Unstable Stabilities and Stable Instabilities in Government and Economy

The only stable political or economic systems are unstable ones. Conversely, the most unstable political and economic systems are those designed to be most stable. A paradox? Only if we accept a view of the world wherein order begets order, and disorder begets disorder -– a linear, rationalist, Newtonian world since disproved by complexity theory.

Complexity theory shows that growing systems are nonlinear systems that exist on the borderlands between order and disorder. Complete order –- and complete disorder –- are both definitions of being dead. A salt crystal is an example of complete order –- a gas in a closed container at a constant temperature and pressure is an example of complete disorder. Living things exist on the edge of order and disorder, the realm of chaos, wherein lies the principle of growth. Living things are systems, and systems have order and disorder –- the heart is a system (that makes up part of the circulatory system, which makes up part of the organismal system) that can have neither completely orderly beats, nor completely random beats, but must have beats that are mostly orderly, with some disorder, which means the beats are fractal. Cell membranes are orderly and disorderly -– they are liquid crystals, fluid yet solid, as the proteins and phospholipids slip past each other. All living things live on the principle of growth, live in the realm of order and disorder, live lives far from equilibrium.

If the principle of growth and stability for life is in the nonlinear, far-from-equilibrium realm between order and disorder, this would also be the principle of growth and stability for systems of living things as well, including superorganismal systems such as ecosystems, economies, and governments. Indeed, studies of ecosystems show they are not stable –- at some sort of equilibrium –- but are in fact always in flux, always changing, in time. And the way they change follow power laws – with many small changes, a few medium-sized changes, and very few large changes, as we see in avalanches of sand when we pile sand up one grain at a time. They are systems that are far-from-equilibrium, always growing, in a state of orderly disorder – disorderly order. If something were to happen to make any given ecosystem stop changing – which is to say, stop growing – that ecosystem would die off. Ecosystems are stable only so long as they are constantly in flux, constantly changing. Thus, they cease being the ecosystem they are within the next moment, forever changing –- deserts move in and recede, forests expand and recede, grasslands too expand and recede. Meandering rivers cut off oxbow lakes where new kinds of fish evolve -– to be introduced to the river when the meandering river merges again with the oxbow lake. There the new fish compete with the other fish in the river, pushing some to evolve, others to go extinct, others into other habitats. They change as the river changes, flowing into new species with the flow of time and the flow of the very river in which they live.

A stable government is thus an unstable government. Any government that constantly changes -– every two or four or six years, in towns, counties, states, and nations -– is a government that is stabilized by this instability. Who is in charge in such a government as that found in the United States?

The President, who is there four or eight years at most?

The Congress, made up of two Houses in conflict with each other, whose members could be there only two or six years, but who may be there any number of years from two years to two decades?

The Court system, which can overturn even what these two branches of government pass?

Or how about the states, which are given (according to the Constitution, even if this is not true in practice anymore) all the power not explicitly given to the federal government?

Or is it the people, who elect and defeat people who run for office at the town/city, county, state, and federal levels?

All of them, and none.

The system is kept destabilized by the very process of election -– stabilized by varying degrees of continuity (two and four and six or more years, as the case may be). There are power laws of continuity that prevent power from existing in one set of hands for long, if at all. The most stable political systems are indeed those based on the principles of power laws –- many people have most of the power and have the most cumulative effect, middle-sized entities have less power and less cumulative effect, and the federal government has the least power of all, and the least effect on us.

Do you not like what the President does? He is gone in four years (if he is too bad, in less, with impeachment). Do you like him too much? Too bad – we cannot reelect him more than once. We have prevented ourselves from electing our own dictators. And if the President tries to take on too much, to take too much power, the Congress will block him, refuse to pass what he wants. And if the Congress tries to take on too much, to take too much power, the President will veto them. And if they both agree to too much, the Supreme Court can refuse to let it remain law. We have them fight each other, trying to take power from each other, so they cannot harm the people, who prosper and grow. But the people only prosper and grow so long as the government is in a state of stable instability – as is found in republican (not democratic, where the power is placed in the hands of one group – and we get the tyranny of the majority) governments. Stable governments are based on power law distributions of power.

Stable governments create instability –- dictators create instability in their own countries, among their own people, let alone among the peoples in other countries. Often this is done precisely to create the stability inherently missing in dictatorial governments. Whether the dictator is ideological or nonideological, the results are the same –- they try to prevent change (change means a change from their rule, after all), which stagnates, creating equilibrium – which is to say, death. We have seen the cultures of death, the governments of death, in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, in the series of dictators in the Soviet Union, in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, in Pinochet’s Chile (though there is something to recommend in his economic policies), in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in the dictatorship of minority rule in South Africa during Apartheid, and in and with the various kings and queens throughout history. They attempt to override and overcome natural power laws through the use of force -– many large avalanches are created through the use of a smashing fist. The democratic republics of the West and increasingly throughout the rest of the world have not always had the cleanest of hands –- but those hands were only spotted with blood compared to other times and other countries where dictatorships (no matter what the name) ruled, when rulers’ hands dripped with blood. While France, for example, has not had the best of reputations in the twentieth century in its former colonies, especially as they pulled out of them, at least the French people have been safe from the French government –- something that was not the case under their kings, the government of the Terror, or under Napoleon. Only as France has become more and more politically destabilized in their having now a representative government –- and are even more destabilized by becoming part of the European Union –- has France become safe for the French people. Thus has France become increasingly stable.

Economies too work on the same principle as ecosystems and government –- the connection between economy and ecosystem should be readily apparent in the common root of the two words. Economies that are designed to be stable –- the planned economies of socialist and communist governments, and even the over-regulated economies under interventionism and Keynesianism –- are themselves highly unstable.

Socialist countries around the world had and have high levels of unemployment.

Communist countries starved their citizens because they could not produce enough food, or properly distribute it –- during the 1980’s the Soviet Union had to spend 25% of its GDP on the military to keep up with the Unites States spending only 2% of its GDP on the military.

Welfare states slow economic growth in order to support the unemployed – those made unemployed by the slow growth created by the welfare state.

Subsidies keep unprofitable businesses around at the expense of the profitable businesses – Britain famously subsidized looms when the textile industry became automated, keeping unprofitable looms around at the expense of the textile industries, which could have caused the economy to boom even more than it did, absorbing all of those temporarily displaced by the economic changes (and those who are displaced by change are always only temporarily displaced, for the growing economy rapidly takes them in).

Every instance of a government anywhere trying to control the country’s economy has resulted in at best slow growth, at worst starvation and complete economic collapse. Any attempt to make an economy remain at equilibrium has had the same result: death.

The principles of a growing economy are the same as the principles of growth of ecosystems, organisms, and everything else in the universe –- the economy must be on the edge of order and disorder, in the far-from-equilibrium state where growth occurs. Growth must be based on power law distributions. The economy must be allowed to be unstable so that it may be stable –- stable enough to grow and adapt and change over time. It must have the rules of voluntary cooperation for it to have life (the imposition of force – which is what governments do –- brings entropy-as-equilibrium to the system, making it act no longer as a system), for it to grow and to produce and reproduce, to create, recreate, and procreate –- for these are the elements of growth.

Economies, like ecosystems and organisms, must be heterarchies –- both hierarchical and decentralized, full of nonlinear feedback loops. No one can control an economy any more than any one cell controls an organism (and, when one cell tries to take over an organism, it is called cancer – which results in the death of the organism). Even the brain dies without a working heart or liver. Yet, there is a hierarchy at work to create a living organism. The same is true too of economies –- which are constituted not only of individuals, but, in a power law distribution, of families making decisions together, and each church making decisions as a church, communities making decisions as communities, companies and corporations making decisions as companies and corporations, and even governments making decisions as governments (though it is best when their decisions are to remain out of the economy as much as possible, since they are more apt to try to control it than participate in it –- the only possible exceptions being doing things like building roads, which are more difficult to do privately, though one should note how, in a power law distribution, it is local governments that build and maintain more roads than do state governments, which build and maintain more roads than does the federal government, and which should all be done using only the “user fee” known as gasoline taxes, which I would argue should also only be used for roads).

