Our Principles -- long and tedious (beware)

Moderator: SC Moderators

Forum Wizard
Forum Wizard
Posts: 1364
Joined: Sun Oct 29, 2006 3:42 pm

Our Principles -- long and tedious (beware)

Post by Beathan »

I was rereading some old posts to put together a history of our attempts to define ourselves as a community (in response to Salzie's request that we do so). In doing this reading, I was reminded (as I need to be reminded sometimes) of who we are as a Party and what drew me to the SP in the first place.

We are not competing in the by-elections, but it is time to have a discussion about improving our position and expanding our membership for the next general election. With the new population-based membership requirements, we are in a marginal position and need to recruit to survive. To do that, we need to get our message out. To do that, we need to clarify, refine and define our message.

I am going to cut and paste some ideas I posted a while back in what was the foundational thread that motivated the formation of our party in the first place -- http://forums.slcds.info/viewtopic.php? ... Complexity

"As you might expect, I believe that, all other things being equal, a simple solution is preferable to a complicated one. I will state my reasons for this preference below, but tangentally. The more interesting question is whether, when developing governmental institutions with an eye towards growth of the jurisdiction of the state, are simple institutions better (all other things equal) -- or is there some privilege to complexity. I think, when properly analyzed, the privileged place in fact goes to simplicity.

Note, in this discussion, I am not strictly defending less government vs. more government. I think that a small and limited government can be extremely complex, while a large and strongly empowered government can be simple. Rather, I am defending the notion that simple institutions are generally better than complicated ones in all circumstances.

Similarly, I am not defending informal institutions over formal ones. In fact, some formal institutions, through their formality, can be very simple in form and function. Further, informal institutions, through their lack of form, limitations, and guiding rules, can be very complicated. For instance, I believe that a group discussion with rules about who talks and how are simpler (easier to follow and understand) than "free-for-alls."

To me, the question of government presupposes that some formal institution is desired. The question is what form this formal institution should take. To me, to offer a loaded analogy, the question isn't whether we want to build a machine of state -- it is an engineering question about how many different, movable, and potentially breakable parts the machine we do build should have.

Litmus test

To me, the key concepts for assessing the effectiveness of an institution in the face of growth are borrowed from IT and Economics -- Scalability and Completeness. An institution is preferable if it is scalable, up and down, so that it can be replicated and implemented in both large and small jurisdictions. An institution is also preferable if it, alone or in combination with sister-institutions, completely addresses the scope of problems (disputes, obstacles, scarcities, constraints) that can face it.

In addition to these concepts, institutions must satisfy two additional tests. First, they must be effective (not just poised to address the problems, but able to do so) and they must be feasible (in the sense that it is possible to implement them, and, when implemented, they must be robust).

These concepts are well-captured, if not explicitly, in Claude Desmoulins initial observation in his post.

From the beginning, the DPU has held as a core value that government is about problem solving. Coming in to the last election cycle, there was broad agreement that the issue facing us was expansion -- How ot make it happen in the short term and how to build a robust enough system to not get overrun by it in the long term.

This sort of burnout can be seen... [proving that despite best efforts of the participants] ... loose and informal systems weren't adequate to get the tasks done ...

In other words, government is about creating enduring systems and institutions than can solve the array of problems that will face the state even as the state becomes larger. That is, the institutions must be complete; they must be scalable; they must be effective; and they must be feasible.

Further, the concern expressed by Mr. Desmoulins that the institutions "might be overrun" by change must indicate a preferance for stability in institutions over the long run. The more stable institution is the one that more optimally satisfies the four criteria I have identified -- as such an institution will be enduring but flexible and implementable across a range of possible situations and to a range of problems.

Additionally, I am inclined to agree with Mr. Desmoulins's other two points. First, if done well, "it is much easier to plan these systems (exec, judiciary, etc.) before we need them." (However, there is also a danger here that an institution can be created that, through a lack of foresight, failed to anticipate a problem that later arises, which is a problem the institution is charged with solving, but which the institution is ill-equipped to solve. In such case, it is in fact harder to improvise in the face of a dysfunctional institution, which has become entrenched and possibly reified, and which could operate to exacerbate the problem by opposing an effective solution that requires institutional change or a surrender of jurisdiction.) Second, checks and balances are necessary for individual protection, and are inherently complicated because they mandate a division of jurisdiction between duelling institutions which nonetheless must work together (like gears in a clockwork machine).

Thus, it is true that a problem anticipated and solved in advance is less stressful than problem-solving "on the fly." Further, checks and balances divide power in complicated ways, preserving freedom through its very inefficiency by preventing any one institution, if captured by forces hostile to freedom, from using the centralized power and efficiency of the monolithic governmental institution to harm the citizens it should serve. However, these arguments merely establish that we must accept some level of complexity; they do not establish that a more complex institution is preferable. In fact, I would submit that the simplest solution (the one with the least complexity to be effective, scalable, complete, and feasible) is best.

On balance, provided the institution has the tools needed to address the problems it is charged with solving and is set up within limits designed to prevent it from becoming a problem to (a tyrannical imposition on) the citizens it is supposed to serve, a simple institution is best.

As a lawyer, I tend to see institutions in terms of their jurisdiction (what they govern, regulate, or control). I also divide jurisdiction into two categories (from American jurisprudence): subject matter jurisdication and personal (or geographical) jurisdiction. An institution is effective if it can solve problems within its portfolio (subject matter jurisdiction) and domain (personal or geographical jurisdiction) without exhausting itself or developing irrelevancies and vestigal operations.

An institution is ineffective if it is not able to address the problems it faces. For instance, I see that there was a proposal made with regard to the judicial system to limit its jurisdiction to exclude a broad range of disputes, which people would understandably look to a judicial system to resolve. This proposal would have made the judicial system incomplete -- and that would have reduced its effectiveness. Further, such a limitation would probably not have made the judicial system any simpler to implement and operate.

Additionally, I see that compromises, especially involving juries, were reached in the face of the practical limitations facing a community of this size. Such obligations would have likely taxed, diverted, and diluted the energy and will of the community, causing it to fail to meet challenges raised in other areas.

However, I am not sure that the system in place is readily scalable or implementable within the real limits faced by this community given its size and the skillsets of its citizens. In short, I think the judicial system might be too professionalized and therefore too complex.

A professionalized justice system will call upon skills not readily found. We might dodge this bullet in this community, but the principle should be a point of discussion and a cause for concern. For instance, if a system of law is professionalized, any dispute will require a professional (or three people acting as professionals) -- a judge, (and possibly a plaintiff/petitioner/complainant counsel and a defense/respondent counsel). Further, given ordinary human limits, if the community is large, no one person (or three persons) can fill these roles in all cases. Therefore, there will have to be a duplication of function between and among multiple people. If such people are not available, the institution will fail.

Given these concerns, with great interest and some trepidation, I look forward to seeing how the judicial system as implemented operates.

That said, I want to address the point made in these discussions that "complexity decreases predictability." First, I think we should parse this claim between two cases: 1. complexity from informality and 2. complexity from formal institutions producing and requiring professional participants. However, in each case, I think it is fair to claim that complexity does decrease predictability, at least for nonprofessional observers of the institution. Further, this inability of an ordinary person to predict the outcome of an informal system or of a professionalized system is cause for concern and a proper point for criticizing each kind of system.

In informal systems, power is applied by persons based on personal reasons and preferences. Without the limitations of guiding and ruling principles, each person acting for the institution can and will act differently than each other person similarly empowered. The result in such case is inconsistent results -- what the "solution" is is entirely idiosyncratic. Such idiosyncracy is difficult, if not impossible, to predict -- and institutions that behave differently based on which official is acting in any given context, when assessed as an institution, can fairly be said to act arbitrarily.

This arbitrariness is, in fact, a product of the complexity created by a lack of guiding principles. In informal systems of governance, there are in practice as many institutions as there are officials in the institution. An institution becomes schizophrenic in the classic sense. Such an institution, which is a many-headed beast, is very complex -- and this complexity is directly related to its unpredictabiilty.

