Systems and Freedom

In last week’s post I talked about the difference between positive and negative freedoms, how this maps onto the left/right distinction in politics and how that distinction explains the difference in attitudes to the corona measures between Australia and the US. There is another aspect to the difference that I think explains a lot of the current political and cultural malaise that the West finds itself in. Recall that negative freedom is freedom from interference, especially by the state. Negative freedoms are simple. They are simple to encode in law and anybody can understand when they have been violated (although it’s not necessarily simple to achieve redress when they have been violated). From a political point of view, it’s also easy to know when a movement to attain negative freedom has been achieved. Three important historical examples are the civil rights movement, the suffragettes and the equal pay laws. All three were about equality before the law or, to say it another way, the granting of negative freedom to a part of the public that didn’t have it beforehand. Because negative freedom is a binary, a political movement to attain negative freedoms has a fixed goal and it is plain to see when that goal has been attained. In short, negative freedoms have an inherent objectivity. One can disagree about the application of them but not whether the law states that people have them.

The same is not true of positive freedoms. Positive freedoms are inherently more subjective. This makes it harder to get agreement on whether positive freedom exists and to what extent it exists. A useful way to draw this distinction is to compare the equal pay laws to the modern equivalent of the “gender pay gap”. The equal pay law states simply that a man and a woman must be paid the same amount for the same job. In any specific example, it’s easy to tell whether this was done. You just check the pay slips of the people involved. But the gender pay gap is different as it deals with populations of people and averages. The gender pay gap says that women earn less than men on average. As anybody who’s done Statistics 101 would know, an average calculation hides as much as it shows. To properly understand an average you first need to know whether we are talking about the mean or the median. You need to know the standard deviation around the average and you need to know whether outlier values are skewing the average. It may be, for example, that 99.95% of men and woman earn the “same pay” but a small minority of bazillionaires, who just happen to be men, throw out the calculations. Until you know that, any method to address the imbalance risks being misguided.

That’s just the start of the difficulties, however. The hidden assumption in the gender pay gap issue is that women have less positive freedom than men because they get paid less on average. Is that true? The average pay figure is the result of countless personal choices made by real people in the economy. The economy is a system so complex that an entire profession dedicated to studying it still can’t make accurate predictions about how it will behave. To paraphrase John Kenneth Galbraith, the purpose of economics is to make astrology look good. A person’s gross earnings are the result of all kinds of individual decisions including which field to go into, how hard they work at their job, whether they know the market value of their work and how to negotiate for their salary etc etc. Without in-depth analysis, you can’t draw any firm conclusions about why one person gets paid less than another. We can, of course, make some hypotheses. When it comes to the differences between the genders, it seems highly likely that time taken off from work to raise children is going to be the main variable that accounts for why women earn less on average. One might argue that woman are choosing to take that time off work because they value raising children more than working. A counter argument could be that woman only do that because child care is too expensive and it doesn’t make financial sense to do so. Either is plausible. We’d need more research to find out for sure and we’d probably find that both of these things are true. Some women would raise their children themselves no matter how cheap childcare was and some women would prefer to work. These kinds of issues are intrinsic to systems and, by extension, to debates about positive freedoms. The only way to understand a system is to turn it around and look at it from multiple perspectives. As positive freedom is almost always about systems, it follows that issues around positive freedom require such analysis. Simply reducing a whole system down to a single calculation is naïve at best.

