Insiders and Outsiders
Two approaches to change
I was chatting with my friend Shruti Rajagopalan yesterday, and we were discussing people we have recorded with recently. She reminded me of an excellent frame proposed by Larry Summers to look at people who try to bring about change: that of Insiders and Outsiders.
Elizabeth Warren, in her memoir, reports the following exchange with Summers:
Larry’s tone was in the friendly-advice category. He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.
I’m an example of a classic outsider. As a journalist and blogger and podcaster, I’ve criticized every government we’ve had over the last 20 years. It doesn’t matter which party is in power — I’ll speak truth to power. Our system is so broken, so dysfunctional, that I’ll always find material to rant about. There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit.
An insider, on the other hand, could be an economist or a policy maker who chooses to change things from the inside. She will never criticize the powers that be, or fight with other insiders. Her public pronouncements will be minimal. There will be no pontification or virtue signalling. She knows that change will be incremental, and often invisible. But she also knows that change can come only from the inside — and that at the scale of a state, any positive impact can be huge.
An outsider like me tries to move the Overton Window. I play the long game. I target the demand side of the political marketplace.
An insider works towards making small changes now. She works on the supply side of the political marketplace. She realises that fundamental changes in the system may not be possible, but incremental changes can accumulate and do a lot of good.
Insiders also know that while politicians like to drive hot-button policy, a lot of the time, the deep state drives policy, and it doesn’t matter which party is in power. There is continuity. (See the video at the end of this post for an illustration of this.)
Views of Change
Outsiders like me can be pessimistic about the short term. I see the dysfunction of the state and the fractures in our society, and it seems to me that the world is going to hell. The incentives for those who run the country is to increase the power of the state, not to reduce it. How can change happen?
Insiders are optimistic, because they see the impact their tiny changes have made, which are often invisible to the outside world. They also point out that much of the great reform that happened between 1991 and 2011 happened despite those incentives. We contain multitudes — and our incentives also come in multitudes. Many politicians and bureaucrats are not automatons responding to one set of structural incentives — they also want to do good in the world.
There Are Bad Insiders and Bad Outsiders
Sturgeon’s Law applies to people also.
Many insiders are unprincipled grifters who may verbalise a set of values, but possess none. They will do whatever any regime says. They are the banality of evil.
Many outsiders don’t care about principles either. They join an ideological tribe for comfort, and will signal whatever they need to in order to raise their status within their tribe.
Bad apples of this sort are the norm, not the exception. I have learnt to spot both sorts from a mile away. I avoid them. But I have had many genuine insiders and outsiders on The Seen and the Unseen, and have come to respect both approaches.
In a sense, few people would have the ability or inclination to play either. My character and temperament make me an outsider. But I have come to respect insiders, after having disdain for them for the longest time. On my show, I’ve had outsiders who passionately argue for their values — and insiders who explain the nuts and bolts of what they do. We need them both.
Episode 28 of Everything is Everything was about a group of Insiders who, over decades, fought for change behind the scenes. It’s an inspiring story. Do watch, like, share, subscribe.
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Illlustrations by Simahina.