The Catastrophe of Complexity in Law and Policy

Upon reflection, it is clear that American public and private institutions have been corrupted beyond management or reform. Governance is dehumanized, regulatory authorities captured, leaders unapproachable. As a result, ordinary Americans suffer. The weight of odious debts, the repressive prison-industrial complex, and illegitimate wars have become increasingly unbearable for us all.

Political and economic elites, by contrast, have no difficulty in getting policy makers to respond to their exploitative demands. This is abundantly clear from the endless corporate and bank bailouts, regulatory and tax structures that encourage extractive greed, and the adamant refusal of the Department of (In)Justice to prosecute torturers and white collar criminals. Instead of providing relief from predation, the legal system amplifies injustice and inequality. Meanwhile, academic “experts” ideologically legitimate the system with convenient lies and ruthless elitism.

Many have taken the difficult step of acknowledging the bleak reality that modern America is a parasite feeding on its former self. Yet, rejection of the conventional narrative of American democracy will produce hopelessness, alienation and fear without an understanding of the Corporate-State and a path to liberation from it. The way forward may actually emerge from a seemingly unlikely place: evolutionary biology. The characteristics of evolution in the natural world reveal the origin and dynamics of political distress.

Our political system is currently experiencing a natural phenomenon described by biologist Stuart Kauffman as the “complexity catastrophe.” The political system is so complex that it can no longer function for the common good. Like a cancer that emaciates and eventually kills the body host, the system is doomed to collapse under the weight of its own unsustainability.

Kauffman’s model of evolutionary systems allowed him to develop schemas demonstrating how “fitness” is achieved through adaptation of particular features to changing environments. The feature can range from physical attributes such as beak size, to products of human imagination, such as policy initiatives. On the conceptual “landscape,” possible alterations to the given feature traverse over the landscape towards greater fitness, and thus adapt to the environment. The shape of the landscape itself, including the number and ruggedness of peaks and valleys, is determined by the interactions between the studied feature and the other possible factors that can affect it.

Kauffman discovered that when there are only a few possible factors that will affect the feature, the landscape has few fitness peaks that are very tall. The system is simple but highly adaptable. When these factors are more numerous, which occurs when the system is more complex, the landscape becomes more rugged, with numerous but shorter peaks. Thus, the greater the complexity in a system, the lower the possible fitness the system as a whole can achieve. Eventually, the system’s relative adaptiveness becomes so poor that the system collapses.

Although developed in the context of evolutionary genetics, the models reflect universal natural principles and thus shed light on the workings of evolving political and legal systems. There is no question that our political system, especially the federal government, has grown vastly more complex over time. The proliferation of bureaucracy and increasing convolutedness of legal principles attest to this fact, but nothing illustrates it so dramatically as the sheer number of local, state and federal laws – 40,000 passed last year alone! This increasing complexity has produced a self-perpetuating behemoth State, an entity whose sheer scale is larger than the ability to comprehend.

As the State grows larger, the complexity catastrophe diminishes government’s ability to fulfill human needs. Instead, the State is commandeered by parasitic elites, who take advantage of its size and complexity in order to manipulate and defraud the masses. Left behind are broken communities and demoralized souls.

The complexity catastrophe reveals previously obscured truths about law and politics. First, left-right ideological debate is pointless and obsolete. It distracts from the basic truth that the size of the State matters far more than the nature of its endeavors. Centralized, top-down “solutions” imposed from Washington will always serve the elites to the detriment of ordinary people. It matters not whether social control originates from left or right, because the resultant loss of freedom, self-sufficiency and community is universal and bipartisan. Concerns of size, scale and complexity must be included in the core of political dialogue. They have been discarded in favor of ideology for far too long.

Second, simplicity is beautiful. The more faith we put in the State to control outcomes, the less control we actually gain. Political pathology stems from the hubristic conception that the State can change nature, that the government can sanitize the messiness of being human and streamline the inefficiencies of community life. As the Corporate-State grows larger, it starves human culture. Complexity of the State generates monoculture and nihilism in the community. By contrast, simplification empowers the individual and allows the cultivation of meaning.

Liberation occurs with the realization that existential pain is intertwined with political dysfunction. The futile struggle to reform the un-reformable can finally be abandoned. An unconditional embrace of nature – with all its imperfections – can replace the self-defeating drive for perfection and control.

Caryn Devins
October 3, 2012

Caryn Devins is a third year student at the Duke University Law School who grew up in Vermont.