Government and the Process of Design Change

Exclusive to STR

November 26, 2007

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Those in control of government are using the same methods to advance and otherwise improve government power over citizens as corporations such as Apple Computer or Honda Motors use to advance and otherwise improve their products. Broadly speaking, these methods are intelligently applied iterative and incremental design change.

That is not a comforting thought, because such methods are extremely powerful, well-understood, and have a long history of getting the job done.

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Nature itself shows us many iterative and incremental processes. Evolution is an iterative and incremental process -- change a bit of DNA, see what happens, repeat -- for more than three billion years so far. The results are all around us, and they are awe-inspiring.

On the other hand, evolution is "directed" or "designed" only in that what does not reproduce disappears, and what does reproduce continues -- which makes biological evolution slow and inefficient by human standards.* Natural evolution precludes (or at least makes staggeringly unlikely) sudden major redesign of the entire organism or even of large portions of an organism. Evolution in the natural world leads to kluges that even a novice designer would avoid -- for example, sperm whales that hunt squid at great depths yet which cannot breathe underwater.

Even if a deity or some Advanced Intelligence actually did the original design job for life on earth, from that moment forward, life has been evolving -- as we can see in real-time with bacteria and viruses due to their extremely fast reproductive cycles; antibiotic resistance and the appearance of more virulent versions of known pathogens are two unhappily-common examples. Incremental changes via mistakes in the constantly repeated task of copying DNA for reproduction** are evolution's stock-in-trade -- the tool with which nature creates new versions of existing organisms ("Monarch butterfly 6.3 -- now more resistant to GMO contamination!").

Software, automobiles and other human artifacts are designed in surprisingly similar fashion, in that (typically) several rounds of changes -- often a great many rounds in an ongoing process -- are made to improve the product. But because intelligence actually is involved in the design of such things, these human-designed creations evolve quickly and can be easily redesigned in part or in whole; done this way, a sperm whale would have gills.

Intelligent (human) design does not preclude error. New products are sometimes less wonderful than their predecessors: Microsoft Windows Vista is a current example, many would say. Mistakes and miscalculations are part of life.

When allowed to function freely, the market culls these mistakes and life goes on, as consumers spend their finite supply of money on products that they prefer, leaving suppliers of less-favored offerings to improve, or to lose customers and eventually go out of business.

On the whole, this process of intelligently-directed iterative and incremental design creates astonishing advances very quickly. For example, I bought a one-gig RAM upgrade for our laptop today; the price was $49.98, on sale from $109.98. Twenty years ago, when gas was 89 cents a gallon (I paid $3.39/gal yesterday), a gigabyte of RAM cost -- well, more than a trillion dollars, let's say, since such a futuristic product as a "one gig RAM upgrade" did not exist (here's a quick look at what did exist in the computer market of 1987). One megabyte of RAM -- about a thousandth of a gigabyte -- cost much more than $49.98, even without adjusting for inflation. Most PCs of the day were running with 640 kilobytes of memory or less -- a mere speck by today's standards. 10 MHz or 12 MHz in a 16-bit CPU was pretty much the upper limit for mainstream desktop processor performance; the original IBM-PC introduced in 1983 and the 10MB-harddrive-equipped IBM-XT ran at 4.77 MHz. The computer I am writing this on operates at just over 3,000Mhz -- and it cost less, even in nominal terms, than my first Kaypro computer (dual floppies, no hard drive, 64K of RAM, 8-bit processor running at just over zero MHz, CP/M operating system, built-in monochrome screen with no graphics -- a bargain in the early 1980s for $1,595).

Moore's Law is a vivid example of the power of human intelligence applied via iterative design cycles and incremental improvements, but it is hardly unique. Wherever the market works without much government interference (be that interference in the form of government regulation, government price supports, government-enforced monopolies, government-required and -enforced licensing, government subsidies to business, government contracts, government-funded and controlled research, government agencies replacing some or all of an industry, etc.) -- whenever that can be avoided, the market creates products and services that people actually want enough to pay for voluntarily. Improvements, when desired and possible, come quickly when government does not interfere.

The "voluntarily" part of all this is crucial, because free choice is what culls bad products and services from the marketplace. "Bad" can mean poorly made or poorly designed or dangerous or poor value for the money or anything else that people are not interested in purchasing. But when government provides bad services or creates the conditions leading to bad products from businesses, the consumer is stuck: You, the taxpayer, are forced to pay for whatever is causing the problem, from drug prohibition causing dangerous street heroin, high prices, violent criminal empires, and police corruption to the FDA preventing you from saving your own life with a promising but not-yet-approved cancer therapy. When your money is taken by force and spent by others, it is foolish to expect that you will be pleased with the result.

