How Do We Stay Sane?

Thoughts on governance

Fifteen years ago, I was sitting in a plastic chair on a concrete slab in the middle of a muddy shantytown in Venezuela. I was there as a Mormon missionary, talking to a woman who was asking me — a 20-year-old — for life advice. She thought I might have some wisdom to offer, probably because I was wearing a tie.

She had five kids. Her oldest had just been sent to jail for beating someone with a pipe. Her husband was never around. I don’t remember much about the conversation, but she said something like, “I don’t know what I can do. Do I sell my body?”

First, I was surprised that “sell my body” translated directly to Spanish (vender mi cuerpo). And then, realizing what she’d actually said, I thought “Wait. What? She can’t really mean that.” I was a kid. My mind could only take me so far. I think we prayed with her and read some scriptures. That’s all I knew how to do.

Not a selfie.

That moment has stayed with me because I eventually realized that she did mean it. It was a valid option for her. I had been face to face with real desperation and I couldn’t comprehend it. She was willing to put herself at risk of pregnancy, disease, and physical abuse in exchange for money. It was crazy. Sadly, it may not have been irrational.

Her home had been built by the government, but they hadn’t built roads through her neighborhood. She couldn’t find a job, and I’m sure her husband couldn’t either. Everyone she knew was in the same situation. She was grasping at a prayer. She was grasping at me, a weak strand in a safety net that barely existed.

Maybe my job was to remind her that god wouldn’t like it if she sold her body. That might have helped, but her situation was the result of circumstance and countless failures out of her control: an absent husband, no education, no infrastructure, no credible lenders, no community support. She had none of the things that I had always taken for granted. She had a shack in a tract of mud. Who was I to judge?

The morality of her choice didn’t matter, just as the legality of her choice didn’t matter. What mattered was that it was a choice at all.

This is a story of failed governance. I blog about governance quite a bit, but I’ve never taken the time to explain what I mean by it.

This is usually how I think of it:

Governance is what keeps people from going crazy.

This has been a pretty handy definition. If people can’t meet their basic needs without putting themselves or others in danger, they might put themselves or others in danger to meet their basic needs — that is, they might do something crazy. When that happens, people get hurt, people get scared, and things can get worse. Governance keeps this from happening.

So here’s a clearer way to say it:

Governance keeps people from taking crazy risks to meet basic needs.

That’s better, but it makes it sound like governance is a tool you can use to keep people in line. It’s more complex than that. Here’s a more nuanced way to think of it:

Governance keeps people from having to take crazy risks to meet basic needs.

So, how do you keep crazy risks from being options for people? One way is to ensure that they have non-crazy options to meet their basic needs. Doing that is hard, because the definitions of “basic needs” and “crazy” vary from person to person and change all the time. For instance, consider these two photos that Red De Leon blogged during Typhoon Haiyan:

Typhoon Haiyan as seen from the International Space Station. Taken by Karen L. Nyberg/NASA
A store owner with a handgun warns looters not to enter his store in Tacloban. Taken by Francis R. Malasig/European Pressphoto Agency

Is the store owner being crazy? Are the looters? Typhoon Haiyan temporarily affected people’s basic needs and redefined crazy. It’s nice to imagine that typhoon-proof shelters, food storage, and a well-organized corps of volunteers could have prevented people from needing to loot. That would have been great governance, but it’s easy to understand how hard it is to plan for a catastrophe like Haiyan. Governance has to adapt to global catastrophes and individual suffering at the same time. It’s hard.

I’ve spent most of my adult life working on governance in some way. I’ve mostly worked with big government agencies and it’s mostly sucked because our big government agencies have calcified and are failing. I’m ok with that, because despite its name, “the government” has never been the main source of governance in the United States.

When we see a lack of governance, like I did in Venezuela, it’s easy to blame it on a failed government, but I think that’s facile. Our society is pluralistic: we don’t just rely on the government, but also on families, friends, jobs, social clubs, non-profits, churches, schools, taboos, traditions, and culture. It’s not the government, but millions of small things that keep us sane, and we often take them for granted.

Today, all of these things are being changed by the Internet. Email allowed Catholics to organize and demand a Cardinal to resign. Social media is dissolving mass media and transforming how we relate to one another. Bitcoin is undermining monetary systems. Kickstarter is changing how we finance innovation and creativity. I have no doubt the Internet has reached that neighborhood in Venezuela and is changing it too.

To governments, the Internet is sometimes perceived as a threat. It helps people organize, and learn from one another, and govern themselves in ways that can make the government seem like a joke. However the Internet changes how governments work, I’m optimistic that it’s a good thing for governance.