Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Information and the Scale of Legitimate Authority

I spent some time working on a post in response to the parts of Kevin D. Williamson's new book that I don't like, but I think I will have to wait till my thoughts crystallize further. The book resonates well with this post, which I have been planning for a couple weeks now. In it, he says that he is unsure of what the term "legitimate" even means with respect to government, implying that there is no such thing as a legitimate authority, and launches a full frontal attack on the rule of law. Given his pattern of reasoning from non-Christian principles that's no surprise, even though he is a Catholic. But that part of his book formed a nice dovetail along the lines of what I've been thinking about lately, and it has to do with what conservatives believe about authority and what makes it legitimate or not.

For instance, American conservatives tend to be skeptical of government authority, yet within institutions like the church, the workplace and the family they often view authority more positively. Even on this blog I've engaged in polemics against government authority while at the same time fending off those Christians who believe in no government at all, or at least that Christians should not be involved in it. Those Christians are more along the lines of libertarian, or even anarchist, lines of thinking similar to Williamson's largely secular version. But it raises the question for an American conservative: Why do we believe that some kinds of authority are legitimate and others are not? Where is the line?

My interest in intelligent design theory led to an interest in information theory, so when I began reading libertarian authors like Williamson I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the libertarian critique of socialism is based on information, a subject I was prepared to digest. First I will explain some very basic concepts from information theory. Then I will explain the libertarian critique of socialism based on information. And finally, I will explain what exactly I mean by the Scale of Legitimate Authority and how it nicely fits the traditional American conservative understanding of authority in society.

Information Theory

I should warn you that I have no more than the most basic understanding of this topic, but that does include a starting definition of "information". In the mid-twentieth century an interesting guy named Claude Shannon laid the foundations of modern computer science by forming a counter-intuitive definition of information. Shannon was using sophisticated mathematics to make money at blackjack long before that was cool. He also worked in cryptography, that is secret codes, in Britain during World War II. His quantitative definition of information is called Shannon information. Shannon information is inversely proportional to the degree of uncertainty.

Suppose there are one thousand kinds of dogs, and one hundred of them are black. I say, "I have a black dog." Can we quantify the amount of information in that statement? The answer according to Shannon is "yes". The amount of information is, simply, 10.  (I am neglecting a discussion of bits and bytes and all that which is more rigorous. It is enough to know that virtually any calculation like this can be converted into bits of information in any arbitrary coding language, including the standard ones used in computers and DNA.) It takes a form similar to a probability. If there are one thousand possibilities and I have specified one hundred of them, then I have told you an amount of information quantified as one hundred out of one thousand, or 1/10. But suppose I told you I have a "Husky/German Shepherd/Retriever mix". The amount of information I have conveyed here is one out of one thousand, or 1/1,000. We know that the second example is more information than the first, but the second number is smaller numerically. So we take the reciprocal, which gives:

Black dog: 10
Husky/German Shepherd/Retriever: 1,000

Now the second example has a higher number corresponding to more information, which is what we want. But supposing there are ten thousand kinds of dogs instead of only one thousand. That gives:

Black dog: 100
Husky/German Shepherd/Retriever: 10,000

Even though I have the same informational statements, the actual quantity of information increased because the number of possibilities increased. (Data compression can be accomplished by changing the code so that the total number of possibilities is decreased and so you can convey the same information in a way that is quantitatively lower. This is what mp3 files and successive generations of coding techniques are doing to compress auditory information.) You can see how the amount of information increases with the number of possibilities as long as our specification remains the same. You can see why the method is counter-intuitive, because the quantity of information varies most dramatically according to what isn't there than according to what is. The number of total possibilities is just as important, if not more important, than the specific possibility that ends up being chosen.

