A Great Insult to Policy: Regulation Through the Lens of Systems Theory

Published On: November 2023Categories: 2023 Conference Editorials, Editorials


Chad Andrews

College of Optometrists of Ontario

Director of Research and Policy

Picture of a white man wiht a beard and a blue shirt.

Reading the works of the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927 – 1998), Hans-Georg Moeller identifies what he calls a “fourth insult” to human vanity. While the interventions of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud decentered humanity in ways that were revolutionary for their times—humbling us in the realms of cosmology, biology, and psychology, respectively—Luhmann’s systems theory emphasizes the power and autonomy of vast and intersecting social systems that leave little room for human agency. According to Moeller, the fourth great insult to our species was fundamentally sociological. 

Moeller’s account begs the question: if Luhmann’s insult was so far-reaching—in sociological terms, at least—should policymakers be offended? 

Through the lens of systems theory, the answer is yes and no. 

It is yes because, as Moeller so effectively demonstrates in The Radical Luhmann (2012), Luhmann’s theory designates systems themselves as the principal actors or agents of society. When a policy is developed, it is certainly crafted by human hands and minds, but only within the specificity of its social system and, relatedly, the way that system interacts with its overarching environment. The language that Moeller uses for this is operational closure: each social subsystem, whether it be legal, educational, financial, or otherwise, operates on its own terms and is “autopoietic”—that is, self-generating and self-reproducing. A system’s operation is therefore defined by its own internal history and dynamics, even though these have been indirectly influenced by external factors (such as other systems). In the case of policy development, which according to Moeller belongs to the political system, the parameters are set for the development of each policy. In other words, the political system produces policies according to its internal parameters and constraints; it only ever speaks its own language. 

This is problematic for a more traditional view of policy, which is usually understood within a humanist framework: society consists of human agents who agree or disagree on certain points, and policies are produced by social groups as a way of achieving stability and producing desirable ends—adherence to the law, for example. As Moeller makes clear, Luhmann’s theory opposes this view and, as a result, is fundamentally anti-humanistic. Instead, society is better understood as a collection of interacting and self-defining systems (not human actors). While policies may attempt to shape or control other systems, they only ever do so from the confines of their internal, operational dynamics, and only as one system within an ocean of others. If, as a result, policymakers are offended, it is entirely understandable. 

On the other hand—and paradoxically—policymakers have no reason to be offended. While it may be the case that policies are incapable of operating above their environment, manipulating systems and institutions like a puppeteer controls a marionette, this does not mean that they cannot influence society, cannot communicate across their boundaries in ways that impact other systems. 

Regulation can serve as a kind of case study. In the sphere of professional regulation—the regulation of laboratory technologists, for example—a framework of policies is developed and deployed to ensure lab work is safe, reliable, ethical, and so forth, and these policies are often effective. We know this because, by and large, laboratory technologists operate safely, reliably, and ethically. But even if some regulators may want to claim otherwise, this is not due to the exceptional or authoritative power of the political system and its policies. Instead, laboratory technologists respond to policies from within their own system (the science system), along with its idiosyncratic language, history, and practices. The resulting effect—safe, reliable, and ethical laboratory practices—is the result of a complex negotiation between distinct social subsystems communicating across their limits: on one side, policymakers regulate, and on the other, scientists respond by adjusting their practices (or not) according to the parameters of their system. 

Moller points to climate policy as another example. Much of the current political inaction we see in this space can be explained by the systems involved. In professional regulation, policies are often closely aligned with the professions; they speak a similar language, so to speak (public safety, etc.). But in the context of the climate crisis, the involved systems—political, scientific, economic, and more—are regularly at odds, struggling to interpret and codify information that is communicated by external systems. To continue the metaphor, they are speaking different languages—the language, for instance, of scientific data on the one hand, and of capitalist accumulation on the other. 

But again, even when policies struggle or fail to be effective, policymakers have no reason to be offended by the anti-humanism of systems theory. Instead, conceptualizing the work of policymaking as a form of system-communication, and the implementation of policies as an interaction and negotiation between system-actors, could very well lead to better and more honest policymaking. Considered this way, Luhmann in fact provides the theoretical grounds to better understand why some policies succeed and others fail, and to more effectively navigate the gaps—or in some cases the chasms—that separate policy-development from policy-implementation.