One Size Doesn't Fit All

American states are laboratories of democracy. We try innovations in one state.Those that work spread, of course with modifications because one size never fits all. Those that fail, die out. Failure is survivable. Success can be duplicated. This superb system is one of the reasons for America’s great progress over the past two centuries. Two factors are required for this to work. We must be able to tolerate diversity and we have to be able to learn from mistakes as well as success.

This evolutionary approach works in most things. We never arrive at the finish line. Circumstances change that make old systems obsolete and new innovations often make themselves obsolete with their own success. Since we cannot accurately predict the future, we need to have lots of options. The goal can never be to choose the BEST solution, since it is impossible to determine in advance what the best solution would be. Rather, the goal is to produce and sustain system robust enough to survive and adapt. This is what works.

We are coming out of what could be characterized as an age of centralized planning. A passion for detailed planning gave us many good things. The industrial progress of the twentieth century was based on the plan. Scientific management, Taylorism, Fordism and the other forms of production management worked when you needed lots of people to coordinate their efforts like a machine. On the other side, centralization and the idea that everything could be rationalized also gave us the nightmares of communism and Nazism. Good or bad, our country has moved beyond this stage of development.

This will have some interesting consequences that are hard for most of us to understand. For as long as any of us can remember, power has been pulled from the states and localities toward Washington. We have developed a kind of political monotheism, assuming that there can be only one set of rules that applies to the whole United States and that we are evolving toward more integration. But this does not need to be true. In fact, for most of our history it was not the case. For most of our history we tolerated, accepted and even celebrated the differences. In this, the future will be more like the past.

What drove centralization, worldwide not only in the U.S., were technologies and organizational types that required it. Mass production required mass regimentation, which commoditized people. Workers were thought to me more or less interchangeable. Experts talked in terms of masses and classes. This was the world of limited choice, where Henry Ford famously said that you could have a car in any color, as long as it was black. He had figured out that black was the "best" color, based not only on his personal sense of style, but also on physical characteristics of the painting process and relative costs of pigments. He was right. We all grew up in the age of standardize products and standardized people. This is finished.

New technologies have allowed for mass customization for decades now, but it is only now dawning on us how much choice we all have. We are like the dog that has been tethered so long that he doesn't go beyond the lease even when the leash has been removed. Instead of reveling in our freedom, we seek the security of restraint and spend a lot of our time fretting that other dogs have been able to use their freedom better than we have.

The leash is off. We can embrace freedom or tie ourselves again in a new serfdom. Some people prefer to be able to complain about how hard their lives are rather than take the responsibility to make them better.

Posted by Christine & John at June 15, 2012 8:13 PM
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