"We’ve become fundamentally confused about what the decisions are, and what their consequences are."
Image: Ted Eytan/Flickr
Roughly two-thirds of Americans believe the country is going in the "wrong direction," and Tuesday the country will vote for two of the least popular presidential candidates of all time. Both the left and the right say that the United States' government is ineffective.
One potential reason for this? Human society is simply too complex for representative democracy to work. The United States probably shouldn't have a president at all, according to an analysis by mathematicians at the New England Complex Systems Institute.
NECSI is a research organization that uses math cribbed from the study of physical and chemical systems—bear with me for a moment—and newly available giant data sets to explain how events in one part of the world might affect something seemingly unrelated in another part of the world.
Most famously, the institute's director, Yaneer Bar-Yam, predicted the Arab Spring several weeks before it happened. He found that seemingly unrelated policy decisions—ethanol subsidies in the US and the deregulation of commodity markets worldwide—led to skyrocketing food prices in 2008 and 2011. It turns out that there is a very neat correlation between the United Nations food price index and unrest and rioting worldwide that no one but Bar-Yam had picked up.
When considering our system of government, the link between these policies and unexpected global violence is an illustrative but hardly unique one: Bar-Yam was able to describe these cause-and-effect relationships in detail because he looking at very specific inputs and very specific outputs. He was zooming in on specific parts of the "system" that is human civilization in an attempt to explain one small but important part of the world.
It is absurd, then, to believe that the concentration of power in one or a few individuals at the top of a hierarchical representative democracy will be able to make optimal decisions on a vast array of connected and complex issues that will certainly have sweeping and unintended ramifications on other parts of human civilization.
"There's a natural process of increasing complexity in the world," Bar-Yam told me. "And we can recognize that at some point, that increase in complexity is going to run into the complexity of the individual. And at that point, hierarchical organizations will fail."
"We were raised to believe that democracy, and even the democracy that we have, is a system that has somehow inherent good to it," he added. But it's not just democracy that fails. "Hierarchical organizations are failing in the response to decision-making challenges. And this is true whether we're talking about dictatorships, or communism that had very centralized control processes, and for representative democracies today. Representative democracies still focus power in one or few individuals. And that concentration of control and decision-making makes those systems ineffective."
The 'Complexity' of Human Society
This idea of a quantifiable, measurable "complexity," refers to the difficulty of describing what the hell is going on in a system. And Bar-Yam says that human society is just like every other system.
An individual human is made up of atoms, which make up cells, which make up organs, and so on. Describing the behavior of each individual atom is incredibly difficult; describing the behavior of organs is less difficult, and it's trivially easy to tell you that my organs are doing something inside me right now to allow me to type on a computer right now. Collective behaviors are inherently more "simple" than individual ones, in other words. Describing the behavior of atoms is more complex than describing the collective behavior of the many atoms that make up a human being.
This analogy extends to humans living in society. Predicting the specific behavior of a car factory worker in his day to day life is much harder than predicting that he and a collective of other people will produce cars at the factory.
"In human organizations, coordination occurs because individuals influence each other's' behavior," Bar-Yam wrote in a paper explaining this hypothesis. "A control hierarchy is designed to enable a single individual to control the collective behavior."
Governance, then, is an attempt to organize the behavior of many individually complex humans (like the atoms above) into something simpler and more coherent.
"During the time of ancient empires, large-scale human systems executed relatively simple behaviors, and individuals performed relatively simple individual tasks that were repeated by many individuals over time to have a large scale effect," he added.
The relatively simple nature of the world at the time allowed one single person to be a master of all aspects of governance, in other words. The collective behavior of the whole of a city, town, or empire in early society was easily describable, because everyone was doing more or less the same thing.
The issue here is that the sheer scale and interdependence of society has vastly increased since the days of ancient empires, increasing the overall complexity of society. To take this back to the biological analogy, it is as if society itself has evolved from being a very simple organism, such as a microbe to something much more complex, like a human (in all likelihood society will get much more complex—maybe a better analogy is something like a jellyfish right now). This is what you would expect—physics theory suggests that all systems increase in complexity over time.
"We've become fundamentally confused about what the decisions are, and what their consequences are. And we can't make a connection between them"
Technological advances during the industrial revolution allowed the automation of menial tasks and diversified the number of tasks human beings could perform. The industrial revolution led to advances in transportation and shipping that connected disparate parts of the world, and the internet, computers, and smartphones, of course, have served to intermingle nearly every corner of the world.
"Human society" is now one gigantic, incredibly complex system or organism rather than many smaller, isolated, and simpler ones.
This is how you end up with ethanol policies signed in America in the the late 1990s leading to widespread global unrest decades later. There are, of course, an unknowable number of decisions and events that have untold and difficult-to-predict effects on disparate parts of the world.
Complexity and the presidency
A framework put forward by cybernetics pioneer Ross Ashby in the 1950s that served as the underlying basis for Bar-Yam's work suggests that organizations will begin to fail if the demands placed upon it exceed the complexity of the governance structure of that organization. When that governance structure concentrates power in one or a few people at the top, that means the demands placed on the structure can't be any more complex than one person can handle.
In the case of a representative democracy, we are expecting a president—aided by advisors and Congress, of course—to ultimately make decisions in an environment that is far too complicated for any one person. Democracy as we know it is failing.
"We cannot expect one individual to know how to respond to the challenges of the world today," Bar-Yam said. "So whether we talk about one candidate or another, the Democrats or Republicans, Clinton versus Trump. The real question ultimately is, will we be able to change the system?"
"We've become fundamentally confused about what the decisions are, and what their consequences are. And we can't make a connection between them," he added. "And that's true about everybody, as well as about the decision-makers, the policymaker. They don't know what the effects will be of the decisions that they're making."
Bar-Yam proposes a more laterally-organized system of governance in which tons of small teams specialize in certain policies, and then those teams work together to ultimately make decisions.
"We end up with people who will say, 'I will do this, and things will be better.' And another person who will say, 'I will do this. And things will do better.' And we can't tell," he said. "Right now the danger is that we will choose strategies that will really cause a lot of destruction, before we've created the ability to make better decisions."
When you vote Tuesday, don't vote for blowing up the system—Bar-Yam advocates for a gradual move to more lateral governance structures. But know that the person you're voting for will certainly be in over their head.