Posted on Sat 24 June 2017

civic failure modes

Suppose that you are unhappy with the way that one of your vendors does business. You are not a dominant customer; that is, you don’t account for so much of their sales that they are willing to change their policies for you. This is the normal situation.

Welcome to asymmetrical power relationships. Your choices are:

1 avoid that particular business. Eventually you will either find a competitor that satisfies or you will run out of businesses. There are many fewer businesses in any particular service than there are potential customers, so in most cases you will end up unhappy and tired. This is the failure of Randian libertarianism.

2 spend lots of energy on collective action, finding people who agree with you and doing something about it together. Eventually you can demand reasonable accomodations on the parts of businesses in your town, but it appears that cooperatives and communes and kibbutzim and the like have a maximum workable size which is much less than the scale necessary for a modern city. This is the failure of voluntary Marxism.

3 formalize (2) into a government that enforces laws. Eventually the people who have more wealth will acquire more power, or the people who have more power will acquire more wealth. Either way, a self-perpetuating political-economic elite forms. If your government has a strong civic norm, a base level of distributed power with checks and balances, it is possible to have a dynamic system that exists for a fairly long time — two or three centuries, perhaps. The further it skews out of balance, though, the less stable it will become.


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