Normas, decisiones y complejidad

Hace pocos días, se publicó en el sitio americanscientist.org un ambicioso artículo sobre el concepto de lo aleatorio. El autor, Scott Aaronson, trataba de elucidar bajo qué criterio podíamos distinguir una serie aleatoria de números de otra serie de números ordenados conforme cierto patrón, difícil de determinar, pero estructurante al fin de un orden en la serie. En otras palabras, si una computadora arrojaba “aleatoriamente” un número “9” y luego otro número “9” y luego otro y otro, ¿estábamos ante el resultado del azar, que se juega en cada nueva jugada, o ante un patrón que podía expresarse en una fórmula? ¿Si de repente apareciera en la serie un número 4, eso confirmaría el azar, o nos indicaría que nos encontramos ante un patrón más complejo?

Aaronson propone en el referido artículo, como criterio identificatorio de un número aleatorio, la característica de no ser susceptible de reducción a un algoritmo más simple. La explicación aparece como plausible y tiene un gran poder de seducción. Sin embargo, desde nuestro punto de vista, tal conceptualización no permite distinguir azar de complejidad. Friedrich A. Hayek se inspiró en Kurt Gödel para proponer, como caracterización de un fenómeno complejo, aquél sobre el que, en atención a la heterogeneidad de sus elementos, ninguna teoría puede ofrecer su descripción completa, es decir, que no puede expresarse en un algoritmo más simple.

La noción de fenómeno complejo tiene sus raíces en el empirismo de David Hume: las relaciones entre los términos (una serie de números, por ejemplo) no se encuentran en los términos mismos, si no que son atribuidas por el sujeto (en nuestro ejemplo, le adjudicamos un patrón a aquella serie de números.) Desde el momento en el que el conocimiento general no proviene de los hechos si no que es atribuido a los mismos, tal conocimiento general no nos permitirá agotar el conocimiento de lo particular. En otras palabras, siempre habrá un elemento empírico en toda teoría.

Para continuar con nuestro ejemplo: podemos enunciar un patrón que explique la sucesión de una serie de números, pero estamos expuestos a que aparezca un nuevo número en la serie que nos obligue a revisar nuestra teoría. Cuando aparece un nuevo acontecimiento que se escapa a nuestras expectativas, lo que hacemos es reajustar la noción de orden que le atribuimos a la realidad. Lo que hace que una serie de acontecimientos configure un orden o estructura, y no sea caótica o aleatoria no es, por consiguiente, que las expectativas en torno a los acontecimientos siempre se cumplan, si no que exista un rango de acontecimientos que nunca se verifique, en otras palabras: que determinadas expectativas sean sistemáticamente frustradas.

Igualmente, la confusión entre azar y complejidad puede ser fecunda y arrojar más luz sobre la naturaleza de la segunda. Por ejemplo, Nicolás Maquiavelo culminaba “El Príncipe” con la afirmación de que la iniciativa era la virtud fundamental del político, ya que la fortuna tendía a favorecer más al arriesgado que al cauto. En términos poblacionales, vemos más hombres de éxito con iniciativa que sin ella ya que, para resultar exitosos, se tuvieron que conyugar dos situaciones: la decisión de asumir riesgos y que la oportunidad favorable efectivamente se haya presentado. En el conjunto de políticos sin éxito encontraremos a los cautos y también a los arriesgados (que no tuvieron suerte). Va de suyo que podemos sustituir “fortuna” por “complejidad” sin perder mucho del sentido de la idea.

Asimismo, The Economist publicó la semana pasada un interesante artículo sobre la relación entre la estructura del azar y laestructura de las decisiones. Todo parece indicar que efectivamente existen buenas y malas rachas, pero ello no se debe al azar si no a la estructura de decisiones que se toman frente a una situación difícil o imposible de comprender. Un jugador tiene a la suerte de su lado cuando, luego de ganar la primera apuesta, en las sucesivas va reduciendo su exposición al riesgo. Correlativamente en este caso, a menores riegos, menores ganancias pero también menores pérdidas, con lo que el resultado neto de todo el conjunto de jugadas es positivo. Paralelamente, si un jugador pierde en su primera apuesta, incrementar el riesgo de las sucesivas con la idea de compensar la primera pérdida sólo lo llevará a la ruina. En síntesis, una muy buena estrategia para lidiar con el riesgo es actuar como un sistema de retroalimentación negativa: a cada desvío del promedio estándar, responder con mayor moderación. Después de todo, la comparación con un sistema de retroalimentación negativa era la caracterización que F. A. Hayek hacía de la función del derecho y de todo sistema normativo en general, aportando mayor estabilidad y mejores resultados netos.

Publicado originariamente en http://www.ihumeblog.blogspot.com.ar , el blog institucional de la Fundación Instituto David Hume (www.ihume.org), de Buenos Aires, Argentina.

From the Comments: Regulations, Market Failures, and the Fait Accompli

Dr Amburgey raises an excellent point in Adam’s equally excellent, most recent post. Responding to a link by economist Peter Boettke on the effects that institutions have on political economy, Dr Amburgey writes:

Very nice post; it crystalizes many of my objections to what I sometimes see here, a neglect of the literature on market failure in general and opportunism specifically.

[Dr Amburgey quoting Boettke:] “In my book, Why Perestroika Failed I argue that in assessing the workability of utopian schemes we must first subject them to a coherence test, and then a test of their vulnerability to opportunism. Schemes that are incoherent are deemed impossible; schemes that are coherent but vulnerable are impractical; and only schemes that are both coherent and invulnerable should be considered in the feasible set of workable utopias.”

An anarchist regulatory regime *is* a utopia, but raising taxes on corporations as an alternative is not? Then why propose such a policy in the first pace? I think it’s because Dr A doesn’t realize that his utopia is incoherent. Workable, absolutely, but not coherent.

Do you see how his argument is proposing a utopia, though? There are a number of theoretical responses to the market failure argument. Economist Peter Boettke lists four general responses to the market failure argument: Definitional, institutional, entrepreneurial, and comparative analysis. Adam’s post is an example of a defintional rejection of the market failure argument. I make institutional arguments all the time. Rick’s post on entrepreneurship is a good example of the third. Perhaps we need to do a better job of explaining that our arguments are rebuttals of market failure arguments, but I also think that such rebuttals are implicit in most of our writings.

Dr Amburgey also takes Adam to task for ostensibly failing to see the current regulatory apparatus in place (even though Adam’s initial post was all about current regulations and what to do about them). Dr Amburgey thinks Adam’s argument is all about unicorns and pixie dust:

Unicorns: We’ll completely deregulate one of the most oligopolistic industries in the history of the universe and then the invisible hand of market competition will make everything ok.

Okay, but market competition would include a market for buying and selling regulatory apparatuses. That is to say, regulations themselves would not disappear were they to be withdrawn from the purvey of the State, but rather they would be subject to market competition.

There is also the fact that the oligopolies Dr Amburgey identifies are a result of the state-sponsored regulations.

Pixie dust: “The oil companies should be liable for the full cost of any damages done by their rigs.” Yup. We’ll just add that on to the long list of tort reforms barrelling through the American legislative and judicial systems.

Just because the political system is currently preventing the reforms necessary for full liability does not mean that Adam’s argument is “pixie dust.” Is it not logically sound? If the logic is there (and I see no reason why it is not) then the reforms necessary can take place. Whether or not they will take place is an entirely different topic. I think they could, but only if we can get enough smart people like Dr A to see how they are not thinking their arguments through.

Sure. But they weren’t doing anything they didn’t want to do anyway [see the point just above] they were just externalizing the downside risks. As Adam points out “If the site is not economically viable then there is no reason to drill there.” Classic corporate capitalism in the contemporary US. If it works we get the profit, if it doesn’t you bear the cost.

I don’t think we are disagreeing here. Here is where our misunderstanding begins: Adam’s argument (as I understand it) is that Big Oil is able to externalize these costs through the regulatory apparatus. I think you would have to agree provided you think through the logic of your statement. We all agree that Big Oil was able to externalize the risks involved in drilling off the Gulf, but how, for example, do firms go about “socializing the costs”? If they don’t go through the existing regulatory apparatus, how do these firms achieve the externalization of costs?

“It looks to me like Adam is proposing an alternative for regulating how oil is drilled for by corporations.”

It looks to me like Adam’s alternative for regulating oil [NOT just drilling] is to not regulate it at all. Did I miss some regulations that he would keep?