Using this method, if we can count the number of possibilities and also reduce them to the number of actual occurrences, we can quantify information in a rigorous way. This is the basis of bits and the way the discipline of computer science handles information on your computer right now. It is also used by intelligent design theorists to make arguments about proteins, where the possibilities are very large and the occurrences are very small, corresponding to a very large amount of information. They further argue that information beyond a certain threshold cannot be generated randomly given the probabilistic resources available to the entire universe in the scientifically accepted age of the universe. I touched on this in my last post. Only agents can generate large amounts of information and that's because agents have the power to choose from among large numbers of possibilities. Physical law cannot produce large amounts of information, because physical law specifies outcomes that have a probability of one and only one, meaning there is only one possibility and therefore the maximum amount of information created by a single physical event is only one, and there are a finite number of possible events that have occurred since the beginning of time. Agency, or as I prefer, free will, has the unique ability to choose among real possibilities and thus create large amounts of information. I am doing it right now in typing this post.

The Libertarian Critique of Socialism

You probably don't think about it, but you are creating new information of this type whenever you buy a product. Mr. Williamson talks about the number of possible combinations in which one can buy milk. Every time a person buys a carton of milk, they are creating a large amount of information. They are picking one thing out of a large number of possibilities, which is the definition of information described above. The libertarian critique of socialism, advanced by economists like Ludwig von Mises, observes that all this economic information being generated by everyone in the world every day with every transaction is far too large for any single person or organization to grasp, and therefore no centralized, rational economic plan even has the capability of taking into account all that information being created in the marketplace. More simply, nobody knows. The market has far too much information in it for any one person or organization to actually know, and this prevents any sort of central economic planning from successfully organizing the market. People can with a lot of time, experience and accumulation of bits and pieces of information become familiar with small portions of it, enough to build a successful business or even a successful investment firm which deals with many businesses, but there is no possible way to deal with all of it at once in a single, centralized economic plan. Seventy-five percent of new businesses fail. Figuring out how to navigate the market is inherently difficult because of the large amount of information, but people can do it if they drastically simplify the problem. Without simplifying it, the problem is inherently intractable. Even if you could know all of the information at one instant it is constantly changing. Value is relative to local factors, inflation, wages, prices and a myriad of other things that nobody can know except the people involved in the actual transaction, and sometimes not even they. People change their buying habits or businesses and industries change the products they produce or even simply change the prices. Nobody knows. The Soviet Union was famous for its Five Year Plans for economic prosperity. As they each successively failed, they kept trying new ones. Look how that turned out.

Supposing, as the progressives do, that you want to turn a nation's economy into a wealth generating machine whose purpose is to redistribute wealth from rich to poor and equalize everyone economically. Conservatives have always argued that is immoral because it destroys property rights, but supposing we accept that this would be the moral and right thing to do. Libertarians say, convincingly, that no such thing is possible. Nobody has the capacity to even grasp the amount of information that would be required to formulate the question, much less an answer. But, you might say, we may not be able to do it perfectly, but shouldn't we at least try? Maybe we can come close, learn from mistakes, correct them, and get closer over time? The libertarian critique emphatically says no, you can't, because the amount of economic information increases and changes rapidly over time. Yes you may increase your knowledge, but the amount of information in existence also increases. On top of that, what you knew yesterday may no longer be true tomorrow. Furthermore, this information is based on factors that differ from locality to locality. Imposing a one-size fits all model will necessarily disregard differences between localities such that each locality will have information and preferences that cannot be accounted for in the centralized plan because of the need to compromise. A single plan cannot cater to all differences between local interests and remain a single plan.

The Scale of Legitimate Authority

It makes sense then to understand legitimate authority as a function of information. If the authority cannot know, its authority is not legitimate. If it can know, its authority is legitimate. People in and out of authority use this argument all the time already. The problem is our current understanding of what an authority can actually know. The scientific age has a terrible side effect: the hubris of the expert. We think because we can make iPods that means we know the absolute value of an iPod in 2013 inflation-adjusted U.S. dollars. This absolute value exists somewhere in the Platonic ideal, from whence we can grab it through the wonders of the scientific method...or something. Having bestowed upon our society this value, we can then say with absolute certainty that everyone can have an iPod of the same exact absolute value, so why shouldn't they? Because iPods do not have an absolute value. There are no absolute economic values. All economic value is relative. Insofar as economic values exist, they are determined by each and every individual each and every day with each and every transaction. Even I don't know if I will buy a Papa John's pizza tomorrow. Maybe the Texas Rangers will score seven runs and the price will be cut in half. Or maybe not. Either way, I don't know if I will make that choice or not, therefore I have no idea what the economic value of a pizza will be for me tomorrow. Therefore the only legitimate authority over economic value are the people directly involved in the transaction at the time it occurs.

