Learning From the Brain

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The great majority of Americans are convinced, understandably enough, that ours is the best form of government in the world. At the same time, most of us know that our society is burdened by a number of failings that this same government, for all its merits, seems powerless to correct. Year after year goes by without significant improvement in our educational system, with no lessening of the traffic congestion on our roadways, with no letup in governmental waste and extravagance, with no better control of the budgetary process, with no solution to the inevitable shortfall in Social Security funding, and with no meaningful remediation in drug use despite billions spent on the effort. Worse, there is a growing apprehension that these and other chronic problems may be beyond our ability to solve because of systemic obstacles to change that have accumulated in recent years both within government itself and its special interest environs. Washington is losing its ability to evolve and no one seems able to do anything about it.

What does any self-respecting institution do when faced with serious problems that in-house people have been unable to resolve? It hires the most competent outside consultants that can be found. So, as a thought experiment, allow me to enlist the services of a crack team of experts with a proven track record in the field of political theory. Let me reconvene the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in today’s Philadelphia and ask our Founding Fathers to apply their legendary intellects to our current political dilemmas.

We may be uncertain about where the conferees’ deliberations would lead, but we can safely identify their starting point: an unqualified belief in the “will of the people” as the one and only proper engine of governmental evolution. After all, we can hear them explain, who knows better the changing needs of society than the individuals that comprise it? And who better, then, to guide government in meeting those needs than those selfsame individuals acting in concert. To our Founding Fathers, the “will of the people” was more than a slogan; it was the foundation upon which they framed the Constitution and it would seem inconceivable that they would venture upon any less solid footing today.

It is safe to assume our Founding Fathers would conclude that the governmental problems that have arisen over the intervening centuries are not the product of their conviction that government should be a product of the “will of the people,” but rather by its misapplication. Back in 1787 they took for granted that a legislative assembly was the only conceivable mechanism for translating the people’s will into law. Obviously, they could not then have foreseen the industrial and technological revolutions that lay ahead. Awakened in today’s world, they soon discover that today’s legislative process bears little resemblance to the one they had fashioned. Now elected representatives respond to different motivations than those involved simply in satisfying the needs of their constituents. By the time vox populi has worked its way through Congress, it is hardly recognizable. Partisanship, cloakroom trade-offs, personal ambition, addiction to earmarked expenditures, racial-religious-ethnic sensitivities, and a host of other extraneous influences take their toll. The result is Congress at best provides a crude, parochial representation of the will of the people and often operates as though it didn’t even exist. The beautiful flower our Founding Fathers lovingly transplanted from ancient Athens has turned into a thicket of kudzu.

Lesser men would be daunted by these revelations, but the Founding Fathers are strengthened in their resolve to set things aright. We can picture them gathering in the now air-conditioned State House with their sleeves rolled up; ready to go to work.

Nature Lends a Helping Hand

Our Founding Fathers are distressed by the deterioration that has occurred in the political arena over the last two centuries, but are exhilarated by the advances that have taken place in the scientific realm. It is only natural for them to inquire whether modern science might offer some new approach to the organization of government. Their admiration of nature as a talented gadgeteer is nothing compared to the awe in which they hold her skill as a wondrously accomplished systems designer. The evidence is all about them. Nature has proven her ability to organize living things of

You don’t need a microscope to figure out that the human brain and the U.S. government are very different things.

 

every size and description – ant colonies, flocks of geese,  herds of elephants, and the like – not to mention her success in harmonizing the forces governing quarks and quasars and everything in between. Are our Founding Fathers not justified in thinking that somewhere in· nature’s vast repository of accomplishments is stashed away a piece of sociobiological engineering reasonably analogous to that of harmonizing the needs of human beings with their government? And would they not hasten to rummage through nature’s catalog of systems in order to find that piece? And in doing so, would they not spot there on page 12,591 (or thereabouts) exactly what they were looking for?

So it is that our Founding Fathers discover the four-color diagram of the human brain. It is accompanied by a caption reading, “a device for (a) actuating human thought and employing it to direct the complex operations of a corporate entity, and (b) a state-of-the-art mechanism for coordinating the performance of all the parts of the human body so as to best ensure their common, long-term survivability.”

Facing the diagram is a page of descriptive text that is copied and handed out to each of the conferees.

Off the Record Speculations

Having tracked down this useful intelligence, our weary Founding Fathers, now at the end of a long, difficult day, must be forgiven for adjourning their meeting and sauntering over to the nearby City Tavern for a bit of well-deserved relaxation.

I am not so presumptuous as to identify what final decisions our Founding Fathers arrive at when they meet on the following day to begin their deliberations. But no such effrontery would be involved in eavesdropping on the casual exchange between two of these gentlemen as they, between puffs of pipe smoke and drafts of beer, ponder the uses that could be made of the day’s findings.