This problem can be solved by implementing and enforcing guiding principles -- laws. When laws, rather than individuals, rule, the exercise of power becomes predictable. However, this predictability is based on the understandability and accessibility of the law to the person doing the predicting.

Complexities that require professionalization undermine this predictability, at least for nonprofessionals. If some professional skillset is required to even define the problems in an understandable manner, then a person without such skill cannot begin to determine the problem, let alone predict the outcome.

I see this problem all the time in Court. It is frequently the case that the judge and both lawyers understand the legal principles involved such that the Judge's decision is predictable, or at least understandable and sound in retrospect. However, clients frequently are unable to either predict or understand such results. This causes suspicion and discontent -- which is often directed against the client's counsel as much or more than it is directed against either the judge or the opposing counsel.

I see this problem most starkly in criminal law cases -- and it is an outcome of the very certainty and limits of the available results. A criminal verdict indicates that the crime was either proven or not. This binary result, in its simplicity, produces great complexity in the process needed to produce it -- and the effect is that nonprofessionals are often confused, even angered or harmed, by the process.

Civil law, on the contrary, is not committed to binary results. Rather, it is committed to an ideal judgment, which is the optimal and most fair result within the range of the evidence. Because there is flexibility in outcome, the principles and law can be more generally defined. Predictably, I prefer civil to criminal law. I also find that when the principles applied are more general and broadly-defined, they are both more understandable and more useful to nonprofessionals.

This flexibility also aids institutional effectiveness and completeness as I defined those terms above. By not binding a Court to any particular result, courts are empowered to fashion novel solutions to novel problems. However, by requiring that Courts follow generally stated principles of law and that judgments fall within the range of the evidence, the range of outcomes, if not the specific outcomes, become predictable, and the specific outcomes become understandable.

These general principle apply, I think, to all legitimate exercises of power and to all governmental institutions, not merely to judicial power and courts. However, based on these principles, I think the goal of those creating institutions should be to keep them as simple as possible."

This continued, with Rudy Ruml's (an early founder of the SP) contribution --

"I have just become aware of the recent posts on this forum, and want to respond to the characterization of government proposed by Claude Desmoulins and seconded, among others, by Beathan. That is that government is about or has the purpose to solve problems facing a community. This is a typical European and socialist view of government. It is a TOOL to be used by REASON to improve he quality of life. I strongly disagree with this ideology, and it has led to many of the problems governments have caused in the world. Rather than solving problems, this makes government the problem.

Rather, government is the means by which people are enabled to solve their own problems in the light of their own values and interests, such as by providing security (police/courts/trials). The guarantee of human rights and rule of law does these means. These are not solving problems, but freeing people to do so themselves. For example, the rule of law, consistently applied, enables the free market to operate, people to form contracts, and to buy and sell products as they wise, and to privately institutionalize problem solving (e.g., chambers of commerce, dispute resolution, co-ops, or consumer organizations).

And what this means, as I have proposed, is a much less complex and weighty government than we now have, one for which the only purpose would be to establish GENERAL laws/rules facilitating citizens their OWN problems."

I reponded --

"Rudy wrote, in disagreement with the general concept that the purpose of government is to solve problems, that the purpose of government is rather to allow people to solve their own problems. He asserts that the contrary, government-as-problem-solver, view is a socialist view of government as an instrumentality guided by a (presumably) impersonal or idealized Reason (as a general faculty, possibly an emergent property, of the State). Thus, he asserts, that this view is inherently Statist (although he does not use that term), and as such is dangerous and problematic to individual human freedom, civil liberties, and free problem-solving by individuals. He then impliedly argues that this Statist view of government is illegitimate, due to the problems it creates, and presents an alternative theory of government.

