Jon Elster: Sub-optimala institutioner kan ha positiva effekter

One might, however, want to approximate the optimum as closely as possible, on the apparently reasonable assumption that the more of the conditions for optimality that are satisfied, the closer one will get to the optimum. This assumption is false. Under very general conditions, it is not true that a situation in which many, but not all, of the conditions for an optimum are fulfilled is necessarily, or is even likely to be superior to a situation in which fewer are fulfilled. […]

Tocqueville’s discussion of the ancien rigime in France may be read in this perspective. That system was characterized by a number of features that would be absent in a well-ordered society. The royal administration had wide, ill-defined, and arbitrary powers. The venality of office made a rational bureaucracy impossible. The obstruction of the parlements, highly politicized courts mostly acting for self-serving reasons, made it difficult to pursue consistent policies. Yet, Tocqueville argued, given the first of these features, the presence of the other two was in fact beneficial:

“The government, in its desire to turn everything into money, had first put most public offices up for sale and thus deprived itself of the faculty to grant and revoke them at will. One of its passions had thus greatly interfered with the success of the other: its greed had worked counter to its ambition. In order to act it was therefore continually reduced to using instruments it had not fashioned itself and could not break. Hence it often saw its most absolute wishes enfeebled in execution. This bizarre and faulty constitution of public functions took the place of any kind of political guarantee against the omnipotence of the central government. It was a strange and ill-constructed sort of dike that divided the government’s power and blunted its impact… The irregular intervention of the courts in government, which often disrupted the proper administration of affairs, thus served at times to safeguard liberty: it was a great ill that limited a still greater one.”

These cases are a bit like what happens when policymakers eliminate animals that create a nuisance for human populations, only to find that an even greater nuisance is created by the organisms they kept in check. Thus when Mao Tse-tung decided to eliminate sparrows because they ate grain, he had to reimport them later from the Soviet Union when the pests they kept down flourished, with catastrophic ecological results. Societies, no less than ecological systems, may have apparently absurd or noxious features whose removal might produce even greater ills. It is probably for this reason, among others, that Edmund Burke and his followers have been so adamant in their criticism of rationalist institutional design.

Elster, Jon. 2007. Explaining Social Behavior. More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, s. 439–441.