Belmont Club

Thriving in Chaos

Dylan Matthews at Vox has a July 4 article giving “3 reasons the American Revolution was a mistake”. He argues that without the Founding Fathers what is now the USA would have become incorporated into Europe, or at least become like Canada and the world would have been a better place.

But the whole point of independence, which Matthews seems to miss, was to create a future different from those others places, rougher, rawer, more violent perhaps — yet also more powerful and more open to possibilities than the countries already there. A world diversified by the presence of America, which Matthews would have aborted before birth, enabled the West to survive the challenges of 20th century. Because America existed one can travel to the UK, Canada and the EU.  Without the 4th of July the only places one might visit today could have been tours of the Greater Reich and possibly the USSR.  That which Winston Churchill sought in the Darkest Hour would never have been there.

We shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

There would have been no New World to come to the rescue of the Old.  However it is easy to understand the misgivings at Vox.  The most disquieting thing about America is that it was, and still is, though just barely — indeterminate.  It’s a loose cannon. That unpredictable quality alarmed well intentioned men like socialist Robert Owen, who on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration founded a terrestrial paradise in New Harmony, Indiana where everything would be under control: free from the tyranny of religion, marriage and property.  It collapsed within two years.

“I now declare to you and to the world,” proclaimed Owen, “that man up to this hour has been in all parts of the earth a slave to a trinity of the most monstrous evils that could be combined to inflict mental and physical evil upon the whole race.” What were these monstrosities? “I refer to private property, absurd and irrational systems of religion and marriage founded upon individual property,” answered Owen. …

Thus, Robert Owen embarked upon his collectivist colony, shaping and defining it in his own image. He and his acolytes began their new civilization by scrapping the Christian Anno Domini calendar, marking 1826 as their new Year One. Owen’s new society was a giant collective that pooled profits and people, replacing the nuclear family with the collective family. Children were separated from parents into distinct parts of the collective for proper group “education.”

Predictably, the New Harmony colony floundered. Within just two years, Owens utterly and objectively failed. But to a committed leftist, there is never any such thing as failure.

The fact of its failure never bothered the socialists.  Unlike the Founders, who trusted in the unpredictable and chaotic workings of private property and individuals answerable only to God, the socialists believed they could build a future on the Formula.  While it was true no one — Owen, Lenin, Mao, the EU — had yet found the Formula that was of little consequence.  Someday it would be found and would be worth the wait.  On that day men would have the key to unlock the Arc of History.

The possibility the future might not cooperate with the plan rarely occured to them.  Steven Cave in the Atlantic writes the scientists are increasingly convinced there’s no such thing as free will. “The sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect.”

Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion. …

In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.

Since “we are therefore completely predictable” then Paradise can play out like billiard balls once we know how to hit the perfect stroke.  If there were no free will and the Fourth of July never happened the decks would be clear for money shot.

Unfortunately history more resembles a series of disruptive events than it does a string of successful bureaucratic predictions. The socialist billiard balls refuse to drop.  Indeed the current crisis in the West is rooted precisely in the inability of the giant state to respond to a Moore’s Law driven world where things they don’t predict and can hardly imagine routinely happen.

The status quo has attempted to respond to historical surprise and disruptive innovation in two ways: 1) handing out transfer payments to a generation facing block obsolescence and 2) attempting to stop the clock by guaranteeing the continued employment of current stakeholders. The result of the latter is the inability to pay for the former.

The entire system is too rigid to cope.  The greater the disruption the more the state attempts to regulate it.  Unable to help the dislocated generation by temporarily relaxing environmental restrictions and labor laws, the giant state simply can’t make ends meet.  It falls into a death spiral, the victim of unforeseen technological changes it always assumed could be controlled.  The world begins to resemble New Harmony in the second year.

The great thing about the America the Founders created was that it was loosely coupled, able to tolerate change without breaking the entire system. It was antifragile, to use a term popularized by Naseem Taleb, able to manage chaos and thrive on it.   “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty,” Taleb wrote.

Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”.

And therefore it thrived.  Antifragility describes the enterprise begun by the Founders to a T. The deficiencies which Dylan Matthews and Robert Owen bemoan turn out to be survival advantages in a changing environment.  Taleb’s explanation of how having “skin in the game” (a consequence of that terrible thing, property) helps robustness is one example. Perhaps more germane is his discussion of the Green Lumber Fallacy, the tendency to prefer clean information-empty models to messy but information-rich ones.

the narrator was into grand intellectual theories and narratives of what caused the price of commodities to move, and went bust … the successful expert on lumber … also knew things about lumber that nonexperts think are unimportant. People we call ignorant might not be ignorant.

The experts at Vox probably have a lot of tidy answers but they don’t solve any actual problems. By contrast the Founders probably had very few yet compensated by designing a nation built to adapt.  That architecture served it well; they did not fall for the Green Lumber fallacy. America has outlasted dynastic China, the crowned heads of Europe, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union. It may outlast the EU as well — an impressive record for something Dylan Matthews argues should never have existed.

The possible secret to its success could be shockingly simple: a flexibility based on an expressive set of political nucleotides. But then some countries have all the luck.

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