When I went to MIT, I did not set out to be a confrontational conservative; I wanted to study the politics of the environment because I thought it was important and something about which most reasonable people could agree. However, I quickly came into conflict with a democratic socialist, Prof. Kilo, but the reasons why are instructive. The initial conflict occurred when I read his book on democracy, which turned out to be primarily about camouflaged socialism. His argument was instead of experts making economic decisions, people would vote on them. This didn’t make sense to me because Hayek argued that socialist central decision-making committees, councils, or soviets, would have sufficient information to make accurate or beneficial economic decisions. If people voted on all major decisions, then from where would people get their information? In the 21st century, that would be from the media, but the California initiative process shows what a mess that would be with people making important decision based on little or inaccurate information. But perhaps this is what Kilo wanted, with political power centralized in the hands of the media? After all, the media have been key drivers of communism and socialism over the years.
My argument was partly driven by an understanding of computational theory supported by practical experience, always a dangerous combination when tangling with a theoretical Marxist. Computational theory, as developed by Alan Turing, provided a way to address great big heaping piles of logic in the form of Turing machines. Policy and complexity both have this same, great big heaping piles of logic quality to them. Political theorists often want to discuss individual if-then-else statements, or game theory, which “boils down” and abstracts reality so that closed-form solutions can be achieved. As an engineer, I greatly appreciate this Cartesian activity, but it’s not reality. Turing made the point that even with a well-understood and specified computer program, you can’t predict ahead of time if it will stop or halt. So how can, with complex policy questions, politicians and political scientists make these outrageous pronouncements and have any expectation that they will, in fact, come true? Perhaps such policy prescriptions are not intended to be true and help the public in the long-term but help the politicians themselves in the short-term? And if this is the case, what kind of punishment will they experience due to their failure?
When I was programming, my code-base quickly got to the level where, even though I wrote the code, I could not predict what would happen. Here I was, the world’s expert on this code, by definition because I wrote it, but I could not predict what would happen. And this code is far simpler than the complex social systems politicians, policy makers, and political scientists so confidently manipulate. Because I could not predict what would happen when I changed my code, I modified my behavior to checkpoint my code, make small changes, and then back out those changes if they did not work out. This is what a prudent engineer does because it helps to preserve the value of or “conserve” the code. Recognizing the value of a resource and seeking to retain and maintain it is, by definition, conservative.
Political entrepreneurs do the exact opposite. They propose wild, outlandish, and implausible policies that may sound good on the media or in a graduate seminar, but are almost guaranteed to fail in the real world. That is, such proposal are “radical”, which is defined as:
a: very different from the usual or traditional : EXTREME
b: favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions
c: associated with political views, practices, and policies of extreme change
d: advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs
When I pulled this definition, its source gave an example of, “the radical right.” Love it! I argue that making extreme, radical policy changes and then moving on to make even more radical changes without ever stopping to review the efficacy or consequences of those changes is almost entirely an activity undertaken by the left. The result of this activity is using up and depleting resources or stores of value. It may make the proponent of the policy wealthy, but it is not good policy.
The book, Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (2001) by Judith Shapiro makes exactly this argument. That is, the Chinese communist revolution resulted in horrendous environmental degradation because it was an exercise in maximizing political power and exploiting value, what environmental political economist (and Nobel Prize Winner) Elinor Ostrom calls Common Pool Resources (CPRs). The Chinese communist revolution was an exercise in making large, radical changes quickly and was most certainly not interested in understanding natural or social systems first before acting, which is at the heart of conservatism. Such understanding is also at the heart of science, which is why I argue that Marxists are most interested in scientism — leveraging the lexicon and status of science to increase their status and influence others — rather than true science.
Explaining this, I realize how naive I was. I thought that Kilo must have thought these issues through, that I must be wrong, and that my raising these issues would lead to a conversation, and that Kilo would teach and I would learn. After all, because this argument applied computational theory to political systems, it seemed a very MIT document. That is not what happened. Instead Kilo exploded! He started yelling, asked me how I could do such a thing, and that I deserved to receive an F on this work, but he would be magnanimous and give me an incomplete. I didn’t know what to say because this response was so completely unexpected, so I went away. I thought about it, went through the logic, formed my arguments, and went back to Kilo’s office thinking that this was just a simple misunderstanding. That turned out not to be the case. As soon as I tried explaining, Kilo interrupted and shouted me down, “You’re paper means nothing! NOTHING!” I stopped talking because I realized that I had treaded on some dangerous ground, but I realized something else also. If my paper meant nothing, then why was Kilo so upset?