Revolution vs Evolution

In my last post, I visited an Amazon Fulfillment Center and marveled at the level of sophisticated setup and process of turning around thousands of shipments a day. Every detail of the center has been designed to enhance the process and make it function better. The slow but steady development of this system made me think of the French Revolution.

Come again? Let me explain.

Throughout history, groups of people have taken it upon themselves to overthrow the established order (government, usually) and replacing it with something else. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. After all, the established order can become repressive and tyrannical. It certainly was in France in 1789, with a bloated aristocracy bleeding the rest of the country dry to sustain itself in luxury. When one of these revolutions is successful, the revolutionaries rejoice and congratulate each other.

The problem arises when the time comes to put something in place of what the revolution just destroyed. Instead of simply creating a structure carefully designed to eliminate the old abuses, a task that is difficult enough in itself, too many revolutionaries set out to totally remake society and everyone in it. The feeling seems to be “Hey; we just overthrew the government. We are obviously enlightened and superior beings, so why not remake the world while we are at it?” Alas, the skills necessary for getting rid of a government versus creating a better one are two different things. The skills required for overthrowing a government and the skills necessary for remaking society from the ground up are two extremely different things. What most these schemes have in common is a massive expansion of government power over and intrusiveness into the lives of the people the revolution was supposed to be liberating.


Thus, we have the French revolutionaries, having overthrown the monarchy, creating a Reign of Terror to remake citizens into “rational” beings ready to serve the state. They attacked religion in all its forms, and sold off churches for use as stables or warehouses. After all, they thought, we can’t allow people to think that this God character might know as much as we do.  In Russia and China, Lenin and Mao had pretty much the same idea; we know better, and will force you to conform for your own good. In all three cases, efforts to force everyone into the “enlightened ” mold resulted in repression and mass murder, what one writer has called “Death by Government.” The American Revolution managed to avoid this homicidal delusion, concentrating on securing individual rights by limiting the power of government rather than making it all encompassing. Some Loyalists fled to Canada, England or the Bahamas, but there was no Reign of Terror or mass executions. Most other revolutionary countries haven’t been so fortunate.

So what does this have  to do with Amazon? Plenty.

Like society in general, Amazon is a large and complex operation with numerous aspects, and every change that is made affects something else, sometimes in unpredictable ways. Yet Amazon has managed to make incremental changes over time that uses and improves on what they learned before. They have evolved and fine-tuned by building on the past until the fulfillment center is a marvel of efficiencies. tweaks, and adjustments that make the whole operate smoothly.

This was not done by a committee of revolutionaries sitting in a coffee shop writing a manifesto, but by thousands of men and women constantly experimenting and learning from experience. No one, and certainly no committee, could have created this level of refinement and functionality from scratch. There are simply too many interrelated parts andsub functions, and too vast a body of knowledge required for anyone to simply create a fully functioning final system in one bite.

This is why evolutionary change is almost always superior to revolutionary upheaval. This isn’t just something I dreamed up; the British statesman Edmund Burke made the same evolution vs revolution argument against the French Revolution at a time when many in England were enthralled by the seeming romance of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in Paris. There was no Amazon at the time, but Burke, who was sympathetic to the American Revolution,nevertheless condemned the French one. He knew the value of evolutionary change building on the experience of the past, and even predicted that, far from enhancing the rights of the citizens, the French Revolution would lead to a military dictatorship. Napoleon appeared shortly thereafter, fulfilling Burke’s prediction.

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