262. The Factory Makes Six Million Left-Footed Shoes

From early in the Cold War era it became a habit to lam­poon the idio­cies of cen­tral­ized com­mu­nist plan­ning in the Soviet Union. There was plenty to lam­poon. George Orwell’s “Ani­mal Farm”, and later “1984” became eerily pre­dic­tive. What we never noticed though, deaf­ened by all the ide­o­log­i­cal shout­ing, was that the strengths and weak­nesses of col­lec­tive activ­ity are found every­where there are humans. The United States is on the cusp of decline as a suc­cess­ful civ­i­liza­tion exactly because, for ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons, it man­ages col­lec­tive activ­ity very badly and at vast, waste­ful expense. Self­ish­ness and greed, in the end, don’t come cheap. For exam­ple, 62% of the bank­rupt­cies in Amer­ica occur sim­ply because there has been no well-man­aged uni­ver­sal health care. That leads to huge per­sonal and national losses. Not smart. On the other hand, it remains true that any orga­ni­za­tion will mul­ti­ply indi­vid­ual errors, and resist cor­rec­tion of the prob­lem. If the orga­ni­za­tion is a com­mu­nist state, that mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of error can be cat­a­strophic (as we saw, for exam­ple, in China’s so-called Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, which came close to destroy­ing the state alto­gether). Even in our mod­est “cap­i­tal­ist” democ­ra­cies though, this is a daily prob­lem. We may have mil­lions of com­pa­nies, but as in the planned state, they lock indi­vid­ual faults into a col­lec­tive frame­work, and even imi­tate the errors of other orga­ni­za­tions. Count­less mil­lions are trapped in soul-destroy­ing work­places where some brain­less “author­ity” fig­ure micro-man­ages his small king­dom into a paral­y­sis which can go on for years. The indi­vid­ual meet­ing an orga­ni­za­tion of any size is always at risk. Recently I had rea­son to spend a lit­tle time in a hos­pi­tal. On dis­charge I was given a doc­u­ment which listed my “co-mor­bidi­ties” – a cat­a­logue of ter­ri­fy­ing con­di­tions sup­ported by a col­lec­tion of life-threat­en­ing pills to take every day. It was all pure fic­tion, appar­ently man­u­fac­tured by some bored mup­pet in an off-moment. I protested, and was ignored. The patient is always stu­pid. The “med­ical record” had been cre­ated and was sealed with the author­ity of the orga­ni­za­tion. I con­sulted a GP. We agreed that the hos­pi­tal was insane and trashed the pills. I wrote for­mally to the hos­pi­tal and osten­ta­tiously signed it “PhD” for effect. Into the void. The hos­pi­tal con­tin­ues to send let­ters assum­ing my pend­ing “mor­bid­ity”. This is the story of orga­ni­za­tions every­where, and why, occa­sion­ally, there are rev­o­lu­tions.


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