Self-Organizing Systems, Federalism, and Societal Issues

We must, all of us, consider our motives carefully. If our heart’s desire is to help the oppressed and downtrodden, then we owe it to them and ourselves to find a good solution. However, if our desire is to be proven “right” in our methodology for helping the underprivileged, we run a great risk of being blind to the truth – since our main motivator is pride itself.

In my day job, I do a bit of work with “self-organizing systems”. That is, systems of independent or quasi-independent entities (often called “agents”) that follow rather simple rules of operation and “self-organize” to find a good global solution to a stated problem. There is no single agent in charge of the others – all are equal in their ability to act within the environment (though, interestingly, all may not be equal in their capabilities – but that’s a different issue).

We see this sort of behavior in insect colonies, like ants and bees, where we refer to it as “swarm intelligence”. Ants, for instance, follow very simple behavioral rules based on pheromone concentrations, communication with other ants, and natural desires for food, etc. With this simple set of guides, ant colonies produce amazingly complex behaviors, as anybody who has seen them swarming on a food source to take back to the colony can attest.

The opposite of a self-organization would be something on the order of “centralized control”. That is, there is some super-agent that knows the capabilities and constraints of the agent population, can optimize a global cost function relative to those capabilities and constraints, and then pass out directives to the other agents. Mathematically speaking, centralized control is optimal in a “perfect world”. Since the super-agent has total information and understanding, coupled with a perfect model of reality, it cannot possibly make a bad decision. However, in the real world self-organizing systems are often vastly superior. Models are imperfect, information is incomplete, and the environment can change rapidly from one moment to the next. Thus, the best system is the most adaptive and reactive – which is often a self-organizing system that isn’t reliant on complicated (and incorrect) models.

Where am I going with this? Helping the underprivileged, of course. We have a mixture of these control mechanisms operating in our “charitable” framework. There are government programs, which operate in a centralized fashion; and there are other localized charities which self-organize to meet the needs. I would argue at the outset that self-organization is likely far superior here. The charitable needs of society are massively complex, changing from one community to the next. Further, they are not stable – changing rapidly (see the recent earthquake in Haiti as an example). These environments lend themselves quite naturally to self-organization as an appropriate and effective means of dealing with the problem. But, we spend much greater sums of money on centralized approaches. Why? Well, let’s consider (and dismiss) a few of the traditional defenses.

“The government is the only organization BIG ENOUGH to handle the problem”. Well, the government is big, there’s no doubt about that. But what do we mean by “big enough”? If this means “has enough resources” then I say this is nonsense. The government has no resources that it does not garner from the populace. Thus, the government is not bigger than the population, and can’t possibly therefore be the only organization big enough. If by “big enough” we mean “with the most centralized control” – well, yes. But, as we’ve already stated, centralized control is rarely a plus in complex and changing environments.

“Individuals won’t fully meet the needs if left to themselves”. This is a bit of a straw man, and is not a strong argument when considered in the light of our democratic republic. For when we say “fully meet the needs” we must mean “fully meet the needs to a level that is appropriate according to my standards”. While everybody will have slightly different standards, it is quite obvious that standards adopted by the government must, in some way, conform to the standards of a majority of the population. How else could a popularly elected legislature implement such standards? Well, if this is so, then a majority of the population already has a self motivation to meet the needs to a specific level – which should be more than enough to self-organize our way to “fully” meeting the needs. (Of course, we could also mean “I don’t trust myself to do it if the government doesn’t force me to” – but personal moral quandries and shortcomings are a problem best solved on your own time.)

The true opponent of self-organization here will now argue “but the private sector isn’t meeting many of the needs, so we must have the government.” This too is a baseless argument. While the first statement is likely correct – the private sector is not fully meeting many charitable needs, it is ineffectual to claim that this is independent of government intervention. Meaning, with the government taking so many resources from the private sector, how can we possibly expect the private sector to be effective. Cast in this light, I would offer that the private sector is tremendously effective, even with the yoke of government taxation and misappropriation weighing it down.

I would further argue that the federal government has failed miserably at solving these problems. One may well counter that the problem set is extremely difficult, to which I say “true”. But we’ve solved hard problems before. After 50+ years of government failure in this arena, a sober-minded person can’t possibly believe it will now start working. We have to do something different.

So, how do we get there? Well, the first step is simply federalism. All socialist (and fascist) systems will try to destroy competition of ideas and solutions – it’s the only way the centralized control will come out as “the best”. If we made all charitable issues (e.g., welfare, medicare) a state responsibility instead of a federal responsibility, we would have 50 states producing 50 different programs overnight. Failed programs would have to be abandoned as the effective ones would readily present themselves. I suspect that this would in turn give rise to localization of programs below the state level, and eventually to privatization.

What hinders us from getting there? Perhaps ignorance, but I suspect something more sinister. Many folks want to be right more than they want the right outcome. They’re more interested in having their theories of humanity be proven correct than they are in actually solving the problems. It’s a strong temptation, one that we must all watch out for; taking heed to our own motivations. But, we cannot turn a blind eye. We cannot throw our hands up and quit. Sometimes people need to be rescued in spite of themselves … wasn’t that true for each of us at some point? We must continue to press for workable solutions to societal problems, which will typically fall well outside the government’s capability to address.

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