Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Mathematical Politics: Part 4

The Robustness of Complex System TheoryMost people, when checking out of a supermarket, will select a queue they perceive to require the least amount of waiting time. The result is that the queues in a supermarket all stay roughly the same length. People naturally distribute themselves equitably over the available queues, perhaps even taking into account the size of the shopping loads of those people queuing. Thus, the load balancing of supermarket queues doesn’t need a manager directing people to the queues: the decisions can be left to the shoppers. Because this decentralised method of load balancing is using the minds of many shoppers, where each shopper is likely to be highly motivated to get out of the shop quickly, it is probably superior to the single and the perhaps less motivated mind of someone specially employed as queue manager. Supermarket queuing is just one example of order - in this case an ordered load balancing system - emerging out of the behaviour of populations of autonomous but interacting components.

It is this kind of scenario that typifies the application of complex systems theory. When it is applied to human societies the assumption is that people are good at looking after themselves both in terms of their motivation and having the best knowledge of the situation on the ground. The stress is on the responsibility of the individual agents to make the right local decisions serving themselves. In looking after their own affairs they, inadvertently, serve the whole. In short the economy looks after itself. This is the kernel of Adam Smith's argument in “Wealth of Nations”.

So, the argument goes, for the successful creation and distribution of wealth the centralised planning of a command economy is likely to be less efficient a decision making process than that afforded by the immense decisional power latent in populations of people who are competent in identifying and acting own their own needs and desires. In particular, technological innovation is very much bound up with the entrepreneurial spirit that amalgamates the skills of marketers and innovators who spot profit opportunities that can be exploited by new technology. Hence, free market capitalism goes hand in hand with progress. Such activity seems well beyond the power of some unimaginative central planner. It has to be admitted that there is robustness in this argument; Centralised planners don’t have the motivation, the knowledge and the processing power of the immense distributed intelligence found in populations of freely choosing agents.

But there is always a but.....

To be continued....

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Mathematical Politics: Part 3

The Rise of Postmodernism: In a scenario that itself could serve as a complex systems case study, the political perturbations of the eighties is beset with a chaotic cascade of ironies. As Thatcher and Reagan made it their business to dismantle the power of central government in favour of a decentralized market of economic decision makers, their anti-interventionist policies were readily portrayed as the path to true freedom. In contrast the traditional left-wingers, as advocates of an economy planned by a strong central government, opened themselves up to being accused of aiming to meddle in people’s affairs and thereby curtailing their freedoms. Moreover, the left, which so often identified itself as the friend of the benign self regulating systems of the natural ecology, never let on that the natural world had an isomorphism with the self regulating mechanisms of the free-market. The left might rail against big business as it polluted and disturbed a natural world that functioned best without intervention and yet the left had no qualms about disturbing the free market with their planned economy. But the radical right also presented us with a paradox. If they were to push through their free-market vision they had to use strong central government in order to do so. Thus, like all radical governments since the French revolution who believe their subjects were not be free to chose their freedom, the radical right faced the logical conundrum encapsulated in the phrase “The tyranny of freedom”. Thus, as is the wont of those who think they should be in power but aren’t, it was easy for the left to cast the radical right as the true despots.

So, who, then, was for freedom and who wasn’t? The left or the right? Both parties had marshaled some of the best intellects the world has seen and yet they seem to have lead us into an intellectual morass. Belief in man’s ability to make sense of his situation was at low ebb and against a backdrop of malaise and disaffection, it is not surprising that there should arise a widespread distrust of anyone who claimed to really know universal truths whether from the left or right. The Postmodernists believed they had the answer to who was for freedom and who wasn’t, or perhaps I should say they didn’t have the answer, because Postmodernism is sceptical of the claims of all ‘grand narratives’ like Marxism or complex systems theory to provide overarching explanations and prescriptions for the human predicament. Postmodernism consciously rejected the ‘grand narratives’ of left and right as not only intellectual hubris but hegemonic traps tempting those believing in these narratives to foist them upon others, by coercion if needs be. The grand-narratives that both parties held and which they promulgated with evangelical zeal lead them to infringe the rights of the individual and engage in a kind of conceptual imperialism. Those of an anti-establishment sentiment, who in times past found natural expression and hope for liberation in Marxism, no longer feel they can identify with any grand philosophy and instead have found their home in the little narratives of postmodernism, where contradiction, incoherence, and fragmentation in one’s logic are not merely accepted but applauded as just rebellion against the intellectual tyranny of the know all grand theorists.

