Building on Goodwill is a Bad Idea

Imagine I have a porcelain shop and I base my business on the goodwill of people. I leave my door unlocked at all times, I put an urn on the counter for people to leave money in for when want to purchase some of my goods. I visit the shop to bring in new items and to have a chat with the people visiting. I guess you can see where this will go wrong. It just needs 1 person to come in who either steals my goods or the urn with money or who wrecks havoc and reduces everything to worthless pieces of junk. It doesn’t matter if I live in a community where 99.99% of the people have goodwill towards me and my shop. It only takes that .01% to take it all down. The success of my model was 100% based on goodwill. It was a crucial part of its success. And therefore it failed.

For any model or system to be successful, it must be resilient to badwill. If you build anything, be it a business model, a community currency, a governance structure, … it really doesn’t matter what … where goodwill of all players is necessary for its success then it will fail. It’s never a question of if, only of when.

And we have a lot of systems in our society which rely too much on goodwill.

Our banking system relies on the goodwill of the bankers to do the right thing. We have seen where that leads to.

Our democracy relies on the goodwill of the candidates to uphold democratic values. Trump anyone?

Our school systems rely on the goodwill of the adults who organise the schooling system to have the best interest of the kids in their minds. In reality too often schools are just production units of an obedient workforce where kids are forced to listen and shut up. How often are the kids themselves asked how they would like to shape the education system?

Well being in our working places is based on the goodwill of their owners to treat their employees fairly. Yes, there are some regulations that protect the workers. But the rising numbers of burnouts are proof that it doesn’t seem to be working.

It’s all about resilience

Does that mean we need to look at humanity as a hostile bunch? Far from! It does force us to look at our systems from a slightly different perspective though. Any system needs to be built in such a way that it protects itself against badwill. It does not need to eliminate badwill. That would only happen when there’s only one person left anyway. It just needs to be resilient enough to survive badwill. Preferably without having to count on a small group of people for it. Counting on known group behaviour works better.

That’s a hard exercise. How much badwill are we talking about? What forms of badwill are we talking about? What about involuntary badwill? Yes, that exists too. It happens when a lot of people are led to think they are doing something good but then in the end it blows up in everyone’s face … well, almost everyone anyway. It’s how dictators get elected in democracies.

Being Bad

The question to always ask is: if I would want to take down the system, what would I do? You need to be the bad guy and you need to be good at it. If it goes against your morals to go down the path of coming up with destructive ideas, find someone who can. It’s crucial. Because if you don’t do it, some malignant person will and you’ll get caught blindsided. Pound your idea with all the evil you can muster and see if it survives. Then ask some people you know to do the same. It might even be a good idea to have a competition that anyone can enter and if they can punch a big hole in your idea then you know where it needs reinforcement.

Of course, it all depends on the scale of implementation of what you are planning to do. It’s probably not necessary to have a competition on how to wreck the setup of a lemonade stand for your kids. If you are talking about governmental systems it’s a different kind of story though.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

It is my belief that right now, good people are ill trained in being bad. And if we want to make changes for good, we desperately need some training. Not so we can become bad too but so we can create systems that are resilient to badwill. So we can say: give me your worst. And be confident that what we built can take a beating without collapsing.

We need to look at what crime organisations, dictators, pressure groups and manipulators are doing so we can recognize the tactics and strategies and put up defenses. And sometimes we might need to use those methods against them.

The ugly part of all this is that those who want to cause harm or attain unchallenged power are often pretty good at this. The Mafia knows how to set up a system that is resilient to ‘badwill’ (from their perspective). Dictators know how to stay in power even though people attempt to overthrow them.

A word on systems

In systems thinking there is a saying: a bad system will beat a good person anytime. I believe we could also turn this around:

A good system will beat a bad person anytime

Therefore I suggest we start building good systems. Good systems are resilient to abuse. And if we can trust the system then we don’t need to worry about trusting the people which make use of it, which actually protects us from being burning ourselves because we are too trusting. That way we can all relax.

Nothing is foolproof

Now nothing is foolproof. Otherwise dictatorships would never end and positive changes like women’s voter rights and the end of slavery would never have happened. But we need to up our game. I am all for love and peace and kindness to all people. I believe that a positive approach works better than an aggressive one. But that doesn’t mean that ignoring malignant strategies which could undermine our work is in any way helpful.

To be good you better start excelling at being bad.


Also published on Medium.

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