Belmont Club

Governance in the 21st Century

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

While many agree that institutions are in a crisis there is less consensus about what happens afterward, if and when the crisis is resolved. How will the brave new world look? To answer this question is necessary to advance a hypothesis about the causes of our present troubles.

One theory advanced in an AEI paper by Leo Linbeck is that burgeoning complexity has overloaded existing structures into collapse. Intrinsically human beings can only operate within a range of complexity described by the Dunbar Number. “We can maintain stable social relationships with around 150 people—Dunbar’s number, named after British anthropologist Robin Dunbar … the size of [an infantry] company … the upper limit on the number of shareholders of a family business… Congress when political parties first emerged … Dunbar showed that even if you had a million Facebook “friends,” you really have about only 150 real friends … For better or worse, we live … in Dunbar-sized tribes.”

But companies need some way to become battalions, regiments and armies.  Going beyond Dunbar tribes requires the familiar formal, hierarchical systems — law and government for example.  Yet even these are now falling down around us.  The explanation is that the systems have gotten so complicated they are folding under their own weight.

When the United States Constitution was written in 1789, the US population was about four million people. By … by 2010 [it] was more than 300 million. Along the way, the number of laws and regulations has exploded … The first Congress passed laws that totaled 225 pages. … In 2015, the Federal Register had grown to 81,402 pages. … When Linus Torvalds published … Linux … in 1991, it had 10,239 lines of code. By … June 2015, [it] had more than 19.5 million lines of code and 14,000 contributors. It is safe to say that no human being has read every page of the Federal Register or every line of Linux code. Both of these systems are way beyond the scale of a single person.

We simply can’t deal with this. Linbeck argues that “this complexity must be managed by employing a number of strategies” besides augmenting them with subsystems since “we do not reduce complexity if we create additional subsystems but still control everything from the center. In fact, it makes the complexity  problem worse.” A way must be found to get intelligence and initiative to the outer nodes away from the center.

To solve the problem he advocates a solution from computer science: abstraction. “In programming, interaction between components is managed through an interface. Higher-order components, for instance,  cannot directly access and modify the properties of lower-order components—they must access those properties through the interface of that lower-order component. This rule—which, perhaps counterintuitively, limits the power of the higher-order  component—is a way to keep complexity under control.”

Linbeck calls the gradual replacement of unwieldy complexity by local, componentized action ‘greenfield refactoring’, a method of finding a way to return America to the Constitutional spec way without being weighed down by legacy bureaucracy.  “There is a problem with making these big transitions from older systems: They often break special features that users have added to their system. As a result, software companies rarely if ever force users to upgrade their system. Instead, they announce the availability of the upgrade and then allow users to choose when to make the switch and allow application developers to update and upgrade their systems to adapt to the new code base.”

Christine Peterson, Mark S. Miller , and Allison Duettmann of Google proposed a nearly identical concept of system renewal called ‘genetic takeover’.

In a genetic takeover, the new system is grown within the existing system without directly competing with the existing system. The new system can coexist with the existing system, work in a world dominated by the existing system, and be competitive in that world. Once the new system comes to be widespread enough, one can start to shift over to the new system, and the previous system eventually becomes obsolete. A real-world analogy can be drawn with how society has adapted to earthquake risk. Faced with an installed base of existing, unsafe building infrastructure, instead of requiring an immediate demolition and reconstruction, building codes are written to require earthquake reinforcement to be done on a gradual basis as other renovations take place. Over time, the installed base becomes much safer.

These ideas for handling complexity are pretty straightforward and are remarkably similar those I advanced in my own short book, Open Curtains.

Vitalik Buterin‘s February 2017 paper on The Meaning of Decentralization is a reminder that this ‘greenfield refactoring’ or ‘genetic takeover’ is not simply a pipe dream.   In many respects it is already underway! He arrives at the same argument for subsidiarity but by a different though equivalent route. “Why is decentralization useful in the first place? … efficiency … fault tolerance … attack resistance … collusion resistance.” The biggest feature of Buterin’s analysis is the specific attention he pays to the dangers of collusion and information warfare in the emerging componentized world.

In the modern world, adversarial conflict is increasingly becoming distributed, and large expensive defensive infrastructure such as castles and walls, popular in the medieval era, falls quickly to modern weaponry, and the only solutions that still work have to do with removing single points of failure and relying on defense in depth. Cybersecurity is no different; a system that costs $10 million to build is certainly not ten times more secure than a system that costs $1 million to build, but a network of ten systems, where you need to take down five in order to bring down the whole system altogether, is most secure of all.

Finally, we can get to perhaps the most intricate argument of the four, collusion resistance. Collusion is difficult to define; perhaps the only truly valid way to put it is to simply say that collusion is “coordination that we don’t like”. There are many situations in real life where even though having perfect coordination between everyone would be ideal, one sub-group being able to coordinate while the others cannot is dangerous. One simple example is antitrust law — deliberate regulatory barriers that get placed in order to make it more difficult for participants on one side of the marketplace to come together and act like a monopolist and get outsized profits at the expense of both the other side of the marketplace and general social welfare. Another example is rules against active coordination between candidates and super-PACs in the United States, though those have proven difficult to enforce in practice. A much smaller example is a rule in some chess tournaments preventing two players from playing many games against each other to try to raise one player’s score. No matter where you look, attempts to prevent undesired coordination in sophisticated institutions are everywhere. Blockchains are interesting because they allow many participants to coordinate in a highly automated way, without creating pathways for high levels of social coordination that could later on, for example, be used to form a cartel.

From this survey we can return to our original question: what is at the end of the tunnel after the crisis? The most likely answer is that the current hierarchical systems, including big Siren Servers like Facebook, will devolve into distributed systems with consensus interfaces through a process of ‘greenfield refactoring’ or ‘genetic takeover’  — whatever you prefer to call it.

In that world you will still be a citizen, parent, a member of several communities, a member of a church and a friend.  But under the hood things will work differently.  Ideally the individual will own much more of his output and be far more in control of his destiny.

The giant systems of which Washington DC, the Kremlin and the European Union are the archetype will be disruptively challenged.  Today they are huge, imposing and outwardly imposing, yet from a functional perspective they are “a cut flower in a vase; fair to see, yet bound to die”.

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For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.


The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This book reveals the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, we will realize immense bounty but also experience wrenching change. Professions of all kinds – from lawyers to truck drivers – will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die. Recent economic indicators reflect this shift: fewer people are working, and wages are falling even as productivity and profits soar. Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, MIT’s Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and a new path to prosperity.

Open Curtains: What if Privacy were Property not only a Right, by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. This book is a proposal for bringing privacy to the internet by assigning monetary value to data. The image of “open curtains” is meant to suggest a system that allows different degrees of privacy, controlled by the owner. The “curtains” may be open, shut, or open to various degrees depending on which piece of data is being dealt with. Ultimately, what is at stake is governance. We are en route to control of society by and for the few rather than by and for the many, because currently the handful of mega tech companies are siphoning up everyone’s data, for nothing, and selling it. Under the open curtains proposal, government would also pay for its surveillance in the form of tax rebates, providing at least some incentive for government to minimize its intrusions … (from a review by E. Greenwood).

Skin in the Game, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his new work, Taleb uses the phrase “skin in the game” to introduce a complex worldview that applies to literally all aspects of our lives. “Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will profit and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them,” he says. In his inimitable style, he pulls on everything from Antaeus the Giant to Hammurabi to Donald Trump to Seneca to the ethics of disagreement to create a jaw-dropping tapestry for understanding our world in a brand new way.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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