Ted Goranson - Personal Blog

The blog of Ted Goranson. This is both a personal blog and an ongoing update on his projects.

Government as a Selforganizing System

Published: 22 Feb 2012
Revised: 10 Mar 2012

Edited on 10 Mar 2012: Added a section at the end on ‘Narrative.’

Everybody thinks about and often complains about their political system. I've done this automatically at times, meaning that I've done it without deep thinking about first principles. But when I am in my right sorts, I do like to go to the bottom and re-examine just what I think and why — I do this about everything.

We do have a responsibility to ourselves to renew our dearest concepts from time to time, and here it occurs to me that we owe it to each other to do so.

That's by way of introducing some thoughts about political systems in general. The ideas are meant to apply anywhere, but as I live in the US — and because there is some relevant US history — some of the examples may seem parochial to those in other countries. The history is rather simple, really. The so-called Enlightenment produced an infusion of ideas following the tides of scientific thought and reason-by-logic. One collection of these ideas happened to fall amongst the intellectuals forming what is is now the US, resulting in the first — one could say first modern — system of government based on the notion of a social contract amongst its constituents.

I like to state it this way because I have a hierarchy of concepts behind the notions, and “all men are created equal” is probably not as good a starting point for this hierarchy than that we have a social compact. Seen this way, the original US system is the first significant political system designed to be both introspective and selforganizing. It is introspective in the sense that the elements (the citizens) governed by the system are ‘inside,’ subject to the laws and also ‘outside,’ creating the laws.

By a similar dynamic, it is selforganizing because there is effectively no universal force outside the system that structures it. Stated differently: all the laws and ideas come from us. Said even another way: contrary to what some religious fundamentalists claim, the system is wholly invented and did not come from any God.

This post is about the nature of government as an introspective selforganizing system among humans and human enterprises. Elsewhere, I use this structure to explore similarly introspectiveselforganizing systems of concepts as I speculate on a next generation of science.

The Social Compact

Whether explicit or not, the social compact that government covers can be divided into four roles.

  • Thecompact covers keeping us safe: safe from other governments, affront from criminals and our government itself. It further covers public health and the safety of what we encounter (food, drugs, water, air...).
  • It adjudicates and protects rights, an abstract and elusive concept. Generally, the concepts of ‘liberty’ and self-determination are included (inherited from earlier practices in commerce). Fundamental rights are the right to believe and say as one wishes with limits under only extreme circumstances. Which other rights are included in the charter are a matter which has its own section below.
  • It moderates commerce. The government maintains the concepts of currency and trade. In so doing, a complex system of finance and law is maintained, but the goal is the intuitive predictableaccretion of value.
  • It provides an identity narrative, essential to the stability of a society.

Note that in breaking out these four roles, we have not mentioned justice, regulation and voting. Those are means to the ends.

About Rights

My breakdown of ‘rights.’

Okay, so here goes. You should be warned, I suppose, that I intend to use this same structure for approaching introspective self-organizing systems wherever I encounter them, be it in thinking about my nation’s government, virtual enterprise ‘governance,’ the nature of scientific systems or how information flows.

I suppose such a framework — such a social compact — to have three levels of agreement. (All the examples here are from government.)

  • The first level consists of those concepts that are irreducible, so basic to the idea of a social system that they seem inseparable from nature. An example may be that human identity is special and should be protected. Another example follows from the concept of a social compact: if every element is equally affected by the system, each element should be able to mold and adjust the compact; in other words: one person, one vote.
  • The second level consists of concepts that may not have apparently emerged from nature, but that seem essential for any system to work. An example might be: people will not be allowed to kill each other.

Conceptually, the first may be considered definitions of elements or principles where the second is dynamics or constraints. Put in constitutional terms, the first come from existence (‘all people are to be considered the same in the compact’) and the second from behavior (‘no personal should harm another’).

In practice, the first and second groups of concepts may merge, and people can collaborate freely without worrying about how the others populate these two boxes. But the difference is important when judging complex situations; most of these arise from a conflict of ‘rights,’ and you need some sort of ordering so that you can reason about which is more fundamental. For example, for several decades in the US, the right of property was considered more basic than the right to individual self-determination, with the Supreme Court supporting the ownership of one human by another!

  • A third level of the social compact is comprised of concepts that are not at all essential to the social compact, but which reinforce the compact, making it more sustainable and rewarding. A good example in government systems is infrastructure. The ‘right to a road’ is not generally considered a basic human right. But it makes manifest sense to have the collective government build and maintain roads (and similar infrastructure).

