A bunch of small changes can gradually add up to a lot but still slip under our radar. This causes trouble in many places, but I’ll pick two in particular: large software projects and a nation’s laws. Both have a few things in common: regardless of initial conditions they rapidly turn into commons that no participant has any sense of ownership towards. As a result, small changes accumulate in them as first one actor gets support for his change, and then another. They grow monotonically larger, accumulating loopholes, exceptions and corner-cases.
Complexity and corner-cases aren’t just aesthetic concerns, though I’m certainly guilty of more than my share of programmer OCD. You can tell when your plant is about to die because it turns brown over a period of days. The institutions we neglect go bad over decades, something that’s much harder to notice. In addition, as rules grow more complex and bureaucracies accumulate forms, they become more intimidating to a newcomer to understand. If you hadn’t already been paying attention, it gets harder and harder to catch up. More and more, we treat them as externalities, an unpleasant task to be completed with dispatch and wiped from memory. As people shy away from the complexity, control is gradually ceded to a small coterie of insiders who grow more fluent with the complexity and increasingly (first unconsciously, later deliberately) work to maintain a ‘moat’ around their influence. This is how our institutions get captured: insensitivity to low ownership, being seen as an externality and oh-so-gradually creeping complexity. To round out the toxic cocktail, capture gives insiders further incentives to deliberately make rules more complex and inaccessible to latecomers.