Things change. That’s the nature of the universe we live in. There’s little we can do about that, and the change is not always to our liking. Still, we are better off with change. Had it been an unchanging world, we would not have been here. We are complex creatures and it takes time for complexity to arise from simpler beginnings. Change and with it increasing complexity has been around since the beginning of the universe some 13.7 billion years ago. By now you would expect that we would have worked out the implications of this and become fully prepared to deal with it. Sometimes in our blindness to them, we fall into traps of our own creation.
The trouble with complexity is that it is hard to understand. Our bounded rationality and limited knowledge cannot cope with the complexity the natural world presents us. Biological entities are a prime example of things that have had billions of years to evolve into massively complex systems under pressure of Darwinian natural selection acting on random mutations. Give even the simplest of systems sufficient time and it will become complex. That’s true of biological system and until recently, it was not true of human artifacts. That’s changed.
For much of human history, the things humans made were simple enough for humans to fully comprehend them. For example, the skill required to build a horse-cart, to understand how it functions and to operate it was well within the capacity of a single human being. But it is evident that no one knows how to build a car, leave alone a large commercial jetliner. They get built but no one knows how to build one in the same sense that one knew how to build a cart.
Human artifacts have become complex enough that it takes thousands of us to build them, understand them and operate them. They are group efforts. Collectively humans have become capable of creating artifacts that no human can ever hope to understand comprehensively. That is not a good thing if the goal is to have absolute control of them. Our ability to create things has exceeded our ability to control our creations.
The prime example of that is the ever present and ever indispensible internet. The beginnings of the internet were simple: it was created to serve as a communications network that was robust for the use of researchers and scientists in a dozen or so advanced science and technology research centers around the US. It was a Department of Defence Advanced Research Project Agency project called the ARPANET. The first message sent across it was just two characters long – “lo”. They tried to “login” but the system crashed before it could login. That was in October 1969. What was later to become the internet, the network then was just a small collection of communications links and nodes or routers (computers which were called “interface message processors” or IMPs). The routers were DEC PDP-10’s and 11’s.The logical map of the ARPANET in 1977 was simple. Try doing a similar logical map of the internet today and realize the impossibility of that. That was then, this is now. The internet has become so complex that no one can fully comprehend it. It’s become as complex as a biological entity.
History matters. What happened then and why they did what they did then echoes through the corridors of time. The decisions they made under the constraints that existed then have profoundly affected how things are done today. But circumstances have changed and with it the constraints have changed. What was optimal then is no longer optimal now.
The ARPANET was designed for a time when the communication links and the hardware were slow, costly and unreliable. The people using the network, on the other hand, were very smart, well-intentioned, and reliable. That’s all changed now. The links and the hardware have become very reliable today but the users of the net are an entirely different breed of cats. If the internet could be replaced lock, stock and barrel, it would be an entirely different system because the design criteria would be different. Today they would make the system more robust to malign human intent rather than unreliable hardware.
If you are wondering why I am going on about the internet, wonder no more. All this was a preamble to my contention that like the internet, other human artifacts too have the feature of being designed for a different time and the circumstances they were designed for have changed. More specifically, the system of governance called “democracy” was designed centuries ago, and the constraints that existed then have changed. Under the altered scenario, the old system cannot work as originally conceived. The idea is good but its implementation has to be sensitive to the prevailing conditions.
India is a parliamentary democracy and it has a constitution. Indians participate in elections regularly and transition of power takes place without violence. Mrs Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship lasted a very short time. It appears that democracy works in India. Or so it seems. We can continue to pretend the system works but really it does not work as it was supposed to.
My contention that democracy does not work in India is based entirely on circumstantial and observational evidence. Did those who framed the Constitution of India foresee that the system will select an inordinately large number of criminals to the highest political posts? And if they did not, why not? Why do people elect criminals? Surely they know that they are electing criminals.
There is an unstated underlying assumption in the design of the system – that people are not self-interested entities and that they will only act in the interests of the broader social good even at the cost of private welfare. So therefore, for example, when the opportunity presents itself to a politician to make a large personal fortune but which will cost the nation a thousand times as much, the assumption is that the politician will do the right thing and be virtuous. But that is not how people behave. The reward of a few billion dollars is hard to resist by the average person – not to mention the manically driven, highly motivated, supremely ambitious people who ultimately reach the dizzying heights of political power.
You cannot fault people for being people. People are self-interested. Criminals are ruling India because the people vote for them out of their self-interest. The natural self-interest of the people is expressed within a system and if the outcome is bad, it is because the system is flawed and not because of the immorality of the public or that their self-interest is a failing. The system has to be designed keeping in mind that people will respond to the incentives. If you want a different outcome, change the incentives.
Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon pointed out, criminals are the chief cause of crime. An astute observation, if you ponder it for awhile. The chief cause of corruption in India is because of the corrupt in power. Antonia Maino aka Sonia Gandhi rules directly and by proxy over a corrupt regime. But what is the chief cause of criminals getting political power in India? I think it is the system. We have to change the system if we want it to select good people. Good people do exist in India, and a few even get to position of some power and influence but their efforts cannot undo the harm caused by the criminals who are naturally more powerful. We must change the system if we have to change anything at all.