Now, each individual may have a different notion of what belongs in each box, or if a specific concept belongs at all. I tend toward a minimal assignment at the top; for instance, I believe there is no fundamental right to adequate health care. So where others might put this in the first category, I would put it in the third: because no one else can provide roads, primary education, sanitary, police/fire, national defense, food safety and health services as efficiently and effectively as some government agency supported by the social compact.

My Sorting of Rights

So if I have a minimalist approach to what goes in those top two boxes, what goes there?

I think the first box has only a few essentials, which correlate to individuals and agency. I would say only two:

  • Individuals are recognized as the first class element (‘citizen’ in the real sense) of the collaborative system

8 Individuals are to have autonomous agency in the system, system-wide, except as constrained by the social compact.

I’m writing them in this abstract manner because these principles will also apply in enterprise, mathematical and scientific contexts. In the government context, these would have the effect of enfranchising power in the system. (The vote is merely a polling process. Other powers of influence besides the vote exist, including the powers of argument and finance.)

Included is the right to generally be left alone, which in the US has the magical word ‘liberty’ (and sometimes the less fulfilled ‘privacy.’) attached. Stated this way, the first box subsumes a list of rights that might be derived, including the right to aggregate with whomever and however opportunistically (including religious organizations), and the right to believe whatever is desired.

Notice here we don’t mention speech, because ‘agency’ goes further than the first box. We’ll come to interaction within the system in the second box and later when we talk about national narratives. So, those two simple concepts cover what many would consider the basics, and what some would call ‘natural law.’

The second box generally has to do with concepts that govern order and interaction within the system. Here is where some rules about minimal harm reside, harm to individuals and their agency. Protecting individuals is easy to see: no murder, assault, battery or (possibly) harassment. In practical terms, protecting ‘agency’ for most people means their stuff won’t be stolen, nor their businesses unduly hampered. But for some individuals this would extend to the reach and effect of intellectual property and reputation.

Order also applies to order in commerce, and this is why in many enterprises (like corporations) are considered bona fide elements in the system. In the US, they have more first class status than I would allow: for instance, the relatively unconstrained ability to affect the nature of the compact by lobbying and politicking.

My parsimonious statements of the concepts in the second box governing order would be:

  • ‘Agency’ of individuals and their determined aggregations are recognized and defined.
  • The effects and effectiveness of this agency are protected by the compact (unless otherwise explicitly constrained by the compact).

So this protects property, because that is what the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is for some people. But for others it comes to how they project themselves into the society, as artists, scientists, engineers and merchants. (Perhaps there are no otherpublic roles.)

Governance of Social Convenience

The third box consists of roles assigned to different aggregations at various levels: city, state and national governments, corporations and what in the US are considered non-profit enterprises (which includes religious organizations). In this box are the vast number of agreements in the compact.

What discriminates these is the quality that they are not essential, but by common agreement the compact becomes more liveable — more sustainable — by assigning tasks by the collective to some of these organizations. For example, we agree to allow an organization (in the US, the Departments of Defense and State) representing the compact to maintain an army, conduct ‘foreign’ policy and wage war on our behalf, so long as it fits with all the other elements of the self-organized system.

Postal, police, transportation, health and many other services are in this box. There is no inherent right to universal and efficient mail, but we have government do it because it is desirable and other means are unacceptably compromised.

This hierarchy helps me sort out what I want to invest in and expect out of my social contract.

For example, in the US, we have a testy dialog about abortion. As with many issues, it is a collision of rights, nominally the right of a woman to be left alone versus the possible right of the fetus as a citizen to not be harmed. The law as it currently stands is fine with me: bearing a child is a protected activity of a woman until some point at which that child can be said to be scientifically determined to be independent from its mother.

The debate on health care is similarly clarified. I recognize no intrinsic right of every citizen to good health care. But it does seem that a good social compact that recognizes the equality of all should build a system that protects their welfare including health. It is not a right, as much as a collective decision on what is efficient to produce results.

This methodology allows me to logically suss out opinions on any political issue and avoid the two greatest dangers: that of being swept up in collective hysteria, and that of holding opinions without thinking them through.

Now, all this palaver may be marginally interesting — so far as how I think about where I stand and act with regard to the government. But the same basic notions can be applied to self-organizing enterprises, which are themselves systems of self-interested individuals and their chosen aggregations. I also apply much the same approach to more abstract systems of introspective self-organization.

