How to Think of Society as a System

The best way to think of any system is a process governed by rules. And to judge a system, to predict the outcome in broad strokes, you need to know two things:

  1. Of the potential outcomes of the system, which ones do the rules encourage? Which ones does it discourage?
  2. What exactly are the features of the system that do the encouraging and discouraging, and how strongly do they do so?

We shouldn’t necessarily think of the rules as being separate from their enforcement. Maybe that’s the case – if you make a threat to an elected official you can count on having a SWAT team break down your door. But it might also be the case that the “rules” are just features of the system that make it a little more costly to do one thing rather than another. There are the rules of chess that prohibit kings from moving more than one space. But since losing your queen puts you at a big disadvantage, we can call “don’t lose your queen” a “rule” in this sense too — if only weakly “enforced”. We can make a prediction, then, that people will tend to lose their queens late in the game, if at all, and go to great lengths to avoid it.

Societies and economies are systems too, and the laws aren’t the only rules. “Buy low, sell high” is a rule in in financial markets in our sense, because people who follow it get more money, and get to make more trades. People who don’t, lose money and get “weeded out” of the system. To the extent that this rule holds, we can make a prediction that financial markets will be reasonably good most of the time at directing funds to good investments rather than bad ones.

We can even step back a level and think of the rules for one system as the outcome of a bigger system. In theory, cultures with “good” rules get bigger and more powerful, and out-compete cultures with “bad” rules. So far as this is true, we should be able to expect cultural improvement throughout history.

This theory has a few obvious successes. Most notably, it seems to be a pretty good description of the colonial period. The West happened upon a set of cultural rules that allowed it to expand and send colonies all over the world. Cultures without those rules got colonised. So, on the whole, we should see a tendency toward “better” — more “Western” — rules.

To some extent, we have seen this. With a few bumps in the road, there seems to be a broad trend throughout the world since the colonial period toward more Western-style attitudes and institutions.

But the theory also fails in a few key places.

Most importantly, the “good” and “bad” that the system encourages might not be “good” and “bad” in our own estimation. We like to think of civilisation and wealth as a good outcome. But there’s also a “rule” that the wealthier you are, the more you have to give up in order to have children. And so, there’s a well-documented negative correlation between wealth and birth rates, which are already negative in Japan and much of Europe. To the extent that this rule holds, your wealthy civilisation eventually gets overrun by a society with more Malthusian rules.

So there’s reason to think the “good life” is not demographically sustainable. Or at least it will take some ingenuity to sustain it. While this is not yet the case everywhere, in the long run, the “rules” of the broader cultural system encourage behavior that puts societies with “humane” cultures in the minority.

And once that happens, the rules are very much stacked against the continuance of humane culture. But that’s a topic for the next post.