Cynicism and the Confucian Cycle

Government always growns until it collapses, and the society with it.

A reader recently commented that Scragged seems to be too cynical.  Our readers comment about many things, but we found this comment to be particularly thought-provoking and worthy of intense review.  There was internal debate over our level of cynicism and what it means.

Our cynicism, whether excessive or not, is rooted in our combined lifetime experiences and observations.  Our integrated experience has given us an observation which we call the Pleasure-Pain Principle.

  • All human beings seek to maximize their own personal comfort and pleasure
  • All human beings seek to minimize discomfort and avoid pain

While people differ in their personal tastes with respect to what constitutes pleasure and what they regard as pain, some desires are pretty universal.  Back in 1943, Abraham Maslow wrote A Theory of Human Motivation which proposed a hierarchy of human needs.  Maslow pointed out that if a person is so thirsty that his body chemistry becomes unbalanced, all his energies turn toward finding water; other desires and needs are subordinated to the overriding need for water.

Maslow argued that once our needs for food, warmth, shelter, sex, water, and other bodily needs are satisfied, we become concerned with "higher" needs such as the need to be respected and to have self-esteem.

The two basic mechanisms by which people gain self esteem are by amassing wealth or by amassing power.  We've pointed out that nobody in America is really poor, particularly not government employees.  With their basic needs satisfied, bureaucrats, like everybody else, turn to seeking pleasure by amassing money and power and minimizing pain by making sure that nobody can tell them what to do.

We see this in the business world all the time - business people are motivated to operate their businesses to gain wealth.  As has been noted many, many times, there is often a conflict between the needs of society and the greed of business people.  As Adam Smith pointed out in his book The Wealth of Nations:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Mr. Smith believed that whenever businessmen got together, greed would drive them to try to figure out how to raise prices to make more money.  This is an idea which most Scragged readers would probably find credible.

Mr. Smith also pointed out that the government's job is to write rules so that it's difficult to become rich without adding value.  Mr. Gates' wealth is due to selling a product which people choose to buy; Mr. Smith would approve.  Sugar farmers become wealthy by persuading the government not to let us import cheaper sugar from overseas; Mr. Smith disapproved:

But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.

Mr. Smith would see high import taxes on sugar as government having "facilitated assemblies" of sugar growers to help them raise prices; that's exactly what happened.  He also pointed out that there should be limits to how far businessmen can go in raising prices.

If prices go too high, some new business will enter the market and bring prices back down again.  Sugar growers persuaded government not to let cheaper sugar into the country so we couldn't buy from lower-priced suppliers.  If a normal business doesn't pay enough attention to its customers, it goes bankrupt, unless the unions or management have enough political clout to persuade government to bail it out as happened with Chrysler Corporation.

What has this to do with our cynicism towards government?  We at Scragged believe that the bureaucrats and functionaries who work around and for our government are as human as businessmen and are motivated in pretty much the same ways.  If we can believe that businessmen are always looking for ways to raise prices and make more money at our expense, we ought to be able to believe that government employees have the same basic motivations and that they look for ways to get more budget and power at our expense.

To that extent, we don't meet the definition of "cynical" - like or characteristic of a cynic; distrusting or disparaging the motives of others.  We don't disparage the motives of politicians, they have the same motives we do.  We don't distrust the motives of bureaucrats, we trust them all too well.

We at Scragged are convinced that, taken as a whole, government employees are no better and no worse than businessmen.  They are no more selfish and no more altruistic.

In other words, government employees are human beings just like you and me.  The difference is that if a businessman gets too greedy or neglects his customers, he'll go bankrupt.  If I goof off too much, I'll get fired.  This market-based mechanism is what Adam Smith called the invisible hand: it smacks businessmen around.  When they get too greedy or stop minding the store, customers go away and they go broke.

Unfortunately, there is no mechanism which ensures that a government employee will be dismissed for not working or that a government agency will have its budget cut if it messes up.  As we all know, the reverse usually happens.

Consider public schools.  When teachers goof up and don't teach what they're supposed to, they get paid extra to teach summer school so kids can catch up.  The worse job they do, the more money they make.  Similarly, there is no mechanism to cut the budget of the CIA even though it's messed up royally ever since it was founded.

Confucius' Teachings on Government

Confucius pointed out the main issue with government about 2,500 years ago.  He gave 4 rules for making society work:

  1. Children should love and obey their parents
  2. Wives should love and obey their husbands
  3. Husbands should obey the government
  4. Government should work to increase the welfare of the people.

He taught that if any of these rules broke down -- that is, children stopped obeying parents, divorce became common, people defied government, or government officials sought power or wealth instead of taking care of the people -- civilization lost the "mandate of heaven" and collapsed.

By "mandate of heaven," Confucius meant that God Himself had directed how society should work.  Depending on how you count, Chinese history shows 15 or 20 collapses when government failed to keep order and the country broke apart in civil war, but whenever the Chinese followed Confucius' rules, Chinese society worked well.

Confucius wasn't the only sage who believed that children should obey their parents.  Ancient Jewish Law said that when a son persistently disobeyed his parents, "all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die."  They didn't stone disobedient daughters because once a girl was married off, she became her husband's problem.

You can see why a government would adopt Confucius' ideas to the point of making Confucianism into a state religion - Confucius taught that God Himself wanted citizens to obey government.  If you were the party in power, what better endorsement could you want?

Emperors preferred to forget that Confucius also taught that the most likely of his 4 rules to fail was the rule about government looking out for the people.  He stated that the emperor's main responsibility was to find government employees who defrauded the people and cut their heads off "to encourage the others."

Confucius observed that when greedy civil servants became too numerous, they'd hide each other so that the emperor couldn't find them to kill them.  At that point, he said, it was a citizen's duty to rebel.  Once government got too selfish, there was no way to fix it other than to bring down the entire society and start over.

We see this sentiment in Article 10 of the New Hampshire State Constitution, which is sometimes called the "Right of Revolution."

Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the whole community, and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government.  The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.

The Confucian Cycle

Confucius studied Chinese history and observed that governments ran in cycles.  Some powerful warlord would take over and establish a dynasty.  As generations went by, the government would become more and more complex to the point that the infrastructure would start to collapse because someone would steal the road money. As transportation became less efficient, the economy shrank which led to less government revenue.

No bureaucrat wants to give up perks, of course, so there'd be even less money spent on roads, then they'd start to cut the army budget.  When the army got weak enough, the barbarians would attack, and the entire civilization would fall.

The Emperor Constantine realized that the Roman bureaucracy had become unmanageable so he moved the capital to Byzantium in 304 AD, leaving the bureaucrats behind.  Rome collapsed in 410, but Byzantium, which was also known as Constantinople, survived until it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.  Moving the capital put off the collapse by a thousand years.

The bureaucracy grew anew after Constantine moved the capital, of course.  The word "Byzantine" has come to describe a particularly complex and impenetrable bureaucracy.  It's hard to unwind all the details after a major invasion, but what records are available suggest that for the last hundred years before the fall, the bureaucrats had taken the money which was supposed to be used for maintaining the walls around the city and spent it on other things.

We've seen civilizations collapse throughout history. Dr. J. Unwin has studied more than eighty former civilizations which collapsed, and he wrote about his findings in Sexual Relations and Cultural Behavior, by J. D. Unwin (Frank M. Darrow 1969).  In no case have we ever seen a society recover from a greedy government without collapsing.

History, Dr. Unwin, and Confucius suggest that the only cure for bureaucratic excess is collapse.  The cancer eventually overwhelms the patient and the patient dies.

Where we are in the Confucian Cycle

Confucius observed that there's no natural limit to the greed of government employees just as there's no limit to a businessman's greed, or to your greed or my greed for that matter.  Each individual bureaucrat doesn't see how his particular rice bowl can have any significant effect, but collectively, all the theft, mismanagement, waste and other costs add up.

In Confucius' day, the size of the economy was fixed because the Chinese deliberately decided against technical progress.  When government overhead got too great, the society couldn't function.  The Grand Canal silted up, roads weren't maintained, the army got weak, the barbarians invaded, and down she'd go.

After 75 to 150 years of anarchy, the toughest warlord would fight his way to the top of the heap, establish a new dynasty, and the cycle would start over with the bureaucracy reset back to zero.

The American economy grows insofar as the bureaucrats permit technical innovation, but unfortunately, the American government grows faster.  Eventually, we won't be able to support the government, and our society will collapse.

This is not because bureaucrats or politicians are evil, it's because they're human beings, just like the rest of us.  To be honest about it, I don't know how honest I really am.  Nobody's ever offered me a million bucks to betray a trust so I can't say for sure whether I'd take it or not.  Considering the billions and billions that our politicians give away, what's surprising is that government functions at all.

