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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Eroding Structure

As our populations expand, as a world-wide movement from countryside to city embraces all peoples, as problems of housing, of broken homes and juvenile delinquency, of mass education and delayed independence of the young rise about us in our very human midst, as David Riesman’s “the lonely crowd” comes more and more aptly to describe all humankind, have we not the right to ask: Is what we are witnessing, in essence, not the first consequence of the deterritorializing of man? And if man is a territorial animal, then as we seek to repair his dignity and responsibility as a human being, should we not first search for means of restoring his dignity and responsibility as a proprietor?

— Robert Ardrey

I must explain, at the outset, that this book is not simply an abstract discussion of the property concept. One must consider the relative importance of property principles within the broader context of particular metaphysical models that are presumed to both describe phenomena and prescribe systems and behavior that conform to a given model. If a particular paradigm has been accepted to explain the regularities in nature, efforts will be made to broaden the acceptance of that model as widely as can reasonably be accomplished. Because this book explains the nature of property from the perspective of a traditional model of social beliefs and systems, and proposes an alternative paradigm—one that already seems to be emerging—it is essential to begin with an historical analysis of what has brought us to our present situation.
For centuries, Western civilization has functioned on a model, developed by Isaac Newton, that presumed the universe to be composed of basic building blocks—atoms having become the preferred explanation—held together, and their behavior regulated, by discernible “laws” (e.g., laws of motion, gravity, light, thermodynamics, etc.). This provided a mechanistic and reductionist model that helped provide, within the realm of human society, the metaphysical base for the emergence of modern institutionalized systems of social order. Implicit in such a view is the idea that nature is structured in relatively simple patterns of calculation that can be accurately identified and measured. Because of the presumption of certainty inherent in such a model, it has long been an article of faith that, given sufficient information, it is possible for human beings to predict the consequences of events in both our physical and social worlds. Indeed, the universe came to be regarded as a giant clockwork, destined by the second law of thermodynamics to run down. If nature, including human action, was predictable, it was also controllable, a presumption upon which vertically-organized systems have depended for their existence.
While Newtonian thinking provided the intellectual base upon which the sciences built, political systems had long been grounded in similar assumptions about the governance of societies. Plato’s Republic,1 dating back to the fourth-century B.C., provided what one scholar has called “The first work that deserves to be called political science.”2 Plato envisioned a pyramidal governmental system in which society would be structured into a hierarchy of rulers, followed by a class of soldiers and administrators whose function would be to regulate the lowest class: the producers, whose existence makes society possible. That this arrangement continues to define modern political society is a proposition I trust requires no independent citation of authority! The imagery of such thinking can be seen in the Washington Monument towering above the District of Columbia.
The mechanistic model of a predictable and controllable universe has underlain programs of state planning and control, including the regulation of economic behavior, health care, the environment, foreign policies, education, wildlife management, urban renewal, transportation systems, and monetary policies, to name but a few. From the more ambitious undertakings of the erstwhile Iron Curtain systems, to the proliferation of legislative codes, administrative rulemaking, and judicial decisionmaking, all of which combine to dominate Western societies, modern assumptions about the necessity for the imposition of order differ from the mindset of the ancient lawgiver, Hammurabi, only in the expanded scope of their application. The belief that order must be intentionally generated and imposed upon society by institutional authorities continues to prevail.
