Sunday, July 31, 2011

Power and Responsibility

As of this writing, the U.S. Government is dangerously close to defaulting on its debt, which would likely be devastating to a lot of people. The compromises I've heard about are less harmful, but harmful nonetheless. In my opinion, this entire brutal exercise is proof that our political system, like our economic system, has lost a fundamental level of reliability in performing its core mission. This is not because the concept of government is fundamentally flawed, as the political Right would have us believe. It is, like many of the world's problems, because the acceptance of responsibility has not scaled up with the exercise of power.

By “responsibility” I mean an obligation to maintain the life-giving functionality of the systems our actions affect, and accept personal blame or credit for the consequences of our actions on the people and other creatures within those systems. This is as true for organizations as it is for individuals, whether those organizations are businesses or governments. As individuals who are parts of organizations, the increased amount of power that comes from working with others becomes part of our personal power, and our responsibility extends to its use.

In the rest of Nature, responsibility is part of biology: creatures get what they need from an ecosystem in return for innate behavior (filling a niche) that keeps the ecosystem functioning. If they don't fill a niche, they can't survive and procreate. We humans are capable of a wider range of behavior, and therefore a greater amount of control over ecosystems, which we have typically used by reducing their complexity. Effectively, we have simultaneously increased our impact on other species and attempted to avoid our responsibility for that impact. As a consequence, we have progressively degraded the health of the world's ecosystems so that we are now threatening the health of the entire planet, which, if we continue, could ultimately result in our own demise.

The core mission of a government is to provide the basic needs for a functioning society, such as resources, security, and both physical and social infrastructure. Businesses, on the other hand, have a core mission to maximize the economic power of their owners by efficiently providing products or services to the rest of the economies of the societies in which they operate – the equivalent of an ecological niche. Each type of organization serves its own constituents, and has traditionally limited its accepted responsibility to those constituents regardless of their potential for harming others.

In healthy societies, like healthy ecosystems, survival takes priority; and government's mission – where it has the power and accepts responsibility for executing it – supersedes that of business wherever they are in conflict (in an artificial ecosystem like an economy, government enforces the equivalent of natural laws, which, unlike Nature, it gets to change). In unhealthy societies, on the other hand, the wants of the few supersede the needs of the society, making it – like an ecosystem with little diversity – vulnerable to collapse.

In an ideal world built from scratch, we would all accept responsibility as I've defined it. We would learn as much as possible about the way the world works so we could assess the impacts of our actions. To the extent that we couldn't do so, we would create and support organizations that could make up the difference and inform us in terms we could use, while also accepting responsibility for their impacts. Such a world is the only kind I can imagine where total freedom of the sort preferred by ultra-conservatives could survive. In the absence of universal acceptance of responsibility, we are bound to be stuck with something else, which is either healthy or unhealthy; and based on what I've been seeing in the news, it looks like we're settling for the latter.

No comments: