Sunday, July 22, 2012

It's the People, Stupid!

It's the people, stupid!

That's what I said to myself the other day as I fought the urge to bang my head on my desk. Again.

For several years now I've had ongoing conversations with friends and family about the different kinds of government and economic systems and how well they do or don't work.
People toss around words like capitalism, democracy, republic, socialism and communism without really knowing what they mean or how those types of governments work. So I started doing some research.

I learned about the true democracies of ancient Greece and modern New England townships. I learned about the republic systems of ancient Rome and the United States. I discovered the philosophies (yes, they are philosophies or ideologies which can be put into action in human communities) of feudalism, capitalism, pure monarchy, constitutional monarchy, Marxism, socialism, anarchism, communism and fascism. I looked at the way people have run their societies from the dawn of history to the present.

As I sifted through all this information, one thing struck me over and over again: Each one of these systems is designed to make society run smoothly (though not necessarily fairly) provided everyone follows the rules. A handful of these systems are even designed to make society fair in one way or another. But none of them have ever worked out that way in the long run. Why?

It's the people, stupid.

Or the stupid people, depending on how you look at it.

In other words, people aren't all generous, fair, kind, compassionate and caring. Some, perhaps many, are greedy and selfish, and will stoop to any depths to get what they want out of whatever system they happen to live in. The problem is, all the systems proposed and enacted over the centuries assume that everyone will play fair. That's a hopelessly naive assumption.

Every system, every institution ever invented by humankind has been abused by that unpleasant, self-absorbed portion of us humans. No exceptions.

Over the past few months I have frequently been forced to listen to people arguing politics, with the hot topic this election year being the economy. Over and over I have heard some people shouting about the need for more government regulation of private business, and others screaming that regulation is strangling business and destroying it. Each time, after my ears stop ringing I recall that, at the time of the BP Freshwater Horizon oil well disaster, BP had on file with the government over 800 violations of federal regulations - violations the appropriate government agency was simply ignoring due to bribes and the other exciting, under-the-table activities of inspectors and higher-ups.

So really, the issue isn't regulations at all. The issue isn't the government or the economic system. The issue is the people.

Shoot, if people were all honest, kind, generous and all those other qualities our kindergarten teachers tried so desperately to instill in us, it wouldn't matter what kind of system we had, or even whether we had a system at all. But people aren't all like that, and we all suffer for their shortcomings.

It's these shortcomings that the great spiritual and philosophical leaders have tried to address over the centuries, with varying results. But the fact remains, there will always be people whose unbalanced self-interests tempt them to break the rules and get what they want regardless of the cost to others.

So let's stop whining about how we should change the system or chuck it altogether in favor of something else. Let's admit that we're the problem, that it's ourselves we need to fix. Like the twelve-step folks say, admitting the problem is the first step to overcoming it.

Hi, I'm Laura and I'm a human.