Southwest Key Programs was founded in 1987 as a non-profit. For years it provided after-school programs and community support for underserved Hispanic neighborhoods in Austin. Dr. Juan Sanchez, its founder and CEO, steadily expanded the organization’s role, adding a series of state contracts. As the venture grew, it shouldered more and more of the public service burden abandoned by a dysfunctional state government.
A decade ago they began delivering public charter schools. Now they run 26 shelters along the border, some of which house children punished by the Trump administration by being torn from their families. Sanchez explained the organization’s purpose in a recent interview, “When we started, our mission was to keep kids out of jails.” Now they run internment camps for kids.
It was possible not long ago to imagine that liberal democracy had triumphed, becoming the de facto standard for successful government. Though that status is no longer assumed, there remains today no clear alternative. At least, not yet. The strange evolution of Southwest Key Programs may offer a hint what’s next.
We tend to think of history as a progression. Monarchy is better than tribalism. Nation-states are better than fiefdoms. Liberal democracy is better than monarchy. There’s a truth to this notion of advancement, but only in the sense that each of these successful social adaptations helped a society master a particular evolutionary environment. An adaptation can be so successful that it changes the environment, thereby creating a need for new adaptations. There is no perfection in nature. There is no end.
The triumph of liberal democracy, sometimes called the “End of History,” changed the environment in which the triumphant liberal democracies must operate. Habits and norms that made liberal democracy dominant will not sustain it in a new environment. Simple evolutionary forces seem to be pressing us toward a post-democratic order. No one seems to be making plans for what’s Next, yet Next is arriving on its own timeline. Forces that molded a young immigrant, Juan Sanchez, from a community organizer into a private prison warden are at work all around us, shaping our future for good or ill. What’s Next after democracy may already be ascendant.
Two evolutionary developments that powered liberal democracy to global dominance may now be eating at its foundations: massive parallel processing, and competition. Southwest Key demonstrates both traits, highlighting the failure of traditional government institutions to adapt to either.
The term, parallel processing, is borrowed from computer science, but can be seen in retrospect in earlier examples. Henry Ford’s first factories manufactured their own parts from raw materials. It was most efficient manufacturing process ever invented, but it was basically single-threaded, a sequential series of steps leading to an outcome.
Ford quickly recognized the value of parallelizing their manufacturing lines, separating a unified process – building an automobile in a single factory – into a parallel process, many factories and eventually many companies all feeding their manufacturing processes into a single output. Today, more than a hundred companies all over the planet are involved in producing a single Ford automobile. Automobiles, like every other complex modern product, are produced through massive parallel processing.
Competition feeds and regulates this accelerating parallelization. British economist, Paul Seabright, was responsible for entertaining a visiting Soviet bureaucrat in the late eighties. His visitor’s highest priority was to meet and learn from the man responsible for London’s ample bread supply. He was baffled by the news that there was no such person. Parallel processing is possible on a massive scale thanks to the power of competition to reward success and punish failure. When was the last time you saw an AMC, Saturn or a DeSoto vehicle on the road? No one held a public vote to eliminate them. The President was not consulted. No laws were passed to eliminate them. An atmosphere of relatively free competition allows disruptive forces to develop and spread with a speed that can’t be matched by authoritarian or rule-bound decision-making. Operating together with few constraints, parallel processing and competition form an accelerating cycle. Nothing is spared from this dynamic or destruction and creation, not even government.
Part of the genius of liberal democracy is its limited reach. Restraining government power left space available in which competition and innovation could flourish. Liberal democracy invented the private sector. As businesses and other private entities master new methods of parallel processing, they create pressure on other, slower entities, like the government itself.
Growth fostered by liberal democracy has spawned new public needs, almost unimaginable when our nation was founded. Demand for schools, medicine, pollution control and transportation infrastructure were already straining the narrow capacity of democratic government in the industrial age. Seabright’s claim that no one was responsible for London’s bread supply was misleading. Britain, like any modern nation, had extensive controls in place to ensure the safety and quality of their food supply. Competition and parallelization foster mass production, but they do little to stop industrial bakers from cutting costs by using cheap, dangerous ingredients. They won’t stop producers from using child labor or slaves, or from deploying violence or sabotage against competitors. The market won’t stop producers from dumping their waste in your water supply. In fact, the market will reward these practices which eventually swallow the market itself. Government may use a light hand in a liberal democracy, but without its effective and careful involvement things fall apart. Economic and social complexity that blossoms under liberal democracy places strain on the relatively slow and static infrastructure of government under rule of law. That strain can reach a breaking point.
A political system premised on rule of law and the wisdom of the masses is relatively smart and agile compared to totalitarian systems. However, relative to the kind of private sector institutions that emerge in a free society, even democratic governments are slow and desperately short on expertise. Globally, both democratic and authoritarian systems are steadily shrinking, outsourcing critical functions to fill gaps in their capabilities. That brings us back to Juan Sanchez.
Sanchez will earn more than $1.5 million this year from his charity work running kiddie concentration camps. That’s double last year’s take and four times what he was earning in 2013 in the same role in the same organization. Meanwhile, the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services, appointed by the President and approved by Congress to oversee a billion-dollar budget and 80,000 employees earns a “Level 2” federal salary of $165,000, roughly a tenth of Sanchez’s haul. Why?
Southwest Key was able to provide critical services to the state and federal governments at a speed and cost that public institutions could not match. Operating in a competitive market, they delivered the parallelization that was impossible under the hierarchical, law-bound structures of a government agency.
Sanchez did not plan to become a millionaire entrepreneur in the migrant jail business. Addressing needs that rule-driven, single-threaded institutions simply could not manage, Sanchez found himself in a unique evolutionary niche. No one has formed a plan to replace liberal democracy. Its replacement is gradually emerging out of the evolutionary jungle.
HHS and the rest of the executive branch infrastructure lack the parallel processing necessary to meet rapidly emerging public needs. As their creaking decision-making model grows antiquated, central government agencies are losing much of their influence, shrinking down into a grant disbursement role. This new model is emerging not because government is unimportant, quite the opposite. Our political model is failing because we need more from government than our system is designed to deliver.
Donald Trump did not destroy our political system. He emerged from its collapse. This does not imply that liberal democracy was anything other than a triumph in its time. Forces of competition and parallelization that are straining our democracy today ripped through older authoritarian systems decades or even centuries ago. Pressure to adapt never relents. Next is arriving, with or without a plan.
This is the first in what will be a series of pieces exploring what’s next after liberal democracy and what we should do to prepare. Much of this material was covered in The Politics of Crazy, though from the perspective of a more optimistic era. The work fits better as a whole, but reading through a 6000+ word piece on a computer seems impractical. When these are complete I’ll gather them into a series of links on a single page.