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Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Top-Down Trap

Magister
Image found at Student History
I've just listened to an interesting November 2009 interview with energy/economic prophet Jay Hanson (Reality Report: Interview with Jay Hanson with Jason Bradford.) It's quite a tour-de-force of the sort of holistic systems thinking that leads exceptional people to climb out of the box of conventional thinking. Aside from the commentary on the insanity of growth-based economic activity (read: Capitalism) and energy resource limitations, the interview is worth listening to for an excellent review of some of the evolutionary-driven biological imperatives that contribute to the current, multiple, crises that we all face today.

The only critique I can offer on Mr. Hanson's comprehension on these matters is that he pretty much has it nailed, by my lights. This was in November 2008, and nothing has arisen since then that contradicts his views.

I would like, however, to focus on a prescription offered by Mr. Hanson - specifically, that scientists and engineers take up the mantle of organizing society, as the world is too "complex" to be understood by a politically democratic arrangement.

In all fairness to Mr. Hanson, he was quite clear that this was basically spit-balling, and one doesn't get the impression that he was lobbying for such an outcome. First of all, he rightfully acknowledged that the biological habits we have incurred over our evolutionary journey inflict these folks as well, so he caveats that this "class" of folks would first have to overcome those as well. Secondly, as Bradford pointed out in the "debriefing" at the end, Hanson was pushed to come up with something of a suggestion for a way forward, given the apocalyptic pessimism of his analysis.

I have no idea if, or in what direction, Mr. Hanson's prescriptive views have evolved - you can go to his site to figure that out if you are so inclined. I'd like to decouple from the gentleman at this point, since this is not a criticism of his views, but a meditation on the inclination all of us seem to have, in general, to fall into "The Top-Down Trap" when looking for solutions to problems.

It should be clear to anyone who reads this blog that I abhor hierarchical social arrangements (a corollary to this is that I am one miserable SOB, given that this is the predominant model by which we arrange ourselves.) But why? My personal discomfort with hierarchy must have some sound basis, otherwise it is merely indicative of an anti-social eccentricity. Think what you must but, please, read on.

As a thought experiment, what is the psychological difference, to a population, between an elected political class versus, say, one selected (and replaced) by lottery, in the Athenian style?

Leaving competence issues aside*, I would answer: Agenda, and the suspicion (perception) of agenda. The second-guessing of agenda has an enormous social frictional loss. When a population, or segments of a population, are suspicious of the motives of those charged with a task, a great deal of energy is burned up both in impeachment and in attempts at countering those suspicions.

Suspicion of another's "real" motives is directly proportional to one's distance from the other. An engaged population with transparency and trust is not only more efficient at problem-solving, it is a decidedly more pleasant environment.

It is natural for we social primates to constantly second-guess those around us, and great care is taken to minimize the distance between family and tribal members in order to prevent social chaos. Hierarchical systems increase the distance, and the defense of hierarchical arrangements - which are necessary as trust dissipates - also creates wasteful frictional loss.

To illustrate how crazy we can be with our unfounded suspicions, consider only the case of Christopher Hitchens and his awesome polemic The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Here we have distance, to put it mildly (the psychological overlap between a hard-drinking pontificator and a tenderer to lepers would be rather slim, I would say.) In Theresa's work, what looms large in Hitchens' mind is a side-effect of her fund-raising activities, namely giving a sheen of respectability to despicable dictators. Without going into the merits of his arguments, one can see that the thesis reveals more about Hitchens than it does about Mother Theresa. If the two of them were of the same polity, one can easily see the unnecessary friction in resolving their disconnect.**

To bring this back around - no matter how sincere and committed a "special class" of persons are to good works, the fact that they are separated from the general population guarantees that their agenda will be second-guessed, and enough friction will ensue to ensure that "good works" will be frustrated.

Successful social organization requires trust and transparency. "Consent of the governed" is the unfortunate term we use to illustrate this principle in our current system. This, in turn, requires that a population have an understanding of the issues, openly discussed, and just as importantly, a trust that general welfare is the objective, and not some Trojan horse of an idea, championed by a special interest.

There are no shortcuts, and the hierarchical arrangements that are so common today are attempts at such a shortcut.


*Competence or expertise in leadership and policy is a can of worms I'm not cracking open here. Suffice to say that I think it is overrated, and that a corrosive side-effect of closed-rank expertise is the loss of transparency and trust. Not that that's a problem these days.

**For what it's worth, Hitchens' circumstantial take-down of Theresa is a fascinating endeavor. Is he right? I can't know, but the work strikes me as the Peggy Noonan school of thought: "Is it irresponsible to speculate? It would be irresponsible not to."

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