Half of a chaotic but smart approach involves chaos. If we want better decision making and optimal outcomes, we have to accept a level of failure in our actions. In the Curbside Chat and here on our website, I frequently reference Carlson's law, a Silicon Valley adage first brought to my attention by Tom Friedman of the New York Times. It goes:
In a world where so many people not have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.
We all have a natural disdain for the "orderly but dumb" approach. I wrote about one such project here recently and since then we have had an ongoing conversation about it on the Strong Towns Network. Readers here will mostly all agree that we tend to get a plethora of dumb policies and dumb projects when there is a large disconnect between the theoretically bright idea and its actual implementation. From my time in the US Army, where orderly but dumb commands from a distant and disconnected leadership was the norm, I quickly learned the meaning of the term SNAFU.
There is a logical reason why we have an abundance of orderly but dumb projects. In an affluent society such as ours, particularly one where we abdicate the human responsibilities we have to our neighbors through payment of taxes to a distant government (the famous line from Ebenezer Scrooge -- who indicated that he cared for the poor by paying his taxes to support the prisons and workhouses -- comes to mind), we like things orderly. We like a solution -- or at least the illusion of a solution -- to every problem.
We want the shelves at Walmart stocked, cheap fuel at the gas station and the football game on the television on Sundays. A nice and tidy society. And we throw a lot of money at problems in the hopes that they will go away, or at least allow us to not dwell to deeply on them while we refill our Doritos bowl at halftime. (And for the record, I'm American and so I very much include myself in this description.)
So when someone comes along and starts talking about chaotic but smart, well....we really like the "smart" part of that, but the necessary "chaotic" component makes us uncomfortable. This won't be chaotic in my daily life, will it? I'm fine with experimentation somewhere else, but this isn't going to directly impact me, right?
Case in point, last week I wrote Rational Response #4 about establishing service areas. This is essentially one way to triage a community, allocating scarce resources (itself still a difficult concept for Americans, circa 2013) in support of productive development patterns, building community wealth while strengthening it financially for an uncertain future. As part of the process, three different levels of service are envisioned: very intense, very minimal and fee-for-service.
I knew when I wrote this -- when the application of Strong Towns thinking gets a little more real -- that we would get some pushback but it was interesting nonetheless to experience. Like this comment from @Nathaniel:
Charles: lack of fire protection has externalities. There's a reason we have to provide it nationally and universally -- even in national forests. (Though it's done a bit differently there, with controlled burns.) .....some things, like fire protection, some level of police, and communicable disease control, *must* be provided on a national, universal scale in order to work right.
And then there is this comment from @Wyn, which I really want to focus on:
I can imagine a fee-for-service structure being very bad for poorer dysfunctional households, where there is verbal and emotional abuse, and sometimes the kinds that leave marks on your skin. Say the abusee calls the police, only the police can't legally do anything, or the evidence isn't solid enough and the abuser returns to the household. The abuser will make the caller regret their action, or an abusee may be too leery of such a scenario to call in the first place. How much worse will these situations be when the household knows that every call to the police will result in a fee they can't afford and that the abuser can use as an excuse for more abuse?
Now I want to start out by saying that I'm sympathetic to this problem. VERY sympathetic for reasons that are not really important to this broader conversation. I fully agree that, when there is abuse going on in a family and people are afraid to call the police, well....only bad things can happen. Fear is one form of control, one of many. Domestic abuse is a huge problem in this country, one that destroys lives and has ramifications that cross generations, even when the abuse ends.
But let's not pretend we can solve this problem with land use policy. Let's not tell ourselves that we have to continue subsidizing the lifestyle choices of Americans who want large lots, congestion free commutes and low taxes because, if we stop, they may abuse their spouse. In short, let's not keep ourselves from doing what we must -- build cities that are financially solvent -- because we are afraid that chaotic and negative things might happen during the transition.
Domestic abuse is not going to be solved through land use policy, tax policy or even more policing. It, along with a myriad of social ills we all-too-often choose to ignore in our communities, will only be alleviated by individuals deciding to make different choices about how they interact with one another.
To build a Strong Town, there is going to be a level of chaos, a certain amount of discomfort in most of our lives. Living as a human being in a community should come with a certain amount of friction, interactions that our affluence has largely spared us from today. We're going to have to solve these problems -- domestic abuse, depression, poverty, hunger, education, opportunity -- we're going to have to solve them together, in our communities, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.
This is going to be infinitely more difficult when our cities go broke, which they will without massive course corrections. Ironically, insolvency will also likely make us more aware and sensitive to these problems. Why wait for failure? Why let our fear of a little bit of chaos, a little bit of disorder as we sort it all out, prevent us from trying new things today while we actually have the financial resources to mitigate our failures?
One last, related concept. It is important for people in San Francisco to accept that the people in Topeka are going to approach the same set of problems in a different way. It is important for people in Omaha to realize that people in Boston might prioritize things differently than they would. As Americans, I feel we are at our best when we place a high value on access to communication, ease of movement for all and the ability of people to start afresh, but we then save our parochial tendencies for the lowest level of government possible. That's a difficult one for us, especially us Yankees and Left Coasters (see the book American Nations for an explanation of that -- highly recommended read).
Our systems need to allow for failures to happen early before the cost in dollars and human misery mounts. Let's not pretend, however, that there won't be a cost. And let's not pretend an orderly but dumb approach is without costs either. Building a strong town is messy, but that disorder is a feature, not a flaw.
(Top photo by Nathan Crawley)