The Systems Approach to Governance Quandaries

I’ve been working on a hundred million things lately, so I haven’t even been reading OT as much as I would like, let alone writing.

But a recent thread over at Hit Coffee which was referenced here got me thinking about the disconnect I feel when I start talking with ideological folks and I think it’s time that I put this down in print, so here it goes.

Warning: we’re gonna get all meta.

Also warning: this is about as close to stream of consciousness writing as I get, so read the whole thing before you let your brain decide what I’m writing about.

When it comes to complex systems that involve human beings, most folks have a tendency to view the system from their own standpoint and their own perspective within the system.

Ultimately, this is how almost everyone looks at the government; as either a piece of the thing itself, or as an entity outside the thing that gets tromped on by it, or as an entity outside the thing that gets helped by it.

Since folks usually encapsulate “the system” implicitly, rather than explicitly, the conversation can get very muddied… because one person’s viewpoint of the system doesn’t even necessarily contain all the same parts that someone else has in their viewpoint of the system.

Sometimes the citizen is a part of the system. Sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes we’re talking about government and private interests as if they’re two entirely different and disjoined systems. Sometimes we’re talking about problems as if they’re inherent in one system but they wouldn’t be in some alternative reality.

A big case in point that happened to come up in those threads: the idea, often held by libertarians, that one of the issues with “the government” is that “the government” is regarded as having a legitimate monopoly on violence.

This played out in the comment threads like this:

LWA sez:

Well, technically, no entity can simply show up and shoot you over any unpaid anything.

What the government CAN do, is to issue a fine to you. Then when you don’t pay it, issue a warrant for your arrest, and if you resist, shoot you.

A private entity on the other hand, has to sue you. Then get a judgment against you. Then when you don’t pay, the government issues a lien and force a sale. Then when you refuse to move out, send a SWAT team to shoot you.

I don’t know why this idea still has any currency that somehow private power is enfeebled and lacks the violent power of the state.

To which MRS (aka Oscar Gordon) replied:

This, right here, is my safety check. The private entity has to sue, and I have a chance to stop them right there, as well as the opportunity to hit back for legal fees if they’ve really over-stepped.

When the state takes me to court over the fine, I’m already in a criminal trial, where failure is hefty fines and/or my freedom. Also, this assumes that the state does not choose to secure my participation in the criminal proceedings with a SWAT team (which then throws a grenade into the baby’s crib).

To which LWA responded:

And a municipality must ostensibly follow due process as well. So throwing grenades into baby cribs is unpossible.

There is this attempt being made in these sorts of arguments to pit one system against another- public v private, individual v communal.

But this ignores the fact that systems are just words on paper- how they are enforced is ultimately the question.

There isn’t anything about our laws that would suggest that black people would be harmed more than whites. but they obviously are. There isn’t anything that suggests that large private powers enjoy near-immunity from the law, but they obviously do.

The conversation devolved into a discussion of Blackwater and Comcast, but LWA’s final point was:

In your lived experience, I’m sure that’s true. But private employers can, and do, use violence against their employees, landowners against tenants, and only the strong arm of the nanny state (sometimes) prevents it.

See, for you and me and most of the people on this blog, the concept of a private entity using violence against us- white, educated, middle class people- is unthinkable.

Yet for many people, it is the norm, a fact of everyday life.

From a complex adaptive systems perspective: LWA is… mostly… right.  The border between “government” and “private actors” is very, very fuzzy.  It’s not quite cricket to claim that “the government” has a monopoly on force that “private actors” don’t have… for two reasons.

First, because this assumes that we can draw a big line between one thing and the other, and we can’t really do that without injecting an awful lot of arbitrariness into how we’re analyzing the situation.  That arbitrariness will often align with our own biases more than anything else.

Second, because the pathways to power in complex adaptive systems are very often not uniformly accessible by individual agents in that system.  O.J. Simpson had a different path through the judicial system than the staggering majority of African-American men.  So did Cliven Bundy.

