The Lies Progressives Tell (Especially To Themselves!)

Violence between UC Berkeley students and Trump supporters on March2, 2017

Violence between UC Berkeley students and Trump supporters on March 2, 2017
Screen capture from Fox News Youtube post

Over the past nine years  the offenses progressives have made against the truth have multiplied. This was certainly true through all eight years of the Obama administration, but since the election of Donald Trump, these misrepresentations have positively bloomed. It may be a stretch to say they are actually lies since progressives themselves seem to actually believe many of these distortions of the truth. Yet those of us who are neoliberals (aka “conservatives”, a misnomer) need to point out to progressive friends and acquaintances what we consider their fallacies. Then, of course they can respond why they think we are desperately wrong, and we can respond in kind.

Whether or not neoliberals can actually persuade progressives to engage in such a conversation is uncertain, since many progressives, especially those in the progressive elites, consider most neoliberals to be despicable, immoral, barely human individuals. Nevertheless, neoliberals must hold themselves ready for such discussions, since coming to an agreement on the nature of social reality might be the only way to avoid a second American civil war.

The Frameworks of Our Two Major Ideologies

There are as many different ideologies  as there are people on the face of the Earth. Nevertheless, at least in the West they all seem to be derivative from two major types. The first is the class of world views of those who believe government must have an extensive and growing role in the affairs of society. According to this view, government must have ever increasing powers to solve social and economic problems. Just how much power would be required depends on the variant of the dirigiste ideology. In the United States the adherents to this major class of ideologies are usually known as progressives, although they are many times labeled with the misnomer of “Liberals”.

Between when progressives began their movement in the late 19th century and the administration of the progressive president Woodrow Wilson, progressives deserved to be called liberals since they were concerned with breaking an unholy alliance between government and large corporations. Their concern for the liberty of the individual citizen from this government-corporate alliance justified viewing them as liberals.

Wilson’s administration (1913-1921) marks the time at which progressives began to become increasingly hostile to the U.S. Constitution. Chafing at the barriers to change provided by the checks and balances required by the Constitution, progressives believed that the nation needed to move beyond the principles of the founding fathers. While campaigning for the presidency in 1912, Wilson stated his desires for a revolutionary change in how we viewed Constitutional constraints. In his view of reality, both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence had out-lived their usefulness. Instead of the old view of the Constitution limiting the powers of government with a separation of powers between the branches of government, he wanted Americans to take the Constitution as a “living”, evolving document. Instead of a Constitution guaranteeing ironclad rights for individuals, Wilson wanted a Constitution constantly evolving the relationship between government and its citizens. Instead of a separation of powers between government’s branches, Wilson believed society’s needs required cooperation between the branches.

Ever since Woodrow Wilson progressives have promoted the idea of the Constitution as a “living, evolving” thing. What this meant in practice was that the document was mutable in meaning without going through the arduous process of ratifying amendments. By comparing current social conditions with what they thought the founders required through the Constitution, progressive federal judges and justices of the Supreme Court would find implied constitutional “penumbras” and “emanations”, effectively modifying the Constitution on the cheap and without the consent of the people.

One of the consequences of this new attitude toward the Constitution was that Congress was allowed to delegate much of its legislative power to departments of the executive branch, and to independent government agencies, such as the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). With many of these independent agencies, including the three just cited, the federal judiciary has actually acquiesced to the Congress granting limited judicial power as well, effectively erasing all separation of powers in the domain of the independent agency! This growing phenomenon of autocratic rule by bureaucratic technocrats was discussed in the posts How a Democracy Evolves Into Fascism, The Dodd-Frank Act: A Giant Stride Along the Road to Serfdom, and The Progressives’ War On the Separation of Powers.

The second major class of ideologies contains the direct descendants of the Age of Enlightenment. Members of this class believe the powers of government should be severely limited to only those required to defend the social contract. Just how much power would be required to do this depends on the variant of neoliberalism. The solution of other social and economic problems is the province of individual citizens and voluntary, non-government organizations of individuals. The greatest fear of these folks is the loss of individual freedom to the tyranny of a government. In the United States the exponents of this class of ideologies are usually called “conservatives”, but this is also a misnomer. More accurately , they should be called “neoliberals.”

A neoliberal is a believer in classical liberalism, as handed down to us from political philosophers such as John Locke and the Baron de Montesquieu,  with an additional belief in the desirability of capitalist free-markets. Classical liberals certainly believed in economic freedom, but the belief that that freedom can only be had from capitalist free-markets is an add-on to classical liberalism. This justifies the “neo” prefix to neoliberal. The “liberal” part of that word comes from the classical liberal belief in sharply limited and circumscribed government powers.

