Saturday, December 4, 2010

Complexity and Central Planning

Another bone of contention between socialists, conservatives,  and libertarians centers of the political implications of natural complexity. Here's heart of the issue: If Nature is a vast network of complex adaptive systems conditioned by unpredictable emergent properties, then what are the implications for public policy? In general, there are two political options: the political LEFT and RIGHT embrace "central planning," based on their stated political agendas; while LIBERTARIANS defends "de-centralized planning."

Beginning in the twentieth century, a variety of philosophers and scientists began to develop a systems ontology, which identified "systems" as the basic units of ontic reality. Typically, systems theorists differentiate between macrosystems (the Amazon Rain Forrest) and microsystems (species and organisms that live in the Amazon Rain Forrest), non-living systems and living systems, relatively simple, closed systems, and more complex open systems. Complexity spawns emergent properties that are explicable (in terms of systems theory), but are inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable. To make a long discussion short, most biologists agree that even the simplest living organisms exhibit enormously complexity and that ecological systems like the Amazon Rain Forest are exhibit infinite complexity via interacting open living and non-living sub-systems. Enter the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers... To what degree should we "trust" the ACE to redesign our natural ecosystems, especially wetlands?

If human communities are comprised of a number of at least two infinately complex human brains networked together in an infinate number of interacting networks (communities); and, if the behavior of those macrosystems (neighborhoods, cities, states, nations etc.) is influenced by what happens in the microsystems (neurons, brains, human organisms, and families), and if what happens in the microsystems is shaped by what happens in the macrosystems, and what happens in BOTH are influenced by what happens in other systems in the environment, then what are the political ramifications?

Central planning implies a Newtonian interpretation of Nature that assumes that Nature is ultimately a complex"clocklike" mechanism that can be fixed and/or redesigned by "engineers." They argue that since the world is a mechanism (closed system) that can be fully described in terms of deterministic laws of nature, once we discover these laws we'll be able explain, predict, and control all aspects of human nature.

Most behaviorists are Newtonians, but argue that we really don't have to know exactly what goes on within the human brain to predict and control human behavior. All they need to know are systemic inputs and outputs. But the underlying premiss is the same for all Newtonians: human behavior is ultimately explicable, predictable, and controllable, once we discover the deterministic laws that govern human behavior.

De-Centralized planning is based on a Darwinian interpretation of Nature, where unpredicatable emergent properties at the micro-cosmic levels (genes, organisms, species) condition organization at the macrocosmic levels (ecosystems). Beginning in the late 19th century, philosophers like Charles Sanders Peirce, began to seriously question whether complexity is merely a reflection of our ignorance of the true laws of nature, or whether there's an irreducible element of chance in the universe. Today we know that the human brain is an enormously complex system comprised of many identifiable, interacting subsystems. We also know that when these brains get together and form complex networks we create communities and cultures that exhibit mind-bogglingly complexity. If brains and networks of brains generate mind-boggling complexity, what can we say about economics?

Classical, Neo-Classical, and Keynsian economists are Newtonians. Darwinians (that accept the metaphysical assumption that Nature is conditioned by a degree of chance) reject the Newtonian assumption that Nature is ultimately a deterministic closed machine describable in precise mathematical calculus, and by implication they also question the human capacity to re-engineer or re-design Nature from the "Top Down." This is the underlying theme of Austrian macro-economic theory as described by Mises and Hayek.

So here are the basic ontological issues. Are the laws of nature that describe human genetics and economics ultimately like the laws that govern the movement of the planets in our solar system, or are those laws qualitatively different? If we knew the precise laws of Nature that underlie human brain activity, would we be able explain, predict, and control individual human behavior, community behavior, and cultural behavior with the same same degree of accuracy as we can explain, predict, and control the boiling of water? And, if we "could" someday redesign Nature, does that mean that we can do it now, and does that imply that we "ought" to do it? If so, what "ends" ought those re-design efforts pursue? Now there's a homework assignment for you! Have fun.

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