Chaos in Space

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The most significant discovery in efforts to understand failures of governmental planning, might be found in the study of chaos, or complexity. A product of computerized technology, this field of inquiry demonstrates how complex systems are simply vulnerable to too many variables to allow for any reasonable basis for making predictions, particularly over extended periods of time. References to "unforeseen consequences" are increasingly commonplace in virtually every area of human behavior. It is one way of talking about the dynamics of complexity. Because it is impossible to identify and to measure all the influences at work upon any complex system, efforts to predict outcomes will always produce unanticipated ends.

The increased unemployment occasioned by "minimum wage" laws; the 1970′s "oil crisis" brought on by the Nixon administration’s "wage and price" controls; and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center that resulted from decades of American foreign policy hegemony throughout the world, are the more dramatic examples of the unforeseen consequences that can be visited upon any of us.

It must be pointed out that unforeseen consequences can arise from both private and governmental activity. The study of chaos informs us that businessmen are no more capable of predicting outcomes for complex systems than are government officials. Do you believe there is any man or woman out there with the analytical genius to regularly predict where the price level for any given stock — or for the stock market as a whole — will end up on a daily basis? How many of you recall the acute foresight that produced the Edsel?

While the uncertainties attending complexity are at work within any system, it is state action that produces more far-reaching and troublesome consequences. If executives of the United Updike Company err grievously in their predictions, the effects of such errors will largely be confined to the stockholders, employees, and customers of that company. The rest of us will not be devastated by their mistakes and, furthermore, may actually learn some valuable lessons from their experiences.

When the state acts, however, its errors will be magnified by the increased scope of its decision making. If a government regulatory scheme goes awry, its adverse consequences are felt by almost everyone, such as we saw in the aforementioned oil crisis. Consumers, refiners, service station owners, homeowners, and manufacturers of products for which petroleum byproducts were part of the raw materials, all suffered from this act of state arrogance.

But we have been conditioned to think otherwise. When the "great depression" began in 1929, most Americans were doubtless content to believe that the marketplace, which had functioned so well up until that time, suddenly became incapable of responding to pricing signals, resulting in tens of thousands of businessmen suddenly becoming utterly incompetent. Murray Rothbard addressed this fallacy in his book, America’s Great Depression, wherein he attributed the "cluster of errors" in business practices to the common factor of government policies that inflated the supply of money and expanded credit.

I suspect it was the "great depression" that caused so many Americans to become obsessed with "security." We want our world to be secure, safe, and predictable, even as our daily lives remind us that such ends can never be. In a religious culture, men and women look for this sense of certainty in a god; in a secular society, the role has been taken over by the state. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that, for most people, the state has become God! Many of my students speak of government "giving us" our rights, not unlike Moses receiving the "ten commandments" from on high. If, as Hegel expressed it, the state is the march of God in the world, why would we not expect the benefits of the deification of the state to spill over onto Mr. Bush? Very few people express concern when President Bush prattles his lunacies about plans "to change men’s souls," and eliminate evil in the world. When he tells us that the United States "will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation," one is reminded of the spiteful and neurotic God of the Old Testament who enjoyed smiting people.

One quality we associate with any deity — whether cosmic or earthly in nature — is omniscience. In Western religions, God does not make mistakes; there are no unforeseen consequences for his actions. If we regard the state as godlike, must this sense of omniscience and infallibility not apply to it, as well? How could the dynamics of complexity — which we may acknowledge as operating in other spheres of activity — have any relevance to a state system whose foundations are supposedly rooted in godship?

These were a few of the questions that danced around in my head as I watched television coverage of the Columbia disaster. One could see the hand of chaos manifesting itself in the piece of insulation that may have caused the ultimately fatal damage to Columbia, just as it had seventeen years earlier in the frozen o-ring that produced the Challenger disaster. I am not suggesting that this was a problem peculiar to governmental systems: had the Challenger or Columbia projects been undertaken by private parties, the same results might have obtained.

What I find intriguing in this sad affair is the response of so many who, in one form or another, stated the mantra familiar to all unversed in the dynamics of complexity: we will find the cause and fix it so it won’t happen again. Indeed, we do learn from our mistakes, and take precautions against the repetition of practices that lead to adverse ends. But the forces of complexity remain hidden in our behavior, often making an appearance at precisely the moment our hubris convinces us that all contingencies have been anticipated and resolved. Seventeen years of post-Challenger inquiry may have renewed confidence — even among some NASA officials — that future disasters were so unlikely that more recent warnings about Columbia could be ignored, as were pre-launch warnings about Challenger.