I think Rudy's argument is a case of special pleading. My position is that government exists to solve problems. I believe that this is a sound assertion, and is entirely silent as to the mechanics of government or the characteristics of legitimate government. That is, government should solve problems, and it should use whatever policies or means result in solutions to problems. If private or market forces, rather than State fiat, are better able to solve problems -- then government should support and foster, rather than retard or suppress, such forces. Thus, I believe that my position that the goal of government is problem-solving is entirely compatible with Rudy's limited and free-market, libertarian view of government. (Indeed, I personally share that view for the most part, tempered with the need to consider economic externalities and the possibility that there are some spheres of human action, such as national defense or instances of social break-down in which people are unable to act and thus unable to approach and solve their own problems, where different logic may apply.)

Where I find Rudy's argument to involve special pleading is in his conflation of the purposive definition of government (a problem solving entity) with an argument for governmental legitimacy. An institution is legitimate to the extent it serves its purpose, and does so in a limited way that does not imperil other interests, needs or goals. Lawyers will recognize my position as strict scrutiny, which I think should be brought to bear on any and all governmental action. I think that what form of government is most legitimate -- is most narrowly tailored to accomplish its purpose (problem solving) with the minimum harm (problem creation) -- is a different question, and one that is best answered by studying which governments actually work best. However, I think that the definition of government (as a problem-solving entity) is logically prior to this exploration (we need to define the goal of government to even begin to look for examples of legitimate and illegitimate government). Further, I think that my definition does not beg the question of which government actually works.

For instance, in cost-benefit policy analysis, there should always be an alternative of "do nothing" considered along with the active proposals. Thus, cost-benefit analysis, even when applied to a proposed regulation, undertaking, or other active proposal, does not force us to actually do anything, create anything, regulate anything. Rather, we might discover that all possible cures are worse than the disease, in which case the correct solution to the problem is to leave the problem alone.

I do think that Rudy is onto something, however. Specifically, when an institution, especially a governmental institution, is created, it has a need to do something to justify its existence. Thus, the do nothing (or wu wei) possibility is often excluded from the analysis at the outset. However, in my opinion, this is an example of bad government (through bad thinking -- bad use of Reason), rather than a counter-example to the basic purposive definition of government that should cause us to rethink and redefine what government is and what government is supposed to do."

Dianne (who would have been a great SP member, but who was too independent for that) responded, very astutely --


For instance, in cost-benefit policy analysis, there should always be an alternative of "do nothing" considered along with the active proposals. Thus, cost-benefit analysis, even when applied to a proposed regulation, undertaking, or other active proposal, does not force us to actually do anything, create anything, regulate anything. Rather, we might discover that all possible cures are worse than the disease, in which case the correct solution to the problem is to leave the problem alone.

Not being a fan of business-related metaphors I would never use the words "cost-benefit analysis" but I completely agree with the concept expressed here in that it is simple common sense. Creating elaborate structures - "government" - that have no active purpose or reason for being is foolish. Government should be a minimal system of rules that allow a community to simply get along with itself, not some massive organisation concieved so as to solve every possible problem in existence.

I have long felt that the government project in Neufreistadt may have started to "get away from us" in the sense of being a purely academic persuit with decreasing relevance to the community that currently exists.

While I agree with the idea that we should plan for greater goals and that the placing of ourselves as a legal/governmental solution for a wider audience of Second Life as a whole is an admirable cause, there is little evidence that there is a need - even a future need - for such a thing so far. This doesn't mean that we should stop planning for those goals, but it does distress me that less has been done and les structure created, that is of relevance to our existence as a simple community of 50 avatars that live in a sim called Neufreistadt.

Are we even a community? Or are we simply a planning system for a wider Governmental system in Second Life as a whole? Do the laws we create really have any relevance to the day to day concerns of the avatars and their interaction in the sim? Or are they more about abstract possibilities of future systems?

I think we can do both of these things, but perhaps not together. It seems clear to me that any overarching governmental or legal system we create, if it is to be taken up by other sims, would by necessity have to deal with a variety of different small communities with a variety of local rules. Perhaps we should seperate the "government project" from the community (soon to be plural) and regress back to a minimalist, (and ironically probably [i:]feudalist[/i]) structure, for our day to day governance and political life. After all, the government should grow organically out of the needs of the community shouldn't it? Then we could work on the legal system and greater government structure as the abstract, long term, overarching projects that they seem to be.

