Monday, February 22, 2016

Przeworski and human systems

          One of the issues that drives my research and still holds my interest after years of working on a PhD dissertation is a deceptively simple question: how do we build better human systems?

          When I lecture on bureaucracy, one of the main arguments I make is that as long as you’re building a system based on people, there will be problems.  There are principles for good bureaucracy, but there will almost always be issues in the application of those principles.

          As part of my coursework, I read a book a few years ago called Democracy and the Market by political scientist Adam Przeworski.  One of the lessons of the book stuck with me. 
  
          Przeworski begins by reflecting on something his young daughter mentions to him: “we could feed everyone”.  A relatively common lament based on the fact that there is enough food in the world to ensure that no one goes hungry.

And yet, he asks, can we really feed everyone?  Meaning, can we, as human beings, design a system which ensures that everyone eats? 

          Somewhat depressingly, he argues that ultimately we can’t.  And not for lack of trying.  The modern state, particularly in the 20th century, was an attempt to rationally order existence, which meant theoretically providing a basic level of living for everyone.  Whether we’re talking about capitalist or socialist societies, the US or the Soviet Union or states in between, there have been multiple attempts to get it right.  Whatever your skepticism about the influence of evil businessmen or callous politicians, very few political systems starts out with the intention of starving people.

            Przeworski argues that the collapse of “real, existing” communism (the Soviet Union) was the collapse of the idea of rationally administering things to satisfy human needs, of a ‘scientific state’ which could provide for everyone. 

          It’s a depressing thought.  I’m not sure I entirely agree with him that just because it hasn’t happened yet, it can never happen.  That seems unduly fatalistic to me.  But it’s an important point to remember when listening to promises of a better tomorrow, or of better government, or whatever: if you build it on people, it’s going to have faults.  

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