Solving democracy through complex systems

The United States of America is a broken country. Our dreams have been bent, tarnished, and mis-handled so often and for so long that we — the 300 million people who call it our home — have nearly forgotten what it means to live here. The government has gotten us so used to expecting solutions that we’ve nearly forgotten how to create our own. At the same time, we’re not really sure what the problems are that need solving. We know, though, that there are problems. Though nobody has a single solution; though there is no panacea or magic elixir; there is a way to approach what’s wrong: a method born out of complex systems analysis.

The following is a sketch of an idea I’ve been toying with since October, 2007. I’m sharing it in it’s draft form here for two reasons: 1) to get the idea into the ether because it’s something on which we all need to work and 2) to elicit your feedback. this document (PDF) charts out the idea, and the following few paragraphs are an attempt to get at the crux of the thing.

Complex problems require the ability for all involved in their solution to be able to think clearly, logically, intuitively, and critically. As society becomes more complex and our interactions with each other and our environment become that much more complicated, we need to be able to understand how our decisions and actions ripple out into the rest of the world.

To that end, the architects of our government intended that it be structured as a reverse hierarchy. In other words, the power moved from the people to the leaders and not the other way around. In order for it to work, the people — us — themselves must tackle the more complex issues in society: starvation, health care access, abortion, housing, crime. The proxies — elected officials — should only be allowed to address issues of a complexity relatively smaller: printing money, international relations, etc.

Current trends in education, government, and other aspects of this country seem to indicate a general dumbing down of the populace, however. This dumbing down is having the effect of giving our proxies more power than originally intended and subverting our Democratic Republic into something more akin to a modern-day corporation where strata are clearly defined. If the populace is dumb, it can’t make complex decisions.

In other words, by removing the complexity from our lives, by avoiding the difficult decisions at the state, county, and town level we are turning our reverse hierarchy upside down. By definition, a hierarchy only works if the people at the bottom deal with the easy stuff. If we’re dealing with easy stuff, then we’re at the bottom.

In other words, in order to fix what we all feel is wrong with our country, we have to do it ourselves. This is an Existential world, and there is no one to save us. No superheroes or omniscient politicians. In order to save ourselves, though, we need to be smart, savvy, calm, decisive, and willing to devote ourselves to the cause framed by our founders in the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution. The foundation is there, we just need need to build upon it.

I need your comments and ideas on this. If it’s a thing, it’s not my thing. It’s our thing. Thoughts? Concerns?

2 Replies to “Solving democracy through complex systems”

  1. You have to come by and read my blog. I take a systems view of things — politics, economics, society, etc. Bottom-up, not top-down. Or, to be more accurate, bottom-up must precede and take precedence over top-down, and must always act as the foundation of the system.

  2. I’m still thinking most of this through, but as soon as you showed me these diagrams this evening, I wanted to question your apparent assumption that all societies are hierarchical.

    D’accord — on y va.

    In school, I took a course with anthropologist Pierre-Yves Jacopin that left a strong impression on me. Professor Jacopin’s specialty was the study of small-scale egalitarian societies. He’d studied with both Claude Levy-Strauss and Jean Piaget, thus getting in on the first, if not the ground, floor of Structuralism – so that’s a context in which to place him, if that’s helpful. For his doctorate, Jacopin spent 10 years in the Amazon studying a tribe called the Yukuna.

    I’ll stop here to beg your forgiveness — and Professor Jacopin’s — if I’ve not remembered what follows correctly. It was many years ago that I took his class.

    At any rate, I remember that Jacopin asserted that the Yukuna constituted an egalitarian society because “They have division of task, but not division of labor.” I questioned him further, and he explained that it was not that no one was in charge, but rather that hierarchy in the community was temporary: when certain needs arose, the community reorganized itself around those who had the skills to address them. I pressed him further, and he allowed that, yes, they did have someone in the role as “chief” or “president” or “le grand fromage” — as you’d have it — but again he maintained that being the chief was simply a skill, and one that also diminished in importance as soon as a community need which no longer needed “chief-i-ness” (certainly not his word!) arose.

    I’ve also recently encountered this model of organization again, as described by ethnographer/folklorist Henry Glassie, in his book Material Culture (1999). Talking about the process of building a house in the small community of Ballymenone in Northern Ireland:

    “During interaction, people are assigned roles — in one moment obliged to follow, in another obliged to lead. While the walls of his house are rising, Paddy McBrien is one of the crew, a follower. But when the storm clouds gather and the hay lies on the spread, Paddy, renowned as an agricultural expert, steps into the lead. His neighbors submit to his direction and form a single force.” (p. 252)

    I’m wondering first, what you think of the validity of the model I’m offering. If you do find it interesting, how might you go about mapping it? You have allowed for “lateral ties/power with” relationships in your diagram, but you’ve got no method of representing the temporality inherent in my model. Perhaps, normalizing over time, you’d consider this organization to be a bit more akin to the one you’re proposing…though I do wonder about size as a factor.

    So, with regard to size, “small” for Jacopin meant a number between 30 and 120 members, roughly. Also, note that “societies” meant for him a unique linguistic group with its own customs and rituals.

    Also, Ballymenone — where Glassie’s field work was conducted – is in County Fermanagh, and in quick Googling, I found 1991 population figures for the county: 50,250 within 656 sq mi (see the entry for Fermanagh in the Questia Free Encyclopedia). So, not what you’d call a dense population. A review of Glassie’s initial book on the his work in Ballymenone claims that the actual community Glassie studied included 129 people in 42 households…

    So…size…I’m back to that quote I can’t source about democracies being effective for societies small enough that they could all sit with their back around one tree…which doesn’t quite describe the Yukuna or Ballymenone…

    Alright – those are my first thoughts. Now I guess I’d better go read the rest of what you’ve written…

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