In such an economy, it is not the individual, the family, or the various groups and entities that are in charge of the economy –- in fact, no one is in charge, or even for the most part has much of an effect on the economy as a whole, any more than does any individual member of Congress. Yet each individual and entity is necessary –- and an individual or entity can have a large influence on the economy, with the introduction of a new technology, etc. Two bicycle mechanics had a massive influence on the world’s economy when they invented the airplane –- yet think too of all the other bicycle mechanics who simply repaired bicycles, making tiny contributions to the economy that were, as part of the accumulation of economic activity, important, but only minimally important. But such innovations by bicycle mechanics could not be planned or directed by central command –- they arose because they were part of a system that, because it existed at a far-from-equilibrium state, could be influenced by butterfly effects. Only in such an economy could a pair of butterflies like the Wright brothers truly take flight.

If we want to truly have stable governments, societies, and economies, we have to have governments, societies, and economies that are inherently unstable, far-from-equilibrium, on the edge of order and disorder, wherein lies the principle of growth. For it is growth –- and growth itself is imbedded in time, and changes and evolves – that is the source of stability in the world. A growing organism is most stable, healthiest, most adaptable. The same is true of ecosystems, economies, and societies. When an organism, an ecosystem, an economy, or a society stops growing, it becomes unstable, unhealthy, and may even die. We know what the principle of growth now is – a growing system is a far-from-equilibrium system on the borderlands of order and disorder – meaning, we now know what we must do to have a growing economy and a stable government wherein the people are safe from that government, other governments, and even those citizens which wish to do others harm. Only to the extent than an economy and a government are both hierarchical and decentralized, and constantly changing in such a way that stability is created (by good rules, not by either ironclad laws or anarchy), can they lead to safe and prosperous societies and citizens.

Advertisements

Interdisciplinary Education for an Interdisciplinary World

Part of the problem with education is students do not know what relevance many topics they study have for them.

I remember throughout grade and high school that I thought math to be utterly unimportant and irrelevant to anything I was ever going to do. And throughout most of my early years I had wanted to be a scientist. How could teachers have allowed me to think that math was not important? I did not really learn math was important until I took chemistry in high school. It was only then that I truly understood fractions for the first time.

And, even though I loved to read, I thought literature pointless (it did not help that in high schools they seem to go out of their way to find the most boring literature available –- I learned how wonderful literature was in college, when we were made to read books and stories that were actually interesting). Literature had nothing to do with biology, after all, and that was what I was going to go into. This attitude is not unique to me or to high school –- it prevails in most students, and through college.

It was only later, after I had decided to pursue literature and especially after I started working on my Ph.D. that I began to see how interconnected everything was. For my dissertation, I was able to use my biology (after all, I wrote a dissertation titled Evolutionary Aesthetics), and I further discovered that it would have been a much, much, much better dissertation if I had known a great deal more math (fractal geometry and statistics in particular) and had learned to program (I actually needed to learn how to program much, much earlier than my Ph.D. dissertation, for my first attempt at grad school, but after I dropped out of my Master’s in biology, I didn’t think I needed to learn the programming I had needed to learn to finish my Master’s thesis–wrong again!).

I learned as I progressed through grad school that I actually needed many more tools from many more disciplines to do the work I wanted to do. For my dissertation, I needed to know social psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, economics, linguistics, neurobiology, molecular biology, mathematics, chaos theory and fractal geometry, programming, literature, and philosophy. And I didn’t know the math or programming I needed. I found a programmer, fortunately, but even then it would have been much better if I could have done it, and I couldn’t do the math I needed to do certain analyses to more definitively prove my thesis.

The disciplinary approach to teaching is breaking down. Students are siphoned into what they enjoy, and these same students then ignore everything else, complaining about anything that intrudes on the one thing they want to learn. This kind of hyper-specialized education is fine if all you want to produce is worker bees. But if you want creative thinkers, those who can come up with new things –- the kind of people who will make more wealth and produce more value in and for the world –- then disciplinary-only educations will not work.

