Moral Panics and Managerialism

One of my favorite bloggers, Chris Dillow (“Moral Panics and the Threat to Freedom,” Stumbling and Mumbling, April 16),  recently observed that moral panics reflect a managerialist ideology in which social disorder is something to be smoothed over and restored to a normal state of equilibrium.

That description is spot-on. Social engineers in government resemble nothing so much as industrial engineers, treating disorder as  process variation and hoping to get their black belt from Motorola for reducing it below six degrees of standard deviation.

There’s a good reason for the resemblance: Contemporary social engineering is a direct outgrowth of industrial engineering.

Progressivism was the ideology of the new managerial and professional classes that sprang up in the late 19th century to run the new large, hierarchical institutions dominating American society after the Civil War. The first managers of multi-unit corporations came from an industrial engineering background, and saw the corporation itself as a system to be engineered just like the industrial process in a factory. They were followed by the professional civil service and the professional managers of large universities, charitable foundations and urban public school systems.

Progressivism extended this approach to society as a whole, treating it as an industrial process writ large. As any quality control specialist will tell you, an industrial process results in variation because the process is structured to produce variation. So you tweak the process till it reliably produces an output with variation below some acceptable threshold.

That approach is fundamentally misguided. Unlike widgets on an assembly line, human beings pursue goals of  our own, communicate with one another, anticipate the actions of the social engineers, and act to circumvent them when they interfere with their own goals. The further the engineers get from the actual physical process of linking machines sequentially and regulating their output, and the more their “planning” incorporates the human element, the less their plans have to do with reality.

People respond to management’s irrational interference with their goal-seeking much as the Internet treats censorship: They treat authority as damage and route around it.

There’s a close resemblance between the pointy-haired bosses in a corporate C-suite trying to impose the management theory du jour, and legislators trying to regulate social behavior. The actual social systems they’re trying to regulate are a black box to them. They treat society like an inanimate assembly line when it’s actually an agile network of sentient beings who can react faster than the regulators can act.

In both realms, the suits equate “doing something” as such to effectiveness, believing the words they write on paper will be magically translated into reality when applied to the inert mass of society. But a social system isn’t inert or static. It responds, with far more agility and intelligence than the regulators, to any attempt at interference from above.

In the corporation, workers respond to such initiatives with the kinds of passive-aggressive monkey-wrenching that the IWW has enshrined as “direct action,” but which workers have instinctively resorted to since the beginning of time: Working-to-rule, whistleblowing, leaking, slowdowns, and just plain smiling and nodding our heads and doing exactly what we were before.

In the political realm, regulatory responses to moral panics are equally stupid. They usually take the form of Post-Traumatic Stupidity Disorder: “Don’t just stand there! DO SOMETHING!” It doesn’t matter if what’s done is actually counterproductive. Like managers everywhere, the managers of the state treat the quantity of inputs — laws and directives — as a metric of output.

But their actions almost always are counterproductive. When stigmergic networks of freely associated individuals cooperate in pursuit of their own ends, they make maximum effective use of the intelligence and knowledge of those participating in them. They’re more than the sum of their parts. And they become smarter and more effective in response to attack by hierarchies. Just look at the progression from Napster to The Pirate Bay, and Pirate Bay’s migration into the Cloud as an open-source code release: After every attack, the file-sharing movement becomes more distributed and more ephemeral, eliminating dangerous bottlenecks.

Hierarchies, in contrast, are less than the sum of their parts. They can’t trust subordinates to make full use of their distributed knowledge. They become stupider in response to attack — just look at the various forms of Security Theater implemented by the TSA after every “failed” terrorist attack. The incredibly stupid things the United States government has done — invading Iraq, turning civil aviation into something to be avoided as much as possible, making its security system more ossified and brittle — were exactly what al Qaeda wanted to achieve with 9-11.

Reality is not the same as the map. It is far more complex. And the pointy-haired bosses who attempt to regulate it will always make fools of themselves.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory