November 18, 2016   |   Alice Salles
According to a study carried out by mathematicians at the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI), it is difficult for government entities or single individuals to debate what these mathematicians call “social policy” if the goal is to find something that works for everyone. Once we consider that members of any society are simply too complex, the study suggests, we are able to understand that the systems of government currently available fail to meet our expectations.
While the implications of this complexity are myriad, one of the issues more broadly discussed in the study revolves around government’s own inability to address this complexity, no matter how you slice it.
“[T]he concept of civilization as a complex organism,” mathematicians concluded, “is qualitatively different than either [democracy or communism].”
Why Complexity Matters
According to NECSI’s director, Yaneer Bar-Yam, “[t]here’s a natural process of increasing complexity in the world” that at some point will “run into the complexity of the individual.” Once we reach that point, Bar-Yam added, “hierarchical organizations will fail.”
Bar-Yam’s team seems to have learned that concentrating the power to organize society in the hands of a few individuals is absurd. After all, optimal decisions targeting society cannot be made by a group of individuals detached from it. This is precisely because issues are better dealt with by those who are affected by it.
“We were raised to believe that democracy, and even the democracy that we have, is a system that has somehow inherent good to it,” Bar-Yam told Motherboard. But democracies alone are not the only problem, he added. All hierarchical organizations fail “[to respond] to decision-making challenges. And this is true whether we’re talking about dictatorships, or communism that had very centralized control processes, and for representative democracies today.”
Because representative democracies “focus power in one or few individuals,” Bar-Yam concluded, “those systems [are] ineffective.”
Human Complexity, ‘Human Action,’ and How They Relate
While this analysis may sound like common sense, it becomes increasingly interesting as researchers discuss a more nuclear element of this complexity: the individual.
“An individual human is made up of atoms, which make up cells, which make up organs, and so on,” writes Jason Koebler of Motherboard. “Describing the behavior of each individual atom is incredibly difficult,” he added. But describing “collective behaviors,” Koebler added, “[is] inherently more ‘simple’ than individual ones, … Describing the behavior of atoms is more complex than describing the collective behavior of the many atoms that make up a human being.” With this analogy, Koebler adds that “[p]redicting the specific behavior of a car factory worker in his day to day life is much harder than predicting that he and a collective of other people will produce cars at the factory.”
Because a “control hierarchy is designed to enable a single individual to control the collective behavior,” governments are not the answer. Instead, Bar-Yam explained, “coordination occurs because individuals influence each other’s’ behavior.”
Government, then, is an “attempt to organize the behavior of many individually complex humans into something simpler and more coherent,” Koebler observes — and it’s incredibly bad at it.
Despite the incredible “discoveries” made by Bar-Yam and his team of mathematicians, the complexity of human individuality has already been deeply explored in the past.
Praxeology is the study of purposeful behavior, or “human action.”
In 1949, economist Ludwig von Mises wrote a treatise on this scientific study, simply naming it Human Action. In his book, Mises argues that the individual acts in order to achieve an end he or she subjectively values, making human action an intentional act. While not all human behavior is purposeful, praxeology’s core axiom is that human beings exist and act for a reason. In other words:
“Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego’s meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person’s conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life.”
Because action is speculative, Mises adds, outsiders are incapable of knowing what will happen. And while natural sciences are capable of predicting the results of specific actions, the future cannot be predicted as a whole.
Whether you’re looking at a group of people with common traits or an event that has similar elements from other events of the past, Mises explains, decisions are always made with incomplete knowledge. Since economics deals with the action of humans attempting to satisfy their desires through the exchange of goods and services — making this social science a study in human action — we can safely say Mises understood human complexity long before Bar-Yam discussed this growing problem with Motherboard.
Despite what many think of nowadays when discussing liberalism, Mises explains in his book that the “social philosophy of eighteenth-century [known then as] rationalism and liberalism … does not resort to any miraculous interference of superhuman powers.”
Instead, Mises writes in another book, Epistemological Problems of Economics, classical liberalism hopes to “lead to lasting well-being [for all]” by never resorting to government intervention of any kind.
After all, Mises writes in Human Action, government always “means … coercion and compulsion and is by necessity the opposite of liberty.”
Combining his insight with what mathematicians have now proven, it’s safe to say societies rely on individuals to succeed. When governments act on behalf of society, groups of individuals in power may believe they know the answers to society’s problems. But acting without firsthand knowledge means acting without the goals of every single individual in mind.
As Bar-Yam concluded in his study, complexities make it difficult for centralized governments to act efficiently. And Mises agreed with that conclusion over 60 years ago. But Mises also offered a very different solution.
While Bar-Yam wants to see a “more laterally-organized system of governance in which tons of small teams specialize in certain policies, and then those teams work together to ultimately make decisions,” Mises argues for the absence of government interference, leaving all decisions to society.
As the majority of Americans get tired of politics, choosing not to vote in record numbers and allowing the minority to pick the commander-in-chief, it’s clear that Americans understand — even if subconsciously — that picking leaders doesn’t matter.
Living life as an individual and being allowed to navigate its risks and successes without government interference, on the other hand, does.
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