11 November 2006

Rethinking Government

Our founding fathers were Enlightenment thinkers, heavily influenced by the philosopher John Locke who was, in turn, heavily influenced by Rene Descartes. Descartes might have been the first to define analytic thought, advising one to break seemingly intractable problems into smaller pieces that could be more readily understood before aggregating those insights into a whole. Descartes believed that if parts of a problem could be understood, the whole problem could be understood. Adam Smith believed that if each individual did what was best for him or her economically, the whole community would be taken care of. Our founding fathers believed that if each representative did what was best for his district that the whole country would be taken care of. Descartes' analysis was the foundational worldview onto which rested the construction of capitalism and democracy.

As it turns out, the analytic approach is not always best. Since Descartes, we've had a variety of thinkers who have shown us that understanding of the pieces is not always an effective means to understand the whole. You can know all about the gases hydrogen and oxygen and not predict that in combination they'd form a fluid with radically different properties. Systems thinking, or synthesis, points to how emergent phenomenon can define a thing far more than analysis of its parts would reveal. Keynes invented macroeconomics, basically pointing out that in a Depression what might make perfect sense to each individual would actually be awful for the overall economy. When sales are low, businesses are not going to invest. When they don't invest they can't hire. When they don't hire, households lose income. When households lose income, they can't buy. When households don't buy, sales are low and businesses are not going to invest. What makes sense for each part of the economy makes no sense for the overall economy.

Descartes first changed thinking about thinking. Adam Smith changed thinking about economics, and our founding fathers changed thinking about government, both basing their perspective on Descartes' analytic thought.

Systems thinkers have again changed our thinking about thinking. John Maynard Keynes has changed our thinking about economics. As yet, we've had no parallel change in government based on systems thinking. Perhaps its time to think about how we'd do that. Perhaps the task should begin with thinking about how we'd design Congress to encourage its members to care more about the country than their own district.

1 comment:

Daryl said...

Of course, you know that people can analytically think about systems.