Broken systems and the danger of elitism

If a system is broken, can we fix it?

Put aside for a moment any logistical concerns. Let’s not worry about galvanizing enough people to demand reform or finding the financial capital to make it happen. Imagine we have every resource at our disposal.

If a system is broken, can we fix it?

If our education system is deeply flawed – as many believe that it is – can we resolve those flaws? Are there ideal solutions to inequity, divergent needs, or bullying?

Okay, ideal solutions might be going a bit far, but surely there are better solutions. Surely we can improve upon the mess that we have now? And, perhaps, with a few iterations of tinkering and improvement, we’ll somehow stumble upon a system as perfect as the realities of a complex world will allow.

That would be nice.

And it certainly seems logical. If something is broken – particularly a social system designed by people in the first place – it’s only reasonable that people should work to fix it.

But we should pause to ask ourselves – why is that system broken in the first place?

Was it simply designed poorly? Or perhaps designed without the realities of modern life in mind? Was is designed by an elite few who thought they knew best, but who ultimately dove in way above their heads – not really understanding others’ needs and not appreciating the complex ways systems intertwine?

And there’s the rub.

It’s fine to look at systems and say that they’re broken. Education. Healthcare. Housing. Financial systems. Political systems. Maternity leave. The DMV. We all know they’re broken.

But how do we fix them?

How do we make them better?

Can we make them better?

Or will a butterfly flap its wings and will one well intentioned change – prohibition, for example – result in a shocking rise in crime and the normalization of mobster life?

It’s easy to look back and criticize.

The founding fathers were all wealthy white men who lived 200 years ago. Brilliant and thoughtful and enlightened though they may be – they didn’t speak for me. How could they possibly create systems that would work today? Systems that would work for me?

Of course they designed it wrong, and of course I should work to fix it.

But there’s a danger in that thinking as well. What if I design it wrong? What if I design it worse?

What if you and I and all our neighbors come together, think long and hard and critically. What if we design the best system we can think of – and it still doesn’t work?

What if there are simply limits to the human capacity to create perfect systems?

To be clear, I wouldn’t advocate that we do nothing. I cannot abide stagnation and we should always push ourselves towards improvement.

But we should take that leap with caution. We should recognize our limits – personally and collectively. We should recognize that we can’t solve all the world’s problems, though we can work every day to address them.

Humanity has no enlightened saviors, coming down to relieve all our woes. Homo ex machina.

Working within your own community may make you more of an expert, but still, there are simply limits to human reason. None of us can possibly predict the next Wall St. crash nor the next car crash. The systems are too complex for us.

So please, work to make the world better. Work to make your communities better. Do everything you can and push for the best changes you can. But accept that none of those changes will be perfect. Some will even be bad.

At the end of the day, we’re all just imperfect people in an imperfect society – doing the best that we can to make a perfect world.

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