Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Complex Systems and Political Orientation

Very few mature people identify themselves as "liberal" or "conservative". There are different things that you value to different levels and if you choose one concentration, you earn a label. It's immature and unnatural to take the label first and then choose the values. Like anything that gets tribal though, once you identify with a group it becomes easier to find information that supports the groups other beliefs.

In an age where the conservatives took up the banner of old school liberals (smaller government, more individual power) and neo-cons somehow used that power base to do exactly the opposite and modern liberals have embraced a fascism of political correctness and a philosophy of diversity that arose directly in defense of Jim Crow (see "The Closing of the American Mind" for how Southern philosophers arguing that the North had no right to mess with the culture of the South resulted in the new philosophical concept of cultural diversity and cultural equality)... it gets very confusing.

I thought of something this morning and I want to look at it- complex systems and how the "people labeled as" conservative or liberal, hereafter known as PLCs and PLLs, look at them.

Aside- I hate these labels and very few apply to anyone I know. From the etymology (conservative = avoiding change; liberal = generous) to the ties with political parties and history (the Republicans went to war to free the slaves, the Democrats tried to stop them; Democratic senators tried to stop the repeal of Jim Crow) their views on war (until the Reagan years, other than the Civil War, the US had only ever gone into a war under a Democratic president); their self-serving bullshit (banning "9 1/2 Weeks " is censorship, banning "Huckleberry Finn" is "cultural sensitivity").... grrrrr the labels just don't make sense. At all.

Anyway, there are two issues where I get labeled a PLC and where people I respect have stated that one side is Conservative, one side Liberal. It occured to me today that these two issues have a lot in common. One is global warming. The other is progressive politics.

I'm a PLC on global warming. My usual smart-ass explanation is that I was in grade school in the seventies back when the exact same emissions needed to be stopped because they were bringing on the next Ice Age. When pushed, the next line of defense is to bring up a couple of facts- every article I've seen challenging the theory was written by a climatologist or meteorologist, if you run the names of the PhDs who sign all the "Stop Global Warming Petitions" on google, I got almost nothing but social scientists. Krakatoa put more particulate emissions in the atmosphere in a few days than all of humans have in all of human history. The amount of "greenhouse gasses" we put in the atmosphere each year is less than the margin of error we have in measuring atmospheric gas concentrations...

But this is what's really going on- from both sides- and I think it points to some basic ways that different people see the world. Fact- the temperature has risen. Fact- it will be very bad if it rises too much. Fact- global climatology is unbelievably complex and no one thoroughly understands it. The rest are possibilities- humans may or may not be causing the rise in temperature. Humans may or may not be able to change the trend. It may be too late. It may be in the nick of time. But basically just three facts.

The PLLs look at the first two facts and decide that something must be done. I don't think they ignore the third fact, they just decide that it is better to do something than nothing. They look at the things that were changed by collective action and go for it.

The PLCs look at the third fact harder. In a really, really complex system, what are the odds that we will make things better? Worse? Don't get excited, wait. Be sure.

Another aside- Fighting is an incredibly complex subject, and professional warriors are inherently conservative. They stick with what works. When any mistake could result in your own messy and painful death, you tend to limit experimentation in real encounters. This means that they gather as much information as possible before deciding to change tactics. Any action is risky. Any untested action in a complex system is chancy- a different thing (See Risk versus Chance). The only time a good fighter takes chances is when death is almost certain if he doesn't.

Given the mind numbing complexity and importance of the weather, the PLCs want some guarantee that screwing with a machine we don't understand won't make it worse (is there any possibility that the conservation movement of the seventies designed to prevent the imminent Ice Age might have caused global warming?) In the PLC's eyes, they look at things humans have tried to fix, such as bringing rabbits and cane toads to Australia, and don't like the odds.

You can see this as a fear reaction, or as prudence. Largely depending on whether it is your reaction or the other persons. The opposite reaction, the PLL reaction, is that we don't need to understand things to fix them, especially if it is important. And you can read this as childish or heroic, your choice.

Progressive politics is similar. PLCs feel that the laws and the leadership should follow history and community standards. PLLs feel that there is a better way, a better standard than the community standard, a brighter future than the past and push to make these changes happen.

Again, though, these changes happen in a complex environment- human society. People in action have changed things- slavery is rare in the industrialized west. The transformation of religion from a fact worth killing over to an opinion was profound. Many lasting changes came by force of arms. The PLCs look at the success rates of attempts to force change and are disappointed. Programs based on good ideas are abused; backlash is often generated that may dwarf the original problem. How many of you went to an Eastern European country before 1986 and saw the bleak, filthy, polluted warrens of what was designed to be a human-engineered worker's paradise?

Lasting change has come more slowly, so it seems. But there has been good fast change sparked by moments, too. Rosa Parks. So here too, the PLLs see that if change is necessary enough, the goal worthy enough, it's not necessary to understand the system... and again, it is heroic or childish, depending on if it works.


Mac said...

So what do you do if your a neo-conservative, faux-taoist transcendalistic eco-anarchist liberal?

Kai Jones said...

Mac--you call yourself contrary, like I do.