Let’s just put it out there: There is an optimum range for economic dynamism, diversity and complexity determined by rules. If our economic rule-sets are too complicated and cumbersome, we won’t get flourishing. There will be distortions and perversions at best. If our economic rulesets are underdeveloped or ambiguous, economic actors will not be able to regularize their behavior so as to lower transaction costs and focus on innovation. As with the laws of nature, there is a sweet spot in the set of all possible rulesets, which gives rise to maximum complexity and diversity. If we can agree that a complex, diverse economy is likely to result in concomitant opportunity and prosperity, then maybe we should turn our attention to those rules in the sweet spot that yield complexity and diversity.
One commenter thinks I may be pushing the analogy. You be the judge.
Sid and I were out walking today. We often come across the fairly large fire ant mounds. I showed my age once when I mentioned that I don't remember seeing them as a child. That's because they weren't here in North Carolina as I was growing up. But they're here now - having come from South America. And they're wicked little beasties (Sid's already had them swarm his foot twice and he's only 2.) So today, Sid and I threw rocks on them for the sake of a crude experiment.
These ants are examples of evolutionary perfection. To those who fully understand evolution, "evolutionary perfection" is a bit oxymoronic. To be alive on this planet here and now is evidence of Darwinian success. But what I mean is: to see these quick, vicious, constructive and highly cooperative ants in action? It sure is a sight to behold. I am simultaneously repulsed by them, of course. Admiration and revulsion all at once is a strange feeling. But at least now I understand E. O. Wilson's lifelong preoccupation.
Ant colonies are complex systems. That remarkable level of coordination is carried out by chemical signals firing among them rapidly. The chemicals and pheromones are like code and they are like distributed hardware nodes in a network of constructive or destructive behavior--as it benefits their colony. I see lots of good analogies with human organization, but important differences, too (agency).
In any case, I thought I'd share my reverence for these nasty little creatures with my handful of readers.
Here's an interesting post by Arnold Kling, who's commenting on a paper by Dan Klein. Basically these guys are thinking about why Progressives, Libertarians and Conservatives are disposed the way they are. Both make some really interesting points. First, because human beings are meaning-seeking creatures, progressives find meaning in the state, which symbolizes their aspirations for a kind of collective good. This is no less a cognitive shortcut than the conservatives' inclination to contract with a "spirit-lord," a term that made me chuckle. A quick, dirty and probably unfair characterization might be: leftists worship Government and conservatives worship God.
When it comes to progressives, I'd want to include some discussion about an excessively pronounced inborn guilt/envy/indignation disposition, which I call the Stone Age Trinity and that I elaborate on here. (I'll return to this in a moment...)
But Kling's post (as well as this NY Times Magazine piece by Steven Pinker) reminds me of that little bit of meta-ethics philosopher W.V.O. Quine did when he was alive. Quine said that ethics was basically a "transmutation of means to ends" and had little else to say on matters of right and wrong. He was a philosophical naturalist to be sure. And Quine thought ethical dispositions usually amounted to cultural mores that had been transmitted, via nature or nurture, from a time when the means were critical to a people's survival or flourishing. For example, the natural consequences of sex with a sibling was increased likelihood of birth defects and harm to the clan. While that taboo exists today, we can imagine scenarios in which that risk would be close to zero (birth control, prophylactics, etc.) The basic idea is that the moral value, the taboo, (or whatever) is what gets turned into the object of moral reverence or of tabooization after running the gauntlet of life and the world--often in very different contexts. They are epiphenomena of learning how to survive in the real world. But the world changes and sometimes the moralisms hang around anyway.
Back to my point about the Stone Age Trinity: On the paleolithic steppe, it made much more economic sense - i.e. was "rational" - for members of a clan to engage in reciprocal altruism, which is a fancy way of saying to share and share alike. But this only works as a rule when a group is pretty small (less than about 150) and food stuffs rot in a couple of days. As populations grew, our market economies evolved and gains from trade could be realized across greater distances, share and share alike became a rule that worked less and less well. Trade generated more prosperity. But both the evolved instinct and the cultural moralisms of sharing have hung around. None of this is to say that sharing is BAD. But government bureaucracies engaged in forced "sharing" over a population of millions just doesn't work very well for a whole host of reasons--from the government failure a la public choice theory to concerns about competing values like individual liberty. While the instinct of sharing may be satisfied by sanctimony in the opinion pages or voting booth, it works better closer to home and community. Knowledge is local. And so, frankly, are the folks tethered to one's heart. But the means of surviving on the paleolithic steppe have been "transmuted" into a political end. That's why politics will not be without struggle for a very long time. And that's why I find it interesting that "social justice" is little more than cave man instincts with fancy verbiage woven around it.
In any case, these are just a couple points of confusion I'd toss into the mix as we try to unpack why people think the way they do politically.
(Addendum: Not to be too harsh, but one of the less interesting (but popular) theories about political disposition - from a couple of leftists - is summed up here. Weiler and Hetherington purport to measure and aggregate the degree to which people are "authoritarian"--which is an unfortunate and inapt term for one's propensity to be stark, simple-minded and Manichean (i.e. seeing the world in black and white or good and evil). They then compare the authoritarian scores to party affiliations and conclude that a) the country is more stratified today than it was a couple of decades ago and b) Republicans are way more "authoritarian". I'll leave this mostly for the reader to consider. But I'd say there are much richer theories out there about political dispositions than one that views the political landscape through such a monochrome filter as relative "authoritarian-ness". For two guys who claim to be on the Blue Team of Nuance, they seem pretty darned reductionist to me. (Social science as scientism rears its head again.))
