Stirring up the status quo

Genes, memes, and… premes?

Life as we know it is pretty stable, all things considered. We know that dogs give birth to dogs, while the reproduction of flies results in more flies. We know that a baby human will most likely grow to become between 1.55 and 1.95 meters tall, while a dolphin will usually become between 2.2 and 2.7 meters long (assuming no complications). We know that while our culture has certainly shifted slowly over time, cultural changes are unlikely to occur overnight.

All in all, the status quo of life is quite consistent. We can attribute this stability and relative absence of randomness to several self-propagating mechanisms in our lives. These self-propagation mechanisms exist at both the biological and cultural level, and their primary ‘purpose’ (if you can call it that) is to replicate pre-existing information. It’s because of this constant replication of pre-existing information that so much of our life is as predictable as it is.

Biologically, replicators take on the form of genes. Made from DNA, genes form the instruction manuals that ensure that our offspring is similar to us, instead of being more akin to a tuna fish or a banana. On top of that, the replication mechanisms in our genes are also responsible for individual growth. Any complex organism grows through constant cell division, which is made possible by replication of pre-existing cells. Our genes are therefore invaluable in ensuring biological consistency both within species and across time.

Next to genes we have memes, self-propagators at the cultural level. While we primarily use memes to refer to funny cat pictures on the internet, the actual meaning of the word is much broader. Memes are defined as non-genetic behaviors that are spread from person to person. This means that memes actually encompass a whole host of passed-on human behaviors, from fashion trends, to FOMO habits, even to the current obesity epidemic. Just like genes, memes create consistency and predictability in society, in this case through the imitation of behaviors.

Read more about our ever-increasing FOMO habits.

But next to biological genes, and cultural memes, there is arguably a third type of propagation present in our society. In this case, propagation occurs at the institutional level, through a mechanism of continued preservation. I call them perpetuating machines, or PREMES (patent pending).

Institutional perpetuators

While premes contain codified information similar to genes and memes, their form is almost of the two. Just like genes, the information in premes is coded in the form of ‘instruction manuals‘. Just like memes, premes rely on the imitation of behaviors to safeguard their existence. Where premes differ, is that they combine the two, by containing the instruction manuals for how imitation should be implemented and enforced.

While genes and memes operate through a process of replication, premes work through self-preservation. This is the main point of distinction: instead of focusing on growth through replication or imitation, premes prolong the existence of already existing entities for as long as possible.

“While genes and memes operate through a process of replication that results in growth and proliferation, premes work through self-preservation.”

Premes can be anything that allows existing institutions to perpetuate the status quo at the expense of other alternatives. They typically function through some type of enforcement mechanism that is favorable to the currently existing institutions. This can be in the form of legal enforcement, such as laws and regulations, or through cultural enforcement, such as by prescribing norms and values of appropriate behavior.

So what are premes exactly? Let me give you some examples: in order to get a job as an accountant, most countries will require you to have a certain type of accreditation, often known as a CPA: a certified public accountant (or some variation thereof). CPAs are recognized by a regulatory body that sets out the terms and conditions that need to be met for someone to qualify. We have these regulatory bodies to safeguard and guarantee the quality of those that work as accountants. But these accreditations also serve to keep out anyone that is unwilling to practice accounting under the prescribed regulations.

Many other occupations are similar: lawyers require a judicial degree (JD), doctors need a medical degree (MD), academics need a philosophy doctorate (PhD). Without the corresponding sign of recognition granted by an accrediting body, it’s nearly impossible to land a job in one of these professions. This makes it difficult for alternatives to be perceived as legitimate, while perpetuating the existing institutions – many people will hesitate to have their legal case represented by someone without a JD, their injuries treated by someone without an MD, or agree to trust the research from someone without a PhD – irrespective of their actual skills and capabilities. Limiting the availability of necessary degrees also has a self-serving function, as it allows salaries in these sectors to remain high.

While premes are common in degrees and accreditations, they are ubiquitous throughout society. A religion that promises divine retribution for non-believers, uses premes to perpetuate themselves by disincentivizing people from leaving the religion. Bureaucracies persist through creating ever more complicated rules and regulations that are indecipherable to those outside of the bureaucracy (and often to those within the bureaucracy as well). Even ideologies such as capitalism can be self-perpetuating, as we reward organizations that follow capitalistic objectives while punishing those who don’t prioritize growth and profit maximization.