But irony is piled on irony; Postmodernism, as the last bastion of the anti-establishment is in one sense the ultimate decentralisation, the ultimate laissez faire, the ultimate breakdown into individualism. One is not only free to do what one fancies but is also free to believe what one fancies. The shared values, vision and goals of civic life are replaced with conceptual anarchy. With the failure of Marx’s grand narrative to make sense of social reality, those of an anti-establish sentiment no longer have a philosophy to pin their hopes on, but instead the anti-establishment have unintentionally thrown their lot in with the radical right; They are carrying out the ultimate live experiment with a system of distributed living decision makers. According to complex system theory either some kind of organised equilibrium or chaotic fluctuation will ensue, whether the postmodernists believe it or not. You can’t escape the grand-narratives of mathematics, although you might like to think you can.

To be continued....

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Mathematical Politics: Part 2

Marxism on the Run: At about the time free market economics was in the ascendancy under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan I was involved in a study of Marxism, in the course of which I even attended some Marxist meetings. For me the two political philosophies were thrown into sharp contrast, but the radical right, with their allusions to mathematical systems theory, were beginning to show up Marxism for what it was: a Victorian theory of society that was now looking rather antiquated, or at the very least in need of a conceptual makeover. If Marxism failed to enhance itself with modern insights taken from systems theory it would become obsolete. And obsolete it was fast becoming; The Marxists I met were entrenched in nineteenth century ideas and they weren’t going to update them. For example, the radical right’s excursion into systems theory was debunked by these Marxists as just another piece of intellectual sophistry devised by the intellectuals of the propertied classes with aim of befuddling us workers and obscuring the reality of class conflict. It was clear that this old style Marxism was not going to make any serious attempt to engage these new ideas.

Another serious failing of Marxism, and another sign of its nineteenth century origins, is that its theory human nature has not advanced much beyond Rosseau’s naive concept of the noble savage. In fact one Marxist I spoke to on this subject suggested that the nature of human nature is irrelevant and he simply reiterated that well-known Marxist cliché about “economic realities being primary”. He was still working with the 17th century Lockian view of Human nature; To him, humans were the ‘blank slate’ that Steve Pinker has so eloquently argued against. All that mattered was getting the economic environment right and to hell with all these ideas about the neural substance on which human nature is founded and its origins in the recipes of genetics.

And ‘hell’ is not such an inappropriate term even for an atheistic philosophy like Marxism. I am not the most enthusiastic advocate of laissez faire capitalism but it seemed to me that Marxist theory was going to seed, one sign of this being that the Marxists I met were dismissing any robust challenges by assuming from the outset that they were cynical attacks by the middle classes. Basically their response was little different from “The Satan argument” used by some Christains to protect their faith. The Satan argument posits a win-win situation from the outset and it works like this; If a challenge is made to the faith that can not be easily countered then that challenge must come from Satan (= the middle class) and therefore should be ignored. It is impossible to overcome this kind of conceptual defense, because the more successful the challenge the more strongly it will be identified as “Satanic” (or bourgeois).

When Soviet Russia collapsed at the beginning of the nineties it seemed that Marxism was a spent force. Cult Marxism still lingered, of course, but a new generation of anti-establishment idealists who needed a philosophy they could call their own were left as intellectual orphans. Where would they find a home?

To be continued...