Ancient Systems Thinkers, 2550 Years and Counting

At least since 570-550 BCE, twenty years that saw the birth of PythagorasSiddhārtha Gautama, Lao-Tsu, and Kong Qiu, there have been many great observers of humanity, who have named a reality that has had a major influence on society for hundreds to thousands of years.  These philosophers were all great systems thinkers, asking the big questions of human existence and developing whole systems to understand, live by, and live within these pictures of reality.

At least 2,550 years of philosophers, right up to today, have seen whole systems that describe:

  1. the basic stocks of life, those essential elements human life depends on — here they have developed the economic question of how much resource there is and how to get more of it
  2. the inflows and outflows of these basic stocks, influencing whether there is enough or not, over time — here they have developed the political question of who decides and enforces who has access to the stocks and the surplus of these stocks
  3. the information flows influencing the decisions made in the inflows and outflows, determining what criteria are used to decide — here they have developed the cultural question of what values are used to decide, and what symbols are used to represent those values and who are the identity holders for a group
  4. the relationships amongst the information flows, inflows and outflows, and basic stocks — here they have developed the social question of how we interact, the principles, standards, and rules of the game

In designing these whole systems, with stocks, flows, information, and connections amongst them all, these philosophers, dating back at least 2,550 years have been master systems thinkers.  Systems thinking is not new, but it is complex, and the few people who have had disproportionately huge influences on how the rest of us live our lives, embraced this complexity and designed whole systems that addressed all four questions at the same time.  Pythagoras influenced western thought through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Siddhārtha Gautama created Buddhism. Loa-Tsu delineated Taoism.  Kong Qiu described Confucianism.  A pretty impactful twenty-year period, in the beginning of at least 2,550 years of systems thinking.  It is our turn to take the next step, to take on the design of the whole like they did so many years ago.

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4 Questions that Changed the World, Again and Again

Most of our experience, awful to great, energy depleting or energy enhancing, is determined by how we answer 4 questions.  These 4 questions have influenced the human experience of billions of people for thousands of years.  And people have answered these 4 questions in very different ways.

I invite you to explore what these 4 questions are, how they have changed the world over and over again, and how you can choose your own response to them.  With this you will be able to shift the experience you have and the outcomes you achieve, from a different response to 4 questions.

What are the questions?  Philosophers and practitioners alike have explored the questions that determine humanity’s moral, political, social, cultural, and economic arrangements for thousands of years.  In all of the different societies around the globe, these leaders consistently converge on 4 questions: (1) how much do we see when we look at our resources?; (2) who decides how to allocate the resources and how to enforce that allocation; (3) what criteria is used to allocate those resources; and (4) how do people interact with each other and those resources.  Four straightforward questions.

It turns out that there are technical terms for these four questions.

  1. Resources.  How much do we see?  In economics today, this is the “resource” question.  What are the assets or resources we have at hand?
  2. Allocation Mechanism.  Who decides?  Who decides who will decide how to allocate the resources and who will enforce that decision?  This is the political question of power: who has the power to decide and enforce the chosen allocation of resources.  In economics today this is called the resource allocation mechanism, the way that resources are allocated.
  3. Value.  What criteria do the resource allocators use?  In economic, political, and philosophical frameworks today, this is referred to as the value theory.  What values  guide our decision making?
  4. Organization.  How do people interact with each other and with the resources?  In economics today, human interactions are guided by organization theory.

Historians and observers of comparative political economics show that people throughout the ages of answered these four consistent questions in very different ways.  The different responses have radically changed the world in two ways:  they have addressed different needs across different societies, and they have evolved within each society.  Each geographic region of the world and the cultures that reside there seem to have very different orientations towards what is important in their society and the principles to achieve them.  Additionally, over time, each of these societies has learned about what worked and what did not, and groups within the societies have changed the guiding arrangements: they have evolved.  In other words, they changed the world by trying different responses to the 4 questions, and by learning and adapting their responses over time.

Now it seems that one of the very difficult things about these responses to the 4 questions is that are very hard to see.  At any given time, they seem to be given as fact.  That is simply the way that the universe works.  In one society, the king decides because it is his divine right.  In another society, it is the pope.  That is just the way it is…until it changes.  Then it was the most powerful companies that decided, or the elected parliament, or the richest families.  The responses changed over time.  And they remain difficult to see.

