If Californians ever figure out a way to bring Father Junipero Serra back from the dead, the first thing we should do is put him in charge of the state prison system.

In the California mind, Serra is the state’s founder, a great builder of churches, and, in more recent histories, the man whose system of missions killed, mostly by disease, thousands of the Indians he sought to save.

But, as a new exhibition at the Huntington Library and a terrific new biography by UC Riverside historian Steven Hackel should remind us, Serra was also the first of many ambitious Californians to try to forge large statewide institutions—only to find they’d created systems far more complex, vulnerable, and destructive than they imagined.

As a manager and grandiose visionary (he wanted to build enough missions so that no Californian would be more than a three-day trip away from salvation), Serra faced a conundrum not so different from that confronting California’s political leaders today: How can we use our limited resources to construct and maintain statewide networks that connect sprawling communities that don’t much care about one another?

Just pick up a newspaper, and you can see that no one has figured out an answer. The state prison system is such a mess that the U.S. Supreme Court has stepped in and ordered California to fix it. The statewide water infrastructure is decaying and difficult to manage. The state’s university systems are being starved of public funds and struggling to reinvent themselves. Our public schools, centralized into a de facto statewide network by Proposition 13 and court decisions, are among the worst-funded in the country. The latest idea for a grandiose California network, the high-speed rail system, lacks tens of billions in necessary funding and faces so much opposition that construction has yet to begin.

At the heart of each of these endeavors is a shared faith: that a statewide system can be made to work. Father Serra believed this, too, despite the diversity and sprawl challenging his California. In 1769, on the eve of his arrival in what was then known as Alta California, he encountered a region of more than 300,000 Indians speaking approximately 100 languages. (He also, not unlike today’s out-of-state arrivals to California, wondered at first why the natives were wearing so little clothing.)

And, just like today’s transit planners, Serra was frustrated at the tendency of Californians to roam around (the Indians were hunter-gatherers, and lived in independently governed communities that dotted the landscape) rather than gathering into dense cities and forts, as his fellow Europeans did.

Serra was determined to impose order on this unruly bunch. The Spanish soldiers forcibly brought Indians into the missions and retrieved those who dared to leave. European-style agriculture was imposed on the land. Serra, a born bureaucrat, produced field manuals and charted the spiritual progress of the Indians. And, according to Hackel’s biography, he was one of the most skilled memo writers you could ever encounter.

Like so many California institutions, the missions had disorderly governance and overlapping lines of authority. But Serra, a skilled infighter, often used the murkiness to his advantage against whoever stood in his way. One Spanish governor complained, “He knows how to feign compliance in matters put before him, as well as how to avoid it.” Another governor called him “that pig-headed father.”

When missions were completed, Serra put together grand openings that would satisfy the showiest of today’s California developers. He was obsessed with metrics—particularly concerning the number of confirmations he performed. And he was as adept at spinning as any public relations man. When priests and others died in Indian attacks, on at least one occasion as a result of his decision-making, Serra emphasized that the blood of the dead would enrich the soil for future evangelization.

Serra was a supporter of bilingualism, and he even had sacraments translated into Indian languages. But this didn’t make him a good listener. He ignored the concerns of the Indians and made little effort to understand their culture or customs. Like today’s leaders in Sacramento, he paid lip service to local control, but he demanded absolute control across the missions and fought anything that would constitute real local democracy. When Governor Felipe de Neve, who thought Serra treated the Indians worse than slaves, sought to establish municipal governance and elections of people in the missions, Serra successfully blocked him.

Serra died in 1784, and in the following decades the true failures of the missions, including the deaths of thousands from disease that spread as Indians were brought together there, became plainly visible. But what passed into public memory about Serra was the beautiful idea of a system of churches connected by El Camino Real. A similar amnesia exists today; we ignore the failures of our prisons and keep trying to solve problems by sending people there. We try to run 10 University of California campuses from a system headquarters in Oakland. We love the vision of statewide systems, even if the reality doesn’t work.

Some dreams should be allowed to die. Ask yourself: Wouldn’t it be better if each county and region handled its own prisoners? Wouldn’t each California State University campus be better off without centralized governance from system headquarters in Long Beach? Wouldn’t our water be more secure if each region were responsible for taking care of its own needs?

Californians are not used to thinking about Serra in this way. It’s easier, and more dramatic, to think of Serra as either saint (he’s one Vatican-verified miracle short of canonization at the moment) or colonizing sinner. But he should instead be a reminder of the folly of insisting on grand statewide networks, at least if those networks run on rules any more complicated than the In-N-Out Burger menu.

Serra demonstrated this reality more than two centuries ago. Isn’t it about time we took a lesson from the pig-headed father?

Cross-posted in Zocalo Public Square.