and that has created us.
As I’ve often said, the agency problems involved, that form the basis of the ideological rejection of government, are both real and normal, common to all principal-agent relationships, though such relationships are a vital and robust aspect of modern social organization. The principal-agent relationtionship between a polity and their government, along with the diverse interests and beliefs of the principal, and the uneven distribution of resources with which factions within the principal can influence the agent, form part of the complexity of the challenge of using government to maximum advantage. They do not mean that government is any more problematic than any other social insitutional arrangement, however, since all such arrangements have similar or analogous problems embedded in them.
It’s time to stop wasting our human cognitive resources on the enervating debate over whether this organizational overlay called “government” is “good” or “bad,” and instead focus on the more meaningful question of how best to use it.