Politics is another area of fertile ground for premes and self-perpetuation. For example, countries with a first-past-the-post voting system (i.e. you vote for one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes automatically wins) strongly disincentive voting on any candidate that isn’t well established, which gives a large advantage to established political parties. And the right to vote itself provides a perhaps even stronger example: it took a long time to establish voting rights for African Americans in the U.S., Aboriginals in Australia, and women in general, because those in power benefitted from the status quo and had little incentive to implement changes.

Stay out

One of the earliest examples of institutions perpetuating themselves through premes comes in the form of guilds: organizations of merchants of craftsmen that practiced a specific occupation. What set guilds apart from other organized professions was that they prohibited anyone who did not belong to the guild from working in that particular occupation. Just like the CPA example, guilds justified this based on the premise that restricting an occupation to guild membership would guarantee a minimum level of product quality.

“All professions are a conspiracy against the public.”

George Bernhard Shaw

In practice this allowed the guilds to limit how much competition they needed to face. Since the guilds were self-regulated, they could decide what would be considered an appropriate level of quality or not, and could easily exclude those who did not comply with the guilds wishes. In essence, anyone with a given occupation was beholden to the power of their local guild.

Since those that were part of the guild were invested in keeping their advantageous position, they often did everything in their power to prevent any kind of change or disruption from being implemented, even if this would otherwise lead to efficiency gains. As such, guilds were commonly associated with lacking innovation, lower skills and poor-quality products. Guilds were very beneficial to those within the guild, while often being detrimental to those outside of it.

Until they were disbanded, guilds enjoyed enormous success because they managed to create significant barriers to entry for outsiders: obstacles that new entrants might face when they attempt to enter the domain of the institution. This is how premes usually function. Some premes act in the form of laws and regulations that are difficult to overcome, such as the need for access to specific technological patents or government permits. But premes also operate through creating the perception that existing institutions are more legitimate than alternative options (e.g. modern vs. traditional or holistic medicine, or an academic course vs. a LinkedIn Learning course).

The dark side of institutional perpetuators

Premes are usually harmless or even useful (e.g. an accreditation can be an effective tool to signal a level of competence). So are genes and memes. But in all cases, these self-propagators can also cause incredible harm. Cancer is commonly caused by faulty genes. Memes can spread harmful ideas, such as extremism and Nazism. Premes are no different: they can have similar detrimental consequences, by creating a stagnant status quo that stifles growth and protects already those in power.

Harmful premes are especially common in politics, with examples of politicians using their own institutions to protect themselves are paramount. For example, politicians often use taxpayer money to defend themselves from legal accusations. It’s politicians who built the system, so it should be no surprise they’ve included plenty of ways in which they can use the system to shield themselves from negative events.

Premes also occur in occupations when colleagues protect each other, with the police force being a classic example. This practice, known as “the blue wall of silence” or “the blue shield”, refers to how policemen operate under an informal code of not reporting misconduct from their colleagues. Instead, they’d turn a blind eye or feign ignorance whenever one of their colleagues is guilty of any wrongdoing. Those who break this code or ethos are often severely disciplined or fired. This demonstrates a two-tiered system of premes: the first preme (the blue shield) directly protects policemen from prosecution, while the second preme (disciplinary action against those who break the blue shield) perpetuates the existence of the first.

“It almost seems as if the more room there is for misconduct, the more prevalent harmful premes are.”

Law is another area common to harmful premes, with Charles Dickens’ Bleak House providing an amusing case in point. The tale describes a protracted legal battle over who the eligible recipients of an inheritance are. Lawyers perpetuate the legal battle for generations, until the entire net worth of the inheritance had been absorbed in legal fees, leaving the eventual outcome irrelevant. In this tale, the barristers had no incentive to actually create value for their clients, as their interest lied in perpetuating the case as long as possible. Although the story is of course slightly exaggerated, it’s unfortunately not far removed from reality.

A similar problem can occur with committees designed to solve a specific issue: the faster they manage to solve the problem, the sooner the committee members themselves are out of a job. And since it’s often the committee itself that determines whether the problem is solved or not, committees have all the incentive to stretch the process out and self-perpetuate as long as they can.

While premes can often be harmless or beneficial, it almost seems as if the more room there is for misconduct, the more prevalent harmful premes are. And we unfortunately have a mountain of evidence that shows regulators acting on behalf of those they’re supposed to regulate, instead of doing what’s beneficial to the common good.

