Why basketball players are tall and how tyranny emerges

August 20, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Freedom, Leadership

Today’s post approaches the recent NSA surveillance revelations from a systems-theory perspective. The reasons basketball players are tall imply consequences to our government.

A high-level systems perspective leaves out details, some of which may be more important than this post gives credit for. I’m not saying it’s the only perspective, but I consider it important and relevant. Please feel free to comment if you feel I missed something important.

Why are most basketball players tall?

Why are most basketball players tall?

Shaquille and girlfriend

Basketball players are tall because the rulebook puts the basket ten feet high and they want to put the ball in the basket. Taller players achieve the goal better.

Basketball players have a goal, they follow rules, and the ones who achieve the goal best following the rules emerge as the best. If you change the rules to put the basket five feet high, shorter basketball players will emerge as the best. Of course other considerations apply and some short players do well, but this effect is strong and never goes away.

Why are jockeys short? Because of their rules and their goal. Why are sprinters muscular while marathon runners are thin and wiry? Same reason: because of their rules and their goals.

You don’t need to see basketball players to know they’ll end up tall. Just read the rulebook and the part that says the basket’s height tells you what height player will succeed. The part of the marathon rulebook that says the race is 26.2 miles tells you what the winners of that sport will look like.

Rules and goals determine the players’ characteristics.

In all these cases, if you change the rules you’ll change the competitors’ characteristics.

This pattern applies to more than just people. Let’s look at things that get engineered, like buildings and organizations.

Why are old Amsterdam houses tall and thin?

Why are old Amsterdam houses tall and thin?


Amsterdam taxed houses by their frontage so they built houses then thin and tall. Again, achieving goals (maximizing volume and minimizing taxes) following rules (paying taxes by house width) determined the engineering.

Rules and goals determine the buildings’ size and shape.

As with basketball players, you don’t need to see the houses to know they’ll be tall, just look at the rulebook. In this case the tax code (also building regulations, etc, but at least the tax code) will tell you what size and shape of house will emerge.

Again, other considerations apply and exceptions exist, but this effect is strong and never goes away.

Why are big-box stores big boxes?

Why are big-box stores big boxes?

The U.S. today has different laws than Amsterdam then. If you look at our taxes and relevant regulations you could predict what size and shape stores will emerge.

Big-box Store

From a systems perspective, the answer is the same as before: they have goals and follow rules.

Rules and goals determine the buildings’ size and shape.

Change the laws and you’ll get different size stores.

Again, other considerations apply and exceptions exist, but this effect is strong and never goes away.

Why does the executive branch work the way it does?

The U.S. President and everyone else in the executive branch have goals and rules. Their rules are the Constitution, which limits its powers, and all other laws. Their goals include keeping their jobs, supporting their political party, and generally things that they can do better with more power (see my post  “What is power?“).

You don’t have to see how the executive branch works to know how it will work. Members will mostly try to amass power subject to the rules of the Constitution limiting their power. People who don’t amass power, like short basketball players or Amsterdam houses, will dwindle out.

Rules and goals determine the government’s behavior.

The Fourth Amendment restricts their ability to take your stuff, listen in on your conversations, and learn things about you. You can tell where the executive branch will stop in relevant areas by reading it:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

You can confidently predict that the executive branch will amass more power if you weaken this limitation. If it weakened this limitation by using its power, you can confidently predict it will be able to weaken it more with the new extra power — a self-perpetuating cycle. In other words

Changes to the rules and goals change the government’s behavior. Loosen its restrictions and it will grow.

Comparisons with other abuses of power

Consider whatever problems bother you about the executive branch — lying to motivate invading another country, spying on one’s political opponents, selling arms to fund Contras, lying to Congress about oral sex in the White House, or whatever.

Few such transgressions change the system, however costly in lives, money, reputation, or other resources.

Creating exceptions to the Constitution changes the system. In this case the change enable further changes in the same direction. Systemic changes last for a long time and their effects keep happening, longer than a war might endure.

Exceptions and limitations?

What about limitations? Can’t the other branches check this power?

