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Friday, June 5, 2009


I have a biography of Ayn Rand -- haven't read too much yet, but it already describes a remarkably sad life for an essentially angry yet brilliant thinker. If you're not familiar with Ayn Rand's philosophy, summarized in Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead, basically it's that if you are a producer (business, science, art) then produce -- and if you can't, then get the heck out of the way. She'd have a field day with the state of American politics right now if she were still alive (she died in 1982).

No matter. I agree with much of what she says, although a gaping hole in her theory of *how things work* in my opinion is the role of altruism, kindness, forgiveness, in her ideas. She believed in utilitarianism -- you worked for yourself, and your value was based upon what you could produce and do.

Driving today, I let my mind wander from Ayn Rand to the idea of universal health care to the complexity of systems -- any system -- and the law of unintended consequences. I learned a healthy respect for systems as a physiologist, that you could never manipulate just one part without having unexpected and sometimes catastrophic results. A system must be explored very carefully, respectfully, and slowly in order to shift it into a good direction.

In our culture, we often expect a simple answer to a complex problem. I wonder if sometimes we become too arrogant, too disrespectful of systems and think we can control them by simple micromanagement, dictating *one size fits all* solutions to whatever the problem du jour may be. In my experience, this doesn't work, and may cause catastrophic results.

I'm thinking that one time that government started feeling it could conquer grand social problems was around the 1960s, with the advent of Johnson's Great Society. This was an optimistic time for our country -- we'd recently won two simultaneous wars in World War II and even Korea hadn't dampened us too much, we'd graduated from a prosperous 1950s, and we were ready to go to the moon and take on the world. The USA was going to solve poverty once and for all. We also had FDR and his New Deal in the 30s, of course. I'm thinking that Americans have been used to this idea of government solving problems for a long time.

But I would argue, poverty, medical care, education, and a host of other problems are such complex systems that the prediction of outcome from any manipulation is too uncertain to be made reliably. The law of unintended consequences kicks in. Trying to make a rule that all people do an unpopular action X, may cause many people to do Y in avoidance. A quick example I've recently heard is that some bank credit cards may start to charge interest from the moment a purchase is made, rather than providing a grace period. The hope for the bank is that it might make a little more money. But you know what I thought as soon as I heard that? I'll stop using credit cards, or use them only as infrequently as I need to to maintain a credit rating. I can use a debit card for automatic purchases, and cash for everything else. I'm sure I'm not the only one who thought this, and if the banks do this they may find themselves actually losing income, even below current levels, as people start cutting up their cards. (Credit cards make money from vendor charges, 1-2% or so of the purchase price, as well as charging interest rates to the cardholder, so they will lose money from decreased buying by credit).

I hope this isn't too political a column; after all I've really tried to avoid that in this blog. It just seemed that, at least today, politics really illustrated my ideas of systems well. Basically my thought was this: we must, all of us, avoid being so arrogant that we think we can change that which we cannot. We must be humble as we carefully investigate what we might influence, and what is beyond our ability. Furthermore, in cautiously changing a system we must be respectful of the free choices people will always make. Free market ideas, while sometimes cruel, may in the long run be the best or even only way to manage these problems.

1 comment:

Travis said...

General Eisenhower was noted for saying, I never tell people how to do a job. I simply explain what I need, and then stand back and watch their creative powers finish the task.

Not an exact quote, but you get the idea.