It helps greatly that I can apply the same notions across domains because each domain is one that when stretched as we do, subsumes everything.

As I’ve described it, the system is simple because it is formed logically — and later I will extend this to explicit mathematics. Truth is based on evidence and cause is based on logical connectives. All should be fine in my now clean mind, right?

Well, the point of this note and indeed the centerpiece of all my work is that this is not enough. No indeed; these are systems of humans and humans do use logic, but they do not base most of their beliefs and actions on logic. They/we/I rely instead on what we call narratives, which can be thought of as normally understood narratives placed in the context of self-organizing systems. We write elsewhere about the peculiar qualities of such narratives, their structures and dynamics. Here, I'll make some observations about governments and enterprises. Elsewhere will be some related speculations about a science of and based on information.

I include in the category of engineers most professionals: doctors, lawyers, politicians, teachers and managers. In my type system, very, very few would qualify as scientists and artists (which I consider much the same); nearly everyone otherwise adding to society by previously established methods would be classed engineers.

The vast majority of the other useful citizens are merchants (including bankers, clerks and non-professional service providers).

Some large class are non-contributors.

About Identity Narratives

Some observations on narratives through the lens of national narratives.

Narrative changes everything. We keep the logical part of whatever we do, but add this notion that has additional dynamics that often override (or supplement) the logical machinery.

An ample discussion of this ranges far and wide; this note has simple ambitions: to illustrate the notion in the context of national governance so as to underscore the concept for the enterprise engineering community. We are in the process — the very early stages — of building a science base for next generation enterprise infrastructure. We have three challenges in this; apparently they all are meeting resistance among the community of engineers that currently comprise the practitioner base:

  • We need an actual science base, one that reveals underlying causal mechanisms so that we can reason about the real world and build well founded next generation tools to support business models we have not yet seen. Getting this idea across to engineers is frustrating in any discipline but seems unnecessarily costly in enterprise engineering.
  • On building the science base, we need to address the unhappy fact that these are introspective systems and ideally self-organizing ones. The bright minds of the industrial sectors, its financial foundations and the engineers that support them is a huge resource, absolutely huge and collectively clever. Once harnessed, they can focus on the tenets of a science base, but find that it is not as straightforward as it seems. Physics as a template still has profound open issues; biology as a more relevant template (because of its self-organizing dynamics) is by some measures fundamentally in crisis. So just getting the logic right will be a grand challenge.
  • And then there is this, that the logical foundations normally associated with a science base are not enough. There is this business of an extra narrative logic, something like a second reasoning system that acts like a logic but isn’t logical in the ordinary sense.

National Narratives

Communicating the concept in this section will be deceptively simple; the idea of political narratives is so common that it has become a trope of cable news pundits, usually applied during election cycles. The basic idea is that candidates are competing in contests and the one with the best narrative wins. This simplifies the dynamic as all news stories must —and particularly as cable news markets demand — but serves as a good enough starting point.

At this level, a narrative encapsulates the whole government, its basic goals and what has to happen to achieve those goals — all collected in a mutually understood tarball of concepts that are referenced by shorthand buzzwords and phrases.

One narrative may be that the US is in decline because (some) of the people are devolving into sin, consisting of an assault on (a specific interpretation of) the Bible. This narrative focuses on sex, specifically types of promiscuity and deviance with sometimes marginally related issues (like abortion) swept into the narrative. Because of this affront on God the nation is visited with natural and economic disasters. This narrative has our state of affairs as a recent one because the nation was founded on specifically Christian principles. An additional feature of the narrative has specific individuals acting as agents of the devil who must be eliminated somehow from the discourse.

There are of course many other narratives being maintained, because this is how institutions cajole something out of individuals: attention, dollars or in this case votes. Commonly associated with the example narrative are the notions that personal striving can lead to fulfillment and that enemies exist that need to be dealt with by ruthless justice.

We have a robust ecosphere of such narratives; some compete and others build on each other. Simultaneous motives from the advertising and entertainment sectors overlap on several levels: nations, societal clusters, personality groups and even individuals. A good case can be made that this last, the personal identity narrative (plus romance) is the basic stuff of it all.

The point we need to make here is that these narratives need have little to do with evidence, truth in the scientific sense, or logic. (I chose the example to highlight this faith-based narrative, but it is hardly necessary to explicitly cite religious doctrine.) Yet they interact with how we use logic in various ways; there is an entire industry devoted to trying to splice reason onto positions that are determined by the narrative alone.

