Hate the president if you want, but do not underestimate America

Winston Churchill supposedly quipped that Americans always do the right thing … after they have tried everything else. I do not see that as an insult, and I am do not think Churchill did either.

America has always relied on a decentralized system with distributed decision-making. Much of what other countries do with central authority is done in the USA by state or local authorities, or by the people themselves individually or in voluntary cooperation. It is an emergent system, and emergent systems are hard to understand, so they are often dismissed.

It is not true that in emergent systems nobody is in charge and it certainly is not true that people are not working together. In fact, emergent social systems are often more tightly coordinated than hierarchical ones. They are just harder to diagram. It is also not true that nobody is in charge, but rather that authority is fluid.

Historians, like I was, we hate emergent systems because we cannot put them into our narratives. The narrative is that the king or the leader make a plan and then others carry it out. We often name whole ages after a particular leader. Leadership is important, but the leader is part of the emergent system too. The plan is important, but the it really works only as part of an emergent system.

The USA has been better than most in recognizing & harnessing emergence, but even we feel uneasy about it.

Let me bring all this to current events. Many of you reading this hate Trump with significant passion. You should get over that, but if you cannot at least recognize what is happening during this current COVID-19 crisis.

Everybody is feeling confused and nobody knows exactly what to do because that is at this point unknowable. I know that our central planners hate this idea even more than they hate Trump, but it is true. The fact that we do not have one central plan does not mean that we have no plan.

We have a wonderful plan and an even better process. Lot of people are making decisions about things they know about and this distributed decision-making has been producing an emergent and adaptive plan.

Despite all the gnashing of teeth and screaming, the USA is doing well in addressing this crisis. You need not credit Trump. In fact you should NOT credit him. The American nation is greater than the American government and the American government is greater than the current occupant of the WH, whoever that is.

What we have is bench strength and institutional resilience. Lots of people are thinking about the problem and coming up with lots of solutions. None of these will work to solve the problem, but together they can adapt one. This solution will not be perfect because we can always imagine something better than anybody can achieve, but it will very likely be better than any alternative.

It is tempting to demand THE plan, but better to have many options and make choices from that. None of us really knows much of anything, but all of us together know quite a lot.

When a treatment is found for COVID-19, American science will be a big part of that. The same goes for a vaccine. Everybody kind of knows this, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.

Hate the president if you want, but do not underestimate America.

 

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