The Arrogance of Greenspan

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Two excerpts from Alan Greenspan’s book, The Age of Turbulence, provide a succinct expression of how political systems generate the bulk of social disorder and human suffering. While I have not read his book, these two passages go to the essence of the destructive nature of the political mindset: (1) "there can be little doubt that global warming is real and manmade;" and, (2) "[s]ometimes the duty of political leadership is to convince constituencies that they are just plain wrong."

Regarding his first proposition, Greenspan may or may not be correct in his conclusion that global warming is manmade. It is not my purpose, here, to confront him on this issue, or to suggest that any who believe in the human origins of global warming represent a destructive threat to mankind. My criticism, rather, is found in the words "there can be little doubt." Contrary to the articles of faith that unite members of the high church of Global-Warmingism, there is a great deal of doubt — particularly within the scientific community — as to whether global warming has its origins in human activity. There are thousands of respected scientists who say either that there is insufficient evidence to support this charge, or that global warming is, in fact, traceable to non-human causes.

Whatever the outcome of any extended inquiry into this question, it is clear that practitioners of the political manipulation of humanity are eager to intervene in the lives of others often on the basis of the skimpiest of evidence, and always without an awareness of the interconnected nature of events and other influences that make the prediction of outcomes impossible. The study of the field known as "chaos" is bringing to our attention a truth that will likely prove fatal to the mindset that sustains vertically-structured social systems — particularly the state — namely, that complex systems are subject to too many variables and other intervening factors to allow for predictable outcomes. This is what makes weather prediction unreliable for more than a few days. The failure to understand the uncertainties inherent in all complex systems is what allowed Rudy Giuliani to make a fool of himself in responding to Ron Paul’s explanations of "blowback" (or, the "unintended consequences" of human action). In boldly declaring that he had never heard of such a theory, Giuliani admitted to his lack of awareness of this fatal flaw in all political systems.

Alan Greenspan appears to be equally ignorant of the limitations complexity imposes upon those who presume to direct it. There is probably no realm of human behavior that is more subject to variation and inconstancy than the economic activity through which billions of people spontaneously interact with one another in unpredictable ways. No one who understands the dynamics of both the marketplace and chaotic systems, would have the hubris to think that he or she could manage economic life toward any generally accepted ends. The study of chaos informs us of the impossibility of marshaling and measuring all of the factors that play upon events in our lives. When we act without complete knowledge — as it is our fate to do — there will always be some error in our calculations that will continue to influence future events. If, for example, the residents of other countries resent the impact that American foreign policies have had on their lives, the United States’ continued pursuit of such policies may cause these objections to be iterated back into the set of facts to which future policies will be offered. As American policies continue to disregard such resentment — as, for example, when Madeleine Albright contemptuously declared that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children was a "price" she was willing to pay for Clinton-era boycotts — the reiteration of such factors may escalate into the turbulence of so-called "terrorist" attacks whose causation continues to befuddle the likes of Rudy Giuliani.

The same analysis holds true for Alan Greenspan’s causal contributions to the economic turbulence in which the American economy now finds itself. Had he been informed of the unpredictable nature of complexity, his intelligence might have suggested to him that a Federal Reserve Board presuming to "run" an economy was about as absurd as turning over to NASA the task of running the solar system! Whether Greenspan suffered only from a lack of depth understanding of complex systems — such as an economy — or whether the lure of political power was too much for him to resist, is a question only he can answer.

Whatever that answer might be, it is the combination of this lack of understanding of the uncertainties of complex systems combined with the second of the above-quoted portions of his book, that make his behavior destructive to the interests of the rest of us. In regarding it as a "duty of political leadership" to convince others of their "plain wrong" thinking, Greenspan gets to the essence of every political system. Political leadership is inseparable from the exercise of state coercion, and while many speak of the "arrogance of power," every exercise of power by which some coerce others is the essence of arrogance!

The title of his book is a giveaway to what his political career has been about. In presuming to prescribe and direct the complexities and uncertainties of a system that is beyond anyone’s power to control, Greenspan’s policies have been a major contributor to the "turbulence" of which he writes. But by insisting upon the exercise of such power as a "duty of political leadership," the man inadvertently confesses to an arrogance that defines such "leadership." In this era of totalitarian empire-building, his book ought to have been titled The Age of Arrogance.

But what else could we have expected from this man? A long-time friend and devotee of Ayn Rand, he doubtless remains convinced that both the physical and moral dimensions of existence can be known "objectively." To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, my last act upon the gallows will be to insist upon the subjective nature of all human understanding. I believe that our knowledge of the world is built entirely from our own experiences — our language, religious and philosophic views, formal and informal learning, the customs and mores of the community in which we live, etc. Prior experiences provide a frame-of-reference with which we interpret new ones. We formulate a world-view that is as internally consistent as we can make it, and tend to reject anything that fails to conform with this picture. This is not to suggest that our subjective opinions are in error, or the "relativistic" view that one person’s opinions are as good as another. To the degree your opinions differ from mine, I regard yours as wrong, but I will acknowledge the subjective nature of my preferences. I believe that our prospects for living in free, peaceful, and civilized relationships with others, depends upon a conscious awareness of the limited and subjective nature of our opinions. In the humility that arises from knowing that our understanding of the world derives from the limited nature of our experiences, we may find the basis for a tolerance of others that dissuades us from using force (i.e., Greenspan’s "political leadership") to compel their obedience to our subjective views.

It is an insistence upon epistemological certainty — wrapped in the arrogance of self-righteousness — that makes people-pushers of all persuasions an annoying and dangerous crowd. From evangelicals to secular religionists such as environmentalists, global-warmingists, drug-warriors, dietary dictators, egalitarians, and the censors who come at us from different directions with their politically-correct speech codes, we find ourselves beset by those trying to overcome their internal insecurities by insisting that their sordid opinions constitute "objective" truth. And why should we expect otherwise? If I believe that my thinking conforms to an objective reality with the same certainty found in the multiplication tables, why would I not try to alter the opinions and behavior of others to enhance the quality of their lives? But, lacking the omniscience for generating predictable outcomes, what are the likely consequences of such actions?

The question that continues to intrigue me, however, is why the rest of us are willing to accept such people as authorities over us? There was something pathetic in watching millions of otherwise intelligent men and women awaiting the pronouncements of Alan Greenspan as to whether they will enjoy a bright or dreary future. Greenspan’s role has been taken over by Mr. Bernanke, with ordinary people and politicians now hanging on every nuance of his words; or looking for facial expressions, that might carry some hidden meaning as he, too, attempts to inject certainty into an uncertain world. Society has been rendered turbulent by centuries of the Platonic belief that philosopher-kings could render the world a better place. It is time for us to give up our belief in such Olympian-wizardry, and get back to the task of cleaning up our respective corners of the turbulence in which our innocence has left us.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.

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