I sympathize with bureaucrats in a way -- I, too, would prefer a high-paying job where I didn't have to work much.  I'm not smart enough to find a job like that, however, so I tend to work a lot of hours.

It's nearly impossible to fire a government employee, so nobody has to work hard.  There are hard-working bureaucrats, but it appears that what most of them work on is ways to increase their budget, not on benefiting society.  Senator Moynihan had a theory about government called the "professionalization of reform" by which the government bureaucracy thinks up problems for government to solve rather than simply responding to problems identified by others.

Bureaucrats get more status and power by having more people work for them, just as in business.  The only way a business can get more people working for it without going broke is to increase sales.  A bureaucrat gets more budget through political action.  Bureaucrats sometimes think of new "problems" to solve (the TSA comes to mind ) but a bureaucrat's main strategy to get more money is by demonstrating that his people are overworked and he needs more subordinates.

I had a friend who was waiting for approval from a government agency.  "It only has to go through four people," he told me.  "Each of them can handle my application in about ten minutes.  Why has it taken a month to get to the second guy?"

I explained that in order to justify a bigger budget for his boss, each bureaucrat had to act as if he was hopelessly overworked.  Each one had to keep enough papers on his desk to look busy.  Assuming that each paper took an hour and that 50 applications made the desk look "full enough," each bureaucrat had to hold each application for a week and a day.  If it took 200 applications to fill a desk, the delay would have to be five weeks per bureaucrat.

My friend didn't like it, but his application took five months to traverse four bureaucrats.

The point is that all bureaucrats want more budget; they'll do anything they can get away with to get more money and power.  This is not unique to government, don't businesses take extraordinary steps to get more money?  With businessmen, we call it "marketing," with bureaucrats, we call it "pork."

Unfortunately for us, businessmen like the sugar growers and corn farmers have learned to make alliances with bureaucrats to pass rules which give the businessman the chance to raise prices and give the bureaucrat more rules to enforce.  In "Of horse's teeth and liberty," the Economist says:

But rules relating to health, safety, the environment and national security have multiplied. Some of these are necessary, but many are not. For example, by one estimate, American health-care regulations cost $169 billion a year more than they yield in benefits, and lead to 7m Americans not being able to afford health insurance. By another estimate, measures to keep terrorists off aeroplanes cost lives by prompting people to drive instead of fly, which is nine times more dangerous.

And even the worst regulation usually heaps benefits on a small group, while its costs are widely spread. The beneficiaries thus lobby hard to keep each rule, while its victims do nothing. The late Mancur Olson, an economist, predicted that interest groups will grow in number until they cause their host society to slip into economic decline. [emphasis added]

All rules, no matter how stupid, costly, or ineffective benefit someone, if only the bureaucrat who got paid to write them.  As Confucius pointed out, however, there's a limit to the amount of overhead a society can stand.  When government takes too much out of the economy, the economy collapses and we start over.

That's the origin of the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."  The only possible "interesting events" were war, famine, or plague.  To a Chinese, the only thing worse than living in "interesting times" was "May your life be exciting," which meant not only that plague or war would come, but that you'd be in the middle of it.

Confucius never heard of democracy.  As Americans, we can vote the bums out.  It would take us only 6 years to get a completely new set.  Government wastes our money only because we let them - it's OUR FAULT.

Government employees are as human as you and I are; they are only responding to incentives we set up for them.  If we give them perverse incentives, it's no surprise that they behave perversely.  As has been said, in a democracy, we get the government we deserve.

We at Scragged don't want our society to collapse in our lifetimes, nor in our grandchildren's lifetimes either.  Thomas Jefferson pointed out that our society needs a free press to keep people informed what the government's up to so they can vote "NO!"  Most of our media have been co-opted; they no longer point out the absurdities of government.

The US Congress has a higher re-election rate than the old Soviet Politburo did.  Stalin was smart enough to remove his enemies from power, but we voters leave 'em in office so they can keep stealing our money.  We at Scragged are trying to stick our fingers in the dike.

But please, before deciding that we're too cynical, listen to what politicians say.  The Democrats say they'll save the economy by taxing the rich.  We know they can't do that because there aren't enough rich people to pay for government.  The only way they can get enough money is by taxing the middle class; that's where the money is.  Why do they keep lying to us?  Do they think we won't catch on?

