Government and Governance

Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory:

“The care of human life and happiness … is the first and only legitimate object of good government.”
—Thomas Jefferson

Defining Questions

What ultimately is the purpose of government?

Is institutional democracy government’s ideal and final form?

If further forms lie ahead, what might they look like?

Do relationships exist between needed changes in government and changes reordering authority relationships more generally (including the more internal authority relationships through which we as individuals make decisions)?

The Future

Government is the cultural domain we most immediately associate with leadership. But often, today, what most stands out when we look to the political sphere is how short we are of the kind of leadership this inquiry has been about. It can be hard to see past the petty partisan rancor, the degree money controls political agendas, and how rare it is to find within political leadership either the courage or wisdom needed to tackle the really hard questions.

The sphere of governance presents some of Cultural Maturity’s most critical, fascinating, and ultimately inescapable, challenges. And while progress can appear slight, here too we’ve witnessed changes. We’ve seen a black man elected President of the world’s largest democracy and a growing number of women come to hold top government posts around the world. We’ve seen important indicators of the possibility of more enlightened relationships between the governments of nations. The fall of the Berlin Wall was symbolic at a level that we only beginning to appreciate. We’ve also seen moments of inspiring—and maturely inspired—leadership. I still find Nelson Mandela’s largely bloodless shepherding of South Africa’s transition out of apartheid powerfully moving and truly remarkable. None of these are small things.

The last century also witnessed changes that while not direct products of Cultural Maturity (many had as much to do with completing modernity’s task) were certainly in line with Cultural Maturity’s imperatives. We observed first efforts, however crude, at crafting institutions for global-scale decision-making. We also saw greater attention to human rights and the gradual proliferation of democratic forms of determination around the globe.

Government and Change

Perhaps most important when it comes to addressing governance is  the simple reminder that government is not static—that over the course of history the structures and assumptions of governance have changed in dramatic ways. Government is one of the areas where We’ve Arrived scenarios are most seductive—and most dangerous. Cultural Maturity emphasizes that there is no reason to assume that government as we have known it is the end of the road—indeed that there is every reason to conclude that it cannot be.

Cultural Maturity leaves unanswered the key question of how much future changes will be structural (as past transitions between major governmental forms have been) and how much will have more do with how we approach and “hold” democratic process. But the importance of engaging questions more systemically—of bridging traditional polarities and thinking in more all-the-crayons-in-the-box terms—offers a ready big-picture frame for getting at major pieces in what might define a next chapter. Pivotal, now-familiar bridging involve relations between governmental/national entities, between government and governed, and between polarized internal constituencies.

Certainly a key task of future governmental leadership will be to assure that we successfully transcend humanity’s historical need for “evil others.” Globalization combined with today’s ever-more-dangerous and available weaponry makes the mythologizing of identity incompatible with any world we would want to live in and the need for political leadership able to lead more maturely inescapable. Like with our idealization of democracy as process, we like to think that representation government leaves behind the primitive irrationality that generates war-like sentiments. But we need only listen to how laced modern political rhetoric is with polar code words like “freedom” and  “liberty” (us) against “tyranny,” and “oppression” (them)—particularly at times when political advantage is high on the agenda—to recognize how far, often very far, we have yet to go.

Related is that importance of moving beyond a parental conception of governmental authority and the realization of Whole-Person/Whole-System relationship between government and those governed. This evolution that will make critical (and easily unsettling) demands on both leaders and those who are lead. Modern representative government, with its story of “government by the people” might seem to lift us above our historical need for mythologized, parental images of authority (and the risks of autocracy and manipulation it inevitably carries with it), but as we’ve seen, it takes baby steps at best. Cultural Maturity celebrates the truly profound historical advances institutional democracy introduces. But at the same time it argues that Whole-Person relationships between leaders and their constituencies, like mature Whole-Systems relationships between nations requires a further maturational step.

A now familiar third systemic piece reminds us that mature decision-making requires us to bridge the traditional positions of political Left and Right. Again, this isn’t blending or averaging, but, as with all bridgings, a stretching that questions fundamental assumptions all the way around. Given the particular rancor we see today in the halls of government, such coming together might seem like naive fantasy. Cultural Maturity makes clear that it can’t be.  Cultural Maturity describes how the most critical questions before us require systemic solutions—neither the isolated positions of Left or Right, nor any in-between point of compromise will work.  A mature response to terrorism will require more aggressive response than many liberals might be comfortable with (including options of unilateral action and even preemption). And it will, at the same time, require a degree of global cooperation (and often surrender of control) that would make many conservatives highly uneasy.  Similar, we won’t find final answers to poverty in either government safety nets or calls for “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” responsibility (though a bit of each viewed in a larger systemic context—with real social commitment—could go a long way).

A more mature picture would not make the halls of government necessarily more amicable. It should in fact make debate more impassioned—if for no other reason than that it will give debate new relevance and creative purpose. But it will be more constructive debate. Cultural Maturity sees such more “fiercely creative” engagement as an essential antidote to our current crisis of confidence in governmental leadership. It argues that without some success in this direction, government will become increasingly ineffectual and irrelevant to the important questions of our time.

We should also bring more whole-box-of-crayons systemic pictures to the workings of government as a whole. Bureaucracy has quite appropriately become a dirty word.  Systemic perspective would mean better—and more creative—communication between aspects of government and help make government more adaptive, quicker on its feet. Government, here, has lessons to learn from the best of thinking in business. It would also support more mature and creative relationships between government and other cultural spheres—science, education. religion, business.

Separation of Government and Profit

Which brings us to a critical piece that might seem quite the opposite of bridging. Culturally mature governance requires greater separation between government and the influences of money. The establishment of democratic structures required the separation of church and state. Culturally mature governmental mechanisms require a further separation—between governmental and economic influence.

