August 09, 2007

Chaos, the stock market, and the ends of political philosophy

I just finished teaching a class on chaos theory to a group of 15 young people (ages 12-16). The subject is fascinating, and I highly recommend picking up a copy of James Gleick's Chaos for an non-technical and historical introduction. One of the major themes we have learned in the development of chaos theory over the past 40 years is that order and disorder are not, as traditionally thought, opposites. Gigantic, destructive hurricanes -- to pick a vivid example -- are caused by essentially the same processes that produce refreshing light rains.

One of the most important and interesting features of chaotic systems is a tendency for a system to transition between order and disorder spontaneously and without any outside influence. The same processes keep happening in the same way, and predictable stability suddenly turns into completely unpredictable randomness -- and then, just as suddenly, settles down into predictable stability again. Freakish weather -- Indian summers, snow in April and May (in the US) -- is a good example of this sort of thing.

I spent all day yesterday travelling, which means most of the news I saw was business news. And all the business news was going on and on about the turmoil in the stock market. And I was reminded that chaos theory has turned out to be rather successful at explaining the behaviour of stock markets. It's not that the abstract mathematics gives a causal account of how real economic events influence the way the wealthy trade money. Rather, those causal processes, whatever they are, have a mathematical structure that is accurately expressed using chaotic dynamical systems.

This means that stock markets, like other chaotic phenomena, will tend to alternate -- unpredictably and on all time-scales -- between periods of ordered and disordered behaviour. The current turmoil on Wall Street may be the result of exactly the same processes behaving in exactly the same way as two months ago. Predatory and self-destructive lending practices may have been an incidental factor -- more like the straw that broke the camel's back than a ton of bricks -- or may have even been completely irrelevant -- the system went from order to disorder entirely naturally, with no outside influences.

But we don't think in chaotic terms, at least not generally and not yet. When we see order turning into disorder, we think some external force has intervened in the system. And so we see pundits talking about this or that possible cause, without ever considering the possibility that there was no cause, that this is just the sort of thing that happens in chaotic systems.

Now, to get to something that's actually important. I don't want to try to formulate the definitions that would make empirical investigation actually possible here, but I do want to suggest that `political stability' may also be a chaotic dynamical system.

This hypothesis would have some interesting explanatory power. It would explain, for example, why the 1960s and '70s were so tumultuous, and our era is so placid.

But, for this post, I'm really interested in thinking about what implications this hypothesis would have for political philosophy. We tend to think of the just society as at least internally stable -- it has all its problems solved, so the only way instability could arise would be for some outside event to occur, like a drought or plague or alien invasion. Some political philosophers have even considered stability as the single most important issue for political philosophy -- Hobbes, for example, defends a totalitarian state on the grounds that it's the only way to guarantee stability, and Rawls makes the transition from A theory of justice to Political liberalism by realising that an ineliminable political pluralism will be a feature of any liberal democracy, and hence a potential threat to stability that must be dealt with.

But if this chaos hypothesis is right, then a perfectly stable society is a pipe dream. We may be able to achieve stability for a while, but it will never be completely ineliminable, and indeed will crop up unpredictably and spontaneously on all time scales. Even Fall of the Roman Empire-level disorder may be inevitable. And then political philosophers may be completely wasting their time, looking for the totally stable society.

We should therefore go after justice directly. A stable society is either impossible, or will be a secondary achievement of a truly just society. Perhaps we can even develop a conception of the just society that can survive a Fall of the Roman Empire-level disorder.


MosBen said...

I got that book on Chaos back around 8th grade, or whenever Jurassic Park was big, from that weird uncle who's track record on presents was always a bit spotty (the books he got me were always pretty good, but outside of that I'd get camping shovels or slippers, not exactly what young me wanted). Anyway, I remember liking it a ton, though I wish I had my copy with me now that I'm a bit older.

I'm at work now, so please forgive me if this question is easily answered by a more careful reading of the post, but is it your position that people currently trying to influence policy do so in an effort to reach a perfectly stable society? I'm willing to accept that Hobbes was all about order and stability, but is that what people envision as the goal today? That just strikes me as off, but I'd have to hear your arguments before I think I can put my finger on it.

Noumena said...

My foil here is just political theorists and philosophers. (I'm too hung over to care about subject-verb agreement right now.) We may have some influence over social policy, but it's very, very indirect.

More specifically, my foil is the common assumption that a just society is orderly and stable, so that instability and disorder are incompatible with justice. It's one you see in Hobbes, but it also crops up in Marx, in MacIntyre, and in Rawls. And in `folk' political theory -- when people complain about the civil rights movement or cultural change, they're saying that something is wrong because something is disordered.