Then Ashcroft jumped in -- I will not quote him at any length -- and I responded:

Ashcroft wrote

The principle is this: governments should solve all those problems, and only those problems, that governments, by their nature, are in the best position to solve.

I quite agree with this.

Ashcroft further wrote

Thus, the when a problem presents itself, the question is not, "what should the government do?" (as a great many people who believe in big government often ask), but, "out of all the realistically possible solutions to this problem, is the best one one that involves government or not?".

I also agree with this.

On this basis, Ashcroft concluded

A debate, therefore, about whether one wants the government to be "big" or "small", in general, or whether a government should solve problems directly or help other people solve their own problems (which do not, in any event, seem to me to be entirely distinct), quite misses the point.

Here I part company, because the issue is actually not simply a matter of identifying problems and then creating governmental institutions to solve the ones that appear most amenable to governmental solutions. As I have stated elsewhere, formal institutions, through their formality, have more definite existence, even selfconsciousness, as institutions. They become things, artifacts -- with integrity in the sense of being a unified, undivided thing that can define itself as distinct from other others. Such institutions tend to outlast the problems they are designed to solve -- looking for and trying to solve new and different problems so that they can continue to be. The problems they find to solve might well be problems that governmental institutions are not well-suited to solve. For this reason, governmental institutions are dangerous -- and we need to be mindful not merely of the present utility of a proposed government institution, but also on the likely future behavior of the institution.

That is, to do government-building well, we need to predict the future. This is hard, even impossible. In the face of challenges that are extremely difficult, humans often (and correctly) apply more general rules-of-thumb rather than complicated and difficult analyses (even if the full analysis would be result in better solutions, if the solutions are reachable). The results reached by these rules of thumb might not the the abosolute best -- but they tend to be the relative best because they can be easily justified, easily understood, and reached with minimal effort.

The preference for simplicity over complexity is one such rule of thumb. Rather than ask, "what problems are best solved by government" and then constituting a government that solves those problems (which will create institutions that outlast their usefulness); or the more complicated problem of creating such a government while providing checks on the institutions (perhaps sunset clauses, etc.) designed to avoid the problem -- the preference for simplicity asks, "what problems require governmental resolution and what is the simplest, most narrowly focused institutions that can address those problems". This framing of the question provides a natural check on government -- preventing it from proliferating into unwieldy or over-reaching institutions.

The simple government formed on this principle may not be as effective as a larger, more perfect government, but, ironically, it is more easily justified, more controlled, more stable, and more able to maintain its legitimacy despite changes in circumstances. Further, the limited government -- as being created with a eye constantly on the problems that need governmental action -- is good enough for government work, and that's all we need in a government.

This argument also sidesteps the borderwars that will otherwise arise between people who trust and privilege governmental institutions and those who mistrust those institutions and privilege private action. (This is the border war that Rudy's theory of government is engaged in.) The argument grants that there are problems that government might be more able to solve, but still refuses to expand government to those areas because private action is also able to solve the problems, although not as well or as efficiently, without the risk that inherently arises from the creation of a governmental institution.

Ashcroft challenged my reasoning, and I responded --

"Well, here goes. I think that I have improved some points from the post I lost. However, I also think that I have forgotten entire arguments. Well, no matter, I will probably remember them later.

Ashcroft summarizes my argument as follows:

”I do not think that the last step in the reasoning works. You start out by claiming that good government-building requires prediction of the future, which is "hard, even impossible" (which entails that good government-building is hard, even impossible). You then say that, when people have to do something that is difficult, they tend to do so using approximate "rules of thumb", conclude that that is the best way of doing difficult things, then finally go onto the ultimate claim, that simplicity, in the abstract, is one such rule of thumb that is best to follow.”

For the most part, this is a fair summary. However, I am not asserting that “good government-building is hard, even impossible.” Under the simplicity rule, good government building is relatively simple and readily achievable. What I am asserting is that best government building, which appears to be Ashcroft’s goal, is impossible. Therefore, under the general rule that “ought implies can” – that it is incoherent to say we ought to do something that we cannot, in fact, do – we ought not engage in best government building. We should accept our limitations as humans and build a good government, secure in the knowledge that, even if it is not the best, it is good enough – and then we should always strive to make it better.

