Are All Governments Destined For Failure?

Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Gather a set of children’s building blocks and form them into a square, flat on the floor.

The square can be of any dimension. In the middle of the square, and not touching any side, place another block on top. If your original square was more than three blocks on a side, then you can fit more than one block in the square’s center. These additional blocks form a second level.

Now take a step back and jump up and down once or twice. If the floor is hard and sturdy, nothing will happen. The blocks won’t topple unless your bouncing is of sufficient force to crack the foundation.

You can add a third level to your blocks, but only if that third level follows the same rules as the second: none of the blocks can touch the edges of the level below. After it’s built, recommence jumping: the structure should hold. It will still take devastating force to topple it.

If you want to add a fourth level, you’ll have to increase the size of the base. If you didn’t, the levels above would touch the edges, violating our rule.

You can continue quite a while along these lines: those blocks high up will be admirably supported by those below, but they will also add a substantial weight to the blocks under them. The base can be crushed by too many blocks on top.

Your experiment will show the most stable set up of blocks will have a wide base with only a few on top. You’ll need some on top, else the blocks below will move too easily; they will break apart slowly with persistent small vibrations. There will be a balance where you have a stable system that holds together naturally.

That pyramid of blocks is like a society as it stands at some point early on in its history; but not too far along, either.

Because eventually comes a new generation, and from them, a new government. Fresh politicians and unelected leaders look about and see that much of what needed to be done has already been done.
If the base has grown, there is a place for them. If not, they are not needed.

Ideally, they would do nothing. But people, especially people inclined to politics, are not inclined to sit still. They must do something. So they convince themselves that not all is well. They must add to and rearrange the structure! To not do so would be to admit their uselessness.

Being naturally fussy, the bureaucrats will meddle with the structure, adding to it there, subtracting to it there. Eventually, these folk will retire or die, only to be replaced by another batch.

They’ll be dissatisfied by the work that came before them; they’ll meddle, too. They’ll add more blocks on top, right near to their own. The occasional dishonest politician will add more than his fair share.

Occasionally, there will appear a few who want to shift the blocks into a stabler position. These “originalists” will be resisted most strongly by the people in the most unstable blocks, where the system is most unstable and complex because they benefit—in the here and now—by those complexities.

Eventually, inevitably, the structure will become sensitive to the slightest application of external force. Any small shock will send shivers everywhere. Some shocks can be anticipated: the smallest hint of troubles to come will require massive efforts to patch the structure so that it remains in balance. Yet the weight of the blocks and their odd configuration will require a delicate balance, a surgeon’s touch.

You know what is bound to happen: what has happened to every government that has ever existed. In time, it falls.

All experience shows that because people are people and must do something—politicians especially feel a burning desire to interlope—all governments grow until such a point that they can no longer sustain themselves. They end.

They either fall over on themselves, or they break apart into pieces; either mechanism brings destruction.

The only thing that has restrained—slowed, but not eliminated—the unlimited growth is a firm, fixed set of rules that all must adhere to. Allow the members of the government leeway to ignore the rules or rewrite them as they go along, and the growth and instability only increases its pace.

Well, all metaphors are limited. The thesis behind this one, even if expressed badly, is sound: that all governments where the population exceeds more than a handful grow inexorably, become overly sensitive to external forces, and then collapse. Just because people are ever dissatisfied.

This dissatisfaction leads to progress (and occasional collapses) in other areas, but nobody needs to progress a government beyond a solid foundation.

17 Comments

  1. Government growth saps the energy from a society as result of a ponderous bureaucracy described by Bernstein’s Regulatory Theory. Assume there is only a small selection bias for the regulator to expand. Now iterate the regulatory system selection bias. Even a small bias over time can have devastating consequences. There are simply no system controls to constrain it— no agent that can command “no upper level block shall touch the edge of the pyramid.” This inherent system design flaw, as a result, will always topple the blocks – its just the “relentless working of things.”