There is an implicit self-assurance in all forms of political behavior that those in authority have the capacity to foresee and prevent problems, and to plan for and carry out beneficial objectives. The underlying assumption is that the state has both information-gathering and analytical capacities unavailable to the rest of us and, as a consequence, is able to formulate rules and procedures that will produce predictable consequences. Indeed, most government regulation is conducted through "administrative agencies," bodies with supposed "expertise" in areas subject to their authority.

But information gathering and dissemination often proves troubling to any large organization, particularly the state. Organizations that have become their own reasons for being (i.e., "institutions") function through bureaucratic systems that seek to stifle criticisms — or even doubts — about existing policies and practices. The "whistle-blower" is persona non grata within such organizations, a fact that has recently prompted legislative efforts to prevent the punishment of such persons. The "whistle-blower" is a constant reminder of the fallibility of our thinking, but proneness to error is not a quality to be readily admitted by systems that aspire to divinity. As we saw with the Challenger disaster, however, it is just such feedback that any healthy organization requires if it is to remain resilient to change, a quality not usually associated with political agencies.

Just as unanswered prayers to one’s god do not diminish a believer’s faith, governmental failures to prevent unforeseen consequences do not engender a loss of faith in the system. The state will simply gather more information, revise its past policies, and produce new regulations and procedures to correct for the past. This time for sure!

I am reminded of an incident reported by biologist David Ehrenfeld, in his wonderful book The Arrogance of Humanism. He defines "humanism" as "a supreme faith in human reason — its ability to confront and solve the many problems that humans face, its ability to rearrange both the world of Nature and the affairs of men and women so that human life will prosper." Ehrenfeld gives the example of a fire that took place, in 1975, at an Alabama nuclear power plant. Government regulators had established all kinds of procedures and practices to deal with all anticipated problems that might arise at such a facility. One of the items that was not covered, however, was an electrician using a candle to check for air leaks. His candle ignited plastic foam insulation that he was placing in the walls, producing the fire.

Do such problems occur in the private sector as well? Of course they do. But most of us tend to be more critical of those occurrences when private parties are involved. When a business puts out a product with an unseen defect causing injuries or deaths to its users, there is a tendency for consumers to sharply reduce their demand for such a product. Civil lawsuits will be forthcoming as a matter of course, and there may even be demands for criminal punishments. But when the state fails to accomplish its purposes, most of us eagerly accept the need to increase the funding for such programs. If government schools are failing, or if the police system fails to prevent violent crime, the answer is always the same: give them more money!

If the state has become God in our secular culture, then scientists have become part of the priesthood. I am a great supporter of scientific inquiry, and do not intend my remarks as a criticism of the content and practices by which science and reason have helped to extricate human beings from the dark caves of ignorance. I do, however, draw the line at science being used as a mechanism of social control, or regarding as "irrelevant" any form of understanding that is incapable of being empirically tested. The scientific revolution was a precursor to what was, perhaps, the most humanizing period in our history: the industrial revolution. Industrialization continues to provide billions of human beings with material goods that not even the most despotic of pre-industrial monarchs could command.

It is not surprising that our materialistic culture — which performs wondrously in providing for our physical needs — would dote on the sciences and technology as though they were an interconnected cornucopia of human well being. It is also not surprising that, with science having performed so well for our material needs, the state would find it advantageous to create a partnership with it. And because the state has taxation powers, it can become the source of research and development funding for scientific/technological institutions. That the overwhelming percent of such R and D funds now come from the state — obviously to produce goods that the state can use in its command and control efforts — is indicative of the firm relationship of these two sectors.

In this way, the state and the scientific/technological communities have consolidated their forces to create the hybrid deity that most of us have come to worship. The scientific community, with its presumed capacities for understanding events and predicting outcomes, is coupled with state power to compel people to do what they would not otherwise choose to do. In the eyes of many, the state now becomes justified in extending its powers into realms that the scientific community regards as beneficial to mankind.

But lingering in the dark shadows to which they are accustomed, the forces of chaos await to spring upon us when we least expect their intrusions, the evidence of their visits being disparaged by us as no more than "debris." The imps, gremlins, and hobgoblins our ancestors imagined as disruptors of their undertakings, are now understood as the unseen and incalculable uncertainties of a complex world. The omniscience presumed by those who arrogantly seek to direct the affairs of humanity always fails to account for these forces. But they continue to speak to us, if only we will listen. As the shuttle Columbia was breaking up in the skies over Texas they spoke to us all: "we are here, but you will never find us. We will find you!"

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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