Ashcroft continues:

”The problem is, many of those steps lack justification. For example, while it is undoubtedly true that humans often do create approximate rules to deal with difficult problems, that does not mean that that is always the right way of dealing with difficult problems. Sometimes, difficult problems are either best avoided all together, or dealt with by a very great degree of thorough work to solve them accurately, or as accurately as possible. There may be yet other best ways of dealing with such things. Which way is best will depend on the nature of the difficult thing itself. “

”Secondly, there is no justification of why "the simpler the better" is the right approximate rule-of-thumb here, even supposing that using an approximate rule-of-thumb is the right way of going about things. The problem that is "hard, even impossible" to solve, in your contention, is predicting how governmental institutions that might outlast their functions might misbehave, and designing ways of preventing them from doing so. There is no particular reason to believe that simple institutions are any less likely to misbehave, or are likely to misbehave in a less damaging way, if they outlast their function, nor that a simplicity requirement makes it any easier to design ways of preventing institutions misbehaving if they outlast their function; indeed, such a requirement could make it harder to do so, because many potential solutions will be complex, and therefore excluded from consideration.”

I also agree with this argument, but it misses the force of my argument from simplicity. I have argued elsewhere for the importance of leaving open a “do nothing” or “wu wei” option. If problem is not solveable, or if the solution is worse than the problem then we should leave the problem alone. Also, sometimes complicated problems need complicated solutions – and I am not arguing that we should not solve these problems. Rather, I am arguing that when choosing among solutions, especially governmental solutions that involve creation of institutions or the constitution of a government, we should choose the simplest available solution. That is, I am not asserting that we should never have complicated institutions. Rather, I am arguing that our institutions should not be unnecessarily complicated. There is a huge difference between these positions. This is a critical distinction.

Further, as I will argue below, simple institutions and structures are more transparent and controllable. Thus, even though it is true that simple institutions, as institutions, can outlive their usefulness or overstep their jurisdictions, they are more subject to scrutiny, which means these problems can be more easily and more quickly identified and fixed. These benefits arise from simplicity. Complex institutions have two defects: they lead to professionalization which, in turn, insulates them from legitimate attack and they are more likely to have problems because their complexity provides more opportunity for error, both error in creation and error in behavior. (I will expand these arguments below.) Further constitutional complexity creates the additional problem of creating a crowd of institutions, which allows harmful or obsolete institutions to get lost in the crowd and escape proper scrutiny.

Ashcroft continues:

”Finally, not all government institutions do have the kind of function that there is any real liklihood of being outlasted. The legislature, for instance, will never cease to be useful, nor will the executive or the judiciary. Indeed, it is only the more esoteric, specific organs of government, particular committees or commissions for narrow, present-day-only purposes, that are in danger of outlasting their functions. Indeed, the solution to that problem (time-limited institutions misbhaving after their useful life has expired) is not necessarily difficult: one can either set up a commission to monitor life-expired institutions, and propose legislation to abolish them (which we can be fairly sure will not itself, in turn, become life-expired), or set up institutions that are always going to have limited useful lives with a time limit on their existence.”

This is an argument for the necessity of government, which I grant, not for the necessity for or propriety of complexity in government. Certain governmental institutions seem primal. Certainly, the classic three (executive, judicial and legislative) seem to serve proper governmental functions such that they should exist. However, saying that they should exist does not answer the question of how they should exist – or whether or not they should be as simple as possible.

However, I don’t think that it is proper to say that only esoteric institutions pose the danger of outliving their usefulness. Even one of the primary institutions can outlive its usefulness as constituted in any particular government. For instance, the executive institution of absolute monarchy seems to have outlived its usefulness and has been replaced in all modern governments. Further, I would submit that the relative ease with which England and other Northern European countries made the transition from absolute to constitutional monarch (when compared with the difficulty of the transition in France and Russia) is a direct result of the relative simplicity of the monarchies in England and Northern Europe, which had neither the institutional nor social complexities of the Courts of the Sun King or the Tsars.

