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.

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

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