Why do they keep nattering about health insurance when the problem they should fix is government-imposed regulations which add so much cost?  The Economist pointed out above that "health-care regulations cost $169 billion a year."  All the politicians want to tax us all so that everybody can have health insurance.  Instead of solving the #1 problem in health care, they want to throw our money at the problem without fixing the system.

Remember the last time government threw money at a problem?  They gave government grants and loans so people could go to college.  What happened?

Colleges aren't stupid -- tuition went up.  Faculty salaries went up and teaching loads went down.  Administrative overhead went up.  And the pay of college presidents went through the roof.  The same thing will happen if government throws money at health care without fixing the problems which government has caused.

It's possible that we're too cynical, but it's hard not to be cynical when the politicians and the MSM keep repeating the same tired old lies.

What if they Aren't Lying?

We tend to think that someone's lying if he tells us that 2 + 2 = 5, but it's possible that it isn't a lie.  By definition, a statement is a lie only if the person making the statement knows that it's false.  A person who believes that 2 + 2 = 5 is wrong, but he's not lying.  It's hard to believe, but it's possible that our politicians aren't lying when they talk about all the wonderful benefits we'll get if we let them put in their programs.

Take Hillary for example.  In her book It Takes a Village, she stated that we parents are too stupid to take care of our own kids and that she wants to set up government programs to help us.  Those of us who've been on the receiving end of child protection "services" know that the government doesn't know much about raising kids.

The bureaucracy knows this, but they'll never admit it.  In a long-term study of child care outcomes, MIT researchers found that even when a child's biological family was in really bad shape, drug abuse, violence, whatever, removing the child to foster care just about always made the situation worse.

Despite knowing this, judges still issue removal orders and the federal government keeps picking up the costs when social workers remove children from their families.  Social workers prefer to remove children because that's what the federal government pays them to do.

If they mess the children up badly enough, each child becomes a Child In Need of Services (CHINS) and they're eligible for even more federal money.  The beat goes on because funding and procedures are in place.  Bureaucrats will continue with business as usual whether what they do helps or not, but why would Hillary continue to believe that government can do anything that actually benefits us?

Hillary might actually believe that government can take care of us because it takes care of her.  Unlike us peasants at the bottom of the pile, Hillary's always been at the top of the government food chain.

Think back to when she was governor's wife.  When she had to renew her driver's license, did she get the usual flack we citizens get?  Or did the bureaucracy go into "pain avoidance" mode and take good care of her?  When there were issues with her vehicles, did the cops give her grief or did they take care of the problem?  When the governor of New Jersey got in a car crash, it turns out he wasn't wearing a seat belt even though he was being driven by a state cop.  Do cops cut governors and their families slack?

What about health care?  When she was first lady, Hillary was part of the government health care system which provides superb, but extremely expensive care.

Given her experience, she might actually believe that government can take care of us.  If she really believes it, we can understand her impatience when we peasants try to throw her wonderful programs back at her.  If she gets frustrated enough with us, she might lie to sell her programs as Roosevelt lied to sell Social Security.

Having been on the receiving end of government for a long time, we know that while government has no trouble taking care of a few high-end politicians, it can't really help those of us on the bottom of the pile.  Even if it could, it wouldn't because actually solving a problem is too much work.

We don't think that politicians are immoral or evil to propose expensive programs.  We don't think that bureaucrats are immoral or evil in trying to expand their turf, we all do that from time to time.  Based on our experience, however, we think that government programs cost far more than the benefits they return to society.

In saying that we don't want government to buy everybody health insurance, for example, we are not saying that we don't want people to receive medical care.  We're saying that when government tries to provide services such as education or health care or child protection, it's ineffective, wastes money, and generally makes things worse.  If anyone can suggest a recent non-military example where the government actually solved a problem in the sense of making it go away, we'd like to hear about it.

We say "recent" because we freely acknowledge that constructing the Interstate Highway system benefited society greatly.  We don't believe that government is inherently unable to benefit society, it's just that over time, the bureaucracy has gotten so complex that it's no longer able to benefit us.

The Ultimate Check

The men who wrote our Constitution were realists.  James Madison said, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."  He and his colleagues knew that government employees aren't angels either.

They knew that only government could have the power to restrain government, so they gave us three branches of government to keep each other in line.  That system has broken down in that our legislative and executive branches have decided to let each other rip us off, but there's still the final check on government -- we voters.