However, I do agree that esoteric institutions pose a greater problem because they are less useful and therefore more likely to outlive their usefulness. However, I don’t believe that the solution to this problem of reified bureaucracy is to create a new layer of bureaucracy to police it. In other words, it is not wise or proper to create a new esoteric institution to ensure that we do not have unnecessary esoteric institutions. Rather, if the government is simple enough (as simple as it could be), that very function can be performed directly by the people, with systemic benefits to both legitimacy and stability as a result. (I explore this in more detail below.)

Sunset clauses are not adequate solutions, either. Sunset clauses merely force debate, they do not make the debate easier to understand or more effective when it happens. Further, any institution, even an obsolete or harmful institution, will have partisans (at a minimum, including the employees of the institution). If the government is or institution is complex, then these partisans will have a disproportionate impact. Disinterested parties will be too busy looking elsewhere and will become uninterested parties. In other words, if the constitutional structure of government is complicated, the institution will be lost in the crowd and will survive. Similarly, if the institution is complex, then the partisans will be able to claim special or privileged knowledge or understanding, and will use the following argument to quell the institution’s critics: “You, critic, don’t understand the complexity of the situation, while I, as someone who has spent more time learning these complexities, do. If you understood the complexities, you would agree with me and would want the institution to continue. Just trust me and let the institution continue.” The problem with this argument is that it ends debate, rather than resolving the issue being debated. It is a claim of privilege and prerogative – and, as such, should be mistrusted by friends of democracy. Under some circumstances (when the institution is necessarily complicated), this argument is appropriate. However, the argument is always suspect – and it is always fair to ask, “why should the institution be so complicated that ordinary interested observers cannot understand it?”

Ashcroft concludes his general discussion:

”The problem with a generalised "simple institutions only" rule is that it arbitrarily prevents many sorts of governmental institutional design that might achieve what they seek to achieve in a more satisfactory way merely because they are complex. Since there is no reason to believe that simplicity, in and of itself, will make government institutions work better, a "simple institutions only" rule will result in worse government overall, because it will exclude from consideration all those possible instiutional designs that are better but more complex than simple designs.”

First, I am not arguing for “simple institutions only.” I am arguing for the simplest effective institutions. There is a world of difference between these positions. Second, as argued at length below, there is very good reason to believe “that simplicity, in and of itself, will make government institutions work better.”

Ashcroft then asks “What do you mean by ‘easily justified’ here? Do you mean ‘more likely to be justified in fact?’ or ‘is easier to convince people is justified, irrespective of whether it is justified or not’? "

In a democracy, this is a distinction without a difference. An institution is justified if and only if people are convinced that it is justified. Thus, if it is easier to convince people that an institution is justified, the institution is more easily justified. As a corollary of this, democratic institutions are justified only so long as, and only so far as, the people are convinced that they are justified. That means that all democratic institutions are necessarily tentative and temporary. However, this tentative temporariness serves to legitimate institutions by assuring that they comport with the will of the governed. Simplicity serves this purpose by making it possible that the governed can actually understand and attend to the institutions so that we can comfortably say, “the people have reviewed the institution and have found it justified.”

Ashcroft then asserts

”Furthrmore, you have not actually explained why it is that you think that simplicity, in and of itself, has the effect of making government more controlled (it is not clear precisely how you mean that here, either), stable and able to maintain its legitimacy despite changes in circumstances. Why should simple institutions, by virtue of being simple, tend to have those qualities more than complex institutions?”

This is the meat of the matter. In fact, I have explained this at length in my original post in this topic. Simple governments are more easily understood and assessed by the people. This makes them more controlled, more stable, and more legitimate. In my first post, I explored the danger of professionalization at length.