This is simply how things are; narrative drives much of what we do, how we envision ourselves in the world and how we act. The fact that it gets out of hand and produces crazy opinions (like ‘Obama is a Muslim’ or that climate change is a vast hoax) doesn’t matter here. What matters is that this is real, at least in systems where humans interact. That covers thoughts about government as well as our enterprises.

What it means for me in my political thinking is straightforward: I have to understand the narratives embedded in mypsyche, why I value them and how they organize my world. Though challenging, this is among the least difficult problems that narrative presents to us.

The personal narratives I bring to political thinking are not that complex, and likely not useful to the examples. They are, however, copiously displayed on this website, and particularly in the FilmsFolded comments.

Narrative in Business Enterprises

Some examples and indications for the science base.

Narrative makes its appearance in the business enterprise in most of the same ways it does in the political situation.

  • For an enterprise to be effective, the people involved need to be invested in the health of the enterprise and the success of the outcomes. This simple dynamic has created a large industry devoted to building corporate identities that work, and techniques to maintain the investment of employees in that identity. Walmart, for example, invests more in this than they do in real estate. In other words, although hard to believe, they investmore in the human infrastructure than the physical one.
  • Paired with what can be considered an internal narrative is an external one, the narrative maintained in the customer worlds and coincident communities of interest. This latter includes capital markets, and used to be called brand management but has long been engineered as explicit narrative. Even in the case of movies, which themselves are narratives, the amount spent on advertising them is often greater than the still huge cost of production — and that counts the cost of the stars in the cost of production, though the excess payments are justified by the outer narrative.

The standard examples of this outer narrative are Apple, Harley-Davidson and Nike, each of which are said to sell a lifestyle though they make their money on products that semiotically (meaning symbolically) carry the lifestyle.

Elsewhere, we have a discussion about Apple’s infrastructure generally. Here, it should be enough to mention that Harley’s lone rebel pirate narrative is so extremely powerful that it survived two periods where the product itself was substandard. In no case can such a narrative be created from scratch; you have to find and co-opt an already living one. Because the Harley-associated narrative (and the costumes, paraphernalia and even lingo) is so closely tied to movies, it is easy to trace. In this case, the narrative fell on the motorcycle company by accident and has been simply nurtured. This is in contrast to Nike where a great deal of planning goes into their campaigns before they begin.

The key point here is that enterprises are engineered things. The enterprise engineering and management communities know this, but until now the obvious infrastructure addressed by information infrastructure (and the European projects in next generation enterprises) is old-school engineering and oblivious to the quite separate narrative engineering which is often intuitive.

We believe they need to be considered together. Supposing that we want to make life better for people who collaborate, and that we want to deliberately do so by investing in improving our understanding of the underlying sciences, then we need to consider the science of both sides simultaneously.

Enterprises Differ from Governments

Business enterprises differ from governments in ways that make the narratives more interesting:

  • in the usual case, business enterprises do discrete things: they make products or provide services that customers individually evaluate and decide to purchase. This differs from governments where there is no alternative short of revolution of some kind or expatriation. Also governments perform a variety of services that come as one package. Some of these are often invisible and rarely can any be chosen or rejected; you buy the whole package, move or enter the justice system.

The standard enterprise we focus on does something discrete: it makes a physical thing, it provides a notable service, or it performs a mission and often some combination of these three, all within the context of the enclosing narratives. This discreteness makes the narrative more easy to parse.

  • Enterprises, when they are businessenterprises, evaluate their success crudely. It is an accident of history that this is by numbers: dollars of profit (and other currency-related related metrics), percentages of market share and rate of growth in both dimensions.

But this curse of quantitative metrics makes the enterprise problem much harder. This is non-intuitive, because the very reason why this happened is that the most handy and portable way of engineering anything is to reduce the engineering to simple arithmetic. It is easy to teach, for example, and since you have to have everyone in the enterprise have some awareness of goals and success, it provides a common abstraction.

The problem is that numbers do a very bad job at modeling the inner dynamics of an enterprise — what makes it work and understanding how to make it better — are completely lost when abstracting into numbers. Said another way: the natural abstractions of enterprise dynamics are fairly complex. Some of these can be modeled by well understood logic-based tools; let’s associate that part with the existing enterprise engineering community and its quest for an underlying science. Seen this way, it is clear that the science base will focus on the principles of logic and modeling.

