The Structure of Social Revolutions

Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), a romantic representation of the French Revolution of 1830.

Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), a romantic representation of the French Revolution of 1830.
Wikimedia Commons / Louvre Museum

All around us across the entire planet,  human societies with diverse cultures are boiling over with chaos generated by an accumulation of unsolved problems. A very natural thought about all this chaos is that many very major structures both within and between nation states are imminently liable to decisively break. Are we facing social revolutions in the ways most humans view government?

The Crises Besetting Us

The economies of Western nations  have been stagnating in recent decades, creating a huge drag on the world economy. At the same time Russia, motivated by an intense dissatisfaction with their loss of empire caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, seeks to regain suzerainty over Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea States. Yet to accomplish this they must somehow neutralize the military, economic, and political power of Western Europe and the NATO alliance. While the Russian leaders concentrate on this immense project, their fascist form of economic organization impoverishes their nation and creates internal discontent.

Meanwhile, many (although not all) muslims are motivated both by their religion and a history of hostile relations with Europe to declare jihad against Western Civilization. Amidst all this disorder, Iran seeks to apply its power in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, all in pursuit of becoming the ruler of a Middle East hegemony.

At the same time, China attempts to claim the South and East China Seas as its private lakes to dominate shipping lanes through which passes more than one-half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage, and a third of all maritime traffic across the world. Meanwhile, China’s minion North Korea has demonstrated the capability to produce nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Brandishing these awful weapons, North Korea is threatening both its neighbors and the United States. It also could sell these same weapons to terrorists. It has already sold nuclear weapons technology and materials in 2001 to Syria. North Korea has a long history of selling nuclear and missile technology to Iran. Who would North Korea sell their weapons to next?

The foregoing is just a minimal, thumbnail sketch of the crises besetting international relations. Yet, these problems are mirrored within many of the troubled countries as well. In the United States and Europe in particular, populist rebellions threaten the continued rule of those nations’ elites. The election of Donald Trump in the U.S., of Emmanuel Macron in France, and the approval of Brexit in Great Britain are all symptoms of electorates who have lost their way, who understand their elites are leading them astray. Voters in both Europe and the United States appear to be particularly skeptical of their elites’ multicultural values. In particular those values have demanded open borders, subjecting their societies to cultural suicide by absorbing unassimilated refugees from the Middle East, Africa, or Central and South America.

Given all these strains between and within societies, it is rational to ask if social bonds uniting nations — both internally and externally — might actually dissolve. If the ties that hold nations together snap, what follows? We seem to have discovered we have no accurate way of reasoning about social relationships, at least not in ways that allow us to solve many of the problems assaulting us.

How else can we characterize how our economies have fallen into secular stagnation, other than to say the elites who rule us do not understand economic systems? How else can we explain the social strains created by social welfare programs, illegal immigrants, or by worsening interracial relations, other than to say our ruling elites do not even understand their own country? Is there some other way for us to comprehend and attack our myriad problems, other than the ways used by the elites? If our manner of thinking about social reality produces contradictions and absurdities compared to the reality we actually observe, can we discover a better way to reason about the world around us?

Dialectical Reasoning and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as a Paradigm For Thinking

Dramatic changes  in the ways people think about reality have happened many times before, as evidenced by the many recorded “revolutions” humanity has passed through. There was the First Agricultural Revolution (ca. 10,000 BC), the Iron Age Revolution (ca. 1200 BC), the Scientific Revolution (15th-17th centuries) associated with the Age of Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution (18th to 19th centuries). Each of these revolutions induced great changes in the ways in which humans thought about their relations with each other and with physical reality. In 1962 Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist and philosopher of science, provided a template in his seminal book The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions [S2] for understanding such revolutions, specifically for scientific revolutions. Although Kuhn’s visualization of revolutions was expressly for transformations in the hard sciences, it can easily be adapted for revolutions in the understanding of any field of study or ideology. His framework for understanding changes in the way we understand the world is really an application of dialectical reasoning to mysteries the world throws at us.

