Irreducible Complexity

Ross Douthat has penned what I believe to be an important column on the politics of our moment. Despite the volume of the populist Tea Party movement and Sarah Palin, the polls showing anti-incumbent fever, and the ongoing Ron Paul libertarian revolution, we’re still living in an era of the consolidation and concentration of power. For example:

  • National healthcare

  • Those who caused the recent economic crisis, inside and outside of government, getting more power in order to solve that crisis. Ross writes:

    From Washington to Athens, the economic crisis is producing consolidation rather than revolution, the entrenchment of authority rather than its diffusion, and the concentration of power in the hands of the same elite that presided over the disasters in the first place.

    The panic of 2008 happened, in part, because the public interest had become too intertwined with private interests for the latter to be allowed to fail. But everything we did to halt the panic, and all the legislation we’ve passed, has only strengthened the symbiosis.

  • Both parties in thrall to executive power. Bush and Cheney authorized expanding executive powers for detention and interrogation, and secrecy, and appointed unitary executive fans to the Supreme Court. Obama has largely kept Bush-era security measures, including assassination of American citizens, and has nominated “fan of presidential power” Elana Kagan to replace unlikely liberal lion John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court.

TARP, stimulus, auto bailout… the list goes on. As each crisis gets bigger and more complex, government gets more control to stem the crisis, and big business gets more public money, even if they are the parties responsible to begin with. Ross writes:

Once a system grows sufficiently complex, it doesn’t matter how badly our best and brightest foul things up. Every crisis increases their authority, because they seem to be the only ones who understand the system well enough to fix it.

But their fixes tend to make the system even more complex and centralized, and more vulnerable to the next national-security surprise, the next natural disaster, the next economic crisis. Which is why, despite all the populist backlash and all the promises from Washington, this isn’t the end of the “too big to fail” era. It’s the beginning.

Sadly, I think he’s correct. I also recommend this Rod Dreher piece in response to Ross on whether or not liberty can survive in an era of bigness and complexity. Or even if a society so complex can make it (“A system so complex and interlocked that a mortgage bubble collapse in southern California can trip a massive global recession, and which, in turn, can only be saved by doubling down on the dynamic that mortally imperiled it, is a system that’s far more precarious than it appears.”).

What gets me is that, thanks to technology, this should be an era of decentralization. David Cameron gets this in the speech I linked to below. He argues that the era of bureaucratizing every problem should be over. Do we still need big auto, big finance, and big government when the average person has the collective knowledge of the world at their fingertips? Both American political parties think so. I’d hazard a guess that, despite Washington’s best efforts, de-concentration is in our future, either of the orderly Cameron style or of an even more spectacular crash, as feared by Rod.

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