Post IV: Volatility and Intervention

The last 3 posts have set out how this blog is going to look and explaining some ideas which are perhaps alien to a lot of people. What I want to be able to show is that individual lifestyle choices can go a very long way on a large-scale, but that what people do and how they approach problems is not reflected on national levels, the level of the complex system. I want to demonstrate the natural volatility and randomness of all complex systems, from the micro level of human biology and fitness to large-scale systems like the economy, the law, food and energy supplies, and how they are all inter-related. To do this, it is important to discuss more about the topic of volatility and intervention, and more specifically when to intervene, and when to accept things are out of your control.

Modern living is full of examples of often stifling intervention. By trying to smooth out the jagged edges of the world, and to remove unknowns, volatility and stressors, the antifragile (see previous post) nature of complex systems is repressed, only to reappear in much bigger, often catastrophic guises. This kind of action is often based on an unwavering belief that humans can control what is around them, a very naive belief indeed. Complex systems, even man-made ones, are too complex, too varied to possibly fully understand. Pieces can be put together, but they way in which they interact as a whole system is impossible for one mind to grasp. Think of any kind of financial investment you might make: you can make educated guesses, but ultimately nobody knows whether these investments will pay off, and nobody knows whether a boom or a bust is coming.

Or think of the complications when treating ailments in your body. The Hippocratic Oath imparts some wisdom on the situation: “primum non nocere”, first, do no harm. For a very long time in human history, doctors have been very bad at treating people, and through practices such as blood-letting have often killed more people through their interventions than they would have saved. The beginning of institutionalised hospitals, although well-intentioned and ultimately very useful to us today, marked sky-rocketing deaths from “hospital fever”. The healers were causing the harm. It is only in recent history that this has been accepted, but the good news is that it has been! The continuing issue in medicine is that of agency. Think of the number crunchers at big pharmaceutical companies with no direct relationship with the person in need of the medicine, but with a direct relationship with the company’s profits. The concern is not with the health of the patient, but his or her job is on the line when it comes to selling pills, possibly to the detriment of the patient, causing more harm than benefit through their intervention.

Take also economic intervention. The huge complexities of the system ensure that it cannot be predicted or controlled, but people try nonetheless. It is volatile, and thrives from this volatility, but economists try again and again to break off the jagged edges, smooth it down, like a polished stone. The depression which began in 2007, the effects of which are still being felt 8 years later, was in my opinion caused by the interventionist economic policies of the likes of Alan Greenspan and Gordon Brown, who promised to end the volatile cycle of boom and bust, or, to put it in the language of this blog, they denied the antifragility of complex systems, and did more harm than good with their intervention. Just as it is necessary for small forest fires to occur from time to time to burn out the most flammable material in order to avoid a much more catastrophic fire in the future, complex systems require smaller units to fail for the whole to succeed (and hopefully learn from the mistakes to success next time!) Volatility is a natural and necessary element to dispose of the more fragile parts of the system for the whole to succeed. But let me make something very clear here and say that I do not support a ruthless “winner-takes-all” or “dog-eat-dog” world where those who do not succeed economically are doomed to failure to be scooped up by stronger competitors. There need to be social safety nets to make sure that those who fall victim to natural volatility have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and improve upon them. Support is necessary for the very reason that these systems are so volatile: humans are at the mercy of things we cannot possibly comprehend, and we need to take actions to give us support and ways out when things do not go as planned. The point I am making here, however, is that if you try to suppress this inherent volatility, all you do is make way for something much worse.

So we can see that intervention can cause problems when it is applied to volatile, complex, antifragile systems. Our culture is to try to take things under control to, as mentioned in the last paragraph, ensure that the volatile nature of things does not affect us. And to say that intervention is bad can bring a lot of misunderstandings. It can be taken as simply doing nothing as chaos reigns, sitting back and doing whatever is coming to you. This does not sit well with human nature, nor is it the point I am trying to make. My point is that humans cannot control these systems by trying to end volatility, but we can prepare properly by accepting their nature. Intervention to change this nature is very naive, but intervention to work with this volatility, to ensure that either you benefit from it or are supported when you fail as a result of it, is the aim. It applies to many things, from the economy, the legal system, the food supply, the energy supply, and your own body. The next post will go back to this with more on primal living.

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