This centrally-directed model is premised upon what F.A. Hayek called “the fatal conceit,” namely, the proposition “that man is able to shape the world according to his wishes,”3 or what David Ehrenfeld labeled “the arrogance of humanism.”4That such practices have usually failed to produce their anticipated results has generally led not to a questioning of the model itself, but to the conclusion that failed policies have suffered only from inadequate leadership, or a lack of sufficient information, or a failure to better articulate rules. Once such deficiencies have been remedied, it has been supposed, new programs can be implemented which, reflective of this mechanistic outlook, will permit government officials to “fine tune” or “jump start” the economy, or “grow” jobs, or produce a “quick fix” for the ailing government school system. Even as modern society manifests its collapse in the form of violent crime, economic dislocation, seemingly endless warfare, inter-group hostilities, the decay of cities, a growing disaffection with institutions, and a general sense that nothing “works right” anymore, faith in the traditional model continues to drive the pyramidal systems. Most people still cling to the belief that there is something that can be done by political institutions to change such conditions: a new piece of legislation can be enacted, a judicial ruling can be ordered, or a new agency regulation can be promulgated. When a government-run program ends in disaster, the mechanistic mantra is invariably invoked: “we will find out what went wrong and fix it so that this doesn’t happen again.” That the traditional model itself, which is grounded in the state’s power to control the lives and property of individuals to desired ends, may be the principal contributor to such social disorder goes largely unexplored.
Faith in the traditional model began to erode with work done in the field of “quantum mechanics.” The Newtonian dream of being able to describe the universe as a kind of cosmic erector set has been upset by a view of subatomic behavior in which spontaneity seems to offer a more plausible explanation for events than does mechanics. Traditional beliefs that phenomena could be explained as simple deterministic, cause and effect patterns, like David Hume’s vector analysis of the behavior of billiard balls, have given way to an awareness of more dynamic and mysterious interactions among particles than had before been imagined. One can still play a very adept game of pool using Newtonian principles, but his system is no longer sufficient to explain complex dynamics.
Just as distressing to adherents of the Newtonian paradigm was the realization that, at the subatomic level, change occurred not through gradual processes of evolution, such as a molecule of water progressively getting warmer as it was subjected to heat, but through “quantum leaps.” While the collective temperature of the water could be said to gradually increase, for any specific molecule such a change came about instantaneously, as a jump from an unheated to a heated state. What this means is that prediction—hence, the ability to control —is impossible at the subatomic level, and must give way to estimates of probabilities, based on the law of large numbers. Even our atomic “building-block” assurances about the existence of matter have, at the subatomic level, been shattered. The on-again, off-again character of particles led Einstein to characterize “matter” as “frozen energy,”5 much as Emerson had described the world as “thickened light,”6 or some physicists to speak of particles in terms of “tendencies to exist.”7 To have a science that no longer admits being able to control specific complex events, a presumed power that has been further diminished by the study of complexity and chaos, has been quite devastating, not only to many scientists themselves, but to members of the institutional order, whose authority has depended upon the appearance of such ability.

