The Equanimist

The problem with laissez-faire (the chief problem with modern interpretations of representative democracy)

Posted in Uncategorized by equanimist on October 31, 2010

Compromise is the result of a fight between opposing forces.

           Imagine two boxes that contain agendas. They’re butted up one against the other. On either side of the boxes is a guy. The two guys push the boxes toward each other with all their might. If, on a level playing field, both guys are equally strong and equally good at pushing then when they push the boxes directly at one another the boxes don’t move, as in Fig. 1, panel A.

            That’s more or less fine when the status quo is working because, if they’re the only two guys on the playing field, the fight itself doesn’t change things.

            As illustrated in panels B and C, one guy’s often “stronger”. At one time or another, the boxes move to the left or right. If we assume that the boxes always come back to the middle, this is a kind of dynamic equilibrium. But,

            1. These two guys aren’t the only ones pushing on the boxes.

            2. The fight takes time and resources that could be put to better use.

            3. Nature will favor change.

            4. No democratic law or set of laws governing specific actions can possibly ensure indefinite dynamic equilibrium.

            In order to maintain the status quo the two boxes must hold equally opposing positions on every political issue. Nothing can “fly under the radar” or “come at an odd angle” because the system is not designed to oppose the force behind the “odd” issue.

            In Fig. 1, panels D and E we see the boxes in two dimensions. With “no” (i.e., very weak) opposing force on top of the boxes, a sudden strong force from below pushes the boxes right off the scale as in E. But this is still overly simplistic. The boxes float freely, and lots of people are pushing on them from all angles.

            In Fig. 2 at left, the boxes are transformed to a shell (not pictured) against which forces act from the inside and the outside and in all directions. Shown is a cross section of forces (the center slice of a prickly ball).

            Even when every force is adequately checked by an opposing force, in a laissez-faire world substantial time and resources must be devoted to constant struggle to maintain the status quo. This is good if there isn’t anything better to be done because it’s generally better to employ somebody than not. It’s a big waste if there’s better work to do, like innovating. But, even when we allow that it is a fine allocation of resources, every force cannot be so balanced because it’s just not possible to anticipate every socioeconomic force and counter same with a ready, opposing force.

            Forces will come at odd angles. Forces will deform the shape of the shell. Individuals will conceive “creative” solutions to “problems” posed by specific laws with which they must comply. They will undermine the principle to benefit themselves. And, a laissez-faire democratic system (a system legislating only specific actions) predicated on the outcome of this constant war between individuals and governance cannot ensure that the system always returns to some original shape.

            While the dueling forces in Fig. 2 are drawn as more or less equal in magnitude, alignment and time for the sake of simplicity, these forces actually vary in magnitude, focus, and application relative to place-of-society on the ideological continuum (more generally, time).

            Let us suppose that we establish laws right now that require (under present circumstances) that the elastic system (our shell) always rebound to conform to some current ideal. We cannot possibly anticipate every action—every drive to change the shape that our socioeconomic system takes.

            Imagine now that the two guys in Fig. 1 represent battle at some pair of opposing arrow heads in Fig. 2. What if one guy gains “the upper hand”? He distorts the shape of the shell, of course.

            Assume that the first change is small—that the result of the contest is slight deformation of the shape of the shell. The small change will or won’t prove beneficial over some time frame.

            It isn’t hard to imagine that a change, which will lead to turmoil, might seem beneficial to all parties over some relatively short time frame. When then ought we to expect more of the good medicine? Is it reasonable to assume that we will hold off making additional changes until we’ve determined that there is no downside? Certainly, there is no guaranty. In a cascade of adoption, similar changes might be made, and these might prove beneficial over a short term. The system is “permanently” deformed to favor some different shape.

            Laissez-faire democracy is inherently vulnerable to socioeconomic mores: it changes and continues to change in accordance with perceived “best practices” until it takes a new shape. Laissez-faire democracy is opposed to the status quo.

            Some will say that inherent instability drives successful innovation. And, it may in some cases. But, it need not. It can drive us backward, sideways or asunder.

            The problem, then, is to reconcile maximal individual freedom with an immutable framework. I believe that the US Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights were a modern attempt to do so—to reconcile inherent flaws of representative democracy with stability. Yet we have in past and may stand again on the brink of failure. Why?

            US Law is misinterpreted, or it is without overarching principles.


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