Finally, because it often assumes that something that is a necessary condition of human nature is in fact a necessary condition of the system in question.  The question of “legitimate force” carries a lot of this sub-context.  The problem with this conversation is that “force” isn’t going away, and “legitimizing force” isn’t going away either, so the question is, if we get rid of the government’s use of force, where does the use of force *go*?  And the answer is, nowhere.  It sticks around.  The people who had privileged access to state use of force (or disadvantaged protection from state use of force) are unsurprisingly going to be overwhelmingly correlated with the same folks who will have privileged access to private use of force or disadvantaged protection from private use of force.

Let’s assume for a second that a libertarian anarchic utopia is where we were at, right now, today… instead of what we have now. So there’s no more “government”, no more entity that has a “legitimate monopoly on violence”.

Does anybody think that there will be no disputes that don’t result in violence?

Framework foundations contribute further to the lack of progress in discussion, because ideology contributes not only in how we discuss the thing, but how we think about it in the first place.

How you react to an incidence where someone is discussing a particular state of the system depends quite a bit on whether or not you embrace your viewpoint before analyzing the discussion. This has a pretty noticeable effect on what takeaways you take away… not to mention how you regard the whole conversation in the first place.

Tod made a couple of comments that make me think he’s savvy to the complexities of the ideology problem and how it colors the resulting conversation.  I already thought this, but linking to them for illustration purposes:

I keep going back the post here that I thought was most parallel to Jon’s original, which is my own on my issues with AT&T doing the same to me — all legal and following the rules. The vast difference in responses to each has been interesting to me, and I’m trying to tease out why they are so disparate.

Here Tod’s noticed that his post got a different response – in tone – than Jon’s did.

He’s right.  Not because the situations they were talking about were really all that substantively different… but because Tod’s voice and Jon’s voice aren’t heard the same way by the same group of people.

So there’s that whole wrinkle.  How we talk about these things suffers inherently both from an inability of all of us to use a common language, and from an inability for us to talk to each other absent our own relationships with each other, as people.

On the Internet, that is, as opposed to talking to each other in person, which complicates matters further.

Anyway, that’s a lot of interesting chaff.  Let’s get down to the wheat.  Tod again:

I have noticed over time that one’s political stripes allow one to forgive or make excuses for one kind of terrible organization (government or corporation) but not the other.


For me, what happened with my city’s bureaucrats and what happened when I was overcharged by many hundreds of dollars by AT&T and couldn’t get them to reverse the charges aren’t really different. Both are simply just part of what happens when organizations get so large that there can be a complete disconnect between the people the organization is set up to serve (citizens/customers) and the people in charge of various parts of the mechanisms set up to serve them.

We need to stop dancing around our favorite maypoles without realizing that the maypoles are fairly polymorphic.

The ultimate reason why I started thinking about this post actually wasn’t from an interaction here at OT, it was from a Facebook conversation.  Among the raft of laws recently signed into the books here in the State of California, Jerry Brown signed a law that prohibits homeowner’s associations from passing bans on clotheslines.  This isn’t the first time J.B. has come down on the HOA, either.  A libertarian-leaning ex-OTer observed that this was two things he disagreed with interacting with each other: private organizational overreach and state government overreach.  It’s a bug of governance, not a feature.  They are both wrong.  The outcome was okay, but the whole process was broken.

I don’t look at it that way, myself, because I don’t see “private organizational overreach” and “state government overreach” as notably different things.  Like Tod, above, I see differing organizational power structures competing with other power structures for outcomes.  And given that any organizational structure, like an HOA, is going to have exception scenarios baked into its formal structure… ways that power can be aggregated in the hands of a few and used in a case of overreach… having competing power structures that can fight these sorts of fights actually is a feature, not a bug.  Sometimes it doesn’t work out.  Sometimes it does.