Of course, issues like the gender pay gap get forced onto the procrustean bed of politics where catchy slogans and simplistic solutions are all that can fit into the limited bandwidth of public discourse. No doubt the limitations of political debate do play a role in the oversimplification of complex issues but the problem is deeper than that. I have spoken a number of times about systems in other blog posts with particular reference to the systems thinking and cybernetics movements of the 20th century. The fact is that humans are really bad at understanding systems and even worse at building them. The systems that we rely on in day-to-day life were not designed and then implemented by wise philosopher kings. Rather, they are the results of centuries or even millennia of trial and error. Look at the history of any successful company (a company is also a system) and it’s almost guaranteed that the company also went through a period of experimentation in its early days. The founders thought they had a great idea in market A but accidentally stumbled onto a goldmine in market B. I have worked in building IT systems from scratch for more than a decade now. I can say from experience that most people have no idea what they are doing and most things that get produced are of no value. This isn’t an indictment of the people involved. Building systems is hard. The failures are also not necessarily a problem if you assume that each project is itself just an experiment which you can learn from. The problem is that learning very rarely does take place. Rather, corporations and government shovel money into various projects and hope that something good results. Politicians and upper managers in corporations are expert at taking credit for things that look to be working and backing away from things that are visibly failing. The organisational structures of bureaucracy and the public service are set up to ensure that nobody must take responsibility. Most projects are structured in such a way that nobody knows how to understand the outcome because there are no criteria to do so. I’ve been in some funny meetings where the question of “defining success” was talked about and nobody knew or wanted to know how to define it. If you define success, then you also define failure and that is what everybody is trying to avoid more than anything. Accordingly, in large corporations and political parties, trying to determine whether a change to a system produced any tangible benefit is nigh on impossible. Systems are already hard enough to understand but when you add in human psychological and political considerations the task becomes insurmountable.

Which brings us back to positive freedoms which inevitably require changes to systems. Even assuming you have a grasp on an issue in a multi-dimensional manner, you are altering a system and so you need to know whether your changes had a benefit and what, if any, unforeseen side effects were caused by the change. The testing of the system is often as much work as the changes to the system itself. One of the key insights of the systems thinking pioneers was that natural, inherently complex systems cannot be understood by reductionist science. Rather, they can only be understood by applying multiple perspectives in a heuristic fashion. Heuristics are fallible, incomplete but useful ways to view a system. The problem from both a scientific and political point of view is who gets to decide which heuristics really are valuable and which are not? If you aim to consciously change a system and then measure the results, you can apply your own heuristics to gauge the effect or you can open channels for feedback. The former option risks missing important types of data about the system and the latter usually sees you receiving a barrage of unintelligible information; noise. At this point we get into the problems of information and testability which are a big driver of why we don’t test the changes made to systems. Testing costs time and resources. The choice to only measure one or two things is a psychological, economic and political one. All these drivers lead to oversimplification and, therefore, misunderstanding of the system. A political movement to enhance positive freedom faces all these challenges in amplified form because politics is as much about being seen to do something good as actually doing something good. Furthermore, changes to systems often have side effects and the side effects might just be voters who resent the fact that they have been disadvantaged by a change. What this boils down to is that the work required to enhance positive freedom is far more complex than the work required to enhance negative freedom and the results of such work are going to be far more ambiguous, which is itself a political problem.

The way to approach systems is to construct cross functional teams, start small, make iterative changes and ensure you set up feedback loops with the real world. You need to set aside time and resources to learn. This means you will need periods of evaluating what has been done rather than doing more. You need to be prepared to admit failure but also able to change tack if an opportunity arises that was not foreseen at the beginning. These are all things that corporations and governments are incapable of doing. The feedback loops they adhere to are the long and imprecise ones of opinion polls, elections, profit and loss reports and annual general meetings. Governments get thrown out of office and companies declare bankruptcy while the systemic effects of decisions made along the way are never known. In the domain of politics, movements to enhance positive freedom mostly fail or at least aren’t seen to be successes. This in itself causes frustration especially given our culture’s innate desire to “progress”. That frustration itself builds pressure to do more. Accordingly, positive freedom has morphed into authoritarianism as the bureaucracy does the only thing it knows how which is to force changes onto the world rather than set up a symbiotic relationship where learning and adaptation is possible. In recent decades, we have run into the problems of systems and we still don’t have the culture or the organisational structures in places to deal with systems properly. Who would increase positive freedom must first learn how to work with systems.

Addendum: Just came across this fascinating post on the supply chain problems in the US. It’s indicative of where we are as a society that a real systemic problem, which I would have thought is an existential threat if allowed to continue, goes unsolved while the news is full of faux-moral issues.

10 thoughts on “Systems and Freedom”

  1. Simon,

    One of the surprising things about the corona event was the apparent willingness of the west to accept authoritarian policies.

