Thinking like a State

Thinking like a State

There is this quote from Keynes which has always appealed to me:

“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”

Now, this idea of escaping our prejudices is one that I’m obsessed with as in my perspective it’s often what holds us back from being able to cobble together something original.

Now before you jump to conclusions about what this blog post is going to be about, let me tell you that you’re probably half right. But that also makes you half wrong.

So there.

Bees and the State

So the basic idea I want to run through follows this chain of logic:

  1. The State/government has certain predefined roles
  2. These roles inform the type of people who occupy decision making positions
  3. These same people tend to think in a certain way
  4. The way the state sees is influenced by this
  5. The way the state acts, being informed by how it sees is consequently dependent on this

Okay, it’s more complicated than this, but the key to understanding the chain of logic is in recognizing that because the state operates in certain ways (for instance by making rules, regulations or classifying societies through statistics) they engage in actions which tend to make society closer to their vision of how it should be organized so that it is understandable, manageable or ‘legible’.

A great way to think about this is through the idea of ‘Bee Space’ which is a term used to describe the minimum gap a beehive needs to leave between panels in order to ensure bees don’t build honeycomb in the wrong place. This is illustrated in the picture below which shows that when ‘bee space’ is violated the bees don’t behave as we might like.

Specifically, they build honeycomb all over the place.

Bees are the jerks of the animal kingdom.

This is essentially the idea of legibility in that it describes a situation where we attempt to organize or regulate society (or bees) to generate a particular outcome.

Another way to think of this is that the bees are organized as a well-behaving or ‘legible’ part of a system of making honey.

Thinking Like a Horse

Now let’s take another example. I’ve worked in a lot of different places over my career, but generally they’ve been full of economists.

Now this is obviously great, after all there is nothing better than working in a place where you’re always right.

Of course, I don’t mean this literally. But in the past because I knew how an economist thought, there was a clear incentive to structure my questions and work accordingly.

But just as I did this, so did everyone else until the organization itself became an ‘echo chamber’. That is, because we all couldn’t agree with each other enough, we tended to reinforce particular ways of doing and seeing things.

Seeing Like a Horse

To make this idea a little more tangible, take Thumper the horse’s vision:

As you can see Thumper has a blind spot and large areas where she can only see with one eye (meaning she can’t focus). But here’s the thing. Because of the way Thumper sees, she also behaves differently.

For instance, because she can see what’s happening on both sides she tends to react by moving suddenly in order to face the threat (unless she decides to run).

So We Would Assume..?

Let me show you another way to think about this. Below is a map of Washington DC, a notoriously planned city:

Alternatively, look at a map of London, a notoriously unplanned city:

So a planned city tends to be neat and organized, while an unplanned one (or more loosely planned) will tend to be more chaotic and disorganized. So here’s where I make my point.

Because the state plans the city, and the state tends to see the world in a certain way, they’ll attempt to plan it in a way which conforms to this. For instance, if government ministers are most interested in taxation the incentives for civil servants will be to organize cities in a way which makes this easier, whether they realize this consciously or not.

And although democracy is meant to correct for this by allowing us to throw out politicians who don’t act in our interests, I’d like you to consider how long it takes you to wait in line at the motor registry before seriously considering that ten years of benevolent rule is enough to alter systems so that they are equally benevolent.


I'm an economist, data geek and public speaker.

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