In Chapter 3 of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon writes:

The character of the tribunes was, in every respect, different from that of the consuls. The appearance of the former was modest and humble; but their persons were sacred and inviolable. Their force was suited rather for opposition than for action. They were instituted to defend the oppressed, to pardon offences, to arraign the enemies of the people, and, when they judged it necessary, to stop, by a single word, the whole machine of government.

Negative power is critical, particularly where great engines have the potential to run amok. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution showed genius not in what they built government to do, but rather in what they forbade it to do. On an individual level, physicians learn to "First, do no harm" — that is, when to refrain from active measures. Natural systems are amazingly resilient; they evolved to heal themselves. Designed systems are fragile, in a multitude of ways. Any complex artifact — a computer program, an aircraft, a power grid, a State — is guaranteed to fail, again and again, as it goes through testing. Engineers fix the problems that appear, and during ordinary operation things work fine. Extraordinary circumstances, however, unveil new problems. Smart designs are crafted to fail gracefully, to degrade rather than collapse, and to allow an emergency override when unanticipated stress threatens to drive things out of control. Good systems build in a tribunician veto, a panic button.

Sunday, December 26, 1999 at 16:27:12 (EST) = 1999-12-26

TopicLiterature - TopicJustice - TopicOrganizations

(correlates: GibbonChapter3, BuSab, ThoughtfulMetaphors, ...)