    In retrospect, I believe this has to do with the pre-covid notion that both positive and negative freedoms are only allowed in the economic domain, a world view that treats citizens as if the are only consumers and customers.

    For example – do you want a pool in your back yard? Are you willing to pay for said pool? Nobody will judge you, even if said pool is built in a certain middle eastern country that frequently has to resort to desalination. However, if I want to have a say about the plants planted in the public garden in my street, this positive freedom is not considered something I ought to have. By extension, my negative freedom to exit my house and walk in said street is also something that can be taken away because of a pandemic, since using this public good has nothing to do with consumption.

    The one freedom we were being allowed during lockdown was the freedom to order anything we want off of the internet, a freedom worth risking the lives of the “essential workers” who delivered and packaged said goods.

    I think it is time we in what is known as the west take back the non economic side of life. We should not leave the physical environment, our education, and culture to the experts. During the lockdowns, I took advantage of the fact I was the only one out to do some guerrilla gardening of my own in the public gardens of my city. Some of my projects survived reopening.

  2. Simon,
    I commented on this post as it is most recent, I realize this last comment is in response to your earlier post “American Vs. Australian Freedoms”.

    As for this post, the topic of Complex Systems was an interest of mine even pre – pandemic, and I even wanted to pursue an advanced degree in the physics of said systems.

    One of the things I think the proponents of the lockdown failed to understand is a concept I learned in a book on the role of networks in history called “The Square and The Tower” by Niall Ferguson.

    Ferguson makes a point that when dealing with networks of human interactions, often a few well connected nodes will be responsible for most transmission in said network. He used the example of Paul Revere, who became known as the person who alerted the town of Lexington of the British in the American Revolution simply because he was well connected. Ferguson claims there were other potential messengers, but Revere was the one with the necessary connections both in Boston and Lexington to be the most effective.

    In our case, since the role of individuals in transmitting say a virus is non linear, and considering it’s impossible even in the best case scenario to prevent all human contact under a mandated lockdown, a few well connected individuals are all it would take to transmit a disease. But the proponents of lockdown clearly thought that stopping the majority of human contacts will protect the majority of the population since the number of contacts must be proportional to the transmission rate, which is classic linear thinking.

  3. Bakbook: excellent points. We have allowed money to destroy culture in our society. But money is just a substitute for power, so, really, we have allowed power to destroy culture. Gradually, everything now comes top-down rather than bottom up. I’ve been thinking recently that this goes hand-in-hand with the breakdown of Christianity. Jesus was born in a barn and the wise men came to visit him. That’s a bottom-up system and that system is necessary for culture to flourish.

    We are still stuck in linear thinking. We also still don’t know how to understand evolution. Slowing the spread of the virus, which we are still trying to do for some reason, just opens up more opportunity for mutation. Hence the real epidemiologists have been saying from the start that we should encourage infection in the young and not at risk groups as this will get us to “herd immunity” the quickest. The result is that everything we have done has been achieved nothing and cost an enormous amount.

  4. Simon,

    Jesus also lived in a time when society became corrupt by money. The reason the corrupt Jewish high priests turned him over to the Romans was that at the time they were selling space inside of the temple in Jerusalem for people to set up shops. This turned the temple into a space resembling a modern shopping mall. Jesus argued the temple should be free of such forces, and the general population agreed with him. The priests were fearing his growing popularity and the rest is history.

  5. Good point. We need somebody to come and flip the tables of the moneylenders now too.

  6. Simon: “One of the key insights of the systems thinking pioneers was that natural, inherently complex systems cannot be understood by reductionist science. Rather, they can only be understood by applying multiple perspectives in a heuristic fashion. Heuristics are fallible, incomplete but useful ways to view a system. The problem from both a scientific and political point of view is who gets to decide which heuristics really are valuable and which are not?”

    Hehehe. Wasn’t it Weber who said that bureaucracies become their own goals? Yeah. So, you start with some goal, preferably one that’s not really achievable. Okie-dokie, so you set up a lovely little (or not so little) bureaucracy to address the problem. And the bureaucracy comes up with some method that is meant to achieve the thing that it was supposed to achieve, except that it’s far from obvious that the method actually accomplishes what it was supposed to accomplish. So, abracadabra, the method (measured in some bureaucracy-friendly way) becomes the goal!