What we need is a truly interdisciplinary education. We need interdisciplinary thinking, interdisciplinary classes, and interdisciplinary education. Only an interdisciplinary education will allow students to see how disciplines are interrelated. Only an interdisciplinary education will create interdisciplinary thinkers who can create more value in and for the world. We need chemists who love Bach, biologists who love Goethe, businessmen who love Aristotle. We need philosophers who love biology and business and artists who love physics and economics. Only with an interdisciplinary education will we have people who think this way, across the disciplines, through the disciplines, complexifying their thought so new things can be thought. What would the world be like if our politicians actually knew and understood the economics of Ludwig von Mises, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the plays of Sophocles, the linguistics of Chomsky and Pinker, the novels of Kafka, chaos theory, systems theory, evolutionary theory, the poetry of William Blake, and ancient Greek history? Could interdisciplinary thinking finally give the country great statesmen instead of demagogues? Could an interdisciplinary education create more ethical businessmen, since they would understand that there is not a conflict between ethical action and profit? Imagine a businessman who knew the value of a dollar, of his workers, and of a van Gogh. Imagine what an interdisciplinary education would do for teachers. Wouldn’t it make them – teachers? How can teachers teach when they know nothing? Teachers more than anyone should be interdisciplinary. They should know and understand the reason for having an interdisciplinary education, to understand and know the connections between the disciplines, and be able to help their students understand the importance of all the disciplines for understanding any one of the disciplines.

What is interdisciplinarity? It is not multidisciplinarity, where we have just a hodgepodge. It is not having students doing writing exercises in math class, or quadratic equations in literature class. That does not show students how the disciplines are interrelated. To have an interdisciplinary education, students need to know the value of each of the disciplines, how they relate to each other, the history of the disciplines. Students do not know how modern science arose out of natural philosophy and religion. Misunderstandings of ideas such as entropy make people reject evolution on the argument that more complexity could not arise in an entropic universe, where everything is becoming more random (this is, incidentally, not quite what entropy is about). We need to teach students about systems and complexity and information, so they can see how all disciplines relate to one another. This will give students an interdisciplinary education. And they will need an interdisciplinary education if they want to have an edge in this increasingly interdisciplinary world.

Five Models for Thinking

In the Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates say that he likes dividing things up into categories because it aides in thinking. He also tells us that, like a good butcher, we need to make sure we are making the cuts at the natural joints; otherwise, we just make a mess of things. Nietzsche came along 2300 years later to remind us that conceptual categories are, ultimately, artificial, and that we need to challenge them periodically, and remember that the divisions among things are not really so clear-cut.

That having been said, let me lay out several models I am using that determine my thinking.

1) Information Theory. I support an ontology of information. If something is inform, it has no form. If something informs, it gives form. Thus, information is that which is without form, yet gives form. All things in the universe are information, and the universe itself began as information and continues to exist as information.

2) Chaos Theory, Bios Theory, Constructal Theory and Fractal Geometry. All things in the universe are self-similar regardless of scale, in several different fractal geometries. They exhibit order and disorder simultaneously around strange attractors. Bios theory is similar to chaos theory, but explains creativity in the universe as a product of bipolar feedback (simultaneous negative and positive feedback)–that is, it explains how systems find new strange attractors.

3) Self-Organization and Spontaneous Order. When objects can interact, they will, and when they do, they will give rise to order spontaneously. That order can range from the simple order of a salt crystal to the complex liquid crystal order of a living cell. Complex order requires an understanding of network theory as well.

4) Emergence. All laws of the universe evolved from separate entities interacting to give rise to those laws. These laws act as strange attractors. The result is a new entity the properties of which cannot be predicts from the underlying interactions.

5) Nested Hierarchies. Everything in the universe evolved into its level of complexity from lower levels of complexity. Biology evolved from chemistry which evolved from quantum physics (atoms), and atoms evolved from quantum strings. New levels of complexity arise naturally from lower levels of complexity as the entities of that lower level interact as a complex, dynamic system.

The idea of nested hierarchies comes in several flavors:

1) The physical model exemplified by J.T. Fraser‘s umwelt theory of time. With his model, the timeless level of pure chaos evolved into the probablistic time of quantum physics, whihc evolved into the deterministic time of chemistry (Newtonian physics), which evolved into the weakly forward direction of biotemporality (biological time), which evolved into the strongly forward direction of nootemporality (human time). Each level contains more and more time. And, I would argue, each new level becomes increasingly fractal in nature.