High-tech electronics (almost entirely unregulated by government) have gotten vastly better and incredibly cheaper in the last few decades, while high-tech products regulated or paid for or otherwise interfered with by government have done the opposite in one or both of those metrics; medicine (both pharmaceuticals and health care generally) comes immediately to mind. Over-the-counter vitamin and other supplements bear out the rule of thumb: In America, where these products are largely unregulated (for the moment), supplements have gotten cheaper and better -- and are incredibly safe and effective -- while in Europe, where supplements (the ones you can get, anyway) are heavily regulated -- they cost much more, often several times more, than in America. CODEX and other attempts to "protect" consumers from safe and effective vitamin and other supplements represent corporatism at its worst: Good for big Pharma and the Sickness Industry; bad for human health.

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Government oppression evolves and strengthens by iterative and incremental processes, using the same techniques that other human organizations use: repeated cycles of small changes and occasional large jumps or shifts in design or focus. In the market, this process leads to better-satisfying both business owners and consumers, with most of the risk shouldered by business, as long as consumers can freely say "no" to any offering. Again, the choice element, which leads to failure for organizations which do not please customers, is what makes the process work in the market -- that is, in society generally.

Lack of choice is what prevents government from working well from the ordinary citizen's point of view. When customer choice is replaced with customer coercion, customer satisfaction becomes unlikely.

The evolving design of, say, the Honda Accord, is aimed at pleasing customers so well that customers will buy more Hondas, thus also pleasing Honda stockholders. Constant application of the process of reviewing the product and making small improvements (a slight increase in fuel economy or chassis stiffness or sound deadening, for example) combined with occasional major changes -- all seeking to make the product better from the standpoint of both customers and stockholders -- leads to dramatic improvements over time. If Honda stops pleasing customers, Ford or Toyota or some other firm doing a better job will sell more cars and Honda will sell fewer.

Important questions are: who sets the design goals? Whose interests are being served? Who has control over the evolution of the product?

In a free society, it is customers who have power and whose interests are ultimately served; customers have the power to say "no" and thus to put any firm out of business if it does not provide something worth buying at a price worth paying. Any child who runs a lemonade stand quickly learns that she cannot charge $100/glass and stay in business, and that repeat customers require lemonade that actually tastes good. No matter what the business owner wants, it is the customer who is in charge -- absent government-supplied coercion in one form or another (licensing, regulation, price supports, tariffs, monopoly legislation, managed trade [e.g., NAFTA] that favors special interests while being represented as "free trade," and so on).

That government becomes "better" at oppression and corruption rather than "better" in the sense of improving the protection for human rights, or in the sense of otherwise enhancing love and freedom, tells us everything we need to know about who really has control over the institution of government.

From the income tax to the War on Drugs; from the growth of America's militaristic intrusions around the world to the corporatist feeding frenzy epitomized by the lobbying industry, one can see the time-tested method of intelligently applied iterative and incremental design change at work -- small changes (almost always in the direction of more government control) constantly applied, with occasional larger changes. In most cases, these assaults on love and freedom are small to start with and grow over time; WikiPedia tells us that "In 1913 the tax rate was 1% on taxable net income above $3,000 ($4,000 for married couples), less deductions and exemptions. It rose to a rate of 7% on incomes above $500,000." Few people had incomes of $3,000, much less $4,000; with twenty dollars then worth, by law, roughly an ounce of gold, even $3,000 was equivalent to (3,000 / 20 X 800) $120,000 today, with gold at $800/ounce. "The overall average annual income for the average [ Illinois ] family of 4.91 persons was $756.63" in 1900, according to information published by the Chicago Public Library. The income tax itself was a major change, but it was phased in with great stealth. Once established, however, the tax did not stay stealthy for long; rates soon went much higher.

Rarely, "the people" -- that is, people outside of government and who are not among the corporatist and other power elite -- have the chance to reverse this process of ever-increasing tyranny. This is at best a temporary and partial fix for the problem, since the structure of coercive control remains and thus those who benefit from it redouble their efforts to bend the power structure to their advantage.

Still, when people have the chance to reduce tyranny -- that is, to increase love and freedom -- they are fools not to do so. Most readers know my thoughts on the matter in regards our present situation: in the United States, the Ron Paul campaign is exactly that kind of rare chance at more love and freedom. Until Americans are ready for Thoreau's "government that governs not at all," such opportunities should not be missed.

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* One might also say that evolution is directed by the quantum, chemical, and other chrematistics of the materials being worked with; basic chemistry and physics are the framework within which DNA must assemble and reproduce, and in which organisms must survive if their species is to continue.

** Other sources of change to DNA exist beyond simple errors in copying, including damage from free radicals and from cosmic rays and background radiation.

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 105

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity.