High Tension Systems

August 13th, 2014   Submitted by Foo Quuxman

OneMoreLawI am proposing “high tension system” as a descriptive term, as well as a generative theory behind it. I am mostly speaking in general terms, because although the application to government should be obvious, the concept can also be applied very widely to non-government systems. All systems exist to achieve certain stated goals, and by extension all systems have ways to be diverted from the intended, or desired goals. These systems can be usefully distinguished by whether they are dominated by positive feedback with respect to corrupting influences, such as government, or negative feedback, such as free markets and open source development.

When I use the term “feedback” I am referring to the engineering term, as opposed to “review” or “commentary.”

Positive feedback is when the effect of a small disturbance on a system includes an increase in the magnitude of the disturbance. That is, the cause produces an effect which in turn produces more of the cause. Positive feedback tends to cause system instability as system parameters accelerate toward extreme values, which tends to damage or destroy the system. For an example of positive feedback, imagine a car at the top of a hill. If it is pushed it will roll down the road, causing it to accelerate, causing it to roll further down, and so on.

Negative feedback is when the effect of a small disturbance on a system influences the operation of the system itself in such a way as to reduce the disturbance. The cause produces an effect which in turn counteracts the cause, returning the system to equilibrium. Negative feedback systems tend to be stable accurate, and responsive. Negative feedback is widely used in mechanical and electronic engineering, but it also occurs naturally within living organisms. For negative feedback the equivalent example is to imagine the car at the bottom of a valley. When it is pushed gravity returns it to its previous position.

Positive feedback systems typically result in exponential growth, increasing oscillations, and divergence from equilibrium. These systems often must be stabilized by adding negative feedback to the system.

An unfettered free market is stabilized by negative feedback, where bad actors are penalized by the fundamental structure of the economic system. Corrupt systems are less efficient because resources must be diverted from the intended goals to the corruption. This results in a competitive advantage for less corrupt systems, meaning the corrective tension is proportional to the corruption. In open source development a project leader who habitually screws up, or does not give credit where it is due, will find his project being forked by people who are more competent or less malicious. Often the mere threat of a fork is enough to bring people back to their stated goals.

On the other hand, political systems are dominated by positive feedback, where bad actors are rewarded by the power structure with greater capacity for bad action. The problem is keeping bad actors out of positive feedback systems. If the system has any power associated with it there will be a distinct incentive for people who want that power to enter it. Keeping them out requires strong pressure from gatekeepers. Once the bad actor does get into the system, keeping him in line requires the addition of negative feedback from the system’s internal culture to slow the inevitable jet-assisted trip down the slippery slope to corruption.

In order to work over the long term these pressures must be perfect. If a bad actor slips through, and is not on the tightest of leashes, he will corrupt the system making it easier for the next bad actor to get in. Regulatory capture is a good example, and a quite enlightening one at that.

Unfortunately, corruption coming from the outside is the easier threat to defend against. Almost everyone has heard the phrase “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” though few take it to heart. The same incentives that attract bad actors from the outside also work to corrupt the people on the inside. The most common case is for an outsider to make use of a corrupted insider. Systems with a positive feedback structure at their core fundamentally want to be corrupt, in the same way that a wheel wants to roll down a hill.

In order to prevent immediate system failure various forms negative feedback must be added to positive feedback systems to provide corrective tension. The problem is that each correction can be worked around, outright ignored, or may not protect the system’s goals anyway. So it becomes necessary to have multiple overlapping forms of feedback which hopefully prevent enough of the worst corruptions. And hopefully send a signal to the inhabitants of the system which is something along the lines of, “This is what things are supposed to look like. If it does not look like this then something is wrong and you need to fix it.” In a political structure this is commonly known as “checks and balances.” I am broadly referring to this as a “high tension system.”

A high tension system is analogous with a bicycle wheel. In order to keep the wheel true the tension of each spoke must be tuned individually to correct discrepancies in the length of the other spokes, or defects in the shape of the rim. All of the spokes must be roughly the same tension because any spoke under significantly higher pressure has a significant chance of breaking. When a spoke breaks the wheel immediately goes out of true, and the pressure on the other spokes increases, which may lead to a cascading failure of the system. There are also analogs with suspension bridges and power lines. In engineering these are known as a “tensegrity,” which is a structure which only maintains its integrity through constant tension in its components.

