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....

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