But the other dynamics — the ones relating to what we are calling narrative — are as far from logic as the usual dynamics are from numbers. So just as we lose all the magic of ordinary collaboration when we reduce it to numbers, so too do we lose the magic of that narrative dimension when we reduce it to (ordinary) logic. So we might as well do this right and worry about three types of science base: the science underlying the narratives that we use as our primary organizing principle, the science underlying the logic of how complex, introspective, selforganizing enterprises work (in terms of explicit principles, and the science behind the numbers that at least the investors use.

A simple example could be the movie industry. They explicitly have these three layers.

  • When they make a movie, the creative talent has its own language, a shorthand that often simply refers to other films or properties of other films. We’ll see this from the outside in the famous notion of a ‘high concept’ that is a short phrase that describes the film and which (because of the reference to other films) conveys a lot.
  • Then they have the production process. This is based on essentially a manufacturing plan, not too unlike one used for other one-off manufacturing projects. There are dependency flows, timelines, milestones and progress reports. It is sterile compared to what the creative people use, but has place-holders for their activities.
  • And finally you have the simple accounting: how much it cost and how much it makes in various ways — the boxoffice numbers.

The bottom line is that we have two interrelated science bases to worry about: the science of ordinary enterprise integration, which as we have seen is complicated enough with these introspective and self-organizing dimensions added; and the second, related science of what we might call a narrative enterprise logic that would be understood by the experts but is not reducible to ordinary logic. And the resulting system has to map to dumb arithmetic, because we aren’t going to count on the capital markets being reinvented soon.

With that background, we’ll post a new note on some suggestions of the breakdowns of principles.

This assumes that one applies common sense accounting principles, which of course large corporations don’t. It further assumes that certain mandated expenses (like some health care) and common practices (like stock options) are included when integrated into the corporate narrative. Further, these comparative expenses are in the context that the buildings and furniture cost far less than you imagine, because of large tax loopholes and local tax incentives.

We should note that these two infrastructures (human and physical) both cost less and provide less of a competitive advantage to Walmart than the other two: information infrastructure and the physical logistical system that is sistered with it. Investments and innovation in these two have made Walmart the world’s largest retailer (and incidentally the largest single importer of goods from China to the US).

When we look at the underlying science base of enterprises with their narratives, non-business enterprises are included. Assuming that health care enterprises, military, education and utilities are non-profit (as in principle they should be), then as huge as the for-profit sector is, the rest is much bigger. But there is essentially no interest in understanding or managing those types of enterprises in the formal way which is proposed for the business sector. I believe they will benefit anyway should progress be made.

Actually, the example is much more complex and illustrative than presented. Hollywood accounting is bizarrely esoteric because of the way the creative people are compensated. It is in the interest of the accountants to inflate the production costs by any excuse so as to avoid payments to the middle tier of creative talent. Thus, many profoundly successful movies still show a loss by this accounting system.

The perturbations affect the other systems as well: production schedules are often not optimized to make the cheapest, best movie by usual measures, but are tailored to peculiar, non-intuitive clauses in the contracts with the creatives. Similarly, accounting fiefdoms compete to create pockets that add cost and complexity to filming in order to protect some segments from the abuses of the studios.

The notion of introspective systems means simply that it is a system of elements, in this case humans, that is also designed and managed by (some of) the same humans. The US system was the first designed around this rather sensible idea. As it happens, a parallel system of commerce had evolved that is similarly selforganizing and introspective.

In practice, representative democracy and free market capitalism are considered one and the same — or as two parts of a whole. In this note we don’t discriminate between the two, except to note:

  • that it is the government part of the equation that makes this interesting.
  • for the virtual enterprise work, it is largely the commerce part that we leverage.

The compact referenced here is the combined compacts of national, state and local governments. At what level these issues are addressed is a common complaint from some (but only when they disagree with the decisions). For the sake of this note, assume that the compact refers to the national government.

That represents a significant change from the negotiated intent of the so-called Founding Fathers (of the US), but only in the level at which the compact would be administered. The 240 year old US Constitution limited the powers of the federal government. In reality, this was only because otherwise, the then autonomous states would not sign up.

Modern extremists believe that this limiting clause was instead because of some inspired wisdom. It is true that a reasonable idea is that the compact is best administered by smaller organizations that are ‘closer to the people.’ As a practical matter, however, the facts show that this simply does not work for this top level of the social compact.

© copyright Ted Goranson, 2012