Confucius never heard of democracy or of rule by the consent of the governed.  To him, there was a distinct separation between government and the people.  Government was all executive branch; the emperor appointed all government officials and levied taxes without the advice or consent of anyone.

But in America, we're part of it.  We get to throw the rascals out when they ignore us.  The founders realized that we voters were the final, ultimate check; that's why it's so disconcerting when crooked politicians pad the voter list and steal votes.  But if we voters get our act together, we can force them to be more reasonable: that's what Scragged is all about.

With power comes responsibility.  If we the people let them get away with ruining our country, IT'S OUR FAULT.  As Pogo put it so long ago, "We have met the enemy, and it's us."

Editor's Note: This article has been extended into a full length book. Congratulations to the authors!

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
This is a great read! You, sir, have left me wanting more. A lot more. What is your background in Chinese literature? I see that you are a published author; anything on this?
January 18, 2008 1:42 PM
Alas, Mr. Offensicht has not yet published a book in this field; but he grew up in the Orient and is familiar with Oriental philosophy and history. This subject can be expected to be explored further in forthcoming articles published on Scragged, however.
January 18, 2008 3:00 PM
This covers Chinese government but not accurately. A lot of Confucious' records were false and falsified. Many of the old dynasties knew how to keep the people down - write history how they wanted it to sound. Many historians believe this is why the nation hung on for so long as structured and unfractured as it did.
January 18, 2008 3:03 PM
No doubt the Chinese records of 4000+ years ago do not meet modern historical standards. However, Mr. Offensicht is not talking about specifics here, just grand-sweep observations about human nature, which are also in keeping with what we see in histories elsewhere as he cites.

If Confucius' records are false or falsified (which, as with any records that old, is at least conceivable), then what do you propose as a more accurate alternative record?
January 18, 2008 3:07 PM
To Siera J:

Then how do YOU know what is accurate or not? If they are false, then how do you know this account is wrong?
January 18, 2008 3:08 PM
Let's think on this....... Which presidential candidate(s) would tend to identify with this bureaucracy-run-amok theory and try to reverse the trend? Are there ANY such candidates? And... COULD the executive branch do anything about it? Finally.... WOULD the legislative branch do anything about it? If Will's right, the answer to all these is "no"! (And I don't mean Ron "Dr. No" Paul!)
January 21, 2008 8:29 PM
Joshua Quarry has put forth what I believe is a truism about government. There is no candidate that can "reverse" the trend because the trend is self-sufficient. All we, The People, can do is to find someone who recognizes this and fights to keep the bureaucracy down like Reagan did.
January 22, 2008 8:28 AM
Excellent read. I like what Gerry said about the trend being self sufficient. I don't think anyone knows what to do about the runaway government. A vast majority don't even see a problem existing.

Clearly the ones that are getting the biggest backing into presidency are usually the most corrupt.

Thank you author for only starting one sentence with an "And". They say it's OK to do now but its still not advised. I can't stand it.
January 30, 2008 6:16 AM
A quick comment on the Pleasure-Pain Principle: it is flawed. If ALL human beings seek these, then there wouldn't be people like Buddhist monks and priests. I don't think people like Mother Teresa and Ghandi would have existed. If the pinciple was restated along the following:

Human beings TEND TO seek...

Then it would be a valid "pinciple".
February 1, 2008 2:32 PM
Good point, G. Offensicht makes a lot of blanket assumptions. Good content, bad style. I've wanted to comment on that before.
February 1, 2008 3:00 PM
I appreciate stylistic pointers from Dr. G and jacob, but in this case, I believe my original statement to have been accurate. I said:

"While people differ in their personal tastes with respect to what constitutes pleasure and what they regard as pain, ..."

I lived in Japan for a number of years and met some of the Buddhist monks to whom Dr. G. refers. Many of them derive positive feelings of well-being based on the sufferings which they endure. I am not sure that what they do quite fits the definition of "Masochism," gratification gained from pain, deprivation, degradation, etc., inflicted or imposed on oneself, but taking pleasure in pain is a recognized human phenomenon.

I do not know anyone who knew Mother Teresa so I can't say for sure, but I have known missionaries who derived self-satisfaction from helping others. I have read that Ghandi derived satisfaction from being regarded as a leader. In his case, to be cynical, I believe that his suffering was a politicially-motivated tool for acquiring influence to the point of being a powerful person.