The need is inescapable. Money has always held major sway in the halls of democracy. But our founding fathers would find what we see today disturbing, if not appalling. Without greater separation between the worlds of government and money, not only will we fail at realizing a next chapter in governance, we risk losing the great gains of the last. If Cultural Maturity does not make the need for greater separation between public and private influence increasingly inescapable, globalization will. Government by multi-national corporations is not a pretty picture.

While such change might seem like bridging’s opposite, it is not, rather part of the same process. Remember that bridging is equally about connectedness and a new appreciation for difference. In the future, if Cultural Maturity is right, we should see greater collaboration between the governmental and economic spheres. But for such public-private partnerships to work, boundaries must be increasingly well delineated.

Cultural Maturity’s picture requires a new recognition of the importance of policies that separate governmental and corporate functions—such as campaign finance reform, limits to what has often been a revolving door relationship between government and business leadership, and, in general, more effective government oversight of business practices. At the same time, we should find ourselves increasingly able to grasp how government and business can function as complementary social mechanisms and to develop social structures able to support the most creative realization of that complementarity.

Global Decision-Making

A final piece turns to the need for increasingly sophisticated global decision-making mechanisms. We face a growing list of concerns for which no government can effectively go it alone: nuclear proliferation, global poverty, climate change, terrorism, over-population, habitat degradation and resource depletion, the unpredictabilities of global financial markets, and more. We ignore these concerns only at great peril.  We could make an equally long list of concerns best addressed globally that any degree of moral conscience dictates we not ignore. I think for example of the capacity to respond with appropriate aid in the face of major disaster—whether natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, or pandemics (we have been pretty lucky through modern civilization’s short history), or disasters of a more explicitly man-made sort (I’ve argued for the great likelihood that we will see the further use of weapons of mass destruction sometime in this century).

Again, both the connectedness and distinction aspects of systemic perspective are pertinent—both the need to work together and the need to appreciate our differences and unique needs in doing so. As yet, efforts at a global scale decision-making have been crude. Part of the reason is just that this is something we haven’t done before (or had the Capacitance to do effectively). But it is also the case that doing so presents critical structural challenges. We will need more than existing approaches.

The world’s immense diversity makes any conventional equating of right with simple majority problematical. And a major new ingredient further amplifies the dilemma. The communications revolution (with information from half-way around the world sometimes arriving more quickly than that from the next office) combined with culturally mature changes that alter group identity make boundaries between nation states and between governmental and non-governmental entities increasingly dynamic and permeable. This more complex picture radically alters the structural challenges of governance. Ultimately it does so not just globally, but within nation states and between and within more local, community, and organizational decision-making entities.

All sorts of questions become more complex and in ways that require systemic thinking of our second sort to ultimately get our arms around.  For example, it necessarily alters our thinking about conflict. Traditionally, we’ve divided transgressions and hostilities into two categories, crime and war. Crime takes place within nations, war between them. But what about terrorism—which is it? It is neither. Miss this and the result is ineffective and dangerous policy (whether attacking a nation state because that is what we know how to do or failing to act preemptively when needed because we find  what happens within another nation’s borders is not our business). Terrorism, global economics, the Internet—in each case past boundaries and ways of understanding relationship no longer apply. We are only beginning to fully appreciate the implications.

The development of mechanisms for effective global decision-making represents one of the future’s most essential human challenges. But it is a task we can effectively take on only to the degree we are capable of more mature, systemic, and creative ways of relating and understanding.

The Big Picture

Fail at any of these new governance tasks—stepping beyond the need for evil others on the global stage, realizing more Whole-Person/Whole System leader/follower relationships, appreciating partisan allegiances within a larger systemic picture, rethinking the relationship between government and profit, and addressing the unique needs of global decision-making, and it is hard to see a healthy future for government—or for the species.

In the end, rethinking governance requires ultimate big-picture perspective. It requires that we inquire deeply into what governance ultimately is about and how the various aspects of who we are together interplay in our collective choices. We need to recognize how each of our domains—science, business, government, medicine, education, art, and religion—play a role in governance, how each reflects an aspect of how, together, we make choices.

Rethinking governance is also about something more personal. It is about taking full authority in our individual lives. It is is about assuming personality responsibility in this big-picture, at least with regard to the small pieces where our lives can have direct effect.

A Thumbnail Summary: Cultural Maturity predicts …

—that the best of governmental leadership will help us move beyond our past social need for “evil others” and establish more richly systemic and subtly differentiated global relationships.

—that government’s past parent/child relationship with the governed will give way to more maturely and creatively conceived relationships and structures.

—that mythologized Left versus Right political polarization will gradually replace political associations that more accurately represent the complexly diverse interests of stakeholders.

—and that we will become increasingly adept at thinking about decision-making systemically and at multiple scales—including the global.

Thought experiments

You have been asked to develop a training program for future governmental leaders.  What would you include in the curriculum and why?  How much in your list of topics would be largely unchanged from a list for a hundred years earlier? How much would be new (and if so, in precisely what ways)?  In selecting people for the program, what criteria might you use?  Would any of these criteria be different from those of a century past?

Describe possible mechanisms that might play a role in addressing the challenge of determination at a global scale.  Include in you reflections not just formal governmental bodies, but entities of all sorts that you think might play important roles.

In some way represent the larger systemic nature of societal decision-making (with words, by drawing, or even perhaps with movement—whatever you need to do it most accurately). Include the various social forces involved—government, schools, religion, business, art and so on. Describe how these forces have in the past interplayed both to define truth and to drive cultural change. See if you can use this picture to help you imagine possible future creative partnerships between government and these other realms. Identify both potential complementarities and safeguards necessary if partnerships are to ultimately serve us.