Moral values, on the other hand, are absolute, universal and determined by God, and this is where American conservatives and libertarians differ. Libertarians might believe that moral values are absolute, or not, but they do not believe we can know those values. Philosophy aside, they are moral relativists when it comes to society. To quote from Williamson's new book:

 "St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, wrote that 'the law is written on our hearts' -- but a lot of good it does us there! When organizing community life, relying upon that which exists only in our heads and our hearts is futile."

I was actually pretty shocked to read this. It turned out to be Williamson's only Biblical reference in the entire book. I was even more perplexed when later in the book he puts his finger squarely on the reason why the "law written on our hearts" becomes not only useful to society but essential:

"There is a great deal of discretion built into every level of the system, from the police on the scene to the prosecutor considering charges to the judge hearing the case...But discretion in law enforcement is hardly an insurmountable problem. In fact, it is not necessarily a problem; a system with no discretion at all probably would prove inhumane. But that discretion interacts with an inconvenient fact that rarely enters into democratic discourse: The law itself is a mishmash of incompatible rules and contradictory precedents. The proposition at the heart of our idea of the rule of law - that there is a correct answer to any given legal question, independent of the politics and preferences of the people empowered to make legal decisions - is a myth. In our political imagination, a legal dispute is akin to a logic problem: There are premises and rules, and from them we can deduct conclusions. In truth, the structure of legal reasoning is less like classical logic and more like scriptural debate. Because the law contains contradictory rules and precedents, a valid chain of legal reasoning can be created to accommodate almost any desired outcome in any given case."

Williamson means this as an attack on the usefulness of the rule of law, but it is also the reason why the law written on our hearts, and for that matter the scriptural debate he trashes, is essential to the just operation of society. In those areas in which authorities have discretion, over which no human law can be written as a guide, they ought to be consulting God, the ultimate authority and possessor of all wisdom, knowledge and power. I don't know if Williamson stopped his survey of Romans in chapter two, but my version says this in chapter twelve: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." The goal of a Christian, and Paul believes it to be an achievable goal, is to know God's will. Furthermore, only a Christian can achieve this goal:

"However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
the things God has prepared for those who love him—

these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ."
~1 Cor. 2:9-15

Paul, far from disagreeing with Williamson about the limitations on the rule of law, expounds upon them mercilessly:

"Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence."
~Col. 2:20-23

But does that mean we should do away with the Law? Certainly not. Neither Jesus nor Paul takes that position, despite Paul's skewering of the efficacy of law alone and Jesus' poking holes in the Pharisees' legal constructs. Jesus says not a single stroke of a pen will disappear from the Law, and Paul says that without the Law there would be no sin, and thus no need for Jesus to die on the cross to redeem us. The Law exists because God exists, and humans fail to measure up to his standards. But no one can become righteous according to the Law through the Law alone. He must know God, the Lawgiver, who writes His Law on our hearts.

But perhaps I need to bring the discussion back into focus and save the rule of law for later. Right now it is enough to say that economic values are relative but moral values are absolute. Christians possess a knowledge of morals through the dual divine revelation of Scripture and the Holy Spirit that is superior to non-Christians, and thus are endowed with a superior moral authority. The Scale of Legitimate Authority does not nor is it intended to address error. Legitimate authorities can make mistakes without losing their legitimacy. Likewise, good authorities can be illegitimate. To argue that an authority which makes a mistake loses its authority is just as invalid as arguing that Christianity is wrong because Christians sin. It is about legitimacy, not right and wrong. It is about the conditions under which authority is properly exercised. Moral values that are the same for everybody can in principle be known, and therefore central moral authority is legitimate for the same reason that central economic authority is not: information.