2) The human cognitive and social model developed by Clare Graves. With his model, the pure survialism of animal life evolved into the weak communitarian structures of tribalism, which evolved into the weak individualism of Achilles-type heroism/belief in power gods, which evolved into the stronger communitarianism of authoritarian-religious systems (like Medieval Christianity of modern-day Islam), which evolved into the stronger individualism of the capitalist/scientific social system (the Modern Era in Europe and America), which evolved into the stronger communitarianism of secular egalitarianism (Marxism/Communism, environmentalism, postmodernism), which evolved into integralism, which recognizes the value of each of the lower levels (lower in the sense of being less complex, as each level is more complex than the lower levels), which evolved into holism, which attempts to more smoothly unify all the lower levels. The last two levels recognize the value of complex, fluid, nested hierarchies, as opposed to the egalitarian level, which rejects all hierarchies, and the authoritarian level, which tries to impose rigid hierarchies on everyone.

To have an even more integrationist way of thinking, we cannot forget these four things: I-we-it-its : individualism-communitarianism-traditional science-systems science. And these must be fully integrated into the two forms of nested hierarchy mentioned above (as those two ideas must themselves be integrated).

These are a few of the models with which I am thinking. Actually, these are really just a single model with which I’m thinking. The model itself exhibits all the qualities listed above. You will also find useful elements of my thinking in catastrophe theory (due to its relation to emergence), and the ideas of both negative and positive feedback (and the bipolar feedback of Bios theory, of course). Negative feedback is equilibrium thinking, but positive feedback results in waves such as boom-bust cycle and the cycles described by cliodynamics. And be sure to read up on complexity as well. Knowing what models I’m using should help to make sense of much of what I have said and will say from now on in the blog.

Christmas Reading/Shopping List

I was recently asked for a complexity sciences reading list. These are the books that have had the most significant effect on my own thinking.

  1. Adams, Fred. Origins of Existence
  2. Argyros, Alexander. A Blessed Rage For Order
  3. Beck, Don and Christopher Cowan. Spiral Dynamics
  4. Bertalanffy, Ludwig von. General System Theory
  5. Boulding, Kenneth E. The World as a Total System
  6. Campbell, Jeremy. Grammatical Man
  7. Casti, John. Complexification
  8. Chaisson, Eric. Epic of Evolution. New York: Columbia University Press. 2006
  9. DePryck, Koen. Knowledge, Evolution, and Paradox
  10. Fraser, J. T. Time, Conflict, and Human Values
  11. Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science
  12. Hayek F. A. Individualism and Economic Order
  13. Holland, John. H. Hidden Order
  14. Kauffman, Stuart. At Home in the Universe
  15. Kauffman, Stuart Investigations
  16. Kauffman, Stuart The Origins of Order
  17. Kauffman, Stuart. Reinventing the Sacred
  18. Kessler, M. A. and B. T. Werner. “Self-Organization of Sorted Patterned Ground” Science 17 January 2003
  19. Laughlin, Robert B. A Different Universe
  20. Lovelock, James. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth
  21. Mandelbrot, Benoit B. The Fractal Geometry of Nature
  22. Prigogine, Ilya. The End of Certainty
  23. Prigogine, Ilya. From Being to Becoming
  24. Prigogine, Ilya & Isabelle Stengers. Order Out of Chaos
  25. Ridley, Matt. The Evolution of Everything
  26. Sabelli, Héctor. Bios
  27. Turner, Frederick. Beauty
  28. Turner, Frederick. The Culture of Hope
  29. Turner, Frederick. Epic: Form, Content, and History
  30. Turner, Frederick. Natural Classicism
  31. Turner, Frederick. Natural Religion
  32. Waldrop, M. Mitchell. Complexity
  33. Wilson, E. O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
  34. Wolfram, Stephen. A New Kind of Science
  35. Wright, Robert. Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

These 35 books by 26 authors hardly exhaust the books I’ve read on complexity and related theories (information theory, game theory, chaos, self-organization, network theory, etc.), nor does it exhaust the major influences on the evolution of my thinking (an overlapping, but different list). I could also make lists of great books about time, about beauty, and about the brain. Perhaps I will, if people are interested.

While I strongly recommend all of these books, I most strongly recommend Fred Adams’ Origins of Existence for its description of how entropy creates asteroids; Robert Wright’s Nonzero for its challenge of how you regularly think; Beck and Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics for its model of psychosocial evolution that maps very well on J.T. Fraser’s umwelt theory of time as he developed in all his books, and which is adapted with modification by Frederick Turner and Alex Argyros. And read about the self-organizing rocks in Antarctica. It’s a great visual of self-organization at a macro-level.