Each week I take the top voted question from readers and answer it.  With 45 votes, this week’s winner was “Why do we accept and perpetuate bad systems?” by Peter Saumur:

Examples – 2 lanes of checkout on a busy day. Automated parking systems that break down with no backup. Sitting in traffic for over an hour each way to get to work. It’s madness yet we accept it as the way things are.

The easy answer is we’re lazy. It takes energy to reject a system, especially if it’s a complex system you do not control. Sitting in traffic is not an active choice, it’s a passive decision that comes with the choices for where to live and work. Like waiting in a long line, it’s far simpler psychologically to plod along with your head down, than to challenge the dozens of people in front of you who may have no objections to lines at all, or worse, diverging ideas for what the alternatives might be. It takes courage to challenge a system and wisdom to improve it, a rare combination.

The depressing answer is some systems are difficult, or impossible, to change. Even if you were sufficiently motivated, problems like traffic operate on a large enough scale, with multiple conflicting objectives, that it might not be solvable. Certainly not without the cooperation of many other people, some of whom benefit from the inefficiencies you find frustrating (e.g. the land developers who profited by overpopulating an area).

For all frustrating systems ask: Who benefits (Cui Bono)? That is the first step to understanding how a system truly works. There are always people who benefit more from a system staying the way it is, and as long as they are in power nothing will change. Any hope of improving a system starts with understanding the reasons forces are actively protecting the status quo.

The stoic answer is that all systems are designed, and all designs are tradeoffs. They are good for some things and bad for others. There is no perfect system, and even if there were, as soon as the world changed in a significant way the same elements that made the system seem perfect would suddenly become a frustration. Gas powered cars seemed a wonderful idea in 1925, before anyone could imagine global warming, rush hour traffic, or fatalities from drivers distracted by text messages on their phones.

The relative answer is: bad compared to what? We naturally take good things for granted since there are evolutionary advantages to constantly seeking to improve one’s situation. But for any bad system, go back in time. What was that system like 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 years ago? In some ways things will seem better, but in many ways that older system will seem worse. It’s better to wait a few minutes in poorly managed checkout lines at the grocery store, than to hunt and gather all day long with little guarantee of having enough to eat.

The positive answer is that many people do reject bad systems. They make sacrifices to give themselves the power to avoid systems they find distasteful. They become self-employed to avoid a long commute. They go shopping on off-hours when the ratio of staff to customers is in their favor. They take a job that pays less, but grants more time with their family. With sufficient motivation and the willingness to make tradeoffs, many modern frustrations can be avoided or minimized.

What “bad” system bothers you the most? Leave a comment.

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12 Responses to “Why do we accept bad systems?”

  1. Michael Nitabach |

    The system that bothers me the most right now is the republican party, built as it is on a toxic combination of greedy plutocrat money and racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic asshole voters.

    Reply
    • Scott berkun |

      I read the US Constitution once a year to remind myself the system was intended to be frustrating and slow, by design.

      Reply
    • Eric Brown |

      Bigot.

      Reply
  2. Frank |

    US healthcare. The recent series of articles in the NY times on hip replacements and pregnancy costs make it clear this is a bad system with bad incentives. Cui bono? Everyone but the patients.

    Reply
  3. mark |

    +1 for US healthcare

    I think it is important to not use people’s acceptance or tolerance of bad systems as a measure of what works well. This is what causes products/businesses to copy each others bad systems. “X does it, so it must be good!”

    Reply
    • Scott |

      That’s an interesting thought. For any system only a minority of people understand what’s even possible. As I suggested with my other comment, democracy or any representative government, has it’s eyes open by design that people will have a wide range of awareness and understanding of any issue.

      The U.S. Constitution is fascinating read from this perspective as you can see how, by design, it was a system that intentionally made changes to anything difficult and frustrating, but entirely possible.

      Reply
  4. Hugo |

    The Calgary downtown parking system touts themselfes a”revolutionary”. An automated dictatorial aberation. To use your smart phone with it you first have to give them $50. To park at the machines you first have to identify your car, and then insert your credit card – before you find out what the parking will cost!

    And your reply system, for demanding a completely spelled out http… URL, arcane!

    Reply
  5. Wepaar |

    US these days changed a lot and gone down in taking care of its people. This is going to be real bad and not good for the govenment

    Reply
  6. John |

    Scott,

    I love the perspective you give in your sentence, “What was that system like 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 years ago?”. Most people never realize that world was very different 500 years ago. They think this is the way thing have always been and how they always will be.

    Consider this, from 500 AD to 1500 AD there was virtually no technological progress. In contrast, in our modern world significant technological progress is made in just 5 years.

    I think there is a lot of pessimism about the failures of our systems. At the same time we have to realize we live in rapidly-changing world that for first time can be shaped by ordinary citizens.

    Reply
  7. Salman Memon |

    US system based on the consumption and it creates acceptance of whatever system produce or decide. People are addicted to this system. They decide only from given options (media provides). They can’t escape. The system is captured by lobbies with their own desires.

    Reply
  8. Tomasz |

    A big one: the monetary system caused by greed, and based on (sometimes artificially sustained) scarcity.

    There is a very similar acceptance and tolerance for obvious inefficiencies, the accompanying mindset being: ‘It doesn’t directly affect/disturb me, so why should I care’. Surprisingly many people think that if there is no direct penalty for doing something, it’s OK to do that (example: littering).

    Reply
  9. Robert |

    What is a bad system? What’s bad to me may be perfectly acceptable to you.

    When do you want to fix something? When it hurts you enough.

    What can you fix? Sometimes more than you think… if rushhour traffic is bad, you may be able to avoid it by commuting earlier or later (or working from home).

    Reply

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