A civilisation of broken feedbacks generates expanding social dysfunction: I
Quick side comment about Jane Jacobs - you unintentionally defame her as being an economist. [Says the fellow with an undergrad degree in the subject.] And her book The Nature of Economies is probably the best introduction to economics I've ever read. I think precisely because she doesn't hew to the standard discourse (from left or right) on the foundation of economics, but instead roots it in a naturalistic view. Much as she did with demolishing urban theory. She was a dilettante in both fields, naïve to the jargon and conceits, but brilliantly observant; thus she tends to be rejected by the priests in both. When you stress the social as emergent from the biological, you are working the same vein she did. She was an absolutely natural intellectual, a la Hoffer, not a product of credentialing.
Trenchant diagnosis. I find the essays increasingly compelling with each addition. Please keep them coming. And get that book published!
1) Thank you for bringing Walter Kirn to my attention. Have not read your Palladium reference yet, but it looks interesting. And how can anyone looking at his list of dysfunctional results (as presented above) not be able to win an argument to favor reality over cognitive dissonance and discombobulation?!
2) Your Note 3 caught my eye for some reason: "Purchase of positions seems obviously dysfunctional to us, but was a relatively information-efficient way of matching capacity to perform an office via willingness to purchase it (Allen, 2012)." Can you amplify on that? One part of me says someone who managed to obtain and retain wealth from their estate (even if on the backs of serfs and vassals) probably has some managerial skills worthy of a position of responsibility. If someone says to himself "I am pretty good with numbers and accounting to run this estate, so I can run the Exchequer" there may be validity in that view. But if there is really a power behind the throne, such as a spouse or effective estate manager, actually making things work, then his ego is probably bigger than his capacity. Do we moderns tend to reject the idea of purchasing positions as a decline in character, or thinking that capacity or expertise in one area does not automatically translate into abilities in other areas. From a free speech standpoint, we accept the work of lobbyists and promoters of various kinds, although we remain unhappy that excessive wealth can lead to power and influence violating "one man, one vote", distorting the representative aspects of republican governments.
3) Is there some element of management theory that addresses the optimal size for a management team or group, beyond which it begins to fall apart? I am thinking that the US military now has 300+ general officers, while I suppose we had maybe a few dozen during WWII, with a much bigger manpower and development/procurement responsibility. Some of that must reflect "grade inflation", similar to the bank teller being a deputy assistant executive vice president at the bank. And the Church managed to get by with 5 levels of hierarchy for centuries (even if now there may be a largish Vatican bureaucracy of cardinals and priests we see glimmers of but not the whole picture).
So those of us struggling along in education are doubly screwed because our state overlords are both bureaucrats and academics. That would explain bloated administrations churning out "blueprint" after "mission statement" after "brief" saying all the same things in revolving jargon. Such a waste!
Another excellent bit of clarity - thanks again. Filtering through the many sharp points and apt descriptions of currents in play, I find myself matching personal experience point-by-point. FWIW my below-the-radar existence seems to square up consistently, so you’ re providing a valuable reality check and passing the tests. I’m a high school teacher in Los Angeles and the bits about burgeoning bureaucratization ring true.
Lorenzo, can you write more on effective non-meritocratic selection systems? Or have you written on this already?
"This effect is increased when bureaucratisation increases the number of people who do not bear the costs of their decisions, which increases the salience of self-referential status and social-leverage plays."
Thomas Sowell has an appropriate observation:
"It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong."
The U.S. military has reached out to the people they forced out for refusing the COVID vaccination to try to pull them back in. You can rest assured without the slightest hint of error on behalf of the brass that pushed them out, or that there was really anything wrong in how those folks were treated. There is hubris and then there is bureaucracy.
To summarize: Meritocracy isn’t necessary for a polity to work. Patronage and purchase will suffice as long as character is valued and effective feedback loops are established and maintained. Meritocracy works, but only if character is included in the definition of meritocracy. Bureaucratization overwhelms functional systems, destroys feedback systems, and drives out or neuters merit. If bureaucratization is cloaked with the mantle of equity and social justice it is more destructive and harder to counter.
In essay 19, “Diversity Inclusion Equity as bureaucratic pathology,” you observed that a problem with bureaucracies is that they tend to focus on tasks and processes rather than on goals and outcomes. But the more they reject merit in favor of irrelevant external appearance, the more they will *have* to rely on tasks and processes.
When employees don’t understand - and, more importantly, don’t care enough to even try to understand - the reasoning behind their organization’s tasks and processes, then the best that can be hoped for is that they’re at least capable of following a set of step-by-step rules.
An intelligent, motivated employee, after learning how the business works and the goals behind the tasks, will be able to intelligently apply the rules and adjust them according to circumstances. But the last thing we want is an unintelligent, unmotivated drone adjusting the rules. Therefore, any vestiges of initiative must be thoroughly eradicated from such a workforce.
Customers, struggling with an AI-generated voice at the other end of the phone line, often quickly ask for a representative. Dealing with an unintelligent robot mindlessly following an if-then script and leading callers in circles is maddening. So, we’ll know we’re in trouble when customers start preferring the mindless robot to the human representatives.
".... All [bureaucracies] are led by decision-makers who do not bear the costs of their decisions." You might add that they also have a vested interest in expanding their empires.
Meritocracy!!?! Pshaw. Pshaw, I say. More like smerticocracy amirite? You know I’m right. The guy in the back, he knows!