“Well, the search is finally over. The human brain is a fascinating contraption, isn’t it?”

“Fascinating, certainly. Whether it can do us any good is another story. I’m afraid many of our colleagues will find it too complicated to be of much use. In any case, the analogy is strained. You don’t need a microscope to figure out that the human brain and the U.S. government are very different things.”

“Yes, yes. All true. On the other hand, when all is said and done, the human brain is the only model in the natural world that comes close to what we need. Nature has spent millions of years perfecting a physiology suitable for govern- ing us as individuals. Why shouldn’t we at least consider extrapolating some of her techniques and using them to govern groups of individuals? It’s worth thinking about, I tell you.”

“Ah. That raises another question. Thinking with what? We can hardly expect our own brains to be impartial.”

“They will be if we drink enough.”

“Point well taken. All right. If nothing else, it should be interesting to see where the brain-government road leads.”

“It was for me.”

“You’ve already given it some thought, then. Good. I brought along a copy of that handout on the brain. Let me read the first paragraph to get us started.”

The salient feature of the human brain is its very existence. Nature not only found it useful to concentrate this species’ mental activity in a single organ, she took strenuous measures to increase its utility by expanding its information-gathering and processing powers.

“To me that’s saying human society can no more get along without government than a human body can do without its brain. If we buy that argument, the model discredits anarchy and, on the face of it, seems to promote bigger government. But the human brain weighs only three pounds and operates on about 18% of the body’s blood flow. Compare that with the 30%+ of the gross national product that’s eaten up by taxes to support the gargantuan federal government our descendants have cooked up. Besides, if you ask me, the brain is doing ten times as much work for the money.”

“Agreed. I’ll go on then with the second paragraph.”

Also significant is that, for all its remarkable intellectual ability, the brain is totally devoid of physical ability. However tempted nature may have been to graft a muscular appendage upon the male brain for the purpose of tipping hats, no such organ ever evolved. Nor, in the case of females, did one appear for the purpose of fluffing hair. Instead nature has endowed the brain with all the prowess of a bowl of Jell-G.

“What that says to me is that government ought to be confined to the management of information and decision-making. Period.”

“So you’re saying the model rules out all government-operated facilities. Mail delivery, education, transportation, police and fire protection, and all the rest.”

“Exactly.”

“That puts the privatization debate to rest, at any rate. This next paragraph talks about the brain’s configuration. Probably not important to us. Should I just skip it?”

“No, please. Read on.”

The human brain is not a homogeneous mass of gray cells; it contains specialized areas reserved for different functions. Emotional response stems from one area, sensory information is handled in another, and so on. The most significant demarcation of sites, from the standpoint of a possible brain- government analogy, is that between the brain’s autonomic functions and its voluntary tasks. The regulation of body temperature, heart rate, blood chemistry, and a host of other routine regulatory assignments are performed in the lower brain areas. Reasoning and invention occur in the upper brain remote from the more primitive sites.

“I’d say it’s of great importance. What it means to me is that instead of thinking of government as one big blob as we do now, we should think of systematizing its operations – feathering them out and studying them individually. For starters we ought to split what we now call’government’ in half.”

“How do you mean?”

“Setting aside the judiciary, which is essential no matter what, the bulk of what we think of as governmental activity involves the legislative and executive branches. But because they’ve operated in such close proximity – physically and legally – that they’ve become inextricably tangled. Nature wouldn’t tolerate that kind of messiness for a minute.”

“So the brain-government would require their separation?”

“Right. Given different names. Different faces. Different towns, if need be. Most important of all, there needs to be a clean distinction between their functions.”

“Start with the executive branch.”

“What had been the executive branch. Now let’s call it the ‘adminent.’ It would be responsible for running the show on a day-to-day basis within existing laws and regulations. The regulation of traffic flow, utilities, sanitation, law enforcement, policing the environment, protection of individual rights, and that sort of thing would be within its bailiwick.”

“A bureaucracy, in other words.”

“Not the kind you probably have in mind with layer upon layer of divisions, huge staffs, and huger budgets. I’m talking about a number of small, sharply focused agencies that would monitor each of the areas needing supervision in much the same way specialized sites in the lower brain perform a multitude of automatic tasks. Remember, these agencies would have no operative capacity. They probably shouldn’t even have the authority to contract out. That would be handled by a separate purchasing department.”

” A number of agencies, you say. How big a number?” “Off the top of my head, I would guess 40 or so.”
“All reporting to the president? That wouldn’t work.” “No it wouldn’t. That’s one of the reasons I’d eliminate the presidency altogether. The brain doesn’t seem to need a

The legislative and executive branches have operated in such close proximity- physically and legally – that they’ve become inextricably tangled. Nature wouldn’t tolerate that kind of messiness for a minute.

