Monday, April 26, 2021

Lawless Complexity

One reason why societies decline—and are then restored to life by revolutions—is lawless complexity. No. I’m not against complexity. But there is a lawful and a lawless variety. What lawless complexity is like is all around us—mostly on cable news. Each one of us, with our organs, muscles, lungs, hearts, circulatory systems—we’re lawful complexity. And woe to us when it stops obeying laws.

By the time the French revolution erupted—and we learned to spell “guillotine”—the country had become paralyzed. One simple example was the salt tax. If you wished to travel, every time you entered a new county you had to buy enough salt to last a lifetime. Nobody had that kind of money if travelling across a region—or paying bribes to avoid the tax. Paralysis. And the salt tax was just one of many such institutional knots that tied France into immobility.

Napoleon came and made order. All such nonsense was wiped from the blackboard. One faith, one law, one king—well, not a king yet. The same process happened in Russia where misgovernment had stopped Russian life in tsarist times.

A hint of what lawless complexity is like before everything stops is shown us daily by the Wall Street Journal. Companies that make things or provide services no longer appear very often on WSJ’s pages. What fills those pages are companies that buy and sell fluctuating moods. The companies are into futures—even if the future’s just tomorrow. They sell what many think will happen. What actually happens no longer matters. Futures, futures. If the future looks rosy that faith will build a Matterhorn of paper values—and they might disappear tomorrow. That mountain will be built even if millions are starving now. Conversely, a grim future might fill a Grand Canyon with losses even if everyone’s otherwise fine.

Revolutions work if lawless complexity stops all motion in a country or a region. But if the entire civilization has grown so complex that nothing moves any longer, the change is more profound and takes centuries to fix. Wait and see. As for us elders, we’ll see—but we won’t wait….

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