Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Is Bigger Really Better?" Part 2

As I pointed out in my last blog entry, we now live in a world dominated by large, complex, impersonal, and ineffective social institutions: corporations, schools, hospitals, and a variety of governmental entities. At the moment we're just now beginning to realize that governmental entities such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are in dire need of reform. The U.S. military has been on a functional losing streak here recently, despite the fact that we spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined. Interestingly, we rarely conclude that these entities are just too large and complex to be functional. Instead, we vacuously argue that all they really need is a little reform; that is, we believe that we need new and more effective rules and/or more intelligent, dedicated, monitors and enforcers. However, when we look large-scale exemplars of functionality that might serve as a models for other large institutions, we find ourselves at a loss. My point here is that we've all been blinded to large scale dysfunctionality by an ideology that tells us, repeatedly, that "bigger is better," despite an enormous body of evidence to the contrary.
So how has most of Western civilization been infected by an ideological disease that has led to our prevailing epidemic of institutional dysfunctionality? Much of it can be explained by human nature. The fact is that human beings have an uncanny ability to "identify" with groups. Throughout most of human history we identified with small groups: families, clans, and tribes. The agricultural revolution led to the formation of much larger groups (cities, empires, and nations) that were held together not by face-to-face personal relationships but by the imposition of abstract rules and laws. The belief in the sanctity of laws led to a corresponding belief in the sanctity of lawmakers. In fact, many large-scale rulers still rule by "Divine Right." Today, we still teach our children to "respect" leaders, especially their parents, teachers, religious leaders, and government officials. This demand for respect for formal authority was "backed up" by systems of monitoring and enforcement. As the number of formal rules increased, so did the number of monitors and enforcers. And of course, those "bureaucrats" really do not produce anything of value, but nevertheless draw paychecks. In fact, not only do they draw paychecks, they now draw heftier paychecks than those who actually produce something of value. Thus, today we have a growing number of highly-paid bureaucrats and a dwindling number of lowly-paid producers. Ironically, under this cultural anamoly, when we get "promoted" it usually means that we take on more "responsibility" in terms of monitoring and enforcement, but produce less value.

Now let's be honest! This is not a mere cultural anamoly, it's a full blown epidemic. Today we're faced with the realization that our lives are shaped by more rules and laws than we can possibly know, and more monitors and enforcers than we can afford to pay. And of course, as the number monitors and enforcers increase, the number of innovators declines proportionately. Unquestioned rule compliance, therefore,  invariably leads to a stagnant society of obedient followers led by non-substantive, ineffective, inefficient leaders. Although, I blame the "bigger is better" ideology for our current epidemic of dysfunctionality, we must ultimately blame ourselves for believing it.

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