Humans are machines that output the results of the system we are in.
We believe we have far more individual freedom and liberty of thought than we truly do. Science has shown that many things we think we do or believe from our own preferences are actually determined by the environment we are in.
We are genetically identical to humans from the last 10,000 years. This means that all of the people who were member of very strange societies like the Aztecs or the European Feudal system, or abhorrent societies like the German Nazis or the Russian Soviets – were identical genetically to us. Their differences lay in the systems that had been created for them to live.
The systems I am referring to include but are not limited to everything ranging from language to politics to economics to military to slavery to marriage to friendship.
Some examples of historical systems that have majorly controlled human destiny include:
- The Roman Empire, which ruled the known Western world for the longest unbroken period of any major empire, had some very efficient systems set up. The primary one that gave them control of the world was their government and military. The military was made up of the best professional fighting men in history up until today… Roman legionaries signed up as young men for a 25 year stint. They were loyal to Rome and were trained every day by grueling physical regimens including marching at a jog 10-20 miles, building massive forts every night, working on infrastructure, and of course spending many hours practicing fighting skills both individually and in their units. This meant that a Roman force that was 1/5th of the size of an enemy force (like the Germans of 100 AD who were known for drinking and gambling… and being courageous but foolish) could absolutely crush anyone who stood against them. Beyond their vast military superiority to anyone else in history, Rome’s government was set up to encourage conquered people to not revolt… Rome allowed people to choose their own government, religion, and way of life as long as they payed tribute and gave soldiers to the legions. They also would typically greatly improve the life of the average person who joined the empire by bringing roads, merchants, fairer laws, and other benefits.
- America rose to great power by offering truly free economic life for much of it’s history. This meant that a poor kid could reasonably hope that if he worked smart and worked hard, he could actually have a much better quality of life. Many men took advantage of this wonderful aspect of America, including Sam Walton, Michael Dell, Bill Hewlett / David Packard, Rockefeller, JP Morgan, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and hundreds of thousands of more who did it on a much smaller scale than the titans above, even your author. Unfortunately, the last 20 years have seen a severe curtailing of social mobility since the natural mechanism for clearing dead wood has not been allowed to act… in 2008-2009 and again in 2020 the government bailed out poorly run and just unlucky corporations to a massive extent, preventing their bankruptcy. Bankruptcy is the means by which bad businesspeople have their wealth removed. In 2020, we should have had a sharp recession which would have wiped out a lot of wealthy people and would have opened up huge opportunities for smart, but impoverished, kids to build newer and better replacements.
- On the negative side, intense nationalism and populism in the 1930’s led to the growth of extremely powerful central governments in Russia, Germany, and Japan which led to wars with their neighbors. The only way these intensely nationalistic and populist systems were destroyed was by killing the entire generation in each of those countries that believed in them. We should be extraordinarily cautious and wary of the governments and systems we allow to gain power, as some of these are nearly impossible to stop once they get started and cause human misery and horror at scales that stagger the imagination.
Thus is it incredibly important to design systems that are fair and lead to happy humans.
Humans will follow their personal incentives to whatever serves them best, regardless of the impact on others in most cases. The only individuals who truly have the courage to stand against a system are revered (or demonized) in many cases: Martin Luther King Jr, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mahatma Gandhi, Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Vladimir Lenin, etc. People who went against an entire system and against their own interest are our heroes.
Our current systems in the world today are set up better than most systems have been in human history, but are still severely lacking:
- We have 200+ nations, each of which tries to take whatever it can selfishly from the others around them. There is no real strong system in which to limit the excesses or bad behaviors by nations. This leads to wars, and local dictators, and other problems.
- America’s congresspeople are owned by special interests. The only way to get elected to high office is to have a benefactor on your side who you serve. This means that the congresspeople who make our laws don’t try to help the nation as a whole – they try to help the special interests who got them elected. This means we have a democracy and free market that is slowly being corrupted into an oligarchy… and we are now probably closer to oligarchy than we are to a free market. Government employee unions, socialists, and Wall Street money own the Democrats, while big pharma / big oil / big ag / patent trolls / military – industrial receipients own the Republicans. Donald Trump is owned by Russia / Saudi Arabia / Israel and other foreign interests with very different desires than the American people.
- Public corporations, especially large ones, have no accountability at the top. This means that you have the same guy serving on the boards of several Fortune 500 companies where he cannot possibly provide proper oversight to each. This is by design so that he exerts no monitoring or control over the executives of that company who steal as much as they can get away with. When you have CEO’s of public companies who did not found those companies but are just hired guns earning 100’s of times what the average worker makes, you know there is corruption.
One of my primary jobs as CEO and founder of my company has been to come up with systems for my team to operate in. When I have made mistakes in these systems, it has led to a lot of painful experience for me and for my employees and for my clients. When I have built good systems that give people proper incentives to do their best work, my company has thrived enormously. This has revealed to me a glimpse of the power of systems in society has a whole and shown the power that both good and bad incentives hold over us. I think we all need to spend a LOT more time thinking about the systems that control us and our neighbors. Every one of us has systems we can control… at a minimum you can set up your refrigerator with healthy food or unhealthy food… that creates a system in which you will end up eating the well or eating bad things for you. You can set up systems by which you habitually exercise each day… or by which you end up on your couch each day watching TV or playing with your phone. At a larger scale, we can set up systems that lead to wealth and happiness for all, or we can set up systems that crush our freedom (North Korea, Nazi Germany), or reduce the size of the pie for everyone (Venezuela, Soviet Russia).
The most important thing you can do is to try to make the systems you personally live in better. Everything from the systems that affect only you on up to the systems that affect all of us. Please think about systems critically and find improvements and push for those improvements to be made!