Again, I don’t know how I can be more clear: Just because government regulations would not exist does not mean that no regulation would exist.

Order, Order, Order

In the conventional wisdom, as you become older, you tend to like order more and more. That is, with age, one is supposed to become more “conservative” in the traditional sense of the term. Personally, I have escaped the curse. Instead, I find myself resenting more and more the growing imposition of petty rules by public entities.

It began a few years back when the city of Santa Cruz banned sleeping. OK, let’s be honest, you may still sleep legally in your bed. The city made it illegal to sleep in public. It’s true that the homeless are a plague here. Many are in a near-constant state of NDUI (not driving under the influence). Many are poor lost souls who are a danger to themselves and occasionally to others. Thus, three or four years ago, a local shopkeeper walking to work was knifed to death in broad daylight. Her killer had spent the previous 48 hours in a shelter muttering about and to his Bible. No one reported him,of course because he had not done anything illegal until then. Next!

The ban on sleeping made me acutely uncomfortable at the time. First, it was plainly inhumane. Second, if you prevent human being from doing what their human nature demands, they will find another way to do it. So, informal camps proliferate in the wooded areas juxtaposing the town. Here, in Central California, we are in a period of prolonged drought. Do we need unattended campfires and campfires attended by people who don’t play with a full deck?

A petty use of power, municipal power, applied in a search for orderliness led to greater and far more dangerous disorder.

I don’t even know if there are enough night shelters for everyone who wants one. I know that there will always be sane but houseless people who don’t want to be in a shelter, by choice. A sizable part of me respects their choice. You may not force people in places where they don’t want to be without due process. The Constitution is completely clear on this. And, I am not in favor of more shelters anyway because I believe they attract the economically feeble to Santa Cruz thus aggravating the problem.

You don’t have to be a “soft” to want the Constitution respected.

Now, since then, there as been a multiplication of city rules. This happens while the crime rate plunges. The fewer crimes the more rules. The crime rate is tanking all over the country; Santa Cruz city rules can hardly take the credit. What am I to think?

Here is a quiz: The Santa Cruz City Council is dominated by:

a Republicans;

b Democrats;

c Leftists to the left of the Democratic Party

Not far is the independent harbor. I used to admire the Santa Cruz (Small Yacht) Harbor. It was the only government and quasi-government organization I knew that stayed clear of reliance on taxes. Harbor users -in their many guises- supported the maintenance of the harbor. They included boat slip renters like me, of course, but also beach goers whose coffee paid for the rent the coffee shop paid to the harbor in return for an excellent commercial location. Harbor users also included patrons of the good restaurant that dominates the harbor entrance with its million dollar view. The restaurant goers gladly paid solid parking fees, of course, and a portion is remitted to the harbor.

I also liked the way the harbor administration put to work underused resources such as the large general parking lot reserved for boat owners that tends to stand more than half empty after four pm. The harbor had an agreement with the self- same restaurant to hold musical barbecues once a summer week evening on the beach it, the harbor, administers. The restaurant got its profits from the sale of barbecued food and the harbor pocketed full parking fees from those not holding slip stickers. The arrangement drew crowds. It was all a little bit untidy but not much. Twice, on such a barbecue evening, I leaned spontaneously out of my truck to congratulate the officer directing parking and to assure him, unsolicited, that this particular slip owner, me, was not (NOT) inconvenienced at all.

And then, someone retired and there was a new sheriff in town. Under the new harbormaster, several things that were allowed became forbidden overnight. The harbor hired a full-time parking enforcer, like the town next door. Suddenly, the one harbor employee the average harbor user interacted with was the parking enforcement officer. This necessarily hostile and heartless functionary supplanted the traditional harbor officers who save boats, and sometimes lives, every weekend. The mood changed and not for the better. I am not speaking for bitterness about parking fines here; with my slip rental goes a permanent parking sticker permit.

Maintaining a stricter order often requires stricter rules that make most people unhappy. Eve if it’s only a little bit unhappy, the bad feeling accumulates.