The Scale of Legitimate Authority holds in a wide variety of contexts. At one extreme there is God. All-knowing, all-powerful, Almighty God is the exemplar legitimate authority. He knows everything and therefore has legitimate authority over everything. Much of His authority is delegated, but this extreme end of the scale holds. Moving down the scale is the individual human being. As it is written, "who knows a person's thoughts except their own spirit within them?" Aside from God, the highest authority over an individual is himself. This is not exactly negotiable, as every person must decide his own actions, including whether to submit to other authorities. Moving further down the scale, in smaller groups less information is knowable by a leader as compared to knowledge of himself, but there is still a good amount of knowable information, and therefore a high level of authority is legitimate. The exemplar here is the family unit. The parents, or dare I say it, the father, is in principle capable of knowing a great deal of the information about his family, legitimizing a level of authority higher than even the strictest dictator. The father can tell his children when to go to bed, what to eat, what to wear. He can discipline them, even through corporal punishment, for even minor infractions if he feels the need. He has the authority to force them to do all manner of things against their will. This has always been considered legitimate. I daresay even libertarians would find it hard to disagree, especially if they've ever had children. Traveling even farther down the scale to larger organizations like churches, businesses, and up to municipal and state governments, the central authority loses legitimacy the larger the organization gets. The only way to have larger organizations that work is to decentralize authority in proportion to the size of the group. Why? Again, information. The larger the group, the more information is required to run it, and the less a central authority is capable of knowing it. At the bottom of the scale we find the United States government and other national governments, the largest organizations in the world with authority over the most number of people. Their authority is the least legitimate, the most to be questioned and the most to be limited if it is to be successful.

The Scale holds even in determining what types of authority a particular organization or person should have and what types it should not have. For instance, a national government has a great deal of knowledge about the intentions of other national governments. Their interests are similar, even if opposed, and leaders can and often do talk frequently with one another such that they can know a great deal about one another's intentions. Therefore we grant national governments a great deal of discretion in relations with foreign powers and over running their own organization, far greater discretion than we grant them over the affairs of their own citizens. The similarities between the interests, organization and resources of a government and those of a private individual, business or organization are as different as night and day. Government authority in such areas should rightly be viewed with extreme skepticism and even outright hostility. Central moral authority is in principle legitimate, but central economic authority should be virtually nonexistent. The protection of property rights is a moral question; what to do with that property is an economic one. Thus the government has a role in protecting property rights equally, fairly and universally, but virtually no role in telling its citizens what to do with their property, much less taking unreasonable amounts to do with as it pleases, for it cannot even in principle know how best to use that property in the interests of its rightful owners, who may not even themselves know until the proper time arrives.

The primary purpose of government is not to do good, or to manage the economy, or even to busy itself passing a myriad of laws. The government's primary purpose is to punish the wrongdoer. In order to fulfill its proper role and function as a legitimate moral authority, it must at a minimum be able to discern between right and wrong. As right and wrong cannot be written down exhaustively in a set of rules, the best hope for a government to be Just in its primary mission is for those with the greatest knowledge of right and wrong to run it, exercising the discretion inherent in the system. Thus it is not scientists, not engineers, not accountants, not economists, not even lawyers who are best suited to running the government. It is Christians. Christians alone have the Holy Spirit and a direct connection to the Good, the True and the Just Himself, though by some miracle perhaps non-Christians can at least interpret the Scriptures correctly. It is God who determines right and wrong, not us, and not a set of written rules and procedures. The success or failure of a government depends upon the degree to which it aligns itself with His will. We cannot contain God within a set of rules, but God can contain us within Himself. When He speaks, we listen, or we fail.

Now that's whack.