The foxes that guard the henhouse

A common reason for why premes can become detrimental is due to how they are created. The specific knowledge required to determine effective regulation often has to come from someone who is familiar with the subject matter. This usually means someone from the relevant industry itself, because what better input on how to regulate something than asking the experts?

As a result, we see pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. recently provide significant funding and input for the FDA, their own regulatory body. Facebook provides suggestions for guidelines on new legislation for the internet, while oil companies explain how their sustainability should be regulated.

The problem with asking industry for regulatory advice, is that they are usually invested in maintaining the status quo. After all, it was the status quo that got them to their position in the first place. These firms therefore have little incentive to suggest large disruptions to the status quo that might harm the incumbent firms, even when it would lead to better outcomes for the common good.

On top of that, while those with industry experience might make good regulators, the opposite also holds: those with regulatory experience make for compelling employee candidates. The result is often a revolving door of industry and regulatory employees. This further increases the likelihood that regulations favor perpetuating existing organizations and institutions, a process known as regulatory capture, which is incredibly detrimental to effective functioning of institutions.

This connection between regulators and industry was rarely so explicit as during the U.S. Trump administration. Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler, both former lobbyists for coal and gas industries, were made head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive and lobbyist became health secretary. Steven Mnuchin, a former investment banker whose bank was accused of misconduct, became Secretary of the treasury. The list goes on and on.

Regulations that improve regulations

All too often, industries and institutions end up in control of the regulatory bodies that are supposed to monitor them. The end result is a stagnating status quo that is rarely in the interests of the public. And because there is no effective accountability, enacting any kind of change is incredibly difficult.

There are several solutions to this problem. First, regulatory bodies should have no connection to the industries or institutions they regulate wherever possible. Implementing a ban on those with prior industry connections would go a long way to making regulatory bodies more independent.

“We need to shift away from process-based regulations towards outcome-based regulations.”

Enticing experts from abroad to serve on these regulatory bodies might also help, as they would presumably have fewer direct ties to domestic industry while still being knowledgeable about the subject matter. In addition, a frequent rotation of those who serve on regulatory bodies would make it more difficult for the regulated organizations to exert control over their overseers.

Another measure would be to thoroughly examine areas that might be ripe for deregulation. While not always harmful, regulations often create strong artificial entry barriers that prolong the status quo. To stop regulations from making entry more difficult, we need to shift away from process-based regulations (e.g. do this, don’t do that), towards outcome-based regulations (e.g. at least positive outcome x, at most negative outcome y). This allows regulators to continue to uphold standards that organizations need to meet. At the same time it lets organizations figure out the most effective implementation themselves, instead of subjecting them to status quo reinforcing regulations.

Destroy. Improve. Rebuild.

The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter was famous for coining the term ‘creative destruction’: the process where old and stale structures need to be destroyed before conditions can improve. The term was used to describe industries and products that had grown stagnant, where competitors eventually replaced them with better-performing alternatives. But when it comes to institutions, the ‘creative destruction’ needs to emerge from society itself. Breaking undesirable status quos that eventually resulted in universal suffrage, gay marriage, and 40-hour working weeks, were caused by social movements, not competitive dynamics.

“Rules and regulations are not inherently good, right, or just.”

The laws and regulations we have are often a reflection of the conditions at the time of implementation. This means that they can often become outdated or unsensible years later (if they ever were sensible to begin with). When we don’t adapt, we end up with laws that are by current standards downright ridiculous, such as in the U.K. where politicians are not allowed to wear armor in parliament.

While not all of our current laws and regulations are as silly, it’s important that we continue to challenge dogmatic beliefs wherever we encounter them. Rules and regulations that are captured in laws or even constitutions are not inherently good, right or just. And even when designed with the best intentions, their purpose or effect often shifts over time.

As our society changes and evolves, we should therefore keep questioning whether our status quo is still desirable: is the current education system still the best way to teach kids? Is democratic voting still the most sensible way to create a government? Is the age of 18 still a sensible age of maturity? Does our current legal system still result in the outcomes we desire? Do patents still provide a good way of stimulating innovation?

Dogmatic beliefs are not just bad for society, they lower our own happiness as well. But as long as we keep challenging the status quo, we might actually find opportunities to make things better.

Ron Maas
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