Government and Power Laws

The United States government was created out of a brilliant compromise. The founders took advantage of factions in and among the states, and used them to create a (mostly)  stable, peaceful system. The small states were concerned that the larger states, with larger populations, would take advantage of the smaller states –- so a Senate was created, wherein minorities had complete equality with majorities. The larger states, however, justly thought that majorities should rule in a democracy –- so a House of Representatives that represented population percentages was created. The electoral college –- a brilliant development that is poorly understood or appreciated –- was created to ensure that, with the election of Senators, the states would be the ones represented (we made a grave error in allowing for the direct election of Senators in the early part of the 20th Century, as it made the Federal government less federal, and more national), and with the election of the President, the smaller states would again be more fairly represented. The tenth amendment to the Constitution also made it clear that any powers not given explicitly to the federal government by the Constitution would fall to the states and to the individual citizens, respectively.

The government of the United States was further divided up among the states, which were to have more effect on the lives of the citizens than the federal government. The benefit of having stronger state governments was that each state could set up its own rules, and the citizens of that state could then choose to live in the state that most suited them. The states were further divided up into counties, and into town and city governments. There was a hierarchy of political power, with those governments closest to the people having the most power, and those farthest away having the least. Those with the most power would be the individuals, and whatever organizations they volunteered to join. The founding fathers of the United States stumbled upon the concept of power laws centuries before they were formulated in contemporary chaos theory.

What are power laws? Imagine that you are piling up sand one grain at a time. With the addition of each grain, there will be some stability, but quite often there will be avalanches. The vast majority of avalanches will be small ones –- one-grain avalanches. Many will be just a few grains. There will be fewer small avalanches, fewer still medium-sized avalanches, and only very rarely will there be very large ones, with an entire side of the sand pile collapsing.

As it turns out, there are many things which obey power laws –- all of them systems of some sort. Extinctions follow power laws –- there are many single-species extinctions, a few extinctions that take out several interrelated species, fewer that take out many species, and the rarest of all: mass extinctions. The same is true if we look at the economy. We have many small businesses, fewer medium-sized businesses, and fewest megacorporations. The lifetimes of corporations in an economy also follow power laws: many last only a short time, some last decades, very few last generations.

The United States government too was set up to follow power laws. The individuals have the most power, and have the most effect on their own lives; families too have power, but less overall than individuals (though they affect the place and position of those individuals); voluntary organizations, such as churches, have less power and effect; city governments have less still; county governments even less; state governments less than even county governments; and finally, the federal government was designed to have the least effect of all, with the Senate and the House of Representatives designed to be fighting all the time with each other, so they could not get much done (during the Presidency of George W. Bush, they were getting along altogether too well –- though we got a glimpse of the founders’ intentions when Presidents Clinton and Obama had to govern with a Republican Congress, during which time, very little was accomplished, and we also incidentally had some of the strongest economic growth in American history).

So it seems the government of the United States of America was set up according to the laws that govern nature –- particularly the growth of complex systems in nature. That is the very reason of its success. So why is it that, when the United States goes about helping countries set up new governments, that we do not encourage them to have a system similar to our own government?

Take the situation in Iraq. And let’s ignore for a moment whether or not the U.S. should have been there or engaged in nation-building in the first place. Given that nation-building was going to take place, it could have been a perfect place for an American-style government. There are several factions we wanted to get along. These sections –- the Kurds, the Arab Sunnis, and the Shi’ites –- could have been  divided up into equal sections –- perhaps five each. These would then be different-sized states, which could elect two senators each. That way they would have thirty senators, and each of the groups would have equal representation, without any group having more power than the other. The minorities would be protected. However, we don’t want a tyranny of the minority any more than we want a tyranny of the majority (the danger inherent in true democracies). So those states would also be subdivided according to population –- so that there would be a House of Representatives. This would allow for majority representation. Thus, there would be two houses of Congress, designed to protect the majority from the minority, and the minority from the majority. If we did this, we could have an executive branch similar to ours, wherein the President has very little actual power, and also a strong judicial branch to balance them all out. Further, each group would also get autonomy within their states, which should have more power overall than the federal government.

The key is to take advantage of the factions in the country, so that they work together to make the country safe and strong. And each state could set itself up slightly differently from the other states. Shi’ites who wanted stronger religious influence on them from government could live in the state that set itself up that way. Shi’ites who were more liberal, could live in the more liberal state. And the Sunnis and the Shi’ites could live in peace, separately together, as would the Arabs and the Kurds. This system would have worked best precisely because it takes advantage of factions. Parliamentary systems rely too much on coalition-building, and as such cannot work as well in a situation such as we find in Iraq. As we have mostly discovered.

There is another place that could take advantage of such a form of government, and it is Afghanistan. In fact, in any country in the world where there are battling factions, this form of government would work best. It would work best because it is precisely the form of government that most accurately matches the way the world itself works, the way nature solves internal tensions — according to power laws. Thus, it is in fact the most natural form of government. So why do we not encourage other governments to set up governments similar to ours? Perhaps we have been reading too many philosophers in the Franco-German tradition, and have forgotten about the Scottish philosophers, who our founding fathers were reading.

We should be reading less Marx, Heidegger, and Derrida, and reading more Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith. The former seek to make everyone the same; the latter realize we are not all the same, and seek to take advantage of that to create better forms of government. The former think if we can just get everyone to love one another in brotherhood, everything will be fine; the latter realize you can’t get everyone to love one another, but you can set up a system wherein those factions learn to get along, because it is to the advantage of each individual to do so. And now we not only have Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith, but we also have the new science of chaos theory and power laws to back them up.

The U.S. has weakened as it has moved away from the natural system set up by our founding fathers. Power has centralized more and more in Washington — and this was aided in no small part by the direct election of Senators (which distributed power down from the states). It is no coincidence that as power was distributed down that it was also distributed up, creating an increasingly dualistic form of government rather than a complex one. This dualism has resulted in an increasingly dualistic politics, with ever-deepening divisions — not of ideology, but simply of tribal loyalties, since there is practically no difference between Republicans and Democrats in what they actually do when in power. This is deeply destabilizing. And we are starting to reap the consequences.

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