The Most Fundamental Errors of the Progressives

From the perspective of neoliberals,  the most egregious lie that progressives tell themselves is that systems of interacting human beings are not fundamentally chaotic systems. Progressives would never put it that way, even if they knew what a chaotic system was, since such a statement would imply they do not recognize the complexity of human society. Instead, a progressive would say the government has the capability to manage society in order to solve or ameliorate social problems without unacceptably large unintended and deleterious consequences. Yet, as I shall endeavor to persuade you, the implication of such a belief is any system that can be managed the way progressives hope can not possibly be chaotic. This faith in government capability to manage society is central to progressive ideology.

A chaotic system is defined in the following way. First, in order to even describe a system you have to be able to define its state in an unambiguous way. Usually, a complicated system is made up of a number of components, the state of each one being completely defined by variables associated with that component. The number of such variables allowed to change in a random way in interaction with the other components is called the system’s degrees of freedom. Some of the prime examples of chaotic systems are fluid N-body systems in physics, where N is the number of molecules making up the fluid. One of the more interesting examples of these is our planetary atmosphere, or even better, the combined and interacting systems of the atmosphere and the planet’s oceans. I bring up the subject of these physical fluid systems because it turns out they are chaotic for exactly the same reasons as social systems of interacting humans: They are composed of a truly huge number of components with an even larger number of degrees of freedom, and these components primarily interact locally in the space in which they move. You can gain a great deal of insight into human chaotic systems by studying how physicists understand fluid N-body systems.

So how can physicists understand fluid systems? The answer is, not very easily at all! There is no possible way at all to solve the equations of motion for all the molecules composing any fluid. At a very minimum each molecule has six degrees of freedom — three coordinates specifying their position in space and three components of their velocity — giving a total of 6N degrees of freedom for the entire system. [The degrees of freedom can be reduced a very tiny bit by using constraints such as the requirement the fluid remain within some volume, or using conservation laws such as the conservation of total momentum and the conservation of energy for the entire system. However, this reduction in degrees of freedom for any fluid system is truly negligible. That is why fluid systems are so — well — fluid!] It is inconceivable we could solve all the equations of motion even numerically using any computer, either those we have today or any conceivable ones we might have in the future.

Instead, physicists use a theory of many particle systems called statistical mechanics. Within this discipline physicists use the basic equations of particle motion to derive equations describing the probability of finding any molecule at any particular position with any particular velocity. Using those equations we can derive what are called fluid equations that describe how the density and velocity of a fluid changes for every species of molecule at any position for any particular time. In any such fluid model the degrees of freedom are greatly reduced, but are still usually humongous. Using computers, we must solve for the fluid density and velocity for each molecular species at points on a three-dimensional grid. The spacing between grid points must be small enough to resolve any important fluctuation in fluid density or velocity.

We are now at a point where we can define what we mean when we say such systems are chaotic; and even more importantly, why they are chaotic. Back in the 1960s when modern computers first became widely used to solve academic problems, an American mathematician and meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,  Edward Lorenz, was one of the first to attempt to simulate the weather.

What Lorenz discovered in his computer simulations was the incredible sensitivity of the weather system to initial conditions. Mere roundoff errors in the initial  conditions of computer variables were enough to make computer simulations not reproducible. In a 1963 paper “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow” in the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, he wrote:

Two states differing by imperceptible amounts may eventually evolve into two considerably different states … If, then, there is any error whatever in observing the present state—and in any real system such errors seem inevitable—an acceptable prediction of an instantaneous state in the distant future may well be impossible….In view of the inevitable inaccuracy and incompleteness of weather observations, precise very-long-range forecasting would seem to be nonexistent.

Small round-off errors in the inputs of initial conditions would be sufficient to produce huge differences in the system state at a later time. In 1972 Lorenz wrote a paper entitled “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?”. From this title came the coining of the term butterfly effect popularized in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park.

Clip from the 1993 movie Jurassic Park describing the Butterfly Effect

So what makes fluid systems like the atmosphere so sensitive in their behavior to their initial conditions? The first reason is that such systems have such a huge number of free variables. Change the behavior of just a few of them a little, and the changes can cascade to much different system states in the future. The second reason is that these systems are fluid, which allows that humongous number of free variables to change. That is, most of those free variables are in fact degrees of freedom of the system.

For example, suppose you were to cool a fluid system, such as a body of water, to the point where it begins to freeze. Then the kinetic energy in the thermal motion of the molecules will not be enough to resist electrostatic forces between molecules organizing them into a crystal structure. The system then becomes a solid state body rather than a fluid. The only degrees of freedom left are the coordinates of the center of mass and of its velocity, plus three more variables describing the orientation of the frozen body. The degrees of freedom have been reduced from an astronomical number directly proportional to the number of molecules to just nine! Such a system can hardly be chaotic.

