Saturday, May 05, 2007

Tocqueville on Government, Ecetera

In analyzing the French Revolution, Tocqueville said: "The most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it seeks to mends its ways".

Sometimes the only thing worse than being a miserable failure is being a miserable failure and trying hard to not be one. It becomes a vicious cycle. This not only applies to government, but also to software projects, self-improvement, New Years resolutions, public relations disasters, etc. When we start from a failing base and work towards improvement, we mostly either go nowhere or slide further downhill.

This stems from the fact that something that is wounded or worse yet--dead is unable, or at least unlikely to be able to analyze the situation properly or be able to mend it. And when it does muster some sort of an effort, it is likely to be a frantic over-reaction or misguided reaction like the way twisting and turning in the wrong direction only ensures that the barbs of a hook sink deeper.

We find this echoed also in Biblical thought. Perhaps the most conceptually powerful teaching about the folly of expecting positive from a negative base is in Mat 7:18. Good trees don't bring forth bad fruit, neither do bad trees bring forth good fruit. Unless there is a change to the basic nature of tree, don't expect it to bring forth something completely different. The idea is also further developed in the theological teachings of the Bible in the way it speaks of the fall, sin, and the hope for reform and regeneration. Something flawed can only bring forth something unflawed with external intervention. And while there are interesting theological aspects of this, for now I'm speaking of it semi-generically and also moreso related to things like politics or the conducting of projects.

Now, the concept we've come to in thinking about what Tocqueville said becomes sort of hard to apply practically. Take a system of government. It is such a complex thing. So many factors interacting. Many different people playing into it, too. It isn't easy to change, so it seems the small mending is all that is feasible anyways. Where does one begin when one finds themselves in the middle of a crumbling system? Is the answer always revolution and completely upheaval? How can small and gradual changes for the better ever be successful given what Tocqueville (and common sense) tells us about failing enterprises mending their own ways? Can the system ever change without a thorough ride down shakedown street? Or how about a software project? Should we at the disconcerting sign of failure completely overhaul things ignoring the possiblity of fixing the solution by smalll tweaks? Or even, what about self-improvement? Should we always be looking for some sort of revolutionary approach or huge change of foundation when some "mending" may do? And how can we ever change anything if we are just "inside the system". Then we are always a part of the flawed system and only a true "outsider" could change it.

I think those are questions that naturally flow from the good point that Tocqueville made. The questioned raised should lead us to not take his quote too far. I think it comes down to the fact that we should use what he's said to be suspicious of that sort of mending, but not discount it entirely. And thats the way he intended it, a sort of ironic statement tied to his observations about the French Revolution.

Here are some very general guidelines to avoiding falling into the trap of the bad sort of mending:

1. Think before you mend and proceed slowly. Do be overly reactionary. Don't let patching a sinking (or already sunk) ship distract you from other possibilities, perhaps a life boat hovering close by.

2. Ideas have consequences. The foundational ideas and principles are better to fix than the side effects. Mending and minor changes made under a flawed framework will be more likely to fail, be time consuming, and cause lots of problems. Rather work on mending the foundational things and let that trickle down to the minor things.

3. Motives for mending are important. If you are doing it to save face, its probably better to face the issue individually (or collectively if it is a collective in question) in the immediate and leave the saving face for later. Mends merely done for the public eye tend to be shady and not last very long.

4. Keep the pace and nature of the changes iterative and regularly, not irregular and erratic. Think the strokes of a good swimmer--not the flailing arms of a drowning person. To be manageable, there must be healthy rhythm to change and "fixes" to allow for a proper process of integration and revision.

5. Be open minded about new directions. Give thought to the possibly that the things needed to be mended are a sign that perhaps things need to radically change or the whole thing in question needs to be dropped. Many of us have a (mostly well-intentioned) eagerness to fix things. But what if we are just chasing our tail needlesly?

All these thoughts came out of nothing but a short quote. This is good evidence that reading quotes can be thought-stimulating. Feel free to add anything else.

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