Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The two main 20th Century truths – totalitarianism sucks, feedback rocks

Karl Popper
Listening to a recent radio discussion about James Gleick’s book, The Information, a lot of mental tumblers suddenly clicked into place. My four 20th Century intellectual heroes are the economist, Friedrich Hayek, the philosophers Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein and the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. I'm just starting to realise that, in their various spheres, they were all saying something remarkably similar: without feedback, there is little chance of happiness, prosperity or enlightenment.

As Popper is the only member of the quartet I haven’t yet discussed on this blog, I’ll start with him. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, first published in London in 1945, the Viennese philosopher argued – brilliantly – that democracies will always ultimately defeat totalitarian regimes because the former are open to criticism from the electorate. Bad governments will eventually be kicked out – and new ideas and better ways of doing things will emerge in much the same way as new scientific theories replace outmoded ones. Fascist and Communist states (i.e. "closed" societies) not only don’t welcome criticism – they actually imprison or murder anyone who refuses to toe the official line. Hence, when things start to go wrong (as they always do) those in control don’t know what’s going wrong (no one dares pass bad news up the line for fear of being punished) and, as they’ve stifled all fresh thinking, would, in any case, have no idea how to put things right.

Dictators fly blind, because they only receive false feedback which tells them they’re always right.

Hayek’s  book, The Road to Serfdom (1942), posits pretty much the same theory, only with a greater emphasis on economic well-being. Centrally-planned economies always fail because they’re denied the endless feedback provided by prices – the most valuable source of information in free markets. If house prices drop in Carlisle, but rise in Torquay, the message to property developers is clear: there’s enough available housing in Carlisle, but not enough in Torquay, so don’t bother building more houses in Carlisle. Contrariwise, if some Communist Party apparatchik has decided to make 50,000 new toasters and ship them to Nampo (in North Korea), there is no feedback to tell him whether that was the right decision or not – because prices are centrally set, and because no one at the local level will be brave enough to send him an email saying “We’ve got 40,000 toasters we can’t shift – what a crap idea that was!” (Well, not unless he wants to find out whether it’s possible to fit a human being into a toaster).

The market provides infinite quantities of feedback – and whenever politicians interfere, they distort the feedback mechanism (e.g. encouraging finance companies to lend stacks of cash to people who’ll never be able to pay it back), and disaster ensues.

When it came to psychic health, Jung – the only non-Viennese in our Fab Four – saw dreams as our primary source of feedback . Our unconscious is forever telling us what we need to do in order to make ourselves happier, more complete, more fully-individuated human beings. Of course, the information is couched in almost entirely symbolic terms, so we need to learn the language of dreams – and that’s where the psychotherapist comes in: he or she gives patients feedback by helping them interpret exactly what their subconscious is trying to tell them.

Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is harder to pin down, but it rests on the idea that most philosophical problems (or puzzles, as he preferred to see them) arise when the language used by philosophers becomes divorced from language as it's used in the real world – he likened it to skating on frictionless ice: language is no longer performing any real function. (For examples, read almost any paragraph written by Hegel or Sartre.) Give language a context, rather than leave it hovering in metaphysical mid-air, and you get feedback, which, in turn, will dissolve most philosophical conundrums. For instance, Wittgenstein would have dismissed Descartes supposedly undeniable proposition I think therefore I am, on the grounds that a private language is an impossibility. Language has rules. Rules are socially-derived – without other people providing Descartes with feedback on his use of language, there’d have been no reason for the great French philosopher to assume that “cogito”, “ergo” or “sum” meant the same thing to him from one day to the next. (Yes, it’s complex – if you want to blow your mind, dip into the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations.)

(An extreme example of the Wittgenstinian method is to be found in the writings of the Oxford philosopher, J.L. Austin, who memorably dismissed all metaphysical speculation as to what is “really real” by pointing out that we know what is real because we know how the word “real” is actually used before philosophers get their metaphysical mitts on it.)

What I think it all boils down to is this: if we deprive ourselves of all the feedback the rest of the world and our own psyche is eagerly trying to supply us with, it all ends in tears.



    Take a look at a selection of the press releases issued since 1.11.12 by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, the Board of Trade as was, Santa's Grotto, Vince Cable (prop.):

    • 1.11.12 More than £1 billion to be invested in UK science and research
    • 5.11.12 New powers for courts to improve justice for wronged consumers
    • 6.11.12 Government to care homes sector: help us improve enforcement of regulation
    • 8.11.12 Fallon to big businesses: Commit to paying suppliers on time, or be named
    • 8.11.12 Use of Civil Sanctions Powers Contained in the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008
    • 9.11.12 UK space industry set to rocket with £240 million of investment
    • 9.11.12 Government to invest £20 million in synthetic biology
    • 13.11.12 Mums and dads will share parental leave
    • 14.11.12 Business Secretary’s statement on European Commission’s proposed directive on improving gender balance on Europe’s corporate boards
    • 15.11.12 Business Minister hails North East Regional Growth Fund success
    • 16.11.12 Business Minister announces £40 million boost for high growth SMEs
    • 17.11.12 New power to boost consumers’ access to data
    • 20.11.12 £150 million for businesses to build skilled workforce
    • 21.11.12 £400 million boost to England’s colleges
    • 21.11.12 UK secures £1.2 billion package of space investment
    • 22.11.12 Government sets out steps to change culture in UK equity markets
    • 23.11.12 Bureaucracy busting boost for street traders
    • 23.11.12 Emerging technologies to drive growth identified
    • 26.11.12 Multi-million pound boost for UK manufacturing supply chains
    • 28.11.12 Green bank opens for business
    • 28.11 12 Lord Currie sets out vision for new Competition and Markets Authority
    • 30.11.12 Business Secretary urges headhunters to seek out new female talent
    • 3.12.12 Boost for UK automotive supply chains
    • 4.12.12 Groceries Adjudicator to have new power to fine supermarkets
    • 6.12.12 Vince Cable launches schemes for skills and jobs on South Coast
    • 6.12.12 New £550m capital investment programme will transform FE colleges

    Is that "government doing its job"? Or "a distortion of the markets"?

    What's the difference between one event which affects prices – e.g. floods/drought destroying coffee crops leading to increase in price – and another event which affects prices – e.g. a government subsidy? Why is one a "distortion" and the other not?

    1. Distortion of the markets, undoubtedly. The great mystery is why, despite all evidence to the contrary, civil servants and ministers seem to be convinced that they understand business. A list of the number of public sector technology projects which have been delivered on time and within budget over the past few decades would be fascinating - as well as a percentage figure for those that got delivered at all.

      As for ministers and their uncanny ability to "pick winners", do you think it ever occurs to them to ask how the various sectors they've interfered in would have fared had they simply lowered taxes and got out of the way?

      Great list, by the way.

  2. David Moss. Fascinating list and excellent comment. But highly depressing. Please remember the psychological fragility of elderly followers of this blog.

    1. Be good, or Vince Cable's Groceries Adjudicator will come and get you

      Apologies for lack of sensitivity.

      Relief for elderly followers now comes from an unlikely source.

      The Government Digital Service (GDS) are currently re-writing all central government departments' websites, you may remember. The department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) are among the lucky recipients of this treatment.

      The press releases above all appeared on www.bis.gov.uk.

      Which no longer exists.

      One risk to psychological fragility removed.