Then, stand-up surfboards had to be segregated from boats. Boats are limited to 5 m/h inside the harbor anyway. Some boats under sail inside the harbor regularly exceed the speed limit. Those are steered by aces. How bad can a collision be under these conditions, really? Has there been a single collision involving a standup board? Did a boat owner complain about stand-up boards being in the way? Maybe. Did ten complain? I doubt it. (I have not asked; I don’t trust I would get a valid answer I could cite.) My point is that one can always find a complainer or two. If you handed out free ice cream to poor children and cleaned carefully afterward, there would be some curmudgeons to object. I am sure there are boat-owning slip renters who complain even about the ocean swells. But everyone knows that good harbors are bustling with activity. Those who detest the corresponding moderate disorderliness have no business in a harbor at all. They should be reminded of the fact that there is a long waiting list for their slips instead of listened to.

The art of civilized administration requires that complaints be ignored up to a point. It also includes remembering the second most important American maxim: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it until it is.”

Then, there are the new signs that shout at you that fishing from docks is “prohibited.” For as long as I remember, 20 year-plus, children fished from the docks. It was an excellent, healthy, commendable form of leisure for kids, including poor kids, if you ask me. Were there ever any accident as a result, even one? I don’t think so. The signs affirm further and vengefully that the prohibition is: “strictly enforced.” No joking with serious matters here! We are not kidding. Don’t even think of enjoying yourselves!

The posted “minimum” fine is $174. Think about it: Your otherwise well-behaved 12-year old gives you the slip to try to catch a sardine or two. He gets caught. You are into it for about twenty hours of minimum wage. This comes close to a violation of the Eighth Amendment, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, I think. There may also be here a subtle breach of contract involved here. When I first rented a slip in the harbor, fishing from the docks was common practice. The locked dock that was part of the rental gave me special access to a pleasant fishing spot. Then, after twenty years, the contract becomes unilaterally modified to my detriment. The harbor did not bother to re-negotiate the contract.

I agree that this is a very small kind of tyranny but it’s tyranny all the same. The habit of being oppressed nearly always begins small in democratic countries. Our tiny liberties are eroded slowly until we don’t even remember we ever had them.

In the same period, I have heard the crew of one of the few remaining commercial fishing boats left in the harbor complain that they are made to feel unwelcome. I have no proof that their allegation is correct but, I wonder, why would they make it up? It jibes with the other forms of turning of the screw I mention. There is no doubt that the harbor would be neater without fishing boats. Fish smells and the rushed commercial fishermen drop the occasional dead fish into the harbor water. And, well, it’s a yacht harbor, after all. And, by the way, if slips only went to middle-aged nuns who work as librarians, the harbor would be even neater.

Occasionally, I take my grand-daughter to buy live crabs directly from a boat. It’s an expedition for her. It’s unforgettable. It shows her that some food does not come from the supermarket. But who am I to lay claim to such privilege? And who the hell are the commercial fishermen to insist on making a living from a harbor originally created by the Army Corps of Engineers with tax money?

On 2/3/14, coming out of a restaurant, my family and I were treated to a wonderful geyser-like spout of water reaching much higher than a three storied building. No, it was not a whale; the scene was a couple of miles inland, on a busy commercial artery, at a street intersection. We watched in utter fascination for more than fifteen minutes. (I posted a still picture of the event on my Facebook. Look for it.) I am obviously no expert, but I believe that while I looked on several hundreds of thousands of toilet flush- equivalents of city water were lost forever. I know, I know, accidents happen; no system is perfect. But why did it take so long to cap the leak? There is a fire station five or six blocks away.

I almost forgot to tell you: At the very same time, the same evening, there was an important meeting of the Santa Cruz Water Commission to make recommendations about water rationing to the City Council in view of the current drought.

Would I make this up? Would I dare? Do I have the talent?

In my immediate surroundings, the only rule or law I have seen abolished in the past twenty years or so concerns dogs. They used to be prohibited on the main commercial drag of Santa Cruz, Pacific Avenue. The prohibition has been rescinded. Dog owners are numerous and determined. Their victory renews my faith a little in democracy. I wish I could cite more examples though.

Sometimes, the ugly thought crosses my mind that public entities are increasingly run for the benefit of their nominal employees. Karl Marx was almost right about classes, maybe . (See, on this topic: “Karl Marx Was Right (Pretty Much)“)

More on local government action: “Coyotes: How Government Bureaucrats Think