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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Complexity, Economics, and Libertarianism

Jim, a member of a Humanist email list I'm on, made an interesting post recently mentioning emergent complexity in economics (he gave this Wikipedia link). Jim seems to be an economic libertarian and sited this as a support to his position. I am a big enthusiast of complexity theory and the work of the Santa Fe Institute for many reasons. As such, his mention peaked my interest, but I think there is something important to note, at least insofar as my position is concerned.

I don't think complexity necessarily justifies libertarian economic philosophy on the grand scheme of things.

To be sure, it certainly suggests we allow economies to function naturally as much as possible. Taoism, in many respects, contains realizations which are ancient precursors to many notions found in complexity science. Naturally, we similarly find a connection between its observations of the world and prescriptions on 'how we should be'. For example, Chuang-Tzu warns of over-intrusive government, saying it is a sign of intolerance of people's natural proclivities and inclinations (On Intolerance), and encourages corruption and oppression (Horses Hooves).

All of these notions point to the same realization, which is that free market economies will tend to operate as a self-organizing complex system with an organic structure (or 'Li', as the Taoists might say) with all of the advantages of growth and adaptability thereof. Government intrusion, then, hampers the free operation and efficiency of that system.

Yes, economics will self regulate as a system. For example, wages will rise and fall because of the supply of certain professionals and the demand for them. Over time, if the wages get too high, too many people will choose that as their profession and supply will exceed demand. Employers will recognize they can get away with paying less because they'll have plenty of desperate people in need of a job. As wages get too low, employers will find that no one wants to work in that profession and will therefore need to raise their rates. The system corrects itself in a beautiful organic process!

But before we kneel at the altar of the economic complex system, we need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

First, we must realize that this economic organism is not 'us' individually. Nor is it 'us' in terms of it being humanity. It is not even 'us' in terms of it being our society. It is an independent system in its own right, that yields conditions we suffer or enjoy.

As such, it is not an end unto itself, but rather a means to an end - that end being to provide an ethically sound environment in which people can live well.

As a system, while the economy will indeed correct itself, in the process its variable flow into highs and lows that have little respect of 'what is right' or 'what is humane'. One might think that we drive these variables by our likes and dislikes, thus 'humaneness' and 'rightness' is inherent in the system because those are things we like. However, this simply isn't the case in practice. In reality, wages will often rise above what is excessive and harmful for individual lives and society (which includes more than the economy, but also our social networks, morale, etc). More importantly, wages will sometimes fall well below what is a humane level of compensation for the work done, leaving desperate people with no realistic alternative. The same is the case for all of the economic variables throughout the entire economy. Most of the time it works, but occasionally it veers without concern into environmental conditions which are inherently inhumane and ethically unacceptable.

People who marvel at that intricate and amazing complex system that is our economy, tend to focus all of their thoughts and attention on how best to make it run more smoothly and efficiently. They look at 'averages' and 'trends' and 'indexes' as indicators of whether or not things are 'going well'. Little concern is given for the individuals getting tossed about on the fringes of those overall curves.

Unconscious and as well intentioned as it may be, this is worship of the 'economic organism' at the expense of people, the expense of ethics, and the expense of basic human compassion.

We must instead keep the larger view in mind: that the economy is here to serve human beings as one element in the grand mix of our larger concerns as good people - and we are not here to serve the needs of the economy. When we do, we realize that, yes, we want a smooth running economy that yields good fruits for us. But, we also recognize there are certain conditions and situations that are morally unacceptable, regardless of the indexes, averages, trends, or long term self correcting mechanisms. When that happens we must, as a people (i.e. government) step in and say "no".

Will that hamper the efficiency and health of the economic organism? Yes it will - and that's ok. Some things are worth the price of apples being higher or the growth of new businesses being lower this quarter.

Unlike what Libertarians will tell us, this sort of judicious ethical intrusion in certain areas while being appreciative of the need of an economy to evolve freely, will not necessarily lead to all-controlling socialism, communism, or bureaucratic oppression. We must simply judge these things ethically as we go, considering those factors as well. Tough decisions? Yes. But to simply say that all eyes should remain on the economic organism and trust that individuals will get their just rewards for their obedient worship of that entity, is a harmful notion in my view, that misses major concerns about our humanity.

