LI – Power to the People!

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To
paraphrase Jacques Ellul: "show me how electrical power is
distributed in a society, and I'll show you how political power
is distributed." Americans on the east coast and Midwest, along
with many Canadians, experienced the truth of this observation during
the recent power blackout. For those who pay attention to the arrangements
by which we conduct our lives, massive electrical shutdowns carry
an important message: having goods and services provided by centrally-directed
systems makes us vulnerable.

As
easterners groped in darkness, there was something ludicrous in
observing government officials and television news reporters speaking
fondly of a system of "grids" that integrate all of the
electrical power needs of America and Canada into a centralized
network. Had the significance of the continuing power outages in
New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, and numerous
other places, been lost on these people? The message these people
were intent on communicating could be summarized as "thank
goodness we have planners to deal with this problem," not realizing
that it was the arrogance of central planning, a faith in the power
grid system, that plunged millions of people into darkness.

The
electronic priesthood was quick on the scene to begin reciting the
articles of faith of collective authority. First came the now-familiar
mantra that accompanies every plane crash, NASA disaster, or railroad
derailment: "we will find out what went wrong and fix it so
that it doesn't happen again." You will notice that these words
have a ritualistic quality to them. Were a government official to
declare: "we're going to see if we can identify the problem
and come up with a better way of doing things so as to minimize
the harm the next time this occurs," he would never be heard
from again. "We will correct the problem; this will
not happen again" is the doctrine the technocrats must
recite without deviation from the script or a break in meter. If
collective authority is to be maintained, the faithful will insist
upon the certainty that those in control know what they are doing!
The fact that there will be future plane crashes, and future power
failures, only means that there will be future opportunities for
the true believers to again recite this catechism!

The
second article of faith to be enunciated was that this power outage
was caused by "deregulation" of the industry. Regulatory
fanatics offered the same limp plea following California's earlier
blackout, ignoring the fact that while wholesale prices for
electricity were deregulated in California, retail prices
continued to be controlled by the state. This created regulatory
confusion, with generating companies selling their electricity in
other states where retail prices were not artificially constrained.
Had there been true deregulation — with retail price controls also
lifted — California would have avoided this blackout.

For
a government that was able to plunge America into wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq on the basis of enormous lies, whose refutations only fueled
more jingoism, I suppose the culprit of "deregulation"
will prove as persuasive as "weapons of mass destruction."
That the public utility industries in all their forms — e.g., electric
power, telephones, gas and oil pipelines, railroads — have long
been heavily regulated by government (usually at the behest of industry
members themselves who favored their status as state-conferred "monopolies")
seems to escape the defenders of the regulatory state. This statist
reasoning may play well to the uncritical Fox News audience, but
intelligent minds — even those who have not studied economics —
should be able to identify the fallacy of this argument.

Closely
related to the "deregulation" argument is the "market
failure" charge. Democratic Congressman Ed Markey declared
that "the free market does not work" in the electricity
transmission business. Of course, Mr. Markey, a member of the House
Energy and Commerce Committee, must take the position he
does, otherwise the raison d'tre of his committee — as well as
his political career — would vanish. He would have to go into his
dreaded "free market" and earn a living based upon his
ability to produce and sell something people actually wanted,
at a price they were freely willing to pay. Furthermore, when "experts"
declare that the power grid system suffers from a lack of new transmission
lines, but then ignore the fact that local governments — not market
processes – have restricted or prevented the construction of
new lines in their communities, the specters of "deregulation"
and the "free market" as the causes of blackouts should
be seen for their politically self-serving purposes.

Statists
also blamed "market failure" as the cause of the "Great
Depression." But as Murray Rothbard pointed out, to believe
that businessmen were exercising sound judgments for many years
and then, suddenly, tens of thousands of them independently made
catastrophic decisions, is most unrealistic. A more plausible explanation
would be that a centralizing factor — which Rothbard found in government
monetary policies — was responsible for sending misleading information
to market participants. Likewise, when a major part of a continent
is suddenly deprived of electric power, one must suspect the hand
of collective decision-making in assessing causation.

A
number of commentators have suggested that the power grid system
works a lot like the Internet. If this was true, Mr. Markey would
have a hard time explaining how the international anarchistic system
of the Internet continued to function, even during the blackout,
while the centrally-managed power grid system collapsed. It is this
analogy of the power grid system to the Internet that I wish to
challenge. Because the Internet is organized in a decentralized
way, when one "Internet service provider" crashes, the
entire system does not shut down. Nor — contrary to the wishes of
Hillary Clinton and her ilk — is there any superintending agency
directing the content or the flow of information.

My
understanding of the power grid system is that independent generating
plants are incorporated into regional grids, under the management
of a private central authority that directs excess electricity from
one plant to other areas operating at or near capacity. The purpose
is a valid one: to maximize the efficiencies of electrical production,
given that a system must have the capacity to handle peak usage
demands, even though generating plants usually operate at less than
peak levels. If electricity could be stored — the way natural gas
is — there would be no problem. But generating plants designed to
handle peak load usage will have "downtime" which fosters
inefficiency. By spreading the excess electricity around (e.g.,
by having one plant sell its non-peak excesses to other regions
operating in peak periods) the unit costs of production can be reduced.