Quantum mechanics has been a major contributor to the breakdown of traditional centrally-directed models of order. With an understanding of events focused on the margins of subatomic behavior, the universe begins to look less and less like an assemblage of parts subservient to some whole, and more like patterns of reciprocal interconnectedness. This emerging model may find an analogy in the pointillistic art style of Georges Seurat, or of photographs in a newspaper. In each, the picture is seen only as the composite of individual dots of paint on a canvas, or ink on a page of newsprint.

Newspaper picture, with section enlarged
Though our eyes are accustomed to seeing the pictures as single, complete entities, a closer examination reveals their individualized composure. The reality of the pictures is found only in the interconnectedness of the dots (or “quanta”). Without the individualized dots, there is no picture. Like the fast moving series of still photographs that produce what we call “motion pictures,” these dots create the illusions we think of as “reality.” As Einstein has helped us to understand, our visions of the world are dependent upon the perspective—including our paradigms—from which we view events.
The most devastating blow to the long-established model of order is coming from the emerging science of “chaos,” which is revealing the integrated complexity of the universe and the processes by which such complexity spontaneously generates order. We have long been familiar with the phenomenon of apparently regular behavior suddenly becoming erratic. A water faucet will drip at a fairly regular rate, increasing its flow proportionately to any additional supply of water. For a time, the relationship between input and output is linear in nature (i.e., any change in the pattern of flow is proportionately related to input changes). For example, if “x” produces “y,” “x + 1” will produce “y + 1.” There comes a point, however, where a further increase in input will produce disproportionate effects, generating erratic patterns. At this bifurcation point, a linear and basically predictable system is thrown into non-linearity and randomness. “X + 4” now produces not “y + 4,” but “z,” with “z” representing turbulence. Like the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, the consequence of adding one more unit is to create a nonlinear effect. These occurrences of nonlinearity are also seen in such examples as air turbulence, the flow of rivers, arrhythmic heartbeats, and the smoke from a cigarette whose rising regularity suddenly breaks up into erratic patterns.
Until recently, scientists and others have been content to dismiss such turbulence as random disorder. Because of the second law of thermodynamics, such irregularity has heretofore been accepted as only a confirmation of the entropic nature of the universe. But in the study of chaos, we are beginning to discover that, even within apparent disorder, patterns of orderliness and regularity can be found. Using computers as their principal tools, chaos scientists have identified behavior patterns in nature that recur, but do not precisely repeat themselves in any predictable manner. In the continual branching patterns of a river system, or a tree, or a cauliflower, we find examples of a recurring self-similarity that scientists have named “fractals.” Fractals are a means by which systems most efficiently organize themselves by continually repeating successful patterns at different levels of scaling. Even nonlinear and seemingly random events, in other words, reveal a deep, hidden order, organized around so-called “attractors,” which are the functional principles around which turbulence and perceived chaos regularize themselves. Earthquake fault lines, arrhythmic heart patterns, or brain wave patterns during a seizure, are just a few examples. Irregularity, in other words, has been found to have a certain regularity to it.
In spite of the regularity that has been discovered, it must be emphasized that chaotic systems are, by definition, nonlinear in nature (i.e., output changes are out of proportion to changes in input). Furthermore, a system can be rendered chaotic by even the most seemingly insignificant factor, whose effects are then fed back into the system, thus greatly multiplying its initial influences. This process by which a factor is able to produce a multiple of itself is known as “iteration,” and can operate either to stabilize a system or to generate change.8 In the regularities that keep iterating themselves deep within the behavior that we have heretofore regarded as disordered chaos, we are discovering a more dynamical and complex conception of order.
An awareness that order can arise spontaneously and without conscious design has begun to alter our views concerning the forms and functions of social organizations. As Hayek has observed, “we are able to bring about an ordering of the unknown only by causing it to order itself, ...not by deliberately trying to arrange elements in the order that we wish them to assume.”9 We are also developing a better understanding of how a healthy, creative order involves a continuing interplay between the forces of stability and change.
Because of such complex, nonlinear influences, our ability to predict outcomes associated with such behavior becomes impossible over any extended period of time. It is the unpredictable nature of complex systems that is most troublesome to practitioners of the traditional model of order. Predictability depends upon an awareness of all the factors that bear upon an event in question —what chaos scientists call a “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.”10 To overlook any factor, no matter how minimal its apparent significance, will eventually produce exaggerated errors in what we try to foretell. These and other factors contribute toward making complex systems increasingly unpredictable with the passage of time. In what has come to be known as the “butterfly effect,” chaos theorists offer the metaphor that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly over the Andes will influence the weather in Tibet. As regular and permanent as our solar system appears, even planetary orbits—which are subject to numerous disturbing influences—remain unpredictable over a long period of time.
Our inability to identify and accurately measure the multitude of factors influencing complex systems not only makes extended forecasting impossible, but it makes historic explanations equally subject to error. There has probably been no topic of human history more thoroughly examined and debated than the cause of what Edward Gibbon called “the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.” There is not even agreement among historians as to whether Rome “fell” or was only “transformed” from what it had once been. One scholar has identified as many as 210 explanations for this watershed occurrence.11
There are numerous factors at work that make it impossible to ever have sufficient information to allow for the prediction of outcomes in complex systems. The first is the logistical difficulty of marshalling and accurately assessing all relevant information. Complex systems are subject to a number of variables, whose existence, fluctuations, and interactions may be both unknown and immeasurable. Furthermore, the interplay of positive and negative feedback loops can influence complex systems in unexpected ways. Additionally, our senses have a capacity for processing only a tiny fraction of the reality to which they are exposed. We are biologically incapable of even perceiving all of the factors acting upon events in our lives, including the dynamics by which such factors interrelate. Furthermore, our capacities for synthesizing all of the information that we do perceive is limited by our tendencies to experience information overload, which can cause us to periodically anesthetize or even shut down our minds.12 Contrary to our hubristic assumptions about our capacities for understanding, there are simply far too many matters affecting our lives that will forever be beyond our epistemological grasp.

Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System

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