For Kuhn, the life of a science progresses through a periodic process that begins with a normal way of looking at things that he calls Normal Science. Any particular state of Normal Science is characterized by a dominant paradigm, which can explain any and all problems, puzzles, and observed phenomena. As time goes on, observations of unexplained phenomena or anomalies arise, many or most of which can be explained eventually by the dominant paradigm.

However, as time progresses, unexplained phenomena begin to accumulate, making it obvious something is very wrong with the dominant paradigm. At that point the community studying the science enters a period of crisis. Sometimes the crisis is resolved with some novel and clever application of the dominant paradigm, but sometimes it is not. The community then undergoes a search for a new paradigm describing the world. Any candidate for a new paradigm must explain simultaneously not only all the new anomalous phenomena, but all the phenomena explained by the old paradigm as well.

Once a new paradigm is found, the scientific  community enters a period of a paradigm shift, also know as a scientific revolution, in which all underlying assumptions of the field are reexamined and the new dominant paradigm is established.

Stated in this organized way, the structure of a scientific revolution is pretty obvious, and clearly is an example of dialectics operating through history. Karl Marx tried to explain the historical progression of economic organization in the same way in a process later Marxists called dialectical materialism. In terms of Hegelian dialectics, we can recognize the period of normal science as the thesis, the crisis period as the antithesis, and the paradigm shift as the synthesis.

We can adopt these ways of looking at changes to just about any intellectual field where one widely used paradigm for understanding is eventually challenged by contradictory observations. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is very much applicable to philosophies (i.e. ideologies) of governing.

Looking at the confusion created by our multiple crises, I think very few could argue we do not have multiple anomalous observations contradictory to the old predominant ruling paradigm of dirigisme. By dirigisme I mean a ruling philosophy in which government power is the predominant tool for solving social and economic problems. No matter what the problem, there must be a government program to ameliorate or solve it! Nevertheless, there are just too many governments in the world using the dirigisme paradigm that are performing badly. Concerning paradigms for ruling, we are in a period of crisis, and must look for a new paradigm. How are we going to find it?

The Anomalous Observations Pointing to a Need for a New Paradigm for Ruling

What are the anomalies,  the discordant phenomena, telling us something is very wrong with the dirigisme paradigm? How is the world telling us that government policies to change public behavior and to regulate the economy are generally counterproductive? One might point out the dysfunctional nature of many government actions and policies. However, beyond that you can also discern how dirigisme inevitably moves societies toward an increasingly authoritarian government.

First, let us think about how and why government policies often end up being dysfunctional. The fact that government policies often are can be seen by the following observation. Those governments that interfere the most with the nuts and bolts of their economies are the ones least successful in promoting a healthy, growing economy. They are the ones least successful in giving their populations the material means to live. This can be seen in a scatter plot of countries’ GDP per capita versus their index of economic freedom. The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom  is calculated each year for every country for which there is data. It is calculated as an arithmetic average of twelve sub-indices, each one of which measures how much the government interferes or dominates some aspect of the economy. Each varies from zero to 100; a value of zero indicates no economic freedom with the government completely dominating, and 100 means complete economic freedom with no government influence. Below is the plot for 2016.

Country Per Capita GDP vs. the WSJ/Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom for 178 countries in 2016.

Country Per Capita GDP vs. the Heritage Foundation/WSJ Index of Economic Freedom for 178 countries in 2016.
Data Sources: World Bank and the Heritage Foundation

Another figure of merit is the U.N.’s Human Development Index (HDI). It purports to measure how well a country gives an opportunity for a long and satisfying life. The HDI is composed as a geometric mean of three components, each of which is constructed to vary from zero to one. One component is a measure of how long people are expected to live in that country, a second is a measure of the population’s educational attainments, and the third is a measure of the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita. A component’s value is zero if the country does not provide an acceptable opportunity for that aspect of life and one if the country over-performs. For example, the life expectancy component is zero if life expectancy is less than 25 and one if it is greater than 85. The education index is zero if the country provides no schooling and one if the expected years of schooling is greater than 18 and the mean years of schooling is greater than 15. The income index is zero if the GNI per capita is less than $100 U.S. (2010) at purchasing power parity and one if GNI per capita is greater than $75,000.  If we construct a scatter plot of every country’s HDI versus its index of economic freedom for the year 2016, we obtain the plot below.

