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Big problems, unpredictable solutions
On Taiwanese democracy, feedback loops, and why long-term plans aren't the strong suit we might hope for
If the Communist Party of China decides that it wants to initiate a 50-year plan to undermine the Taiwanese government and take over the Republic of China, then there's very little that any democratic nation can do to match such a plan with an equally long-term strategy. Voters in democratic systems inevitably grow restless, even of those leaders who perform well, rendering it difficult to make plans that stick for more than about a decade. Authoritarian regimes have an institutional advantage in being able to initiate and stick with long-term plans -- at least as long as the particular authority in power lives to see it through.
■ But what democratic systems are capable of doing is learning from feedback obtained closest to the source and cultivating the processes, rules, and systems for responding to large long-term problems. We should acknowledge the fact that it's almost impossible for democratic systems to stick with specific strategies over the long haul (unless a credible institutional structure is built to make it happen). And we should realize that to do otherwise, is just not in the nature of the beast.
■ But in so acknowledging, we also should be willing and ready to grasp what we know that those systems are capable of doing well: learning and adapting. Specifically, being good at recognizing failures and opportunities faster than systems in which delivering bad news to the Big Boss is the best way to be sent to the gulag.
■ We shouldn't despair over the large number of big problems that take long-term solutions, as some people are so wont to do. We should learn to exert our efforts where they're most likely to achieve useful results without trying to change the fundamental characteristics of the societies we inhabit. Some people succumb to the naive fantasy that big solutions can only be achieved by far-reaching powers wielded by a central authority. From climate change to artificial intelligence to poverty, it's easy to find examples of people living in free and democratic conditions who are frustrated by the limited capacities of their governments to "solve" the big problems.
■ Yet really big plans are always hobbled by the reality that humans are not omniscient, information is imperfect, and circumstances change. But the ability to adapt to new circumstances, new information, or new reasoning is the inherent advantage of free and open democratic systems. We should avoid despairing over problems that appear too great and instead use the leverage of our natural advantages.
■ As a substitute for planning, though, we have to actively participate in the vital work of building up institutions and sticking to principled processes for getting things done. That means we need to reject people who would take advantage of circumstances or act in bad faith. The quality of our institutions and process is vastly more important than any short-term gains to be felt out of achieving a particular results.