Traditions and Bureaucracies.

Last week, I wrote,

for an idea to scale for an extended time, pure stability cannot be its pitch, and neither can constant change.

Although I still agree with that claim, I believe two issues are at tension here. What enables an idea to scale is different from what allows it to remain dominant for an extended time—see authoritarianism vs. democracy. Authoritarianism, implemented (in various forms like fascism, communism, and the like) in places like pre-WWII Germany, the two Koreas before the split, and other places in the world, is an idea that scales. But, as history shows, its days are numbered. This is due to the violence, lack of resilience, and other weaknesses embedded in the system. Contrasted with concepts like human flourishing, freedom, democracy, etc., that did indeed take time to grow, appear to be durable. Thus, for an idea to remain dominant after it scales, it has to promote human flourishing (shocker.)

Interestingly, even though we all hate them, bureaucracies are the safest methods to ensure dominance after scaling. In fact, when appropriately applied, they can enable it. Most companies implement processes to ensure proper procedures. Taken too far, companies can calcify and become too slow to adapt to changes in their environment. That said, en masse, bureaucracies are the safest ways to ensure dominance after scaling because they enable a company's ideas to continue in some form that is closely reminiscent of the original founder's. Classic examples that come to mind are Disney, Lego and Walmart. The second issue is this: what makes an idea scale is not necessarily that which keeps it successful for an extended period of time.

There seem to me to be two ways an idea can scale. One way is to accumulate popularity over time like most scientific or academic theories or to have "popularity" in your production function. For example, ideas that tap into an existing base of skepticism, i.e., conspiracy theories.

Why is this a question worth asking? Well, it is necessary because "ideas that scale" is basically synonymous with "traditions." Traditions around things like life and death or what it means to live a good life have echoes far into the future. Most traditions do, in fact, solve problems for a large number of people—things like what to do when someone dies among you and how to mourn their lives. As previously discussed, although they are not always easy to adopt, they do improve the lives of their adherents at specific margins, and good traditions do have within them the implicit balance of change and stability. The idea of bureaucracies also applies to traditions. These practices, in their instantiation, still have to be passed down to consequent generations. This is why cultures with rich traditions usually have "elders" or a respected equivalent.

Finally, the importance of traditions cannot be overstated. Most people actually crave it. For some, when they either lack access to or lose contact with theirs, it changes and affects their lives substantially. Thus, if you want to implement the ideas in this and last week's post, implement them with friends and family; oh, and while you're at it, try not to rent-seek like most bureaucrats do.

Certainty rating: 90%


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