Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Purpose of a Nation

James Liu posted a question to the Linked-In Systems Thinking Group.

What is the purpose/aim of a nation (such as US, UK... ) as a system? How can we get there if we don't know the aim of our nation?
The following is edited from my contributions to this discussion.

My first response was to suggest that nations only exist because other nations exist. I'm not sure it makes sense to talk about a nation in isolation. The system whose purpose I'd like to understand is the system that has (often violently) carved the world into the nations we have today, and still threatens to split existing nations into smaller ones and/or create new ones. What purposes are served by the concept of "Nation"? And how does a single instance of this concept relate to this international context?

This prompted an interesting response from Joseph Higginbotham, who rephrased my suggestion in terms of alterity (Otherness) - the organization of the nation is an answer to the threat posed by organization of the Other. But that doesn't quite explain what triggers the process of nation-forming in the first place.

Joseph went on to speculate about the end of this process of nation-forming.

So what is advancement? A Utopia where humans only organize to accomplish something that can only be accomplished through cooperation, not because they feel threatened? And of course, as the world grows "flatter" and more interconnected and more interdependent, we have to ask if One World Government is inevitable, right? I mean, theoretically, can wars be eliminated if we're all One World?

Obviously if there is only one government, then there cannot be wars between governments. But history tells us about many other kinds of war - civil wars (British, American, Spanish), revolutions, guerrilla and terrorism. The nation-state pattern (one nation = one country = one government) is not a universal one. And from a systems perspective, the notion of historical inevitability is highly problematic.

A vision of competition being replaced by cooperation suggests that there were in fact two different questions under discussion: not only what the purpose of a nation actually is, but also what the purpose should be. Some of us may have a personal preference for cooperation over competition, or for peaceful resolution rather than violent conflict, but getting large complex systems (such as Global Politics) to follow our personal preferences is a highly political activity.

Joseph says the challenge would be to agree on why we have a government or a nation. That is certainly a challenge, but I see it as primarily a political challenge. A systems-thinking challenge (I hesitate to say "the" challenge) would be to agree on a systematic or systemic way of exploring and perhaps improving the purpose of governments or nations, without being constrained or coopted by any single political or ethical position.

James offered an answer to his original question: "Currently the primary aim of a democratic nation is to help its citizens to enhance their quality of life." This answer has added two important words: currently and democratic.

I take the word "currently" to indicate that this is his observation of the AS-IS purpose of a nation (what it already is), rather than his aspiration of the TO-BE purpose (what he thinks it ought to become).

I also note the addition of the qualifier "democratic". Democracy has long been a key component of how America has perceived itself, and how it has been perceived by others. In his classic book Democracy in America, the 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville sought to understand why republican representative democracy had succeeded in the United States while (at that time) failing in so many other places. He sought to apply the functional aspects of democracy in America to what he saw as the failings of democracy in his native France. (Book summary based on Wikipedia.) A useful read if you want a historical perspective on the purpose of a democratic nation.

Today, many Americans sees one important purpose of the United States of America as being a Beacon of Democracy. If you search the Internet for "beacon of democracy", you will also find this phrase being applied to other nations, including Canada, Ghana, India, Mongolia and Taiwan, as well as some imaginary future state of Iraq.

But is this systems thinking as opposed to straight politics? By straight politics I meant undiluted politics, which Churchman identified as one of the Enemies of the Systems Approach. I wasn't thinking specifically of realpolitik.

James's second question (How can we get there if we don't know?) seems to be making an assumption about the nature of goal-directed systems. However, with large complex systems, we can achieve (happen upon) all sorts of wonderful outcomes without knowing the purpose in advance. I often use Stafford Beer's POSIWID principle to try and work out the hidden agendas of complex systems.

Joseph acknowledged that governments and government officials have many different purposes, some of them declared and some hidden. But then Joseph went on to say that "we cannot apply systems thinking to government until we can agree on what government is trying to accomplish". My view is the exact opposite of Joseph: we MUST apply systems thinking to government IF WE WANT TO MAKE SENSE OF what government is REALLY trying to accomplish. (This is perhaps a classic example of the POSIWID principle.)

Joseph thought that my position (that systems thinking must be applied to figure out what government is trying to accomplish) has at least three logical flaws:
  1. It assumes humans always act rationally and that their plans always reflect their intent. I can use systems thinking to analyze the probably outcome of a government policy or I can go the other way and start with the outcome and work backwards from the outcome through the system that produced it to the cause but I still don't know what that government intended. Only if they are consistent systems thinkers who intentions always align with their policies can I assume that.
  2. It assumes our policy makers are good enough systems thinkers themselves to reason from intent to plan to implementation to execution to outcome. We don't know if our leaders are systems thinkers. We don't elect them for their systems thinking skills. We elect them because they say what we want to hear and then we pray they meant what they said. Of course, most of the time they don't.
  3. Policy keeps changing and pretty soon, due to budget cuts, elections, changes in party, lack of political will, lack of public support, etc., by the time we get enough data to start looking backward from outcomes to processes to causes to intents, we don't know what was intended.
Thus Joseph stood by his original statements that we have to know what a government is really trying to accomplish in order to use systems thinking to get it there.

My approach to systems thinking is careful not to make any of the assumptions he imputed to me, and I don't accept that there were logical flaws in my argument. But it became increasingly clear from our discussion that Joseph and I had completely different notions of what systems thinking actually was. He acknowledged the validity of logically walking backwards from outcomes through processes to ask questions about systems, such as "Your system is perfectly designed to deliver X, was that your intent? Did you know your system was designed to produce X or do you just not know what you're doing?" But he didn't seem to regard this line of inquiry as a form of systems thinking. I do, although it's not the only kind of systems thinking I recognize.

What Joseph is calling systems thinking seems to be limited to a particular rationalist style of systems design. As it happens I am currently re-reading Churchman's book on the Systems Approach and its Enemies, where this practice is described as Objective-Planning. But this leaves out what Churchman calls Ideal-Planning (working out the objectives in the first place), which I regard as an important (perhaps the most important) element in Systems Thinking.

To the extent that this discussion was taking place in the Systems Thinking group, I expected to see some willingness to find systems-thinking answers to some important questions about nationhood, and I hoped such answers would be different to the answers we might have found in a Political Study group (if there were one).

James thought it was interesting to see totally different perspectives from different groups. And he thought that this diversity suggested it was a question worth to ask and discuss.

Diversity is often a sign that there is something problematic about the question. Systems thinking often helps us by changing the question. The Linked-In Group was certainly having an interesting discussion about something important, although the exact nature of the question (as often happens with discussions about complex systems) seemed to be shifting kaleidoscopically, and I was interested to see the interplay between different systems concepts - purpose, role, causal loops, and so on.

Some later contributions to the discussion seemed to be converging on identifying a purpose for the discussion itself - perhaps to identify how people (such as ourselves) can make a difference to the political formation of the nation and its activities (including diplomacy and warfare).

And this is a strong theme within some styles of systems thinking - the need to rephrase the original question into "What is the purpose/aim of OUR ASKING ABOUT a nation (such as US, UK... ) as a system?

Someone else talked about the discussion "drifting around" - and calling it that makes it sound as if it's always better to follow a charted course. But then you will only arrive at pre-ordained destinations.

When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.

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