The Social Ouroboros

Manifestations of an idea that border on the extreme of opposing sides can sometimes look alike; much like the Ouroboros. Things look like a circle, like a loop is being closed between the two extremes as if the gap never existed. In simpler words, what goes around, comes around. At the risk of sounding terribly generic, I must confess that this is not a universal truth by my opinion. The Ouroboros effect as it were, is best seen in modern democracies. If I have to look for the best rephrasing of what the word democracy means, it’s how a founding father of America put it in rather unambiguous terms. Thomas Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence begins with the importance of having the consent of the governed population. Democracy as we know it today isn’t exactly people’s rule. When the results of an election are announced, democracy goes out of consideration for a while. Whatever follows is a second order effect of how the population voted. The elected government, with the consent of the governed, has the authority to govern the population until the day of reckoning, which would be re-election. It is a day of reckoning because that day, the governed population offer their feedback in fairly binary terms – they’re either willing to consent with the incumbent or, they’re willing to revoke consent to give it to someone else.

The Ouroboros, a dragon that eats its own tail.

The feature of wanting to know everyone’s preference for things, much like the Ouroboros, comes around as its biggest undoing. Decisions don’t hold value only for being made. A good decision is timely, and opportune. It is made when the opportunity presents itself, at the right time. A decision without the ability to impact is like a body without life in it. To want to know everyone’s preference means that every decision would be voted on. To ensure every decision is accurately reported, and then accurately counted simply means a lot of time would be wasted on merely collecting the consent of the governed. This, however, avoids the principal-agent problem because the presence of an agent is avoided almost completely. As good as that may sound in theory of wanting pure democracy in action, one can agree that at scale, the marginal utility of every subsequent vote is infinitesimal compared to the cost of accessing the vote. The final outcome is inefficient and slow governance. This probably explains why ancient democracies never grew beyond a city-state size. As the size of the population that are governed grows, the impact of every decision & the gravity of every decision increases multi-fold. Decisions cannot wait until everyone’s opinion on it is known. This leads to much debated economic problem of a principal & agent. A principal is one whose objective the agent is expected to fulfill. In effect, the governed remain the principal whereas the governing rulers become the agents. The decision makers are assumed to act in the interest of the voting principals. When worded that way, a monarchy that fiercely protects its subjects and takes care of them would be the most efficient way of governing large areas as the decision making is cut down to a very few.

As much as efficiency sounds good, efficiency to achieve desirable outcomes is what one envisions. Efficiency to achieve whims & fancies is never a good idea. This is where we hear the popular adage – absolute power corrupts absolutely. Having the power to make decisions as an authority works only as long as a morally sound person takes the seat. This is where the Ouroboros truly manifests. If the principal is present for every decision to be made, it’s just as bad as when the principal isn’t involved at all. One doesn’t let timely decisions to be made, the other doesn’t even consider the interest of the principal in its worst form. The net effect is the same in both, making them equivalents in the outcome.

The problem with having systems is that they need to be engineered to work in adversity, not when things are going good. The question is never to be about how to make things easy for a leader of good morals should they ascend to power. It should always be about how to ensure how to stop a despot in power from destroying lives of the citizens. In all this, we forget the important bit. The consent of the governed is important & paramount. No matter what form of government it is, the consent of the governed is what it all revolves around. The border territories of a mighty empire may offer their consent to be governed by the new invading forces & initiate the process of the downfall of great empires – a point discussed in great detail by Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince. From the arguments made above, we arrive at a fair conclusion that pure autocracy or pure democracy are equally problematic. A system of delegation of powers where a leader is elected with mandates & boundaries of power are clearly laid down is probably the only way out. Also, there is a feedback system in place with a reasonable timeline so that the elected leader knows the decisions made are aligned in the interest of the population.

Does having the consent mean doing the bidding or taking the orders from the governed population? The passage of power means exactly that. Do what the people expect, or stay out of power. The underlying assumption here is that the voting population has to be a morally sound people. If the voting population is morally sound, the leader will be morally sound. At least that’s the way it seems to appear to me. I’ve used the words ‘morally sound’ a few times until now. What would a morally sound population be like? Morals are derived from social mores – prescribed behaviour that is desirable. More than the literal text, what one needs to understand is the way desirable comes to be. Though I come from Hindu upbringing, my thoughts around morality at the time of writing this are largely from either Christianity or from Judaism. Though there is the elusive concept of Dharma in Indian literature, I firmly believe simpler instructions that don’t require deep thinking and make it stupidly obvious work when it comes to scale of effort. I’ll come back to religion & morality once I finish my next argument.

Nature chooses to reduce effort for the same output or increase the output for the same effort put in. Either way, nature chooses to optimise the usage of resources available. Every leader is put to the test through a vote over an interval of time. The lifetime of a civilisation is effectively cut down into a summation of periods between elections. Being the leader of a nation means being in a powerful position where changes can be effected. A government is an organisation that needs money to run itself. The employee does need to be paid by the employer. The simplest way to do this is to collect taxes. My opinions on taxes are for a whole other discussion. After collecting taxes, the governing folk essentially become managers of a large fund whose cash needs to be allocated. Economic theory suggests this fund is to be used to produce public goods like roads, clean water & hospitals. Society is inherently unequal. Humans have natural instincts to be envious of those that have things that they don’t. Though this can be seen as an aspiration to achieve, it can very well be seen that it is unfair for someone to have something while I don’t. If a voting population repeatedly offers feedback, is it any surprise that over time every government fund allocation goes towards addressing said unfairness? The government is a way of people effecting their bidding. If the vote has such power, why would anyone work to achieve aspirations if they vote their way out? Government schemes run precisely because the elected officeholders need it to have the consent of the governed. This isn’t a self-evident truth, but an observed outcome over time.

A morally sound people would know envy is bad. That if one doesn’t have something, one must toil for it because sloth is also a sin. This could go the other way as well. Gluttony is just as much a sin as the other 2 mentioned here. Why should the wealthy not give back to society the excess that they have? If this “giving back” is for feeding the fumes of envy, it is just as undesirable. Why are these sins? My answer is not that God said so or that the holy scripture says so. It is that a society living the life with principles of the 7 sins doesn’t get too far. The Greek Gods were godly in the sense that they had infinite power to do whatever they please. They acted by way of what offered them pleasure, never once having to bother about consequences. Once the consequence is brought in, things do change. Morals based on understanding consequences to actions & factoring them into decisions made create societies that learn to act against natural human instincts & end up creating societies that outlive individual lifetimes.

Thomas Jefferson also wrote that Life, Liberty & Pursuit of Happiness are god-given rights and this is a self-evident truth. Is happiness the same as pleasure? Pleasure is momentary & short-term. It doesn’t last. Happiness comes from being content in life while knowing that one has the ability to achieve what one wishes to. Confusing happiness & pleasure as one is indication that morality has been lost. Taxes can be levied on those the majority of voting public envies & then the funds can be redistributed accordingly. What is it if not seeking pleasure? However, this is still a desirable situation than a despot knowing that any action will not have consequences because it cannot. At least, in a democracy, the minds of people change with time as society evolves. It is the Ouroboros of social existence. At the heart of it, democratic processes are the inevitable cogs of how governments work. It is what society we want to preserve as a people that matters.

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