Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Problem of Complexity

I've been thinking about complexity while contemplating the question, which I asked my students, of what type of government Socrates would prefer. It's not obvious from what know (or at least think we know) of what Socrates thought. The obvious answer, I think, is that Socrates would favor something like Plato's Beautiful City, a fairly totalitarian communism run by the best and the brightest. But with Socrates' ready acknowledgment of his own ignorance and his statement that he is the wisest because he knows his own ignorance, Socrates might not prefer such a government.

Running even just a moderate size Ancient Greek city, even for a very smart and enlightened ruler would be a difficult task. Obviously no ruler can possibly micro-manage everything, and thus is going to have to let the city run itself to a degree, only intervening in important matters. But the temptation is to try to run and fix everything. Leaders can be tempted to think that things would be better if they had more control. But what they fail to see is the sometimes elusive complexity of even a small city. There will be thousands of individuals with their own actions, plans, desires, capacities,habits, and so on. Ultimately, a leader can see very little of this complexity, and thus can intelligently do very little to manage it. Many a leader though fails to see this complexity. Even worse, sometimes their smarts can get in the way. If they are really intelligent, they might begin to be over-confident in their ability. If they were wiser, as Socrates reminds us, they would be aware of their ignorance, and would not try to do more than they could handle. This leads me to think that, though Socrates would prefer a leader who is very specialized and expert in their particular job, a Socratic leader would be ultimately very hands off.

The problem is even more exaggerated when we talk about running an entire country with hundreds of million of people and a vast economy with billions of economic transactions daily. Not even a super genius can understand what's going on in this economy. Leaders are often made over-confident by their statistics and numbers by their expert advisors, and by their own intelligence and success. This can blind them to their ignorance. What we often fail to realize is, for example, is that these statistics and numbers only give us the vaguest outline of what's going on. Trying to fix the economy by means of this limited information is like a doctor trying to perform surgery with only a patients shadow--or even worse, like trying to manipulate a marionette doll to perform surgery from a thousand feet away.

Ultimately, a person aware of their own ignorance, is going to favor a more limited government.

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