Okay, some Facebook friends and
family are interested in some really dorky thoughts I’d had in the tub one
night. Those who know me well know I am an atheist. And in one of those offhand
Facebook comments, I dropped that I had inched toward agnosticism due to said
dorky thoughts. The following is my quick and dirty write-up of the idea. Keep
in mind that my fidelity (faithfulness!) to physicalism remains throughout. I
rely on what I take to be theoretical possibility within a naturalist worldview
and accept no supernaturalism. Anyway, here goes…
Anyway, this is the dorky, bathtub thought-process that nudged me towards agnosticism and away from athiesm (but only very, very slightly). There is just so much speculative stuff in here, I admit. But I really appreciate being able to share these nerdy, errant notions with friends and family. You’re all very tolerant, indeed. If you got this far, I owe you a beer and I promise not to mention any of this again. J
Consider this passage on the ideas of Per Bak, one of the original thinkers on complex systems:
Bak uses a metaphor and the concept of long-term equilibrium to describe how traditional economists model economics. In this metaphor, economic flow and the economic agents are compared with water and reservoirs, respectively. The economic flow then will correspond to water flowing continuously and linearly through the reservoirs in such a manner that all reservoirs obtain the best value they can (with accumulation of water corresponding to economic satisfaction) - achieving some sort of stability equivalent to Nash equilibrium.
He rejects this traditional view, considering it simplistic, and presents his idea that the dynamics of economic flows is more like the dynamics observed in (and in his models of) sand piles, as changes are not linear and continuous but rather non-linear and discrete. The forces which each individual agent (grain) exercises over the others plays and important role in the dynamics of the system. He considers that there is friction in the economic flow and that agents are not perfectly rational. He believes that friction prevents (long-term) equilibrium from being reached and that fluctuations in economics are of a different nature than those notions the traditional economists propose. He refers to empirical data to support his suggestion that economic systems would be better modelled as critically self-organised systems. For example, he discusses results obtained by Benoit Mandelbrot, in which the percentage of monthly variation in the price of cotton versus the number of occurrences of such percentages over several months follows a power law distribution.
Bak also hypothesises that the dynamics of an economic system should be somewhat similar to that shown by the evolution model described above, where agents (consumers, producers, traders, thieves) interact with each other in accordance with the set of options they have, exploiting such options in order to increase their 'happiness'. These ideas depict a co-evolution model where the more successful agents will survive while the least fitted ones will not or will be forced to mutate by changing their strategy.
I'll leave you, Dear Reader, to decide how far non-linear dynamics go in describing the current "crisis," which is used, of course, by politicians to gum up the works and blame markets. If you believe that a point of self-organized criticality can be reached in certain economic phenomena, you might also agree that government can be (and in this case probabiy is) a factor in our recent economic avalanche. The market itself might also be culpable, but due to natural dynamics, not greed (I argue something similar here). The good news is, self-organizing systems tend back toward longer term equilibrium (as opposed to classical equilibrium or steady state). The bad news is the government is filled with dummies and fixers who have no clue about these dynamics.
This article by Charles Murray has been making the rounds for a couple of weeks now. Let me say, with all of the caveats, that government has no responsibility whatsoever to engineer "family values," whether that be through subsidy via the tax code, or prohibitions on gay marriage (nuptial prohibitions or prescriptions which should be left to churches, anyway. Conversation for another day).
However, I do think that government policy should not be designed to socially engineer politically correct alternatives to the traditional family, either. Family structures should be left to the "market," by which I mean you and me. In any case, here's an interesting passage from Murray that I think deserves some reflection:
The second bedrock premise of the social democratic agenda is what I call the New Man premise, borrowing the old Communist claim that it would create a “New Man” by remaking human nature. This premise says that human beings are malleable through the right government interventions.
The second tendency of the new findings of biology will be to show that the New Man premise is nonsense. Human nature tightly constrains what is politically or culturally possible. More than that, the new findings will broadly confirm that human beings are pretty much the way that wise human observers have thought for thousands of years, and that is going to be wonderful news for those of us who are already basing our policy analyses on that assumption.
The effects on the policy debate are going to be sweeping. Let me give you a specific example. For many years, I have been among those who argue that the growth in births to unmarried women has been a social catastrophe—the single most important driving force behind the growth of the underclass. But while I and other scholars have been able to prove that other family structures have not worked as well as the traditional family, I cannot prove that alternatives could not work as well, and so the social democrats keep coming up with the next new ingenious program that will compensate for the absence of fathers.
Over the next few decades, advances in evolutionary psychology are going to be conjoined with advances in genetic understanding and they will lead to a scientific consensus that goes something like this: There are genetic reasons, rooted in the mechanisms of human evolution, that little boys who grow up in neighborhoods without married fathers tend to reach adolescence unsocialized to norms of behavior that they will need to stay out of prison and hold jobs. These same reasons explain why child abuse is, and always will be, concentrated among family structures in which the live-in male is not the married biological father. And these same reasons explain why society’s attempts to compensate for the lack of married biological fathers don’t work and will never work.
Indeed. Our genes care neither about how we vote or how we think the world ought to look in some abstract aesthetic (utopian) sense. Such is not to say that Crick or Darwin offers some normative guidance when it comes to family structures, policy or anything else. Our genes merely give us grains against which we can go, or not. Pragmatism, not prescription, is one big reason why we need to get government out of social engineering -- left- or right-wing versions.
In any case, the whole article is worth reading. I also liked the bit about government crowding out civil society and family structure with social programs. All good stuff. For more along these lines, I highly recommend Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate.
This weekend at the Conference of the American Dream Coalition (fantastic conference on urban planning and transportation), I gave a brief and tidy version of this paper:
... which I wrote originally for the Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders Conference (on Spontaneous Order). Anyone interested in complex systems, economics and needs some bathroom reading, please feel free to download and print.