    For example, you want to “defeat COVID.” Now that it’s obvious to approximately everyone that eradication is off the table, what does that even mean? ::shrug:: So, the method becomes the goal: get everyone “vaccinated”!! That’s easy enough to measure, and it seems to somehow improve COVID outcomes, at least for a little while (and let’s not talk about the downsides, shall we?), so yeah, let’s just measure our victory over COVID by the number of “vaccines” that we’ve administered. Lovely heuristic, innit?

    In personal news: I’m successfully recovering from my bout of plague (or was it smallpox)? I really was quite ill for two weeks, and still pretty weak for another week, but I’m a lot better by now (though still not 100%). Anyway, I’m sure it would all have been so much better if I’d been “vaccinated,” and none of this had anything to do with the fact that I spent a week unsuccessfully trying to reach a doctor, as my condition kept deteriorating (::eyeroll::). But now that I’ve miraculously recovered (::eyeroll:: #2), I do have excellent bureaucratic protection against the current heuristic, valid for the next six months (well, five months and a week left, I suppose).

  7. I keep oscillating between optimism and pessimism with regard to COVID/”vaccination”/lockdowns. Optimism because the strategy is so obviously nuts, that surely, we must snap out of it relatively soon. Maybe. Pessimism because, well, look at other times when the method became the goal. Education is an obvious example. You have this vague goal of making your citizenry/workforce more educated/skilled, and you also want to (handwave-handwave-handwave) reduce inequality, and you decide that the way to do this is to make everyone spend at least 12 (and preferably more like 16) years in formal education. And how do you measure progress? Obvious: via the number of diplomas awarded! As for whether this actually leads to an increase in education/skill and a decrease in inequality – handwave, handwave, handwave! We still haven’t snapped out of that one, have we?

  8. Irena – reminds me of the old saying from the Talmud: you can educate a fool, but you can’t make him think.

    How about: you can “vaccinate” somebody, but you can’t make them healthy (especially if they are 85 years old with four co-morbidities).

    Unfortunately, there’s nothing more permanent than a “temporary” bureaucratic measure so, yes, I expect we’ll be stuck with the nonsense until something more important happens eg. US dollar collapses, war in Taiwan etc.

    Glad to hear about your recovery. Not only do you get bureaucratic immunity, but all the studies now show that natural immunity is worth far more than whatever protection comes from the gene therapies. So, you’re all set to deal with the inevitable future scariants.

  9. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing more permanent than a “temporary” bureaucratic measure so, yes, I expect we’ll be stuck with the nonsense until something more important happens eg. US dollar collapses, war in Taiwan etc.?”

    Aye. That’s what I’m worried about. That we won’t “decide” this is over. Instead, we’ll find ourselves in some godawful mess that simply makes us forget about COVID.

    “Not only do you get bureaucratic immunity, but all the studies now show that natural immunity is worth far more than whatever protection comes from the gene therapies. So, you’re all set to deal with the inevitable future scariants.”

    Yes! That, too. I must say I was getting a bit concerned about Marek’s disease. Well, not that particular disease, but the effect: leaky vaccines creating more deadly variants. Well, hopefully not, but – ugh. I’m set now, so that’s good. They may eventually force me to get vaccinated, but I’m hoping that by the time that happens, they’ll have an actual vaccine to offer. Y’know, the inactivated virus sort of thing, which seems far less dangerous than these gene therapies that they’re currently shoving down everyone’s throat. Of course, I’m unlikely to benefit from it in any medical way (now that I’ve had the disease), but I may need it bureaucratically, and the goal is to minimize the risk of harm from the vaccine.

  10. The godawful messes are already starting to pop up here and there. Noticeably, it seems hospitals everywhere are being overwhelmed. Half empty shelves. Energy shortages etc. I think we’re looking at years before any kind of normality returns and by then what will be considered “normal” will be completely different to what was once normal.

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