A reader, Will Brown, writes:
You've commented several times lately that strategy functions in chaos, not order. Would it be fair to say that a successful strategy creates apparent order amidst chaos? If so, then wouldn't society as we commonly think of such be a species of fiction that results from that strategy? If that be true then even the most successful, long-lasting strategy must endure regular societal upheavals if only as a result of other's strategic positioning. Government is the embodiement of that societal fiction, the illusion of permanence and normality that a successful strategy creates. The more effective the strategy, the more convincing the illusion and thus the more likely becomes belief in the illusion to the detriment of the strategy"s continued effectiveness. Undercutting portions of the strategy to maintain the illusion only accelerates the loss of effectiveness. The present US political climate is an example of precisely that, I submit, with a significant percentage of the population committed to manipulating the illusion while rejecting the strategy that creates it.
This thinking is right on, both that good strategy creates islands of control within chaos and that the success of a strategy leads to its downfall. However, it also raises larger issues about the strategic role of government and the modern confusion of ideas surrounding it.
Starting with basic principles, the purpose of using strategy to build up positions is to create islands of temporary order amid chaos. Strategy teaches that positions constantly erode and so they must be constantly advanced. We could talk about the illusion of stability, but we will save that for another post because I want to talk about another form of confusion, the confusion about limits and borders. This is an important concept in strategy because strategy defined an advance as crossing a border, violating a limit.
The problem in modern society is that people have forgotten how to think seriously about where the borders and limits are. Since strategy creates islands of control amid chaos, to use strategy, you have to know where your current island (position) begins and where it ends, where it can be extended and where it is being eroded. You also have to know what forces are maintaining your borders for you. For the sake of simplicity, we will reduce this discussion of forces controlling critical borders to only two: the government and the technological economy.
Governments create an island of order within human society, without which degenerates into the chaos we saw in New Orleans when the police left. The looting there began before the flooding, after Mayor Nagin told the police to take the day of the hurricane off. The violent, non-productive elements of society that cannot advance by producing value in a voluntary exchange with others took that opportunity to grab and destroy whatever they could. We pay taxes to the government because the government can maintain these social borders, our boundaries with all the strangers that might hurt us, better than we can as individuals.
There is another important boundary that we all rely upon: the boundary of our physical (not social) environment. The combination of technology and free-market economics has built another sort island defining this border, an island comfort and protection from nature unimagined only a few decades ago. We have antibiotics to kill diseases. We have air-conditioning to tame the hot and heating to tame the cold. We have cars and airplane that eliminate distance and a million machines to eliminate labor. We no longer worry about starving. Modern people have too much food, not too little. On a personal level, the economy creates opportunities for us to create value through productive ork and get physically rewarded for our efforts. People who live in the many areas of the world without free-market economics still live at the mercy of nature, but people on our island of the successful global economy are insulated from it by the fact that we are all working together. Like we depend on the government, we depend on this technology and the economy that creates and delivers it.
However, both the government's control of society and technology's control of the environment are strictly limited
. Governments can eliminate some of the most destructive people in society, but there are always destructive members who are beyond its reach. Technology may provide heating and air condition, but it cannot stop hot summers, cold winters, hurricanes, tornados, droughts, and so on. The chaos is always there. The government cannot make all people good and technology cannot prevent any of us from eventually dying. In both cases, the government and technology have boundaries to what they can and cannot control. However, in modern society, we have lost track of where those boundaries realistically are. Perhaps some of this confusion comes from the rapid advance of technology, but most of it comes from the confusion about the role and power of government.
Largely because of poor education and media reporting, people have begun to think that government maintains the borders protecting us from the physical environment. They think that the government can end all illness, eliminate poverty, control the weather, and on an on. More miraculously, it can do all these things without cost. Elect the right politicians, the media myth goes and health care and gasoline will be free and everyone would get paid better than the average wage. We all seem to instinctively realize that the economy can't do these things. After the economy is just people working together (under the control, of course, of those evil corporations). However, the illusion is that politicians are or should be demi-gods, who can control not only fix the behavior of people in society but turn our physical environment into paradise.
How destructive is this illusion? Only the future will tell. As an optimist, I tend to think that the media that fosters this myth is more at risk the most people are. I consider regular people pretty smart, especially at knowing where their self-interest lies. Expect the most interesting long-running story of Katrina to be the fraud that will arise from the government trying to "make up" for the fact that they cannot control the weather.