Sunday, July 15, 2007

Mathematical Politics: Part 10

The Irrational Faith in Emergence
Marx did at least get one thing right; he understood the capacity for a laissez faire society to exploit and for the poor to fall by the wayside, unthought of and neglected. In the laissez faire society individuals attempt to solve their immediate problems of wealth creation and distribution with little regard for the overall effect. Adam Smith’s conjecture was that as people serve themselves, optimal wealth creation and distribution will come out of the mathematical wash. But is this generally true? The laissez faire system is, after all, just that; a system, a system with no compassion and without heart. As each part in that systems looks to its own affairs no one is checking to see if some people are falling into poverty. And they do - in fact one expects it from complex systems theory itself. Like all systems the absolutely laissez faire economy is subject to chaotic fluctuations – stock market crashes, and swings in inflation and employment. These fluctuations are exacerbated by the constant perturbations of myriad factors, especially the moving goal posts of technological innovation. Moreover, the “rich get richer” effect is also another well-known effect one finds in complex systems - it is a consequence of some very general mathematics predicting an inequitable power law distribution of wealth.

In short, economies need governing; that is they need a governmental referee to look out for fouls, exploitation and the inequalities that laissez faire so easily generates. However this is not a call for half-baked notions of government advocated by Marxists. Marx may have got the diagnosis at least partly right, but his medicine was poison. Slogans urging the workers to take control of the means of production may have a pre-revolutionary “the grass in greener on the other side” appeal, but slogans aren’t sufficient to build complex democratic government. Marx hoped that somehow, after the overthrow of the owning classes, the details of implementing “worker control” would sort themselves out. This hope was based on the supposition that a post-revolutionary society would consist of one class only, the working class, and since it is the clash of class interests the are at the root of conflict, a post-revolutionary society would, as matter of course, truly serve worker interests. Ironically, the assumption that humans are capable of both rationally perceiving and serving their interests is at the heart of Marxist theory as much as it is at the heart of laissez faire capitalism.

In Marx the details of the post-revolutionary society are sparse. In my mixing with Marxists I would often hear of half-baked ideas about some initial post revolutionary government that would act as a forum served by representatives from local worker soviets. Because the post-revolutionary society is supposed to be a “one class society” it is concluded that there will be no conflicts of interest and therefore only a one party government will be needed to represent the interests of a single class. This government, the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, would hold all the cards of power: the media, the means of production, the police and the army. But with power concentrated in one governing party, conditions would be ripe for two classes. The bureaucracy of the one party command economy would, of course, become populated by a Marxist elite who would not only relate to the means of production in an entirely different way to the masses, but would also be strategically placed to abuse their power. Human nature, a subject about which Marx had so little say, would tempt the Marxist elite to exploit the potential power abuses of a one the party context. Marxists sometimes claim that there is no need for police and army in a one party paradise, but for the one-party governing class there is even more need for army and police in order to protect their exclusive hold on power. Moreover, the local soviets would provide the means of infiltrating and controlling the working classes via system of informers and intimidators who would no doubt masquerade as the representatives the working class.

It is ironic that both laissez faire capitalists and Marxists have faith in the power of a kind of “emergence” to work its magic. Both believe that once certain antecedent conditions are realized we are then on the road to a quasi-social paradisr. For the laissez faire capitalist the essential precursor is a free economy. For the Marxist the overthrow of the owning classes is the required precursor that once achieved will allow all else to fall into place. There is a parallel here with the school of artificial intelligence that believes consciousness is just a matter of getting the formal structures of cognition right: Once you do this, it is claimed, regardless of the medium on which those formal structures are reified, conscious cognition will just “emerge”. Get the precursors right and the rest will just happen, and you needn’t even think about it; the thing you are looking for will just ‘emerge’.


I have had enough of this Mathematical Politics business for a bit, so I think I will leave it there for the moment.