Ideas and Institutions

I have been thinking about the extent to which ideas are fleeting but institutions are sustaining.  Certainly ideas can be cumulative in the sense that electricity led to communications then computing and eventually networking via digital devices and social media.  This took roughly 150 years, but that is just a blip in the 6,000 years of human civilization.  It is extremely unlikely that people will be using the iPhone 6000 millennia into the future.  It is very difficult to imagine what people will be using in 2070.

Will there be educational institutions?  How about religious institutions?  Will there be governments?  We cannot be very sure of what form they will take, but education, religion, and government will likely be sustained.  Well, maybe.  What if human civilization does not survive?  What if the technological singularity leaves machines in charge?  Will machines need education and religion?  Perhaps institutions are sustaining until they are no longer relevant.

This raises the fundamental question of what we can assume about the future. In light of the Great Recession (2007-08) and current coronavirus pandemic (2020-22), “normal” seems like a vanishing benchmark.  Our quest for predictability may have run amuck.  Now, we need to hedge alternative futures.  Will vaccines preempt massive deaths? Will renewable energy sources prevail?  Our institutions need to help us understand and make associated investment decisions.

The notions of fleeting versus sustaining are very time and era dependent.  We all make tacit assumptions about what is a passing fancy versus a sustaining value.  We are all wrong as were the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans.  What is common is people striving to make sense, survive, and hopefully prosper in the world where they find themselves.

This suggests than humanity “simply” aspiring to replicate itself is the sole overarching goal.  However, my guess is that, upon reflection, most of us would like the future civilization to be better than the current civilization in terms of health, education, and happiness.  But, what does that mean and how do we pursue it?

I recently read David Colander and Roland Kupers’ Complexity and the Art of Public Policy: Solving Society’s Problems from the Bottom Up (Princeton University Press, 2014).  They consider the relative roles of government and the marketplace in sustaining society.  Traditionally, these two perspectives have represented competing intellectual frameworks in economics.

Adopting a complex systems perspective, they outline how government and markets should work together.  Succinctly, government provides the top-down contexts and markets foster bottom-up innovations within these contexts.  Policy is the art of understanding and balancing these two perspectives.

More broadly, institutions design top-down frameworks with which people, bottom-up, create and nurture innovative ideas. This process is never finished.  Society and civilization continue to evolve, hopefully leading to growth and prosperity for all.  However, such progress is by no means guaranteed.  Civilizations have floundered as I outlined in my September post on Failures of Complex Societies.  Thus, we need to be flexible and adaptive in our balancing of top-down and bottom-up.

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