In principle they can, but if the executive branch further limits their ability to know about and act on what they know, they can’t. The executive branch found ways to limit informing Congress and further found ways to limit Congress members from acting on the limited information they know. It also found ways to create rubber-stamp courts.

Possibly the legislative branch can exercise its authority and create new laws limiting the executive branch’s claimed new power. Possibly the judicial branch will find the executive branch’s interpretations of the laws unconstitutional.

To believe you don’t have to worry if you’ve done nothing wrong ignores that the executive branch determines right and wrong, not you. The judicial branch in principle can check that power, but the executive branch has many tools to overcome that check — for example, it has resources to prosecute far beyond what most people or corporations can match.

I expect I’m leaving out comparably important issues. I’m happy to hear them. Please write me or post what I’m missing.


By creating exceptions to the Fourth Amendment, we changed the rules the executive branch played by. We changed the system. We enabled it to amass more power.

You don’t have to look at the government to predict how it will change. You only have to look at the changes in the rules. It will use that power to achieve its goals of amassing more power and prosecuting people.

The intent of the people in office not to abuse their power has no more bearing on this systemic trend than the desire for marathon runners to bulk up like sprinters if the rules don’t change. Changing people without changing the rules will have short-term effects that go away. Changing the rules will have enduring change.

EDIT: Addressing a thoughtful Reddit comment

I’m getting a lot of hits from Reddit today and saw this person’s apt and thoughtful comment, which I’d like to respond to.

For the first half, I really thought this guy was going somewhere important. And then it just kinda ended. Feels like he had in idea, jotted it down in a notebook, and then just decided to post the notes instead of really fleshing it out.

It all lead up to:

The Fourth Amendment restricts their ability to take your stuff, listen in on your conversations, and learn things about you. You can tell where the executive branch will stop in relevant areas by reading it:

But then he doesn’t fill in the lines. What, exactly, can you predict about how the executive branch will navigate the 4th amendment by the phrasing of the amendment? Is there evidence that these predictions have come to pass or soon will? What predictions can you make about the future, given recent court decisions and executive actions?

I appreciate his or her comment and questions. I’ll address them by sharing why I took a systems perspective in the first place — to address the perspective I see a lot that “this problem won’t affect me,” “I don’t have anything to hide so what’s the problem,” or “well, no one’s been hurt and I don’t notice any difference, so what’s the problem?”

My main point in using a systems perspective was to point out that however subtle the effects of the changes now, the changes are

  • Enduring and
  • Likely to be augmented

because the people who can change the rules gained power from these changes and retain the motivation to change them more.

We can’t sense governments storing our communications and all the people we interact with now. People who gauge how powerful something’s effect is by what they notice think nothing big is happening.

I compared these changes to basketball players, houses, and stores to demonstrate they are simple to understand. I compared them to wars like Iraq and Vietnam that didn’t change the system to point out that these limitations on the Fourth Amendment, if unchecked, can endure longer and have more powerful affects than even those wars. That’s the difference between systemic and non-systemic change.

To his or her question “What predictions I can make about the future, given recent court decisions and executive actions?” I respond that secret laws, secret courts, secret letters to people obliging them to keep those letters secret, and such empower the executive branch relative to the legislative branch, the judicial branch, the fourth estate of the press, and the people. Absent resistance from those quarters — much more resistance than we’ve seen so far — this trend of gaining more power will continue.

I guess my main point is to use basic and simple reasons to demonstrate that measuring the effects by what we sense now misses the point. The slope changed, not the y-intercept. Given enough time, even small such systemic changes will grow larger than large one-time changes.

I apologize to those who want a blueprint for what to do next or a more detailed examination. This post wasn’t supposed to address those things in favor of a simple, high-level approach, which I consider important and necessary to understand the situation. I hope I can address them in a later post.

I hope what I’ve written can help others who consider these changes large influence others to recognize the power of these changes, however subtle they appear now.

I hope somehow some part of this message can filter up to Obama and his administration, for him to realize the powers they’re getting for themselves will eventually end up in the hands of people with different values than theirs.

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