The reason these systems are so hazardous is that they can function for a long time with minimal apparent damage, until either the constant grind of old pressures, or newly exerted pressures, cause total failure. A bridge has to be inspected from time to time to catch minor cracks that could cause collapse, but one of the things invariably corrupted in a high tension system is the ability to effectively check it for corruption. Bad actors in the system deliberately remove the safeguards to enable their own corruption. When this happens the system slips ever faster away from the original stated goals, eventually showing the true face of its deepest principles.

What this looks like depends on the scale of the system. At the family level it reveals itself as beating one’s child to death because they were “rebellious” (look up Lydia Schatz, and Hana Williams if you want to know and have a strong stomach). At the small group level it results in Jonestown. At the State level it leads to no-knock drug raids, million dollar lawsuits over trivial copyright violations, the Spanish Inquisition (bet you weren’t expecting that!), and finally by marching dissidents to the gas chambers.

6 Responses to “High Tension Systems”

  1. Anthony CaprioNo Gravatar says:

    Great article! If I had to point to the one major flaw of the state it would be the flawed feedback system we operate under. Thanks for writing this.

  2. KeithNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Foo

    are the “checks and balances” actually intended to protect the bulk of individuals (abstracted as “society”), from the risks of corruption by the few who claim special privilege?

    Or are the “checks and balances” there to give the illusion of good intent, thereby protecting the few who claim special privilege, while they go about their sleezy little business – thieving from the vastly greater number of productive peers?

  3. VanmindNo Gravatar says:

    Systems Theory for politics is analogous to behavioralism. Phony “objective” analysis and all that, attempts to quantify and compartmentalize those things which are always subjective (e.g. “I as gatekeeper know exactly whom to keep out of this wonderful system because I have a dialectical handbook to follow and I don’t like your face”).

    Also, the concept of regulatory capture is half-baked, one which the proposition’s originator (typically credited to Stigler) failed to think through to its ultimate conclusion. There is, of course, no way for a make-believe thing like market failure to create a world in which a corporate cabal captures for all time some imaginary “justice” of the regulatory overlordship that interventionists pretended would “fix” the make-believe market failure. Corporations controlling the world is possible only as a fictional backdrop for NWO movie propaganda.

    Always and everywhere, regulatory capture — at least how Stigler described it — represents the penultimate step before totalitarianism, with the final step being exemplified in exactly the way that one would expect: with government claiming absolute control over everything in either a Soviet way or a Zwangswirtschaft way, while cronies scramble to secure “official” positions within relevant bureaucracies or in-name-only enterprises. The time period during which corporatist entities appear to be controlling things is merely the stage before the ultimate and often mass-murderous fraud, much the same way as a successful “Occupy Everything” would be merely the penultimate step preceding socialist totalitarianism of another kind (neither of course would be “fascist” although each would employ fascist tactics to force compliance from the population).

    As Mises explained, non-market activity pushes society farther down that slippery slope toward socialist totalitarianism. There is no third way, there is only freedom or the slippery slope. Stigler was mistaken that his concept of regulatory capture represents the bottom of the slope. There is more sliding to come after that, society is not enslaved until the government “does something” about all the almost regulatory capture. That final “doing something” solution is government’s head-fake method of completing the capture of everything by way of regulation — hence, it is the ultimate step of regulatory capture.

    The problem with this article is clear: conflating the concept of political systems with the concept of engineering systems. Only aspiring social engineers (note how that conflated term comes into existence) pretend that people react to stimuli in the same Newtonian way as a mechanical apparatus. No wheel spoke is ever a “bad actor” within the system of a bicycle, and no person is ever a spoke in a wheel.

  4. DaveNo Gravatar says:

    Government corruption has elements of both positive and negative feedback. If the corruption of one person took up the entire budget, people would notice. That discourages them from making any particular corruption too outrageous. The players try to intuit that margin, how much can they get away with, is it worth the risk? I suppose there is also some competition for the stolen resources.

  5. Janos SzaboNo Gravatar says:

    Great article.

    The State, in its military Darwinistic nature, is the institutionalization of positive political feedback.

    Albert Nock, in his typical fashion, illustrated this relentless drive to unstable equilibrium: “…if a spoonful of prussic acid will kill you, a bottleful is just what you need to do you a great deal of good.”