It is also good to note Wu Wei, a philosophy specifically designed for skillfully working in and with complex systems. If we use 'skillful means' in our decisions, we see that there is almost a 1-to-1 correlation between money spent on education or on jails. Low wages lead to desperation, which leads to crime, which leads to money spent fighting crime and jails. Thus, the 'interconnectedness of all things' means that we pay either way - it's just a question of how smart we are about it.

Some may be too consumed with judgments about 'what others deserve' and 'who should get what' to look at things as a dynamic system without preconception. That individual therefore puts himself in the very role he would forbid the state, as being inhumane and oppressive.

Therefore, we are benefited in subtle ways by being ethical first. The maxim is maintained: there is never a distinction between what is virtuous and what is wise. Any notion to the contrary is an indication that we are suffering from a delusion about either wisdom or virtue.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Leadership and Stoicism

Two of Stoicism's most prominent philosophers were Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. As professor Michael Sugrue of Princeton University observes in his wonderful lecture on Marcus Aurelius: one of the wonderful ironies about the history of philosophy was that the former was a slave and the latter an emperor. That speaks greatly to the flexibility and applicability of Stoicism, but it also has recently brought to my mind another thought.

In this year I have found myself in a leadership role in my community organization, my profession, and soon, my family. This has made me recognize new aspects of Stoicism. Previously I had conceived of Stoicism as especially useful to those with little or no power. As such, it helps us to focus our energies on the things we can control and learn to accept that which we cannot.

But lately, as my 'say-so' has risen (power is too strong a word), I have found that my stress has risen with it. Given that we are always seeking greater control, one might expect the opposite. But I think this happens because power is a strong temptation. When we are put in charge of something or made responsible for it, we get used to having more control than ordinary. We soon find ourselves expecting that greater level of control. It becomes even easier to fall prey to the delusion that we can control more than we do, and as that delusion intensifies, so too does our suffering.

So now I am thinking that I must begin to approach Stoicism less from an Epictetan point of view, and more from an Aurelian one. Surely the emperor saw something of use in Stoicism that he chose it as a remedy for his affliction of power. We'll see how this line of thought progresses.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

God who?

A reader named James recently wrote in with a letter full of questions about my position on God. I have placed his letter and my response on my philosophy site, as I thought James had brought up some great questions:

Sunday, July 1, 2007

What is A Contemplative?

I have been thinking recently about ways to highlight the personal introspective and spiritual, if you will, in Humanism. I call this the Humanist contemplative thought. The first step was forming a club within my local Humanist group called the Humanist Contemplative Club, which has been active at a modest level just over a year now. I have also been making contact with several people who have a similar vision for the expansion of Humanism into a more robust and person living philosophy. Recently, I've come across a nice website and organization called The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Their classes seem quite pricey and I couldn't, of course, vouch for them personally as I don't know a lot about them. But their website seems to have distilled the essence of the 'contemplative life' which may be of great use:

LINK: The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

LINK: The Tree of Contemplative Practices

Their list of contemplative practices is excellent and would be worthy of a Humanist Contemplatives time to investigate. Some of them, of course, involve supernatural concepts which are irrelevant to Humanists, but most do not. The video that plays automatically on their home page is nice, but I really recommend the second part of Dan Kowalski's film introducing the work of the center:

LINK: "Part 2: Application"

This video really sums up nicely the essence of contemplative thought and practice. In it, several good points are listed, paraphrased below:

1) Working to integrate contemplative awareness and contemporary life to help create a more just, compassionate, and reflective society.

2) Contemplative practices have been developed over centuries in both secular and religious traditions.

3) They include meditation and yoga, other movement forms like Tai Chi or Qi Gong, contemplative dance, silent reading, times in nature - any activity in which you regularly engage which helps you increase your awareness and compassion can be a contemplative practice.

4) Contemplative practice is designed to help us be more effective in life and integrate our 'hearts' with our 'heads'.

5) As you practice and apply what you learn to your daily life, you being to develop what could be called a 'contemplative perspective', which includes many enhanced qualities, skills, and values:
- Calmness, which allows stability in life;
- The ability to be 'in silence' and learn from that;
- Clarity and spaciousness of mind, which helps us to see things as they are rather than as we want them to be (I and Buddhists would call this mindfulness);
- The ability to act from passion rather than anger;
- Increased kindness and compassion
- The ability to hold two conflicting ideas in the mind at the same time;
- The ability to act from an ethical understanding;
- To be non-judgmental but still hold a discriminating awareness for making decisions;
- The ability to appreciate the interconnection of all people and all life.