I believe that a) what I said about the pleasure-pain principle is true if b) we allow for a HUGE, VAST range in what different individuals will regard as pleasurable and / or painful.
February 1, 2008 4:04 PM
Point taken W.O. I was thinking in more biological terms. For example, sexual climax is pleasurable for all normal human beings. I know that there are men of the cloth that struggle, sometimes for a lifetime, with supressing those desires and avoiding that pleasure.
February 1, 2008 4:16 PM
Terrific read. I would like to suggest that W.O.
try to put these powerful essays into a more condensed format (300 to 500 words) to make them more palatable (readable) to the 'great lazy unwashed', many of whom would be readily led to vote out all incumbents.

I myself would like to use such material (with attribution)to my site's 'signups' at
tenurecorrupts/com I find it very difficult to effectively distill and abbreviate good writing.

One other thing: Those who complain about the "accuracy" of 2500 year old philosophical ruminations should loosen up and consider the basic commonsense underlying the words.
Lack of commonsense is one of the REAL problems underlying our present day culture.
February 3, 2008 6:02 PM
You may use any content from the site, provided that your use coincides with our Terms of Use and EULA.

You can find the Terms of Use here:

Or by clicking the link on the bottom of this page.

The clause titled "Notice Specific to Documents Available on this Web Site" is the one you want to read closely.

With respect to the Confucius article, we editors would greatly appreciate it if someone would write a shorter, punchier version. If you do that, or if you write a narrower version which is aimed at some specific audience, please send us a URL so we can link to your version. We cynics gotta stick together!
February 3, 2008 11:47 PM
It's not a binary pain-pleasure proposition.

There's also a component of time.

Some pain is worth the pleasure that comes before or after it. The inability to make the decision to your benefit is the beginning of addiction.

And the case of Mr. Gates. People buy software from many companies. But it is the computer producers on whom Gates forced his rickety flagship. The multi-booting revolution came decades after Mr. Gates got a lock on the industry. And it wasn't the mass population the lucky to be smart geeks nobody talks to.

The number of people who actually purchased the barnacle laden vessel Mr. Gates sells is miniscule compared to those who received it via a free upgrade or already glued to their computer.

We still live in a world where people think of computers as robots. The only thing that keeps that bag of gears and bolts relevant is the public's fear of change. Why do they fear? Because they have no context. They never installed it in the first place.

February 21, 2008 2:33 PM
IMO, you can never be too cynical. :-)
March 12, 2008 2:22 PM
Well said.
March 25, 2008 10:16 PM
Awesome article ... I wonder if the ideas here extend beyond government. Do they apply to smaller organizations like churches and businesses?
April 9, 2008 2:29 AM

I should digg your article therefore other folks can see it, really helpful, I had a hard time finding the results searching on the web, thanks.

- Murk

September 29, 2010 2:42 AM

The problem with this age-old argument (that happens to be a very American one) is that it represents a two-dimensional view of social forces, defined as an axis (continuum or dichotomy) between "regulation" and "free market".

‘Regulation’ <----- > ‘Free-Market’ (the widely embraced American ‘political’ axis)

This two-dimensional view (reflected in our dysfunctional two-party political system) is widely embraced in our thinking and discourse; equally by both the “Right” and the “Left” (the dichotomy again!). But this is dysfunctional and misleading because it avoids another ‘axis’ that has equal force and autonomy in our society: "culture" vs. "technique"

‘Culture’ and ‘technique’ are more difficult concepts to understand, particularly for Americans - and I do not mean that to sound disparaging. For many reasons ‘culture’ is a diffused concept in America, and ‘technique’ is simply so pervasive is hard to see - like a fish trying to describe ‘water’. “Technique” describes a system in which measurement, efficiency, scientific analysis and technological solutions become the foundation for decision-making. “Culture” is a system in which shared values, language, habits and collective meaning drive decisions.

‘Culture’ < ----- > ‘Technique’ (the poorly understood but equally impactful axis)

Despite the wide embrace of the one and the obscurity of the other, each of these fully-operational systems channel behavior and shape our social landscape and our politics. And these two do not map onto the same line. For example, some people (or policies) may find themselves ‘high’ on the free-market axis, but also high on the ‘technique’ axis, as opposed to other free-marketers with a high concern for ‘culture’ etc. If you can visualize the two axis mapped one on top of the other, regulation-market horizontal and culture technique vertical - then you get an idea where this is going. There are now four quadrants and many combinations.

