The Complexity Crisis

I am thinking about the huge and crushing number of issues we force politicians to understand and make decisions on. These are issues of great variety, complexity, and even in some cases, many cases in a way, unknowability.

All of us, as good citizens, feel that we must know something about them, study them, come to conclusions. But there are too many, and they are too complicated, or the information on them is contradictory, or incomplete.

For politicians it is the same but more so. They not only have to try to understand, complicated and demanding questions, they have to vote on them.

We are asking our politicians, our senators and congressmen, to make judgments, decisions and policy on: stem cell research, SDI, Nato composition, G-8 agreements, the history and state of play of judicial and legislative actions regarding press freedoms, the history of Sunni-Shiites tensions, Kurds, tax rates, federal spending, hurricane prediction and response, the building of a library annex in Missoula, the most recent thinking on when human life begins, including the thinking of the theologians of antiquity on when the soul enters the body, chemical weaponry, the Supreme Court, U.S.-North Korean relations, bioethics, cloning, public college curriculums, India-Pakistan relations, the enduring Muslim-Hindu conflict, the constitutional implications of McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, Homeland security, Securities and Exchange Commission authority, energy policy, environmental policy, nuclear proliferation, global warming, the stability of Venezuela’s Chavez regime and its implications for U.S. oil prices, the future of Cuba after Castro, progress in gender bias as suggested by comparisons of the number of girls who pursued college-track studies in American public high schools circa 1950 to those on a college-track today, outsourcing, immigration, the comparative efficacy of charter and magnet schools, land use, Kelo, health care, HMO’s, what to do with victims of child abuse, the history of marriage, the nature and origin of homosexuality, V-chips, foreign competition in the making of computer chips, fat levels in potato chips, national policy on the humanities, U.N. reform, and privacy law.

And that was just this week.

Just seven days in the modern political world.

Lucky for us our congressmen and senators are smart as Einstein, good as Mother Teresa, knowledgeable as Henry Kissinger times Robert Kaplan, and wise as Solomon.

Oh wait.

We are asking too much. Of ourselves and of the mere mortals who lead us.

With their areas of responsibility defined as the world, the universe and the cosmos, is it any wonder our politicians and network anchors—our most visible American leaders—tend to act like they have attention deficit disorder? In their professions attention deficit disorder is a plus.

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Why are we asking so much of them? Because everything comes down to law and law comes down to politicians. Because everyone’s watching, and trying to pin everyone else down—“But Congressman, the little girl lived in your district and all the local authorities had been alerted, don’t you think your office should have done something about the daily abuse to which she was being subjected?”

And yet this is all good for politicians. Because it’s good for business. Yes they are overwhelmed and yes they are out of their depth—how could they not be?—but the endless number of questions on which they must legislate leads to an endless number of lobbyists and groups willing to give them money and support in return for a vote.

The Increasing Complexity of Everything is good for liberalism (government should be vital, large, demand and bestow much) and not conservatism (government should be smaller, less powerful, less demanding of the treasure and liberty of the citizenry). When everything is a big complicated morass, regular normal people, voters, constituents, become intellectually disheartened. They can also lose sight of core principles. A leftist who is Machiavellian in his impulses just might look at the lay of the land and think, Good, snow ’em under, they’ll get confused. Keep hitting them with new issues and they’ll start to make mistakes. They may stop us on gun control, but while they’re busy fighting that we’ll get Congress to mandate limits on CEO pay.

One feels as a voter not argued into agreement or persuaded into support but complicated into submission.

How do politicians themselves feel about it? I would like to think many of them, and I know some of them, occasionally have a drink with friends at night and let out their surprise and dismay. “I’m just a guy who loved politics! I buy my suits at Moe’s Big and Tall! I’m not a theologian, I’m not a scientist! Don’t make me make these decisions! I’m stupider than you understand!”

That turns into: “I’m not Plato! I’m not Socrates! Do you really want me to pretend I am?”

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But a lot voters do seem to want them to pretend to higher wisdom than they possess.

Which leads politicians to the third stage of surprise and dismay: “I just made American public policy on stem cell research, telling Harvard and Yale doctors what to do. Am I not Plato? Would you not like to kiss my hand?”

This is the ego generated by people of whom impossible demands are made.

What is the answer to all this? I don’t know. But there must be one, even though it’s probably complicated. I have only three thoughts. One: It is good to keep in mind, at such a time, that we must let as many questions devolve into the private sphere as possible. Not all can but many can, and on so many issues it’s better to err on the side of individual freedom than the authority of the state. Two, in making big decisions do not lose simple common sense, which is common human sense, which is, for instance: If you start to clone humans it will have an ugly end. Three: Do not let go of your faith. Do not lose it. In the age in which too much is demanded of the slim wisdom of politicians, it is our only hope, and theirs.