My argument above shows how government is more controlled if it is simple. The people can control government more easily if they can understand it. Simplicity serves this function. In fact, without simplicity, popular control of the government is threatened. This loss of popular oversight is not merely a loss of the people (which might result ultimately in a loss of liberty), it is a loss of the government. The government loses the meaningful participation of the people in and through the process. Further, the government will probably have to make up this loss by multiplying governmental institutions (by, for example, creating an esoteric institution to oversee the other esoteric institutions), which serves to exacerbate the problem and further alienate the people.

This alienation of the people from the government undermines both stability and legitimacy. The less people understand the government, the more people will mistrust the government (and rightly so). There is only so much a government can ask the people to take on faith, especially if the people simultaneously feel the ever-increasing weight of an ever-expanding, ever more complicated, and ever less understandable government. This will lead to discontent, which is harmful to stability, and will ultimately cause the people to believe that the government is not justified (legitimate).

In other words, complexity sacrifices transparency, and transparency is necessary for outsider scrutiny of an institution. Every effort must be made to ensure that government remains scrutable by the people such that the people can continue to pass judgment on the government – blessing it or modifying it depending on the popular judgment.

Ashcroft then asks “Why should the question be ‘what is good enough?’ rather than ‘what is best’? "

Because, in this case, the simplest solution that is good enough is best. There is a principle of diminishing returns involved in the activity of creating and evaluating a government, as there is such a principle involved in all human activities. There is always a point at which it is better to implement our current best guess rather than expend the additional time and resources to obtain a real, but minimal and marginal benefit.

Further, for the reasons asserted in my first post and above, the best government is not always the most effective government. There are real benefits to simplicity, especially in a democracy. Simple things are easier for simple people to understand – and democracy is committed to the inclusion of everyone, including simple people. Further, the more complicated something is, the more opportunities there are for something to go wrong. (The more parts something has, the more likely is it to break because there are more parts that can break). Therefore, there is a real loss when this simplicity is sacrificed to other goals – and that sacrifice can (and I think usually does) outweigh the minimal and marginal benefits of complexity.

To argue this by poetic quotation:

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down
where we ought to be,
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained
to bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
to turn, turn, will be our delight
till by turning, turning we come round right.

Ashcroft concludes

“I do not think that this argument holds either: in answering the question, "what problems are best solved by governments", one must of course take into account not only all the benefits of governmental action, but also all the potential drawbacks, including the possibility that time-limited institutions will overstay their welcome and start misbehaving. That possibility, along with all the other potential problems that governments have or can create, is required to be contempleated in the answer, and do not, therefore, mandate a different question. The rule that you suggest above also will tend to result in worse outcomes, since it will exclude from consideration the possibility that, in a given set of circumstances, the drawbacks of private action will outweigh the drawbacks of government action.”

First, I am not committed to the idea that we should privilege private action over governmental action in all cases. I firmly believe that there are problems that cannot be effectively resolved by private action. Those are the very problems I describe as crying out for governmental action. However, I do privilege private action on the margins because private action, as informal, does not tend to produce institutions which take on a life of their own. Private solutions are far less likely than are governmental institutions to outlive their utility, and, all other things being equal, private solutions must be preferred for that reason. However, this observation does not force me to try for private solutions to problems that require governmental intervention. Further, merely because a problem requires governmental intervention, that intervention should be as simple and transparent as possible.

The problem with Ashcroft’s argument is that it asks us to do the impossible. We are not omniscient, or even prescient. We cannot consider all potential problems. Rather, if there is anything we can be sure of, it is that we are missing something – and that the thing we are missing is probably going to cause problems for us later. In the face of this sad reality of human limitation, we should aim towards general solutions to problems because these solutions are easier to understand, implement and monitor.

Perhaps perfect government is better than limited, but effective government in the abstract, but imperfect people cannot create perfect institutions. We are imperfect people, and we must accept our limitations and do the best we can. This means that we should create a government that is good enough and then constantly strive to make it better. This achievement is not merely reasonable and proper for us – it has a nobility of its own in its constant striving to be better despite the knowledge that we will never reach the end of effort."


Let's keep things simple enough to be fair, substantive enough to be effective, and insightful enough to be good.

Return to “The Simplicity Party”