On Social Design
Posted on February 27, 2017
It seems increasingly obvious to me that it is scientifically possible to design better forms of political and economic organization than those we currently possess. There is no obvious reason, for example, why we should make it so easy, and actually statistically likely, for sociopaths to seize positions of high power as CEOs and heads of state, and now as U.S. President.
As another example, I’m guessing that 95% of all science denial campaigns (e.g. climate change denial) are actually profit-motivated, are carried out by corporations, and have the purpose of defending practices that injure or kill people. In any case the percentage is very high, as has been extensively documented. There is no reason that such campaigns should be either legal or profitable.
Another extreme example is the existence, not merely of massive inequality, but more importantly of conditions that systematically increase inequality over time. It does not have to be this way.
Some say that socialism is the answer; others say anarcho-syndicalism. To me that is just the easy magic of utopian dreams, empty-suit hopes with neither concrete designs nor experimental evidence to support them. Socialism refers notionally to an economy in which production and income are managed by government, with a limited amount of market determination. The defunct Communist economies and the existing North Korea are socialist in this sense. Otherwise all major economies are and have been mixed.
Conservatives say that social engineering is an elitist left-wing crime. Actually the main social engineers of our time are the Koch brothers and their ilk, whose libertarian social designs are almost openly pro-sociopathic.
Capitalism refers notionally to an economy in which production and income are managed by markets, with a very limited amount of government determination. There are no modern examples of capitalism in this sense.
There are some more-or-less coherent ideologies supporting capitalism and socialism. There is no especially coherent and named ideology of the mixed economy.
And in particular, and unfortunately, there is no term for an economy where the mix of government and market determination is consciously designed for each economic sector (e.g. health, housing, food), with the goal of best “promoting the general welfare”–which is what our Constitution claims we are all about. (Of course Congress does make design decisions all the time, as when we adopt Obamacare or food stamps, but we have no THEORY or ideology for designing sectors.)
Determining best designs for each sector would depend of course on how you define the “general welfare.” But in an abstract sense, there is only one coherent theory on how to do this, which goes by names such as utilitarianism or benefit-cost analysis or welfare economics. More concretely, it consists in conceptualizations of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” The general idea is that we form an index of well-being for each human being (call it generalized income) and then define “social welfare” as the sum of everyone’s full income. Then we try to design economic sectors in such a way as to maximize social welfare.
The only really hard part (from a scientific point of view) is that we need a weighting system for comparing the value of income for the rich and the middle class and the poor, and people don’t agree on the weights. Nevertheless there is close enough agreement on the weights (based on various measurement models) that we could actually make a lot of progress on an ideology of best design, consistently with democratic values, once we got agreement on this general approach.
Implementing successful social design must by its nature be the opposite of elitist (even though experts need to be involved in the designs). In particular, the goal of good social design should be social efficiency, which means the maximization of human well-being.
It follows from various facts that maximal well-being cannot exist without full utilization of human information. Or in other words, every group that is impacted by any major decision should have some input into that decision. Which is precisely the definition of democracy accepted by many political theorists.
So that is the summary of an ideology in search of a name.
There is nothing uncontroversial about this,of course. If well implemented, any utilitarian or social welfare ideology will take a vast amount of income and power away the rich and raise up the prospects of the middle class, and especially of the poor. It would also increase the aggregate income or GDP of society as a whole, but,no one actually cares about that (except some economists).