When order moves to chaos

The tyranny of order in decline

Chaos is best kept at a safe distance — an endless horizon full of danger and adventure.

But when chaos appears within order, it devastates any map in its wake – businesses, families, or whole systems of government.

In follow up to part I of a series on When Order Moves to Chaos, we'll consider how order fails even in good times, the need for sacrificial leadership, what makes order tyrannical, and a hint of a silver lining to anticipate when order is destroyed by chaos.

Good order is stable, not static

An essential benefit of order is stability – a solid foundation to build on.

But in living systems, stability isn't static. If we look closely at anything human or made by humans – a relationship, a software app, or a set of beliefs – we'll notice a constant cycle of small adaptations that enable survival and growth.

We can adapt or atrophy, but we can't remain the same.

To adapt, we exchange comfortable patterns of thought and routine with new patterns well before we see the benefits. Making present sacrifices for a better tomorrow is the only path to healthy growth. But if you've ever tried starting a diet during a pandemic, you know it's not an easy one.

Good order continuously adapts to chaos.

As we forge the order of our maps through continual sacrifice, risk, and competence, it becomes increasingly robust. It begins to grow and scale.

If we're fortunate, we eventually gain safety and affluence within it. But herein lies a tenuous paradox: the better our order, the easier it is to shelter ourselves from the chaos we fashioned it from.

The paradox of good order

The larger and more stable the order we live within, the easier it is to fall into sleepy atrophy.

Within a generation, the hard-fought sacrifices and intricate workings of the order underneath our inherited prosperity and safety are not only forgotten but practically invisible.

So it can take years – even decades – to detect that something as vast and stable as a culture, company, or economy is dying.

When we awaken to the decline of our "too-big-to-fail" systems and communities, we have a pivotal decision to make:

  1. Make significant sacrifices now for a better future that we may not live to see.
  2. Preserve our present comfort by subsidizing it from the same future that we may not live to see.

If you were at the helm of a once magnificent, now sinking organization, economy, or any other map, what path would you take?

Why we need sacrificial leaders

Taking the first path of sacrifice would be difficult for the best of us. But it's even more difficult for our elder leaders at the helm of our largest institutions.

In part I of this series, we considered how order and chaos correlate with short term and long term time horizons. Let's use that same map to consider how increasing age impacts our ability to take a risk for a better future.

As we grow older, our time horizon makes it more costly to sacrifice for a better future.

When we're young, the future seems distant and full of potential. We can cycle through careers, projects, and relationships – and if they don't work out– there's time to try another.

But as we grow older, our waining time horizon makes it harder to take risks. Instead, we naturally attempt to preserve the order so that we can live out our final years in peace and comfort. The prospect of sacrificing that for a future we'll never see is a hard pill to swallow.

Now let's consider two of the largest, oldest systems of order in the United States:

  • All the presidential candidates in the race are upwards of 70.
  • In higher academia, the majority of university presidents are well past 60.

Imagine being a few years from retirement after a long, successful career and facing a choice to make sacrifices now for a future you may not see? It's a lot easier to take the second path and subsidize the future.

During good times, we often choose leaders who promise prosperity. But difficult times show that selecting leaders who are willing to sacrifice themselves for others isn't an antiquated religious idea – it's an archetype we ignore at our peril.

The tyranny of order in decline

While many heroic leaders take the path to self-sacrifice for the good of others, unfortunately, we see plenty of leaders of all ages who do not. When a government, institution, or individual chooses the second path – to preserve a comfortable present at the expense of the future – things move from bad to worse.

Since the map isn't growing and stasis is an illusion, those who hold the levers begin to use their power to stimulate – or at least simulate – growth but without any significant change to their status quo.

At the same time, this "old guard" of government, academia, enterprise, or any declining order hides behind an increasingly complex and opaque bureaucracy. The inner workings of it become a fragile, tangled mess that chokes out new ideas in an attempt to hedge off even the slightest risk.

Opaque, tangled bureaucracy is an early sign of order in decline.

This "danse macabre" of simulated and strangled growth chokes out generations of better ideas at a heavy future cost to our children their children.

In the past, too many years of stifling, tyrannical order leads to revolt. People eventually get so desperate they'll bring the chaos of violence and war into the order of their own volition. But whether it's war, natural disaster, or disease, chaos in order carries tragedy with it that none of us should ever wish for.

But in the midst of it, there may be a silver lining: the most tyrannical orders are also the most fragile. Order that otherwise would have become increasingly useless while stifling a generation of progress unravels more quickly when faced with chaotic destruction.

Read the more optimistic Part III, where we explore the kind of order that survives – and even thrives – when chaos weakens or destroys the old order.

Each month, I write a short essay about the Chaos Map:

Thank you. Stay tuned for an introduction email.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.