One of the enduring themes of the debate over social, economic, and political organization revolves around the putative tension between freedom and efficiency. Advocates of the latter argue that too much of the former either cannot be trusted to the masses, or cannot be effectively wielded by them.
Supporters of the former counter that so-called qualifications are quite beside the point: freedom, quite simply, of right belongs to the people. Moreover, over history elites have repeatedly revealed their own often grotesque ineptitude at managing centralized command; either their decisions turn out to be ill-advised or even barbaric, their faith in their efficiency is proven to be wildly misplaced, or – all too often – both situations obtain.
As advocates of these essentially incompatible views continue to fight it out, others have recognized the merits and deficits of the two positions. Much of modern history is characterized by efforts to devise a system that effectively incorporates the strengths of each while prudently addressing their worrisome weaknesses. As a rule, such compromises tend to amplify the disadvantages, rather than the advantages, of the approaches they attempt to integrate.
But not in the cases of representative democracy or modern capitalism. The mechanisms in these institutions driving both action and deliberation, or decisiveness and consensus-building, seem to have been strikingly beneficial to the societies in which they operate – even to humankind as a whole. Surely, there have been side-steps – even missteps. And the jury is still out on some. But the general long-term trend seems clearly to have been toward greatly increased freedom, welfare, and security.
The mixture is indeed messy, and its operation noisy – even mysterious; a confusing and sometimes disturbing combination of oversight and autonomy, of top-down and bottom-up management. But for all its frustrations, it seems to work well enough. Perhaps better than would absolutely pure forms of either progressivism or capitalism.
And that is one of the best things about it: it is so organized that the bias can slip periodically toward one pole or another of the continuum, but it remains within the grasp of the gravity at the center. The inherent tolerance of the system permits that center to be broad and elastic, and yet robust and self-contained.
But here’s the thing: this is not possible when elites and the public share or divvy-up control. It can only be sustained when the latter delegate it – rather than abdicate it – to whomever they wish, and retain the ability to reclaim and reassign it, as well.
This requires vigilance. And vigilance as often originates in the debate between the extremes, as in the natural operation of the system.
It is largely in this that the fragility of our society lies: the danger that one side might lay down its standards and let the debate subside. That struggle does not weaken, but informs and strengthens the society over which it is waged.
How does this discussion apply to a structure built from owners, directors, managers, and workers? Where is the bias of control in your organization? Is it efficient? How do you know? How robust, grounded, and active – or how fragile – are the sources of energy and innovation in it? Is the debate over how to organize this resolved? If so, you may want to review your answers to the previous questions. You may have gotten yourself into a real mess, instead of a fine mess.
This post is a part of a series. You can learn about and link to the other articles here: Conceptualizing capitalism
Today’s tip: Speaking of the whole being stronger when all its voices are heard, please see this assessment by John Phillips, from the perspective of the workplace, of President Obama‘s inaugural address. Be sure to consider your response to his question about patchwork fabric and your business.
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