what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Snow and systems thinking

As I drive back from the mega Hornbach store on this side of Brasov city with a large heather-purple carpet and lots of storeage boxes for the attic, I suddenly spot the snow on the Bustegi mountains to my left at Bran! On 2 September! And when I reach home I glimpse it also on Piatre Craiului at our back. A week or so ago I was worried that I had wrongly named my blog – since a few maps I saw in recent books named this part of the mountain range The Transylvanian Alps. But I am now reassured that this is indeed part of the Carpathian range which stretches in an incredible arc from Serbia east, north and then west to Slovakia. Nick Crane did a book on his walk across all the Alps – including these- and it’s about time I read it.
As I pass through my neighbour’s small farm/guest house (they very kindly allow me to leave my car parked at their front) I pick up 2 litres of the Maramures palinka they have bought for me – powerful stuff at 4 euros a litre!

One of my ambitions recently has been to try to understand the practical implications of the systems way of thinking – for example what it might mean for government policy-making. I was vaguely aware of it in the 1970s from my link with the Tavistock Institute and was reminded of it first in the 1990s by Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and, more recently, by John Seddon’s critique of the command and control regimes.
The insight about interconnectedness – caught in the famous observation that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the planet can cause a storm on the other side – seems profoundly conservative. If things are so complex, then best to leave well alone ie minimize government interventions. And that is certainly the message of James Scott’s Seeing like a State – how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed which has become a recent classic. One reviewer summed it up excellently -
It begins with a romp through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German forestry--and the failure of the foresters to understand the ecology of the forests that they were trying to manage. It continues with a brief digression on how states tried to gain control of their populations through maps, boulevards, and names.
These are prequels to a vicious and effective critique of what Scott calls "high modernism": the belief that the planner--whether Le Corbusier designing a city, Vladimir Lenin designing a planned economy, or Julius Nyerere "villagizing" the people of Tanzania--knows best, and can move humans and their lives around on as if on a chessboard to create utopia.
Then a chapter on agriculture in developing economies that characterizes agricultural extension efforts from the first to the third world as analogous to Lenin's nationalization of industry, or Nyerere's forced resettlement of Tanzanians. But the targets -- the agricultural extenders who dismiss established practices -- lose solidity and become shadows. They are no longer living, breathing, powerful rulers,; instead they are the "credo of American agriculture," the "catechism of high- modernist agriculture," the "high-modernist aesthetic and ideology of most colonial trained agronomists and their Western-trained successors" -- truly straw men.
The conclusion is a call for social systems that recognize the importance of what Scott calls "metis": a Greek word for the practical knowledge that a skilled and experienced worker has of his craft. Most such practical knowledge cannot be easily summarized and simple rules, and much of it remains implicit: the devil is in the details.
T he key fault of "high modernism," as Scott understands it, is its belief that details don't matter -- that planners can decree from on high, people obey, and utopia results. Scott's declarations of the importance of the detailed practical knowledge possessed by the person-on-the-spot -- of how such knowledge cannot be transmitted up any hierarchy to those-in-charge in a way to do any good--of how the locus of decision-making must remain with those who have the craft to understand the situation--of how any system that functions at all must create and maintain a space in which there is sufficient flexibility for craftsmen to exercise their metis (even if the hierarchs of the system pretend not to notice this flexibility)--all of these strike an economist as very, very familiar.
All of these seem familiar to economists because they are the points made by Ludwig von Mises (1920) and Friedrich Hayek (1937) and the other Austrian economists in their pre-World War II debate with socialists over the possibility of central planning. Hayek's adversaries--Oskar Lange and company--argued that a market system had to be inferior to a centrally-planned system: at the very least, a centrally-planned economy could set up internal decision-making procedures that would mimic the market, and the central planners could also adjust things to increase social welfare and account for external effects in a way that a market system could never do. Hayek, in response, argued that the functionaries of a central-planning board could never succeed, because they could never create both the incentives and the flexibility for the people-on-the-spot to exercise what Scott calls metis.
Today all economists--even those who are very hostile to Hayek's other arguments (that government regulation of the money supply lies at the root of the business cycle, that political attempts to reduce inequalities in the distribution of income lead to totalitarianism, that the competitive market is the "natural spontaneous order" of human society) -- agree that Hayek and company hit this particular nail squarely on the head.
Looking back at the seventy-year trajectory of Communism, it seems very clear that Hayek (and Scott) are right: that its principal flaw is its attempt to concentrate knowledge, authority, and decision-making power at the center rather than pushing the power to act, the freedom to do so, and the incentive to act productively out to the periphery where the people-on-the-spot have the local knowledge to act effectively.
In short, by the end of his book James Scott has argued himself into the intellectual positions adopted by Friedrich Hayek back before World War II. Yet throughout the book Scott appears to be ignorant that the intellectual terrain which he has reached has already been well-explored
A whole book is available online about the implications of systems thinking for management.

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