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If a bomb goes off and kills a lot of people, does that mean the bomb is broken? The question is ludicrous. If the bomb were broken, it wouldn’t go off.
That is self-evident, but why is it self-evident? It’s because, intuitively, we all understand that the purpose of a bomb is to kill people. Successfully designed, manufactured, and detonated bombs do just that.
Now ask about a society: If people in that society suffer and die, does that mean the society is broken? The question can’t be answered without knowing the society’s purpose.
Actually, we first have to ask, “What is a society?” A society is a group of people and a set of institutions that connect those people. Societies always have institutions. As a very bare example, a society’s economic institutions include (but are not limited to) workplaces. A society’s governmental institutions include (but are not limited to) legislative bodies. There are other types of institutions beyond the scope of this essay.
These institutions are not like laws of physics. They are mutable, changeable, shapeable. The acceleration of gravity and the laws of thermodynamics are the same today as they were 5,000 years ago, but human social institutions are very different. I would argue that, fundamentally, people are basically the same, but a discussion of human nature is beyond the scope of this essay.
So when we ask about a society, we’re really asking about a society’s defining institutions. Are they broken? Can they ever be broken? Well, how do when know when a bomb is broken? When the bomb doesn’t accomplish what its designers, builders, and users want, that means the bomb is broken.
In the same manner, assessing society’s institutions means asking who designed them, who built them, and what is their purpose?
If people live in squalor, does that mean economic institutions are broken? If rules-making bodies act dictatorially, does that mean they aren’t functioning properly?
In any society, there is objective power. There are people who make decisions and shape the society. They quite naturally see that social institutions serve their interests. If people live in squalor or live under tyranny, it’s because the big people want it that way.
No (stable) society ever has “broken” institutions. It’s impossible for institutions to be broken; they always function exactly as intended — just like people-killing bombs. Outcomes do not equal purpose. If a bomb kills people, that’s a feature, not a bug.
If people live in poverty, or have no say over their lives, again, that’s a feature, not a bug.
Realizing this brings up obvious questions, but they are beyond the scope of this essay.
Eric Patton lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. He can be reached at email@example.com.