  2. Pat,

    Coincidentally, from today’s Arts and Letters Daily, comes this story on Snobs in Academe:

    And so professors, even in the humanities, now had to show that they too could be breaking new ground. As Patrick Deneen of Georgetown University said in a speech recently, they had to “prove their worth in the eyes of administrators in the broader world. Faculty could demonstrate their progressiveness by showing the backwardness of texts; they could ‘create knowledge’ by demonstrating their own superiority to the authors they studied; they could demonstrate their anti-traditionalism by attacking the very books that were the basis of their discipline.” The lack of humility when it came to the very texts studied was a necessary feature of the new university.

    Finally, Deneen explained, “By adopting a jargon only comprehensible to a few ‘experts’ they could emulate the priesthood of scientists — wholly betraying the original mandate of the humanities to guide students through the cultural inheritance and teachings of the classic books.”
    Professors today are not “guides” passing on an “inheritance.” They are always and everywhere breaking new ground.

  3. Stanislav Andreski had a lifelong contempt for social scientists saying “we are left in the void between quantified trivialities and fascinating but entirely undisciplined flights of fantasy.”

    Perhaps proving sociologists have no shame- Alan Sokol wrote an article as a hoax – “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. It was by intent meaningless gibberish—–yet it was published in the journal “Social Text” much to Sokol’s amusement.

    Andreski was correct about sociology- “much of what passes as scientific study of human behavior boils down to sorcery”

  4. Matt:
    This is too depressing and, while true, misses one quintessential fact of American life that up until recently has limited the damage that too much government can cause. It often takes a foreigner to notice that which locals take for granted. Alexis de Toqueville wrote extensively about the unusual combination of self interest and public virtue that he found in early America and which today is reflected in the widespread involvement of Americans in community service organizations like Rotary, Lions, Shriners, etc. In Chapter V of Democracy in America, de Toqueville, after visiting America around 1832, notes:
    “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations…. Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; In this manner ther found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some truth or to foster some feelings by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the Government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find as association.”

    The essence here is the readiness of Americans to create new associations when the old ones no longer meet their purpose. In short, associations are the civic side of entrepreneurial capitalism. The significant enlargement of Government is a threat to this source of civic virtues.

  5. Matt:
    You academic example reminded me of Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

    In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.

    Pat:
    I think it is important to keep in mind that there are very real phenomena associated with individual and group behavior that are worthy of systematic study. Much social science, however, has been and is lamentable and largely reflects non-science based agendas.

  6. I asked a few young young MBA students what was the difference between a community organization and a corporation? I received nothing but blank stares for my effort. The only answer that I have been able to divine is both are groups of people organized to achieve a goal— a corporation organizes to create wealth and a community organizes to take it. Any thoughts?

  7. Bernie– I do not disagree -there are important if not critical issues that need be understood – especially as they relate to building workable social systems. The most important issue in my opinion is how we process/ frame issues relating to equity/ justice– which once one peels away the rhetoric is behind most contentious political battles. However – despite the very real need for this guidance- Andreski describes the often academic “void” between need and product.

  8. Pat:
    Your young MBAs appear to be too cynical.
    Community Service organizations come in all shapes and sizes. Those that are part of larger national and international bodies have more layers of bureaucracy and have many of the dysfunctional behaviors of similar sized organizations. All appear subject to the above mentioned Iron Law of Bureaucracy.
    An essential difference between economic and community service organizations is the nature of their goals. I would reword your aphorism as “a corporation organizes to create economic wealth and a community organizes to create civic well being.” Do many community service organizations fail or pursue less civic minded goals – absolutely. But then many corporations fail to create wealth.
    Benjamin Franklin is a great example of someone who helped create both types of organizations – a public library and volunteer fire company being two examples of the latter. Wealthy individuals frequently create foundations that start out at least with civic minded goals. The Gates Foundation, for example, has given Rotary $100s millions to eliminate polio.