(image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution. ...more →

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31 thoughts on “The Systems Approach to Governance Quandaries

  1. Firstly, when i start a prog rock band i’m going to name it the Polymorphic Maypoles. Then comes the Alan Dean album cover.

    Secondly i think having competing power structures is really important. There is no always right or good center of power, they all need some sort of check. How to structure those various centers so there are functioning gas and brake pedals is a tricky question though. Process is always messy and imperfect. In fact i doubt there is a consistently correct process to get anywhere. We can hope it ends in a good place, but the nature of people and orgs is that processes get bent and twisted just out of normal operations.

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  2. Good stuff.

    An added wrinkle is that where we stand is not the fixed point we think it is. How we react to new information depends on a myriad of factors, including who we heard the information from, what our friends first say about that information, what our adversaries first think about that information, what we happened to be reading or talking about right before we got that information, and an almost infinite number of other things.

    As I’ve been working with stories and storytellers these past few months, I’ve noticed that the prism through which we label things in our heads is incredibly flexible, arbitrary, and often random. I have been thinking a lot about this, and am sure to botch it trying to put it into words, but it’s kind of like our values don’t change that much, but the perspective of things we look at when using those values does change — often radically. This allows us to hold a large number of opinions in our heads that, outside of a certain arbitrary and oft times faulty framework, are in fact random and incongruent.

    The clearest example I can think of off the top of my head is the current religious freedom debate: How can a person argue one day that the community’s majority’s wishes is the most sacred thing and so building a mosque must be opposed, and argue the next that the individual’s right to oppose the majority is the sacred thing and so something something Kim Davis?

    Standing outside that person’s head, it seems the answer is that the person doesn’t actually really care at all about religious freedom. But I think that’s wrong. I think these two positions are attached to two different events of new information being received, and that each had different internal values attach themselves to them in a way that colored the way that person thought about them. And I think the ways in which those internal values got attached to each new bit of information were largely arbitrary.

    And to be clear, I do not mean to suggest this is a thing limited to people arguing about religious liberty. I think this is a pretty universal and human thing. And even then, we’re not standing in fixed places. Liberal person A might decide that policy X is too permissive when talking with other liberals. But if Conservative person B walks in the room and says policy X is too permissive, liberal person A might likely decide they were wrong, and that it’s not permissive enough. The values don’t change, but the point of view is all over the map.

    And I also recognize that I’m talking off the top of my head here, and what I just said might not make any sense to anyone but me.

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    • I believe I understand what you are referring to, and I would agree on that effect being near-universal. However, the varying strengths of those attachments, taken in the aggregate, as the predominant factor in determinations is something I question.

      If people screw on rainy days, I think there will still be some screwing going on when it’s not raining.

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      • That was a horrible way of saying it. I blame multi-tasking.

        Take Two:

        Though that sort of thing is going on all the time, the instances where it truly decides the outcome are likely very few.
        By these lights.
        Palestine and the West Bank aside, the human brain is a magnificent conflict resolution device.

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    • The difference is It’s Me Doing It.

      And, y’know, that’s not a straight-up unacceptable reason. And maybe that’s what needs to happen, here, is for people to stop insisting that every decision have Hard And Fast Logical Rational Calculated Motivations. That every preference be Firmly Grounded In Rationality, that “I did some utilitarian calculus” always trumps “I don’t like the idea of cage farming”.

      Which is why there’s so much “people shouldn’t follow laws they don’t agree with, except when they clearly should be required to do it!” going on. It’s because everyone wants the moral authority of saying “my arguments come from LOGIC AND REASON, unlike your FEELING-based bullshit”.

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  3. I believe the main difference in the government / private actor divide is that public policy is always concerning groups.
    This distinction melts away somewhat in actual practice, where business entities are concerned.

    I believe such concerns are lessened in polychronic cultures.

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  4. This post along with Jaybird’s reflections on Qatar, demonstrate, how for us Westerners, we are predisposed to think of governance thru the lens of systems and ideology.