Yet another attribute that contributes to the chaotic behavior of such systems is that interactions between system components tend to be very local in the space in which the components move. The main interactions between air molecules are close-range collisions, scattering the colliding molecules into different and random directions with different velocities, providing a mechanism for randomizing the state variables.

So here is the point of this long discursive discussion of fluid systems as chaotic systems. Systems of interacting human beings are chaotic for exactly the same reasons as the planetary atmosphere!  The most important of these systems of interacting humans is society’s economy. In what follows I will focus on the economy as a chaotic system. However, a few moments of consideration should persuade you that other human social systems, such as political parties and corporations, also tend to be chaotic for exactly the same reasons. The only caveat is that as the number of humans making up the system declines, its degrees of freedom and therefore its chaotic nature will also decrease.

The Economy As A Chaotic System

So why is the economy like the weather?  First, it has a huge number of unconstrained degrees of freedom directly proportional to the number of economic agents within the economy minus constraints on the system. Economic agents are producers, buyers, and sellers of goods and services. Within any country, but particularly within a large country like the United States, this is a truly very large number. The number and nature of system constraints and whether there are enough of them to reduce the chaotic nature of the economy is a paramount issue to which we will return shortly.

The components making up the system, the economy’s “molecules” if you will, are then its economic agents. The state variables associated with each of these components are quantities of goods and services, and their prices at those quantities, at which producers are willing to produce, sellers are willing to sell, and buyers are willing to buy. This observation shows any economy has a huge number of state variables.

The really big question however is: How many of these variables are true system degrees of freedom? Will system constraints overcome the “thermal energy” (or as Keynes might have put it, the “animal spirits”) of the system’s molecules, its economic agents, to satisfy any possible deal between buyer and seller? History tells us that whenever system constraints suppress the “thermal energy” or “animal spirits” of the economic agents, economic activity is suppressed and the economy stagnates or even dies. The system freezes into a solid state body. What history tells us this? Consider the history of the communist nations in the post Historical Lessons on Economics and Politics; the history of developing nations in the posts Lessons From The Developing World and The Dominican Republic; the history of economic stagnation for the last one and a half decades for most of Western Europe in More Historical Lessons From Europe; and the history of the stagnation of once but no longer free-markets of the United States in Obama Has Not Produced An Economic Recovery. Finally consider the more recent history of the economic suicide of the once rich country of Venezuela once it became socialist. The repetitive message of history appears to be the only way an economy can remain healthy and growing is to have a fluid and therefore chaotic economy.

What happens when progressive government policies attempt to “manage” the economy? What the government does is to impose a constraint on the economy, forcing the system to conform to government policies using the coercive power of law. In doing so, it reduces the system’s fluidity by reducing its degrees of freedom. In addition, it creates local distortions that unbalance existing supply-demand balances. Any time these balances are disturbed for a particular good, either shortages or surpluses of the good will be created, either one of which will diminish economic activity. If the distortions introduced by the government are severe enough, they can easily cause a recession or even a depression.

A great example from recent history is the Dodd-Frank Act that was a reaction to the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Democrats who controlled both the Congress and the executive branch at the time blamed the recession on private sector greed, particularly on the part of banks originating mortgage loans. It should be noted in passing that the actual cause of the Great Recession was federal government housing policy that forced banks to make risky junk mortgage loans. In reaction to progressive perceptions of what caused the Great Recession, the provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act imposed draconian controls on the financial industry, including banks, and traders in commodities, stocks, and bonds. It has been particularly hard on small community banks that historically have provided the most investments for new small businesses in their communities. By its high-handed restrictions on the free-market, Dodd-Frank has made the community bank an endangered species.

It is important to realize that a chaotic social system is not necessarily one susceptible to collapse. They can be relatively stable with the chaos all directed toward producing more of what is desired by the human system components. In the chaotic weather system of the Earth, quasi-stability can form from local balances of air pressure and temperature, with high and low pressure fronts passing through to equilibrate pressures and temperatures. In a chaotic economy local quasi-stable equilibria can form with supply-demand balances.

More to Come!

What I have discussed in this essay  is merely the most fundamental of the lies progressives tell to themselves and to others. Progressives simply can not accept that healthy non-governmental social systems are necessarily chaotic, and that when progressives make them less chaotic by reducing the system’s degrees of freedom, they almost always end up harming us. Those degrees of freedom are what give the system the flexibility it needs to solve its problems at a local level. Progressives cling to this lie because of their conviction the government must dictate solutions for changes to occur at all. And also it is oh, so sweet and gratifying to hold all that power!

In my next post I will list what I see as subsidiary progressive lies in service to the fundamental one.


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