HDI versus economic freedom for all countries on Earth by region in 2016.

HDI versus economic freedom for all countries on Earth by region in 2016.
Data Source: UN Development Programme / Heritage Foundation

Both plots tell us the quality of a citizen’s life will deteriorate the more a government interferes with its economy. Who would rather live today in Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, or North Korea rather than in an economically freer country?

It is not very hard to discern why an increasing influence of governments over social organizations causes generally bad results. This is especially true for the economy.  Systems of interacting human beings are complex and extremely fluid. They are fluid in the sense that the behavior of each individual is changed with each interaction that person has with his or her fellows. I have written of this before by describing human social systems as chaotic systems. If you change the state of any chaotic system by just a tiny bit, it will often evolve into a very different state than it would without the perturbation.

Just like a physical fluid, if society is pushed upon by governments in one way, it will bulge out elsewhere in some unexpected and usually unpleasant fashion. Make it easy through welfare policies for single mother families to exist, and as the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan discovered, government becomes complicit in destroying white, black and hispanic families. Greatly increase government financial regulations with the intent of safeguarding the people, and you end up destroying the primary institutions for financing new small businesses, the small community banks. Tax corporations enough and government destroys society’s capability to produce wealth by discouraging productive investments. Or as the United States has experienced, corporations that are heavily taxed and onerously regulated may choose to flee the country altogether, taking intellectual property, jobs, and capital with them.

The worldwide consensus on dirigiste governments assumes something about social reality that is manifestly not true. Dirigistes of all stripes, including American progressives, depend on government’s capability to use the coercive power of law to change society in ways they want. However, they expect to do this without creating even greater damage as side-effects. This is a capability government does not have. Government can not have it even in principle! This is because systems of interacting human beings are chaotic systems.

Interacting human beings quite often do not want the same things that government wants and many times will resist the diktats of government. If government raises taxes, a rebellious tax payer might well seek ways to evade those taxes, possibly legally by reducing his income through working less. Another possibility is the taxpayer might put his capital to work overseas and refuse to repatriate the earnings. Or the taxpayer might flee the country altogether. Alternatively, if the tax payer is rich, she could decide to reduce her investments to the same extent her taxes are raised, rather than reduce her own personal consumption. Reduced investment then translates to harm for society, as the productive capacity of the economy becomes less than what it would otherwise be. The more intrusive a dirigiste government’s rule is, the more likely it is to create serious and lasting harm to society.

Besides the often dysfunctional consequences of government action, there is another reason to reject dirigiste government. It is an observed historical fact that government intervention in the intricate details of social systems almost always moves us toward an increasingly autocratic government. It is a problem of democratic governments first remarked upon by Alexis de Touqueville in his book Democracy in America, where de Tocqueville called it the “road to servitude.” Later, the Austrian economist Friedrich A. Hayek, observing the transformation of the democratic German Weimar Republic into Nazi Germany, documented how the problem evolves in his seminal work, The Road to Serfdom [E2].

The general mechanism for this transition starts with government trying to solve some serious economic or social problem. Ruling dirigistes (progressives in the United States) will legislate increased government power to address it. They will then discover that although the direct applications of the new powers might (or might not) ameliorate the addressed problems, they also usually create unforeseen side-effects that are often of similar or greater malignity for society. In reaction to the new problems they just created, dirigistes — having faith in the application of government power to solve social problems — figure out a further ad hoc increase in government powers to “solve” the newly arising problems created by the old applications of government authority. Due to the complexity of chaotic systems, this chain of evolution toward ever more autocratic government will not end until one reaches the end state of a completely fascist government. Should an unscrupulous politician like Adolf Hitler get control, the process can be accelerated. The Democratic Party in the United States displays a definite penchant for this kind of evolution.

Government trying to solve all social and economic problems is getting us into serious trouble and causing significant damage to society. We need another paradigm for government and another way to attack most such problems. In my next post I will speculate on what we might be able to do.


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