    It’s all we have ever known. Since before any of us was born all politics was consumed in the epic battle between competing economic systems , and this seeped into every conceivable dispute, right down to the proper stance towards how to dry your laundry.

    Yet it isn’t this way everywhere, and wasnt like this always.

    For Europeans in the 16th thru 18th centuries the epic battle was between Catholicism and Protestantism. The economic based arguments we have wouldn’t really register with them.

    They certainly don’t to the Qataris. For that matter, the rift between Bernie Sanders and BLM has taught me that generally, black Americans don’t view governance and justice thru the same lens of socialism/capitalism we do.

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  5. “And a municipality must ostensibly follow due process as well. So throwing grenades into baby cribs is unpossible.”

    Right, tell that to the infant who got a flash bomb in the face. No private actors use their own “police” or forces to enforce contracts or business disputes, they use the gov’ts. No private actor or corporation would since it would likely result in criminal charges bring brought. Bounty hunters are an exception. Thus, the monopoly of force is provided by the gov’t and must be so.

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      Do I need to talk about colleges?

      I won’t even bother mentioning the folks who go “missing” out in the hills.
      I ought to mention the bankers committing “suicide” though… particularly since someone took out the reporter on the case.

      The state can’t punish someone for arson if they can’t catch them, after all. It still seems kinda curious that a place without electric or gas on could burn down so quickly… (not going to cite the news story, but it’s easy enough to look up, was in our local paper).

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    • No private actors use their own “police” or forces to enforce contracts or business disputes, they use the gov’ts.

      The whole point of the piece is that this is a distinction without a difference.

      Because absent the government’s “police” for private actors to abuse through privileged access, the private actors actually create their own “police”, because the use of violence as a power dynamic doesn’t disappear absent there being badge-carrying government employees.

      I mean, you’ve heard of the Pinkertons, right?

      No private actor or corporation would since it would likely result in criminal charges bring brought.

      Maybe you haven’t heard of the Pinkertons.

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      • Patrick,

        I agree with your post and this particular response quite a bit. So mostly I wanna say that. The other thing is that I argued pretty much these same points way back in the day – during the Internecine L v L Wars! – and I’ve been searching for some of those discussions since these very issues were heavily discussed over a series of posts. I can’t find em, and I wish I could, if for no other reason than to compare my arguments/phraseology back then with what you’re arguing in this post.

        Aaaand, that’s the only point of the comment. Just a niggle I can’t quite nudge.

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      • Can we all at least agree that if government actors are allowing private entities privileged access to the state’s monopoly on force prior to the completion of due process, that something is significantly broken with the current system?

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        • Um.

          Well, I agree with the sentiment but the phrasing is problematic.

          When (not if) an organization is allowing privileged access to a power dynamic to a subset of actors in a social system, that indicates the possible existence of a justice problem.

          Justice problems are largely undesirable.

          Thus, when an organization is allowing privileged access to a power dynamic to a subset of actors in a social system, an analysis is warranted. We may find that there is a justice problem, in which case an intervention to the organization or the social system are warranted (we don’t want cops shooting unarmed citizens). We may find that the allowed privileged access to a power dynamic is by design; to correct a previous privileged access to a power dynamic that was enabled for a different subset of actors in the system (the justification for affirmative action, equal pay laws, etc).

          Each case requires a fair analysis of (a) why the privileged access exists (b) who the subgroup of actors are… and…

          (c) if the privileged access is provided to address some other privileged access problem, that it is effectively addressing that problem


          (d) did we undo that other bad thing we were doing before, or are we creating a dynamic where neither can go away, forever.

          All that aside, it’s perfectly fine to say that there’s something in the current system that ought to be changed, but that’s subtly different from saying that something is broken with the system.

          Because that (implicitly) presupposes that an alternate system would never have that problem. “If we just did it right the first time, we wouldn’t have had that problem in the first place”.

          Some problems are addressable in instance but not systemically, at least… not in a systems engineering sort of way.

