What does complexity theory tell us about government?

I’m reading Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos which has the absolute best testimonial on the front cover: “If you liked Chaos, you’ll love Complexity.”

This book was written in 1993 so I’m pretty late to the show, but it’s worth raising the issue: complex systems require governance, but that need not mean government.

In the copy below the author is writing about how complex systems–systems with components that affect one another in simple ways resulting in emergent orders at the system-wide level–occupy an interesting space between chaos and order. Too much order and you end up with something fixed and unchanging. Too much chaos and you’ve got noise.

The second full paragraph misses an important point that should have been obvious to the author and the researchers who he’s paraphrasing. The government is an endogenous element in the wider economy. If we think of the economy as a network of people (individual nodes) who cluster into sub-networks (organizations), the government is just a collection of nodes and clusters that follow different rules than the rest. Granted, these clusters often serve important roles (e.g. courts). But the anarchist branches of economics have pretty clearly demonstrated that removing the state from these roles doesn’t always lead to chaos. Ripping the state out like a band-aid would be an awful idea, but gently scaling (scoping?) back the state need not be a disaster.

This band between chaos and order is wider than they’re giving it credit for. We can only examine this band from our own perspective… as human beings who are tiny components of this much larger network of networks. The range of configurations that could allow a peaceful, flourishing society is essentially infinite. Yes, governance is necessary, but strengthening any particular set of nodes cannot allow for governance of the system as a whole. It can only allow for governance of a sub-set of the wider network.

Emergent orders cannot be controlled from within.

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