  9. Pat:
    Our comments crossed. I agree that when “building workable social systems. The most important issue in my opinion is how we process/ frame issues relating to equity/ justice.”
    The significant caveat I would add is that every fascist, communist, totalitarian government uses claims of equity and justice as the basis for their legitimacy.
    The genius of functioning representative democracies is that the mechanism are in place to potentially reverse bad collective decisions about equity/justice and to discard bad decision-makers. Alas, as the founding fathers recognized, these mechanisms exist only in so far as they are actually employed. Social Security legislation is a good example of a collective equity/justice decision that has over time become a bad and potentially highly destructive decision even though we have and still have the means to correct it. We know it is broken but there are too many who wish to maintain their “undeserved” benefits despite the fact that to do so means essentially exploiting future generations. It is a ponzi scheme, where those receiving their “dividends” decline to blow the whistle. Public pensions fall into the same category.

  10. Today it’s not just the social sciences that promote nonsense. Jacobson and Deluchi pulled a Sokol trick on Scientific American magazine last year when the magazine published their article “a path to sustainable energy ” in the November issue. If you know anything about engineering this article is nonsense, but cleverly written nonsense. The article purported to show how the world could be powered by wind, water and solar power. The article makes perfect sense if you ignore practical constraints like, where are the hundreds of thousands of windmills to be sited, what do you do about the random power output, etc.

    It’s like the old joke.

    Q. how do you put four elephants in a VW?
    A. Two in front and two in back.

    Makes perfect sense if you ignore the practical constraint that a single elephant wont fit into a VW.

  11. Bernie- I do not imply there is a “correct position” as to justice and equity only that we need for many reasons to understand how it is processed and perceived. How do we weave through protected values, dilemma, qualitative and quantitative sensitives. I am not advocating a socialist vision which being a free marketer myself see as a failed concept. But there is no logic by which a socialist will come to understand it is a failed construct nor in fairness a capitalist be made to embrace socialism—these concepts are protected values.

    Self interest can find compromise– values and beliefs cannot. Our arguments about government including the example above cannot be rationalized or compromised as these issues are often simply a proxy to fight over belief systems. How do we make the incommensurable – commensurable? We can’t- but we may be able learn how to frame equity and justice issues in a more constructive way.

  12. There is a strong similarity between academia and journalism. At one time practitioners of both sought truth and knowledge. Nowadays its validation and homage that’s prized. Education is confused with wisdom and celebrity with prudence. But what can we expect when progressives have the death wish to “fix things”?

  13. Are All Governments Destined For Failure?

    Define “failure”.

    I think that a single-party government will eventually fall; and if it falls, it’s probably because of the corruption and apathy in government… thinking of the Chinese empires in history.

  14. Are all government climate science grantees inclined to support the government’s climate change hoax … hmmm, similarities to how big government works and why people should shun it at all costs.

    Ever vigilant.

  15. I don’t think Herr Professor Dr. Briggs metaphor is apt.

    Democracy is inherently unstable. We dispose of the current government at regularly scheduled intervals. And, perhaps because of its “instability” it has had the flexibility to persist as long as it has, while more rigid regimes collapse regularly.

    If democracy has fundamental weaknesses, it would be its susceptibility to a demagogue using charisma and outlandish promises to assume power. When the rights are the few are trampled for the “public good”, we are on the road to tyranny.

  16. Doug:
    Outlandish promises seems to be sufficient! When the majority believe they are entitled to a free lunch, we are doomed.

  17. The only thing that has restrained—slowed, but not eliminated—the unlimited growth is a firm, fixed set of rules that all must adhere to.

    That is what our Constitution was suppose to do, establish “a firm, fixed set of rules that all must adhere to”. Alas, there is always an excuse to bend the rules as the ends justify the means. We have devolved from a republic toward a democracy, because you know, those rules can be inconvenient. It’s that majority rules nonsense, that once sold to the majority, justifies the massive legalized theft by government we have today. Like socialism, democracy is appealing in its comic book complexity that doesn’t work as intended in the real world. Democracies are mob rule that quickly turn into dictatorships.

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