Take No Prisoners

Why The World is So Screwed Up

Why is the healthcare industry hemorrhaging money? Why is the military being used to fight ideas, when ideas can’t be killed by bullets? Why is the legislature unable to make laws that make sense? How can 12 years of basic education produce an unthinking populace? How can a man believe in his god, but not in himself? How can the “free” market enslave humanity to rational immorality?

In the immortal words of every cynical, sardonic, apathetic adolescent, the world is fucked up.

And it’s not because of stupidity, religion, avarice, sadism, immorality, hedonism, drugs, terrorism, global warming, the clash of cultures, imperialism, abuse of power, overuse of force, or the flying spaghetti monster. It’s not because people are born good or evil or gullible or jealous or greedy or reckless or lazy or irrational or too rational or emotional or idealistic or straight-jacket-crazy.

The true cause is subtle. Far. More. Subtle.

In every developed nation, human existence is regulated by laws. Each law is written by lawmakers, most of whom are ex-lawyers elected to political office, often for a short time. The system of laws has thus haphazardly grown, been trimmed back, grown some more, and eventually become inextricably intertwined in a self-contradictory, indecipherable, regulatory labyrinth. And every once in awhile some wannabe Theseus comes charging in to kill the minotaur at its center, only to find that there is no minotaur, just a bunch of people doing their best. The problem, you see, is not simply that laws are long and confusing and interconnected in ways no one understands.

The first part of the problem is that laws imply the design of the systems that enact them. The education acts imply the structure and makeup of schools, academic programs and school boards. The healthcare legislation implies the configuration of the hospitals, physicians, insurance companies, pharmacists and pharmaceutical companies that comprise the healthcare system. The economy, military, political process, police force, and even the neighborhoods in which we live are structured and organized according to legislation.

The second part of the problem is that lawmakers are primarily experts in lawmaking; NOT experts in education, healthcare, economics or any other domain for which they are designing the system! The rules pharmaceutical companies must abide by are predominantly written and voted on by people who don’t know anything about chemistry, biology, scientific research or medicine. The rules of the economy are written and voted on by people who don’t know anything about economics, labor markets, business ethics or financial markets. Doesn’t this explain why the copyright legislation is so screwed up?

The third part of the problem is that lawmakers have no expertise in the design of complex systems. Knowing lots about buildings doesn’t make you an architect – you have to know how to match the design of a building to a specific purpose. An expert in design knows how to make the form fit the environment. This is the same reason so much open-source software has poor interfaces. Being a great programmer does not imply knowing anything about designing interfaces. Similarly, being a great lawyer does not imply knowing anything about structuring a taxation system to empower, not oppress, a people.

We as the developed world asked lawyers, people who’ve spent their careers writing legal briefs and coming up with arguments, to design the socially-constructed, artificial reality we inhabit. It’s not their fault they’ve done a piss poor job. They were, and are, completely unqualified! Honestly, what the fuck were we thinking?

To drive the design of a social system through the legislative process, three kinds of knowledge are needed: knowledge of laws and lawmaking, knowledge of the social system in question, and knowledge of design. For example, if we want to write a bill about healthcare, we need: 1) someone who understands the system of laws (a lawyer), 2) someone who understands healthcare (a physician), and 3) someone who understands how to structure a complex system to meet certain goals (a designer).

To take a more complicated example, consider copyright legislation. Since copyright involves ethics, money, intellectual property, information technology, taxes, cryptography, marketing, engineering, the culture of young people, the parent/child legal relationship, criminal penalties… holy shitballs! Besides a lawyer and a designer, we’d need a whole panel of experts to design a sensible copyright system and embed it in legislation. But does the government bring in a panel of experts? No. The laws are written by lawyers and lobbyists.

Every major social system that constrains human existence is designed at the highest level by people who have no clue how to design anything, who aren’t experts in the things they’re designing.

And that’s why the world is so screwed up.


