CXXXVII – A World Too Complex To Be Managed

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What
an immense mass of evil must result…from
allowing men to assume the right of
anticipating what
may happen.

~ Leo Tolstoy

The
cable newscaster chirped: u201Cwhat is the
cause of rising gasoline prices? That
depends upon your point of view.u201D By
this standard, the causal explanations
offered by any nit-witted galoot achieve
a credibility equal to that of the most
carefully-informed student of the subject.
In an age in which public opinion polls
weigh more heavily than empirical and
reasoned analyses in evaluating events,
the communal mindset of dullards may
prevail by sheer numbers.

If,
according to this newscaster, my u201Cpoint
of viewu201D is that sun spots are u201Cthe
cause of rising gasoline prices,u201D I
have explained the current pricing phenomenon.
Because such a theory would exceed the
boundaries of what even the collective
clueless would tolerate, more plausible
— though equally erroneous — explanations
must be sought. Those looking for simplistic
answers to complex problems will find
greater comfort in u201Coil company price
gougingu201D as the underlying reason for
fifty dollar visits to neighborhood
gas pumps.

One
of my students — picking up on the u201Cprice
gougingu201D theme — opined that monopolistic
oil company greed was to blame for these
price increases. u201CFirst of all,u201D I responded,
u201Cwhy do you characterize the petroleum
industry as u2018monopolistic'? It is highly
competitive. Secondly, why do you think
that it took a century for u2018greedy'
oil company leaders to figure out that
the demand for gasoline was so inelastic
that customers would be willing to pay
over $3.00 per gallon to buy it? Furthermore,
have you ever asked yourself why the
prices of gold and oil have consistently
paralleled one another over the years?
Why do you suppose this is? Has the
petroleum industry also cornered the
gold market?u201D

The
eagerness of so many people to accept
superficial answers to complex problems,
is what keeps the political rackets
in business. People are aware that they
have insufficient information upon which
to make predictions about intricate
economic and social relationships and,
presuming that the state has access
to such knowledge, allow it to take
on this role. What these individuals
generally fail to understand is that
state officials are equally unable to
chart or direct the course of complex
behavior.

Current
society is rapidly being transformed
from vertically-structured, institutionally-dominant
systems into horizontally-interconnected
networks. Our world is becoming increasingly
decentralized, with questions arising
as to the forms emerging social systems
may take. The study of chaos informs
us that the multifaceted, interrelated
nature of complex systems render our
world unpredictable. As our understanding
of chaos deepens, our faith in institutional
omniscience will likely be abandoned.

Our
experiences with the state should make
us aware of how misplaced has been our
confidence in the centralized planning
and direction of society. It is commonplace
to speak of the u201Cunintended consequencesu201D
of political intervention. This is just
a way of acknowledging the inconstancy
and unpredictable nature of complexity.
Minimum wage laws, for instance, create
increased unemployment, a problem to
which the state responds by the enactment
of unemployment compensation legislation.
This program, in turn, generates the
problem of welfare fraud, to which the
state makes further responses. Minimum
wage laws increase the costs of doing
business, making firms less competitive
in a world market. This leads to political
pressures to increase protective tariffs
and self-righteous campaigns against
foreign countries whose economies are
not burdened by minimum wage legislation.

In
this sense, politics functions the way
much of traditional medicine does: to
repress troublesome symptoms with remedies
that produce exponential increases in
other symptoms requiring additional
medications. If you look inside an elderly
person's medicine cabinet and see the
many drugs that are used to suppress
symptoms brought on by previous drugs,
you will see a perfect parallel to the
expansion of governmental u201Csolutionsu201D
to politicogenic u201Cproblems.u201D

The
succession of problems occasioned by
state action is reflected in other areas.
Americans who fail to understand the
causal relationship between decades
of violent American foreign policies
and the attacks on the World Trade Center,
will be eager to accept such simplistic
explanations of 9/11 as the product
of u201Cterroristsu201D bent on destroying America
out of u201Cevilu201D or u201Cenviousu201D motivations.
Any deeper inquiry will prove too troublesome
for those challenged by complexity,
and so they settle for the lies and
deceptions of political authorities.

There
are simply too many unidentifiable factors
working on events in our lives for any
of us to make accurate predictions of
the future. Kierkegaard understood the
problem of correlating prior learning
and future conduct. u201CPhilosophy is perfectly
right,u201D he declared, u201Cin saying that
life must be understood backward. But
then one forgets the other clause —
that it must be lived forward.u201D The
variabilities that inhere in complexity
make both our efforts to understand
the past and to predict the future uncertain.
A penumbra of ignorance will always
enshroud both the historian and the
prophet.

But
ignorance and fear are closely entwined
and, as Thoreau and others have observed,
u201Cnothing is so much to be feared as
fear.u201D There is probably no greater
drain on our psychic energies than fear
of the unknown. I see this in my students,
and advise them, on their first day
of classes, to learn to be comfortable
with uncertainty; that an awareness
of one's ignorance is a catalyst for
learning. As the Austrian economists
tell us, we act in order to be better
off after acting than if we hadn't acted
at all. So, too, learning occurs only
when we are uncomfortable with not knowing
something we would like to know.

But
fear can debilitate us, making us susceptible
to the importunities of those who promise
to alleviate our fears if only we will
give the direction of our lives over
to them. In this manner are institutions
born, with the state demanding the greatest
authority over us, and promising release
from our uncertainties.

But
the state has no clearer crystal ball
into the future than do you or I. To
the contrary, it is more accurate to
suggest that you and I are less prone
to error in the management of our personal
affairs, than is the state in trying
to direct the lives of hundreds of millions
of individuals. In addition to our separate
interests, the variables confronting
events in your life and mine are less
numerous, and more localized, than those
with which the state deals in its efforts
to collectively control all of humanity.
If you or I make an error in judgment,
you or I suffer the consequences. When
the state errs in its planning, mankind
in general may suffer.

A
major lesson that will likely emerge
from the study of chaos is that our
world is simply too complex to be centrally
managed. If we are to live well in an
inconstant and unpredictable society,
we need all the personal autonomy and
spontaneity that we can muster. Perhaps
in the same way that our ancestors learned
to shift their thinking from a geocentric
to a heliocentric model of the universe,
our children and grandchildren will
discover that human society functions
better when it is organized horizontally
rather than vertically. In words that
have become increasingly familiar to
us, u201Cnothing grows from the top down.u201D

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