The
question is not whether such exchange practices can or should exist,
but what organizational assumptions and systems should underlie
them. Our institutionalized world has been built on the premise
of collectivism, by our belief that we can maximize the production
of goods and services, and protect ourselves from threats and inconveniences,
by centralizing decision-making into the hands of expert planners
who can accomplish ends we could not bring about on our own. This
notion is at least as old as Plato's Republic,
but has recently been challenged by the study of "complexity"
or "chaos."

Contrary
to our traditional collectivist mindset, we are now discovering
that complex systems are unpredictable and, therefore, incapable
of being planned for and managed. The darkened homes and businesses
in eastern America and Canada were stark testimony to this fact.
There will always be some unforeseen glitch to upset the best-laid
plans and backup plans. It is an illusion, born of a faith in collective,
technocratic thinking, that the causes of today's problems can be
"fixed so that it doesn't happen again." There will always
be another tomorrow with another hidden workforce of pixies and
other mischief-makers prepared to upset the best-engineered plans.
Do you recall the central-planners' mantra being chanted after the
Challenger explosion? Do you recall the same liturgy being recited
following the more recent Columbia disaster?

We
should learn the fallacies of centralized authority from observing
the ways in which the life system distributes decision-making throughout
nature. If there is virtue in collectivism, why didn't the processes
of biological development create uniform, standardized species,
instead of varied and individualistic forms of expression? Sexual
reproduction is premised upon the importance of variability and
differentiation to the health of a system. Otherwise, as Leopold
Kohr has asked, why didn't humanity evolve into a five billion-headed
leviathan that drags itself around the planet in search of a food
source that would nourish a beast of such size?

Kohr
has demonstrated the life-enhancing importance of relative smallness;
how increasing the size of a system makes it less resilient to change,
less creative, and more aggressive. The overnight demise of the
dinosaurs — whose size and specialization made them unable to adapt
to the changes wrought by the earth's collision with an asteroid
or comet — while the much smaller mammals survived this disaster,
ought to provide a lesson to those whose darkness is not limited
to power outages.

Perhaps
the Internet affords us a model for a system of sharing — be it
information or electricity — that is not premised on central managers
directing flows. A genuinely free market — not our present kind
of neo-mercantilist system that masquerades behind marketplace language
— provides another example of how goods and services can move freely
and efficiently without the iron-fist of any collective authority.
Perhaps we can also learn an important lesson from our Amish neighbors
who understand the importance of not bringing into their lives products
or practices that will make them dependent upon external systems
and, in so doing, weaken or destroy their way of living.

The
Internet affords numerous examples from which we might discover
alternatives to our present centralized way of distributing electricity.
There are tens of thousands of websites, e-mail groupings, message
boards, newsgroups, and other emerging systems through which people
share information with one another without centralized direction.
You are making use of such a system right now. Electric power suppliers
could also learn from the practice in which millions of private
computers are voluntarily connected to allow for the sharing of
"downtime" so that research data (e.g., in medical fields)
can be more quickly analyzed.

As
long as our thinking is mired in the collective mindset of centralized
authority, we shall doubtless continue our vicious circle of reacting
to one disaster after another while deluding ourselves that "we
will find out what went wrong and fix it so that it doesn't happen
again." This time for sure! Americans like to pretend that
they are "pragmatists," but when it comes to political
and social ways of doing things, most tend to be ideological zealots,
willing to sacrifice all practical ends in order to secure their
illusions about the efficacy of systems that are destroying them.
As much of the country basked in darkness, one "expert"
spoke of how it might soon be possible to have the entire earth
set up in one integrated power grid! Faith in collective authority
dies slowly.

But
what if we had a fundamental shift in our assumptions? What if we
began learning from the study of "chaos" that, if complex
systems are unpredictable, we had best develop more decentralized,
spontaneous, and autonomous ways of organizing and cooperating with
one another? There are presently ways in which individuals can,
while still getting electricity from present systems, provide themselves
with alternative power sources in the event of a future blackout.
One such system is a private generator, which many companies, hospitals,
and even homeowners now employ. Individual alternatives to collective
services are wonderful ways to break down dependencies on external
agencies, as well as to develop a broader awareness of options for
the personal control of your life.

This
is not to suggest the abandonment of beneficial interconnected systems,
but to dismantle the idea that such systems need to be collectively
centralized. The inquiry obviously takes us far beyond the provision
of electricity. Jacques Ellul understood, if we do not, that the
question of how "power" is distributed in our world applies
to both political and energy systems. In the end,
it all becomes a question of where the authority over your life
is to reside.

President
Bush declared that the power outage was a "wakeup call."
He was right, but for completely different reasons than he supposes.
Like everything else coming out of Washington, D.C., his proposals
for change will continue to play out the kind of collectivist thinking
that delivers darkness. As the study of "chaos" is teaching
us, the world is inherently anarchistic. It runs itself,
if we can only get out of the way of its orderly processes. It is
our minds that insist upon the self-deception that order
can be planned for and directed by central authorities. When events
demonstrate the inherently unpredictable nature of complex systems,
it is time for us to confront our thinking, and to discover more
ways in which we can live within decentralized networks of independent,
cooperating individuals.

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