  • Andrew Camp
    Posted September 15, 2008 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    This article is brilliant. It is a great, quick, and nicely worded view. It really stays away from scapegoating and displays excellent formation of ideas. I would give a standing ovation if this were a speech.

    Perhaps you could also write an article on how a system that isn’t entirely fucked up would function? Make it a multi-part series like the articles on drug usage?

  • Rick
    Posted September 16, 2008 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    @Kavan – Thanks for the well thought out and articulate piece.

    While you’ve admirably pointed out a serious flaw in the way our system of laws/legislation are developed, I disagree with your assertion – “And it’s not because of stupidity, religion, avarice, sadism, immorality, hedonism, drugs, …etc.”
    Any system (insert your own analogy), will only be as good as the people who run, support and manage it.

  • Posted September 16, 2008 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Flawless description of a problem…but no solution?

  • Posted September 16, 2008 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    @Andrew, many thanks. Follow-ups are in the works

    @Rick, Ever go to MacDonald’s? I avoid it like the plague myself, but if you happen to go there, you will find that nobody working in a typical MacDonald’s is particularly intelligent, skilled or talented. The manager doesn’t have an MBA, and you’ll be lucky if the staff can add without a cash register. However, the place runs in an effective and efficient manner (mostly). Why? Because a well-designed system doesn’t need heroes to operate it.

    @Jonathan, very true. One of the underlying premises of engineering design is that one should keep one should understanding the problem first. What I’m describing is among the most challenging problems ever to face humanity. It cannot be solved quickly, easily or in sound bites.

  • Posted September 16, 2008 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    This is a great post! I don’t know if you’ve ever traveled outside of the so-called “developed world” but you can see clearly the situation you described if you look at the way cities “grow” in most places in the world. In Manila, for example, only a very small segment of the sprawling metropolis that exists today was “planned.” The bulk of it grew out of squatter communities and the needs of a growing population, so streets were established, small towns elected mayors, each segment of the population focusing on their immediate individualized needs so that, in the end, you end up with a pretty chaotic city that, like the laws you were talking about, has a labyrinthine characteristic.

    Perhaps the law needs some sort of master plan, like cities need urban planning?

  • Posted September 17, 2008 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    That is probably the most concise, logical explanation of the problem with modern legislative systems I have ever read.

    Ergo, it will probably go over the vast majority of people’s heads. 😉

  • Posted September 17, 2008 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    @Anthony, Yes, I have traveled outside the developed world, and have lived in places that grew in just the manner you describe. On the other hand, I am hesitant to advocate centralized planning because of the examples, especially in the former soviet bloc, where it has gone so terribly wrong. Perhaps there is a blance…

    @alphabitch, thanks. Based on the viewership of the recent Obama and Palin convention speeches, perhaps the era of the sound bite is in decline, and more people will start paying attention to arguments with more depth. We’ll have to wait and see.

  • Rick
    Posted September 20, 2008 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    @Kavan – I knew “(insert your own analogy)” was a mistake. McDonald’s Co. as a whole may have been a more appropriate example, but let’s look at the local McDonald’s example. We can assume that because we stop at a box and order food and some food like substance pops out the other end that it’s running smoothly (mostly). Now what we don’t know/see is that from time to time little Johnny has the propensity to wipe ball sweat on your sesame seed bun. This is going to happen regardless of how well the system was designed. We can say that little Johnny isn’t the norm and it’s impossible to stop an occasional degenerate from throwing a monkey wrench into the works (I would agree); however, the local McDonald’s isn’t the type of environment which breeds and cultivates corruption/ greed and literally every other shameless human characteristic. Sadly, the same can’t be said for anything even remotely related to the government or big business. My only real point is, even the perfectly designed system can be FUBR’d with the wrong people running it. People who are predominately greedy, corrupt, or just plain ignorant.

    Now that being said, I agree that under the current environment we are doomed from the get go because the system is being designed by unqualified individuals.

  • alice
    Posted November 21, 2011 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    well written, i liked the insight… but where is the solution ?
    i’d be interested in reading an article from you with some type of solution.

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