Friday, October 26, 2012

government as a design problem

trying to work on a paper revision due sooner and sooner, but i keep thinking about politics. of course, it is The Time to think about politics, but i wish i could escape it.

anyways, here's what i've been thinking, a tiny idea:

from the institution of a new state or government, for a time, it is reasonable to expect the government to grow and acquire new features. this is just because upon its institution, the government must be incomplete or flawed. virtually nothing complex can approach perfection, especially in its first design.

however, at some point, we might consider the institution - or, and here's the real idea, a given version of the institution - to be complete. that is, we have this complex structure, with many parts and many layers and many functions, and it is intended to accomplish many things under particular constraints. presumably, changes made to this structure over time are intended to fulfill these intentions. we could think of this as efficiency, i.e., how much of what the system is meant to do is it actually doing? this is a funny idea, since it implies that if the system exceeds its mandate, it is being overly efficient. i will get back to this in a moment.

the idea is that a version of the institution can be considered complete, in that a time will come when it's clear to everyone that no changes, or only basic maintenance changes, are necessary to meet the objectives of the system; or, it might be decided that the objectives are outdated, and that new objectives have arisen, and that a new system needs to be designed to replace the old one. have we ever reached that point with the american federal government? i think maybe we have, and it was a long time ago: pre-civil war, really. in the 1850s, the federal government wasn't really creating many new responsibilities for itself, and was instead preoccupied with its intended functions of maintaining relations between the states, applying tariffs in international trade, occupying new territories that would eventually become states, etc. i think this is the tail end of what historians refer to as the "second party system": FED2.0. FED2.0 was rolled out in the 1830s, had some successes early on, and then crashed and burned.

it was around the time of the civil war that the government basically went through a big redesign, acquiring new responsibilities which then required new features to be fulfilled. this was the "third party system" that lasted until the 1890s, when it was replaced with FED4.0, which lasted until the great depression. versions 3 and 4, i think, are not really considered to be very good versions (and probably could be collapsed into subversions of FED3), while a lot of people are clearly very nostalgic for versions 1.0 and maybe 2.0 (and might see those as subversions of FED1).

in the 1930s, the government went through a huge redesign: FED5.0; the end of the 1960s saw a big advance on this (FED5.1), and now we're probably at version 5.3 or 5.4. version 5 is the longest-lived political system that the US has had (or similar with FED3/4). clearly, i think, it's time for a redesign. at this point, the two parties are just concerned with adding, subtracting, or modifying features, with a strong tendency towards addition (the 'ratchet effect' or 'featuritis'). i think that a lot of people thought that with o* and the d*s, after the 2008 election, we would be moving on to a new version 6; a lot of people thought that in 2004 with b* and the r*s. neither succeeded; i don't think that either really succeeded in moving a new subversion, either: we're stuck in beta, at 5.3.2 or something like that.

so, back to 'excess efficiency'. what is that? it's not what it sounds like. when a system isn't quite fulfilling its promised aims, if it wants to preserve itself (consider that institutions don't want to die), it might throw up new proxy aims. it can them give the illusion of accomplishment or fulfillment by moving to meet those new aims, thus obscuring the fact that the old aims aren't exactly complete; or, that they're no longer valid, and that the system thus is working to fulfill aims that no longer exist. i.e., excess efficiency is a sign that a system is desperate and needs to be replaced.

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