I suggest that the responses to these 4 questions are difficult to see, because they are given to most people in a society as laws, laws that are enforced by the power structure.  You just have to accept that this is the way things are.  I observe that most of these responses are also very abstract, making them difficult to understand and relate to in one’s daily experience.  Let’s see a couple of examples.

Within each of these 4 questions reside a few other questions with which a whole society is designed.  Unpacking these will help us see why these responses seem so abstract and disjointed, thus hard to see.

  1. Resources.
    • How much is there right now?  In economics, these are the “factors of production,” inputs to the process.  Economics cleanly classifies all resources as either land, labor, or capital.  The focus is on “right here, right now.”  Most look into the world and see scarcity, some see abundance.
    • How do these change, over time?  This question looks at the development of resources over time.  This focuses on the dynamics, capacity development, and relationships in influencing how much resource is available at any future time.  Most people think about what resources are available right now.  Far fewer think about the dynamics of generating those resources over time.
    • What are potential resources?  This is about seeing what resources could be available, whether they are now or not.   Very few think about potential resources that could be developed in the future.
  2. Allocation mechanism.
    • What is the motivating objective of the political-economic system?  What is the moral imperative?  What is the system trying to achieve?  Different groups have focused on material or spiritual well-being for the individual, equality amongst the citizens, well-being of the group, balance with nature, and closeness to spirit.
    • What primary relationship(s) best serves that objective?  Who has the “power” to decide, to set the rules of the game, to call upon force to enforce those rules?  What is the chief organizing principle?  Who are the owners of land, labor, capital?  Some groups chose the self as the guiding principle for individual freedom, such as neo-liberal markets.  Some chose equality with the other, such as egalitarian systems of justice and social democracies.  Some gave primacy to the solidarity of the group’s well-being, such as corporations, nation states, and collectivist societies.  Others gave most value to the relationship with nature, such as tribal communities and ecological groups.  And yet others gave the most focus to the relationship with spirit, such as theocratic communities and Buddhist societies.
    • What structure-process does the system use to make decisions in that relationship?  What is the power structure?  How many decide?  Few, representatives, many?  How do they decide?  Whose opinion, whose vote, whose enforcement?  Behind-the-scenes design (invisible), out-front debate (others vote – others opinion), election (you vote – representative give opinion), or participatory (you vote your opinion)?
  3. Value.
    • What is valued?  Material well-being at the outcomes-things level of reality?  Economic surplus?  Possibility, development, and outcomes for all five primary relationships?
    • What is the mode of exchange of what is valued?  What are the currencies?  What properties do they have?  Is everything exchanged through scarcity-based, interest-based money?  Are other currencies used, such as time banks and non-interest-based currencies?
    • Who gets what part of the value generated in the exchange?  Who “owns” the surplus value?  This is the economic value distribution question.  For land owners it is rent, for labor owners it is wages, and for capital owners it is profits.
  4. Organization.
    • Why do we come together?  Economic efficiency?  For a shared higher purpose?
    • How do we agree to interact?  Competition?  Cooperation?  Co-opetition? Collaboration?
    • What form best supports our agreements?  Economic specialization and division of labor around tasks?  Interwoven, integrated collaborative conversations?

Different groups across time and across geography have mashed together sets of the different responses listed above to the 4 questions and their subquestions.  The good news here is that much has been learned as billions of persons have lived in these natural experiments over the past hundreds of years.  The question is whether we can learn from what they have learned.  I suggest we can.

To begin to see how to learn from the insights gained from all of these groups, I have found two shifts to be very helpful.  First, rather than seeing these as four independent questions, much as they are developed and treated today by people in different professions (e..g, resource economists, comparative political-economists, financial economists and philosophers, organizational theorists), I suggest they are four different lenses on the same experience.  The four questions shed light on different dimensions of the same experience.  This leads to the second shift, looking to one’s own felt-experience of the harmonic vibrancy of the group as a pathway to seeing the agreements that influence that experience.  This takes seemingly disconnected, very abstract frameworks such as contract theory, factors of production, monetary theory, pricing theory, and allocation mechanisms and shows how they are actually just ways of looking at the harmonic vibrancy you experience in a group and the outcomes that result from that experience.

The main point is that these 4 questions that have changed the world many times are now available for you to choose a response to.  It is now up to you.  I delve more deeply into these 4Qs, their implications, tools and processes for seeing them, and choosing your response in this blog and in the book Ecosynomics: The Science of Abundance (ecosynomics.com).