Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Social System Matching and the Expertise Culture

In the twentieth century the idea of convergence was suggested to explain the trend of socialist economies to look more like capitalist ones and capitalist economies to look more like socialist ones. This idea fell on hard times in the 1980s because socialism failed and some capitalist countries deregulated. The idea of convergence is linked to the idea of optimality. The notion that there is one best way to do a job or one best way to solve a social problem was characteristic of the Progressive era. Convergence was a remnant of Progressivism.

But perhaps there is no such thing as optimality with respect to social systems. Rather, there is an infinite array of potential strategies which match citizens' needs to a better or worse degree. Optimality depends on the match between the culture in which people live and the social system. Social evolution involves the search for optimal matching. If a system is suboptimal the system which permits the greatest flexibility with respect to searching for matching arrangement may be most preferable. That is, there are likely an array of systems which match varying cultural configurations, and an approach which provide equal matching but more flexibility will be preferable to an approach which provides less flexibility.

Labor economists have argued that some workers fit some kinds of jobs, other workers fit other kinds. In the same way, some cultures may fit some kinds of social systems while others fit different kinds. Discovering a optimal match depends on how well the social system can change to fit a given region or culture.

If that is so, then the trend toward increasing federal power and centralization during the twentieth century may have been an error since centralized power is more difficult to change than decentralized power. The founding fathers in America had hit upon an excellent formula to exploit regional and cultural differences: permit variations in across state governments so that local match can be optimized. Moreover, variations permit experimentation so that the knowledge base develops much more quickly than with a centralized one.

The centralization of power in America in the past 100 years may have impeded learning through decentralization and so had a crippling effect on progress. As well, forcing regional and cultural uniformity across a large country results in lost opportunities to match sub-systems to sub-cultures. Centralization of power is authoritarian and so as the nation has grown and simultaneously centralized power deviations from optimal points for specific subgroups have become greater. In turn, this has lead to increasing stridency of public debate.

Advances in organization theory that started with James March's and Herbert Simon's 1958 book Organizations have permitted firms to think about the key problem that faces them: information. Organizing information, gathering information, undestanding it and using it is a problem that faces government as well as private firms. In the twentieth century firms decentralized and experimented with increasingly flexible organizational forms. Toyota's Taiichi Ohno took 15 years to develop the process known as lean manufacutring, which includes just in time inventory. No expert had thought of this concept. Similarly, E.I. Deming's total quality management was unknown in business schools until he convinced a number of Japanese firms to adopt it.

In contrast, progressives and social democrats have made an antiquated assumption about rationality based on the ideas of Herbert Croly and Theodore Roosevelt: that experts can discern optimal solutions. Naturally, such experts will see the possibility of convergence toward an optimality in which they believe because of sharing of ideas, peer review and the like.

The corporate world has found that preconceived strategies rarely materialize and that focused or organized chaos results in the spontaneity of creativity that also depends on interaction and supportiveness of change. Supportiveness of change is foreclosed by the expertise culture. If an expert claims an optimal answer, then alternative views are ignored. Thus, fundamental errors in social science and economics have been perpetuated, and the public's ability to debate and innovate has been forestalled by social democracy.

There are many other concepts in organizational theory, such as the learning organization, organizational differentiation and integration and differentiation can be applied to the modern state. However, instead of thinking small and decentralizing, federal power has been increasingly concentrated in poorly performing agencies like the Department of Education and the Social Security Administration.

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