Should you be a customer or an active shaper of the system?

3 Nov

My friend Jason, who did Decision Sciences with me at the LSE, wrote an interesting note today about the complexities of various forms of governance. One of the themes was the need to manage the balance between giving some actors the authority to govern but at the same time preventing them from misusing this power for personal benefits. It exposed many problems the world still faces despite having spent thousands of years trying to figure out the best configuration. Being an Iranian who grew up in Canada he could approach the topic from many perspectives.

One of the questions I am asking myself a lot in this context is what should be the level and direction of my involvement.

Should we on one extreme take the system as something external and interact with it only as a ‘customer’ where and when necessary or try to actively shape it for others given the privilege of our education and background?

This is a question everybody should be asking himself/herself. I believe it is our responsibility to be the shapers. Our impact can range from small every day actions to engineering wide systemic reforms.

When I asked Jason this question, he offered a great reply. I like it so much in fact, that I am sharing it here with you here to read in full.

I think that’s one of the most important questions a conscious individual in any point in time has to think about. I’m going to link this with my original post, in that your decision if we simplify your problem in being dichotomous, can be clarified if you think of yourself as an individual given the individual freedoms democratic systems are posited to provide, and that there is a marketplace of ideas existent empowered by the fundamental right of freedom of speech and the right to disseminate information.

I think it’s important not to take anything as a given and simply look at the system as something external, because the system in itself is born out of and is bettered (or made worst) because of each individual agent’s interaction with it. What I can tell you is this, from a normative position, you have ideas on how to better your world around you and in turn the system for your compatriots. Since, individual sovereignty allows you freedom of speech and others to listen to you and make choices on whether they agree or disagree with you, you should as a ‘privileged’ individual place your idea into a marketplace of ideas. Once again, consumer sovereignty then (with uninhibited freedom of speech), allows others to understand your propositions and make choices. Then, people would rally around you and you can gain the momentum you need to make that choice.

In the real world, this is extremely difficult. What I would tell you is this. I think you should use your ‘privileged position’ and interact with the system to understand it first, then you should gain the necessary power and influence through interaction with key agents in putting your idea at the forefront. Then you hold the key to gaining the momentum you need for real change. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t quite work like that and its mainly because of a phenomenon called the ‘capture hypothesis’.

Many like you, began wanting to make things better and proactively change distortions and divergence from a truly democratic and economically free system, observed the system and learned of how to gain access (rights?) to make changes, but having reached that position been captured, simply because their self-interest becomes overwhelming. You spend time with those with power and influence to change things, so much so that you begin to see eye to eye with them.

I think the important thing to realize is finding that balance between self-interest and public interest first and developing a set of principles for yourself to such an extent that you’re sure you won’t fall prey to the capture hypothesis, then go on the journey of trying to gain the position and implement changes. The cynic in me tells me that self-interest always wins and since self-interest is the bedrock of democratic systems and its economic sub-systems, the whole issue becomes a catch 22. Something to think about though. I think effort should be allocated to limiting divergence from the system fundamentals and not necessarily making large changes. No one, until today, has experienced the full power of democratic rule and free market enterprise.


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