This is the reality of the American social and political landscape, and it is why the market vs. regulation discussion simply doesn’t work. Once you throw culture and technique into the mix, the whole concept and function of ‘market’ and ‘regulation’ shifts. Market forces and regulation bear on both technique and culture. And vise versa. It is much more complex and nuanced.

What happens in this model, is the function of regulation can be seen, for better or worse in relation to the advancement of culture and/or technique, rather than simply as a restraint on the free market. Some regulations may be seen as ‘good’ for technique and ‘bad’ for culture, or vise versa. Now we can enter into Confucianism with a much better equipped understanding of what he, or other re-writers were saying. And interestingly it sheds tremendous light on why China, even today after incredible ‘cultural revolutions’ remains a distinct force in the global economy their very unique culture – technique patterns have led to incredible competitiveness, irrespective of the regulation/market axis.

Well, this is clearly a much larger discussion that I would love to have if anyone is still interested in the topic. Until then…

Scott Francisco
Director of Discovery
HLW International
115 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10003
Phone 212.353.4966
Mobile 917.209.0230

August 25, 2011 8:12 PM

I cannot believe it took -me- this long to find your work.

October 12, 2016 11:27 AM

Thanks! We hope you enjoy the book that we wrote based on this article, which you can find here:

October 12, 2016 6:25 PM

When it comes to understanding human motivations and cynicism, our Creator said it best when He described human motivation to Jeremiah, in Jeremiah 17:9 - the [human] heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

September 6, 2018 9:04 AM

"The two basic mechanisms by which people gain self esteem are by amassing wealth or by amassing power."

This is not true. People have a much wider variety of ways of gaining self esteem than that: some people pride themselves on the number of their sex partners; others seek god, or enlightenment or knowledge; others have a strong and apparently inborn desire to help other people; others pride themselves on the extreme neatness and/or cleanliness of their home and yard; others pride themselves on their muscular strength &/or athleticism; others pride themselves on the competence at some skill or skills; others pride themselves on being able to make people laugh, or to be able to tell a good story; others pride themselves on their good looks, others on their intelligence, others on their memory, others on their social skills, others on their cooperativeness. Probably a dozen other things as well. This isn't too surprising since all of the above are evolutionarily advantageous. Lots of niches in our built environment, and part of every persons formative years is figuring out what they are better at than anyone else…once they figure that out, they start working away to improve their 'comparative advantage'. SOME people crave power, and SOME people crave wealth. But lots of people are pursuing something else altogether.

December 10, 2018 2:39 PM

"If anyone can suggest a recent non-military example where the government actually solved a problem in the sense of making it go away, we'd like to hear about it."

The Megatons to Megawatts program: The Russians sold the uranium for below what the market price would have been. This delayed mining expansion operations in Canada due to the low prices, but it meant lower prices for electricity. Plus less Russian nukes! Two problems solved at one stroke!

December 23, 2018 2:29 AM

Ten years later, and still a wonderful piece.
Happy New Year (2019) to the clear thinking crew at Scragged!

January 3, 2019 9:09 AM


I TEND to think of that one as unwinding an unfortunate after-effect of a military program. You are correct, however, in pointing out that it did keep the nuclear material from leaking out into the terrorist ecology.

One for you. Do you have another one?

January 3, 2019 11:35 AM

I'm glad I found this. I made it all the way through (even the comments).

So it appears we are always going to be in an OCD uninterruptible 'lather, rinse, repeat' cycle and the only control we have is how long we spend lathering and/or rinsing, the repeat is unavoidable. Perhaps the shampoo or water will run out?

Thank you.

March 29, 2019 9:39 AM

I am a latecomer to this site and this article. The analysis of human behavior adds valuable nuance and understanding of the mechanisms of the corruption of power. It also helps us understand why mostly decent Government workers produce indecent outcomes.

A Skeptic's caution to the Cynics - Do not fall into the either/or trap. In the 1980's, New Zealand toppled significant bureaucracies without a collapse -

Ditto for Margret Thatcher in Great Briton. Abolishing alcohol prohibition and partial airline deregulation in the US are other examples.

You could effectively argue these were small skirmishes won in a lost war. However, they show it is possible to improve without abandoning rule of law entirely.

May 24, 2020 12:51 PM
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