How to affect change in the world (Zen and the art of making the world a better place)

Had another conversation tonight that involved someone having bought into the competitive model of society. This is the area of thought that is often described as "right wing", and includes Rand and Smith's "Guiding Hand".

It builds from the idea that the only way to accomplish anything is through force, with force including coercion. With a rationalising system (money) in place, it is possible to model various aspects of human interactions in such a way as to predict the actions of those who follow this ideology.

The ideology models all human interactions as conflicts (generally for scarce resources). It assumes that humans will act solely in the own (generally immediate) self interest unless forced to do otherwise. It assumes that not everyone can be happy, that not everyone can succeed. (Ironically, the American version of the ideology also makes failure a moral failure, but that's off topic).

It's arguable that the "left" in America has long since caved into this ideology, no longer challenging the basic assumption. This seems to me to be a very dangerous situation. The competitive model is good primarily for predicting the operations of those who are following the competitive model. It is a poor mechanism for deciding what should be done.


According to this model, for instance, all work will eventually migrate to the most efficient (cheapest) area. From this it is assumed that it is inevitable that, for instance, we Canadians will eventually have to give up our higher taxes, health-care system, unemployment insurance, etceteras in order to become competitive with those areas that do not have these cost-increasing features.

But (and this goes back to my Cathedral of Commerce piece from 1994 or so), this is putting the cart before the horse. Economic systems are tools we use to make a better life for ourselves. They are agreements among the individuals who make up a society which serve to make it easier to accomplish certain tasks (such as allowing us to specialise well beyond what pre-monetary cultures could accomplish).

When we assume that we must follow the dictates of an economic system even if it means destroying our way of life, we have lost sight of the purpose of economics. Just because something "wins" economically does not necessarily mean it's a good idea to pursue it.


This evening's discussion, however, was about power more than money. In particular, about the "power" to accomplish certain (laudable) goals. I don't have a reference handy which lets me name the philosopher associated with the idea that all relationships are based on power, but the idea has permeated our culture just as deeply as that of money (they are, of course, very tightly intertwined).

In fact, my friend this evening was asking himself (and us) how to accomplish his goals. His idea was that it would be necessary for him to collect to himself enough money (power) to be able to set up an organisation such that he could push his changes out to the world, overcoming the resistance of the entrenched ideology and replacing it with a new, more balanced understanding.

Notice that this very idea, though attempting to serve collectivist humanitarian ideals, is implicitly reinforcing the ideas that all relationships are conflict/power based, and that the only way to accomplish anything is to accumulate wealth. To get what you want done, you must become the leader of a large enough organisation to take on your enemy and vanquish them (though in this case, the "enemy" is ill-defined, something between apathy and ignorance, with the Republican party somewhere in the middle).

What's missing is the idea that you can convince a group of other people (possibly the whole society) to accomplish the task. That is, collectivism, communication and coming to a meeting of the minds regarding priorities which puts the ideals you strive for higher on the collective "todo" list is an avenue that should be explored. This path involves releasing your idea as a gift to the world, letting it change and morph as the society works it over, accepting that it is not your will, but the educated and enlightened will of the entire society that matters, and working to achieve that education and enlightenment.

Anyway, going to stop before I get too Zen... this is stuff that needs 30 or 40 pages to treat properly, and there's no way I'm going to get all that written tonight.


  1. word police

    word police on 03/27/2007 8:18 a.m. #

    it is "effect change" not "affect change"

  2. Mike Fletcher

    Mike Fletcher on 03/27/2007 10:37 a.m. #

    Duly noted.

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