Monday, October 1, 2012

My Path From Port To Starboard: It's Complicated

So, what business does an agnostic, non-affluent, socially-liberal, post-graduate-educated, Northeast city-born, suburban-dwelling bloke (technically a Minority, to boot) like myself have in calling himself any kind of "Conservative?"

This is a question to which regular readers of these pages (all three of them!) know I have bent my thoughts for a number of years now. After all, in the Summer of 2004, I still defined myself as someone who believed that it was the government's responsibility to engineer society such that the needs of its citizens could never go unmet. Further, I believed that the national nature of that project was a mere stepping-stone toward the time when Westphalian nation-state borders would all-but vanish, and a new World Government would create a seamless, just, and intelligently-designed global community. Even now, the ideas still have appeal.

It is understandable that some might perceive a deep irony in the fact that, having undergone such profound change, I should now subscribe to a domain of thought which is often dismissed as being merely the resistance to change. Further, it is just as understandable that a similar irony could be found in a non-theist aligning himself with a political philosophy which has become so enmeshed with hard theism. Finally, some may see a contradiction in the fact that, as someone who works in a helping profession (Clinical Psychology), I should have thrown in with those who are perceived as being all-too ready to throw the weak to the wolves.

As ever, the reconciliation of apparent paradoxes lies beyond the edges of the screens onto which they're projected.

Uncharacteristically cutting to the chase: I am a conservative because I am a Complex Systems thinker (link, by the way, is to a SPECTACULARLY useful site for the layman to get up to speed on these theories).

As a student of complex, non-linear, edge-of-chaos phenomena, I have learned to look with deep humility on our capacity to characterize --let alone control-- complex, open, evolving systems. From ecosystems to economies (but I repeat myself), nature finds a way to flow like water into spaces that are un-dreamed-of in our philosophies. Flocks of birds self-organize into fantastically elaborate patterns as they swirl through the sky. There is profound meaning to be found in the the fact that they do so without the aid of any rules more complicated than "keep a certain distance from adjoining birds, steer around obstacles, and travel along basically the same path as your fellow-flockers." The pattern is an emergent property of these simple, strictly local rule-sets.

This quality of emergence is apparent throughout nature. Traffic patterns arise from local interactions on the level of individual cars...yet they can achieve complex forms which span miles of roads, reacting to (and anticipating) assorted perturbations as though they were subject to some superordinate intelligence. But they're not. Molecules of oil in a shallow dish can align themselves into a regular lattice of hexagonal columns of fluid  (BĂ©nard cells) when heated. It almost looks like these molecules are executing a pregiven program. But they're not.  Populations of cells act in concert to form and maintain the function of an organism, and those organisms arrange themselves into cooperating and competing biomes and ecosystems, all as though they were cogs in a fantastically-designed clockwork. But they're not.

These collective behaviors arise from the interactions of local agents, whose activities are regulated at a dynamic cascade of system levels...but with nary a Central Planning Authority to be found. Indeed, I have come to see that the most brittle, least adaptive systems are those which are organized around a strictly "top-down," hierarchical architecture of energy and information. A brain (a self-organizing system) can suffer grievous damage, and yet still  regain substantial portions of its previous function by routing around the damage...whereas a computer can grind to a catastrophic crash, owing to a misplaced comma in thousands of lines of code (usually the night before an important presentation is due!).

You see where this is going.

As I said (and meant), the ideas from my Transnational Progressive days still have much appeal. I like the idea that society can be designed in such a way that it can remain viable, yet responsive to the needs of all its citizens. I like the idea that smart people can apply those smarts to engineering a setting in which all people can be positioned --well-fed and educated and healthy-- to thrive and create and live well. What kind of person wouldn't?

The trouble is that those smart people would have to have access to the kind of comprehensive information which the universe simply does not provide, when it comes to the structure and function of complex systems. There is a hard complexity barrier between the unfolding of such systems, and the algorithms we might devise to describe and predict (again, let alone control) that unfolding. As such, all attempts at planning and administering a system as complex as a society and an economy will result in a GARGANTUAN bureaucracy, cobbling together policy after policy, growing and accruing more and more system energy (or, if you prefer, power) to manage the cascade of unintended consequences which it will spawn like metastases as it frantically strives to put even the very noblest of intentions into practice. It happened in the Soviet Union. It's happening in the Euro Zone. I have come (reluctantly!) to the position that it will happen wherever Central Planning is tried.

F. A.  Hayek --pre-dating Complexity Theory by decades-- wrote that it is the Smithian, "Invisible Hand" of myriad individual choice-making agents which enables an economy flexibly to assign value to goods and services, and to enable the most efficient flow of energy/capital through that economy. He wrote (during the days leading up to and closely following WW2, when many of these ideas stood in VERY high relief) that efforts to plan and manage the operation of an economy were subject to insuperable obstacles, owing to the invariably imperfect knowledge to which the Planners would have access. (and, since it seems I can't go a full month without linking to this bit of brilliance, here's another way to discuss this). It was his thesis that a mechanism which would assume such a level of control over what is essentially an evolving system will lead it to steal more and more energy from that system, till it becomes self-perpetuating and parasitical. He posited (again, not in a vacuum) that both economic dynamism and liberty would erode under such conditions.

Now, of course a "purely" non-interventionist government (if such a beast could ever be said to have existed on this planet) would not be a tolerable scenario. There are aspects of human welfare which simply must be placed behind a judiciously-applied set of firewalls, if a society is to be a just one. However, the Social-Darwinist view of free-market capitalism which is so often set up as a straw man by advocates of Planning is by no means a necessary correlate of the thing. The difference, if you will, is in viewing government as the control rod or the reactor core.

Thus, I choose to align myself, to as great a degree as is practicable within the Real World, with those who work to create an open, fair marketplace, within whose raucous, generative, evolving, and frequently messy parameters prosperity will arise. Since no pure form of such an approach can be found in our political landscape, in anything like a configuration which is tolerable to me (and which stands a snowball's chance on Venus of achieving the White House), I'm stuck with the GOP (and only then, because I live in a State with closed primaries, in which Independents cannot vote).

I recognize that this puts me in the company of folks who hardly see eye-to-eye with me on the position that, say, homosexuality is merely a normal (if relatively rare) variation in natural human pair-bonding (and that, thus, it is absurd to deny people access to a central human pair-bonding ritual and status, just because they so vary). I know that there is a (deeply paradoxical!) thread within the party of insinuating uncomfortably high levels of Christian theology into the laws of the land...which flies in the face of the ostensibly liberty-oriented approach to government's footprint in people's lives which is proper to the party's orientation. What can I tell you? We live in a universe where the Perfect is inevitably and irreducibly the enemy of the good, if we choose to hold out for it.

But the Democratic party has seemingly irretrievably aligned itself with the tradition of Progressives and other Planners. And, for whatever tactical gains it (admirably!) strives to bring about for its constituents, it does so at the price of strategic losses to our society's ability to sustain the benefits it promises. It simply does not fit within my frame of reference that this is a good idea (nor, in the end, particularly humane). So, I ride herd as much as possible on the more pernicious aspects of the GOP's posture (if, the gods forbid, Michele Bachmann, or Rick Santorum had gotten the nomination, I would have had a Very Difficult choice to make...see why I want to be able to vote in the primaries?), while advocating for those parts which move our society in what I judge to be the direction in which it remains most vibrant and viable (which, to paraphrase JFK [who all-but-certainly would have been Liebermanned into obscurity within today's Democratic party] would create the rising tide which lifts all boats).

Yes, conservatives would find a great many of my positions positively heretical (and, of course, the feeling would be mutual). But no complex system is without internal contradictions, even as its overall organization is coherent. Nature is not kind to Purists. So we choose among imperfect options, in as-educated-as-possible hope that the highest-viable good will emerge.

It's the worst possible system you could imagine....except for all the others.

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