On January 6, 2021, I had a meeting with a colleague about making some changes to the College Confidential rules. She wanted to know what I thought the purpose of the rules are and I answered:
Wisdom doesn't scale.
Actually I said "Wise people don't scale" which is both more accurate and more ambiguous. I don't mean that wise people reject the concept of scaling (though that does seem smart). Instead I mean something like the problem Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, observed:
Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses' father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?"
Moses replied to his father-in-law, "It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God."
But Moses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone."
In other words, even a man who has a direct connection to God can't moderate a large community alone. Eventually the task gets too heavy. Jethro's solution was to delegate, which is a fantastic way to encourage community peace. Many sites designate moderators from within the community. Stack Overflow takes it one step further by deputizing regular users. Discourse uses trust levels for a similar effect. Since many people can flag posts, there's less need for individuals to argue with each other. If you disagree: flag. In addition, by-standers can also flag posts if they see conversations getting heated.
Those flags can be handled automatically in certain cases or they will be passed on to moderators. Moderators are selected (or sometimes elected) from the community for their level-headed judgment. But this isn't always so. Sometimes a moderator fails to be moderate and so it's helpful to have someone (such as myself) to watch over a team of moderators and, when the occasion arises, remove one of their members.
There is an analogy to recent political events. When a person in authority proves unfit for the responsibility or puts their own gain before the good of the nation, they must be removed. When this fails to happen, it lowers the trust people have in their leaders. On the other hand, removing a leader for purely political (or personal) reasons lowers trust too. Needless to say, this also requires wisdom.
In Exodus God offers another solution: the law. At their best, laws not only constrain the wicked, but encourage the responsible. If they are written by wise people, they can scale. Simple principles such as separation of power and clearly defined standards allow a legal system to serve people well even after it's creators have left. Indeed the Mosaic laws are still in active use around the world.
Unfortunately laws truly do seem to made to be broken. Or at least skirted a bit. Every set of rules will have ambiguities and contradictions. That includes one of my favorite legal codes that consists of:
- Be honest.
- Be nice.
Let me tell you, there are many ways to misinterpret these simple principles. So you need people (functionally, judges) to interpret rules and apply them to novel situations perhaps making new law in the process. And so even simple rules are subject to change over time. And once again, this requires wise people.
In the end, there is no escape. Injustice happens with or without wise leaders and good law. And so we muddle through. Sometimes things go well and other times they do not. Always we must adapt to changes in society to create just laws and enforce them fairly. There will always be a shortage of wisdom and an endless supply of fools.