          We can repeal Jim Crow, we can’t stop people from being racists assholes and attempting to leverage power in organizations – public or private – from advancing their agenda of being racist assholes.

          Power access is an evolutionary arms race.

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      • “Maybe you haven’t heard of the Pinkertons.”

        You should probably read up on the Homestead Strike before you start suggesting that the Pinkertons are in any way a good example of Big Business hiring private armies to kick laborer ass. The Pinkertons got their butts kicked up around their ears as soon as they started shooting, and they very nearly got massacred themselves by a mob of women and children. The other violent labor disputes involved militia units called up by state governments, or even Federal troops in some cases.

        And, y’know, you’d be right if you said “the influence of corporate power over the governments of the time meant that the two were virtually one and the same, so it is as though the soldiers were hired by the corporation”, but it is very important to note that they were military units operating in their capacity as the armed forces of the United States. If they shot anybody then it was by definition a lawful act, because they were acting as a government agent; as opposed to a private mercenary hired by Carnegie Steel, who would have to go defend himself in court afterwards.

        In other words, see what I said earlier. AT&T might hire someone to shoot me for not paying my phone bill, but that person (and AT&T) would have to answer for it in criminal court. If the Federal Government orders someone to shoot me for not paying my taxes, then *I’m* the criminal and being shot is merely the consequence of my actions. Nobody would ever say “if he didn’t want to be shot he shoulda paid his phone bill” and expect to be taken seriously.

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        • Granted, criminal prosecutions of folks operating under even the flimsiest color of law are historically rare, but it isn’t like they never happen.

          Also, civil lawsuits provide *some* sort of mechanism for power abuse.

          (The Pinkertons lost what, seven guys? Eight? Out of a few hundred?)

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      • The union cheerleaders’ account of the Homestead Strike never really made much sense to me. The workers went on strike, and management hired goons to shoot them…so they’d go back to work? That doesn’t seem like a very good strategy.

        When I actually looked into it, it turned out that that wasn’t at all what happened. They took the much more reasonable approach of hiring replacement workers. But the union wouldn’t let them in. So manager asked the sheriff to tell them to back off. The union put the sheriff and his deputies on a boat and sent them down the river. Frick called in the Pinkertons because the government wasn’t providing adequate protection from union violence. And even then, it’s not clear which side fired the first shots.

        This doesn’t actually contradict your point, but I thought it was worth bringing up since this incident wasn’t at all what it’s usually claimed to have been.

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    • I think it’s more that most people figure that there ought to be a state, and that it’s just fine for the state to use its power however it sees fit–except in certain very specific ways. And the specific ways vary from person to person.

      It’s like I’ve said before, the only real difference between Conservatives and Liberals is which Constitutional Amendments they see as inviolable and sacred, and which parts they see as needing reinterpretation to meet the modern times.

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        • I don’t actually think that’s true. Coke versus Pepsi is not an argument that has a moral dimension. In the Brave Libertarian Future, if my bodyguard doesn’t protect me from getting beat up, I don’t claim that it’s a violation of my fundamental rights as a human being; I claim that he’s not worth what I’m paying him.

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          • Hm.

            Maybe? I’ll concede it’s possible. But humans really like to argue about the morality of things; absent a state, even in Libertarian Future, I don’t see them disposing of all that language.

            I think it’s more likely that Coke v. Pepsi would acquire moral overtones. Well, stronger moral overtones. You already have folks who boycott companies on moral grounds.

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  6. A private entity on the other hand, has to sue you. Then get a judgment against you. Then when you don’t pay, the government issues a lien and force a sale. Then when you refuse to move out, send a SWAT team to shoot you.

    In practice, how often does this happen, as compared to, say, the government shooting people in drug raids? I’m sure that people have been killed in the process of enforcing a civil judgment between private entities, but honestly, I can’t think of having heard of such a case in recent years, whereas the latter happens with some regularity.

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