 

master control so I would think the adminent could get along very nicely without one. That would leave each agency free to operate independently.”

“Then who would keep them under control?”

“The public. I picture each agency being run by a popularly elected minister who would be judged on the basis of his agency’s performance index.”

“Forty positions to be filled each election? What a campaign brouhaha that would create.”

“Not if the electorate were arbitrarily divided into 40 equal-sized blocks each dedicated to only one agency and voting for only one minister, people whose last initial was ‘N’ might control one block, for example. Nothing says every voter has to connect with every candidate to have an effective democracy. Every brain cell doesn’t connect with every other. I’d rather see one million people vote intelligently than 40 million vote stupidly.”

“I couldn’t argue with that. But without a top administration who would allocate funding among the agencies?”

“Under normal circumstances, the available resources would be divided equally among them on the grounds that every agency was equally vital to the whole. Naturally, situations could arise that would encourage cooperating agencies to exchange resources, but I would imagine that any such coalitions would be temporary. In case of severe crises, in which voluntary cooperation might well break down, built-in mechanisms would be activated to redistribute funds on the basis of index ratings. I could imagine a severe drought producing a spike in, let’s say, the agricultural agency’s index which would, in turn, trigger an automatic increase in its funding and a corresponding reduction in all the rest. Pretty much the way the brain reapportions blood flow when necessary.”

I was at a symphony concert the other night when the conductor, on a lark, left the podium in the middle of a piece. I must say the orchestra continued to play very satisfactorily thereafter. Whether a president could leave the stage as imperturbably, I’m not so sure. But let’s assume for the moment that the adminent you’re talking about could maintain the status quo. What about the second half of this brain-inspired system of yours? That’s the hard part, isn’t it? Dealing with the legislative process.”

“Right. How to provide the means for society to evolve without getting bogged down? It’s the same problem we’ve been wrestling with from the beginning, but now we can go back to the brain-government model for answers. And what do the upper spheres tell us about fashioning a coherent policy from all those noisy brain cells?”

“I don’t know but I have a hunch there goes Congress.”

“Right again. Don’t you see the similarity between the will of the neurons and the will of the people?”

“Not as clearly as you, apparently. Do you think we could really get by without any sort of legislative assembly?”

“The brain does.”

“The brain does a lot of things we can’t do. What would you replace it with?”

“Let’s call it the ‘freedoment.’ I like to emphasize its voluntarist nature.”

“Naming it isn’t the problem. Structuring it is the problem. “I’m getting to that. Think about it. A free, bottom-up

The human brain weighs only three pounds and operates on about 18% of the body’s blood flow. Compare that with the 30% + of the gross national product that’s eaten up by taxes to support a gargantuan federal government.

 

economy is superior to a command, top-down one, right? As Hayek explained, no group of experts could possibly have the knowledge to make intelligent economic decisions governing billions of transactions under every circumstance imaginable.”

“No question.”

“Then, for the same reason, why wouldn’t a free, bottom-up polity be superior to a command, top-down one? What I’m saying is why not let the people themselves express the will of the people? If some group – some non-profit, some union, some corporation, SOlne special interest, what have you – wants a law, let them have it.”

“And that would go for adminent agencies, too?”

“Why not? Ideas from all over the place bubbling up to the surface. Legislation without legislature.”

“We don’t need slogans. We need a system. It sounds to me as though you’d be inviting pandemonium.”

“Not necessarily. Obviously there would need to be some sort of validation authority to expose raw proposals to a series of objective criteria: consistency with existing law, conformance with a bill of rights, respect for private property and the free market, safety to the environment, etc. Plus some financial safeguards, surely. And we’d want an appeals tribunal before which counterarguments could be aired. Naturally, the group that introduced a proposal would have to pay all the costs related to its investigation. I don’t think we’d need much more than that.”

“So once the proposals have been blessed by the validation authority and slipped through your other filters, they’d become law? Just like that?”

“With the exception of those that affect the general public in some significant way and should therefore be subject to direct vote. Over time I would expect there would be fewer of such sweeping measures and more of the kind focused on narrower interests.”

“What would stop some of these proposals from being selfishly motivated?”

“Nothing, I hope. I assume greed would enter the picture in every case. Just as it does in commercial transactions. Hopefully the welfare of the community as a whole would notch up one group at a time by one law at a time. Two invisible hands are better than one, they say.”

“Possibly, but I still think that a lot of bum legislation would make it through the process. Everybody feels sure ‘there ought to be a law’ regarding his pet project. With your scheme every nut in the country could go ahead and actually create one.”

“Again, I would hope so. It’s not my scheme, by the way. It’s nature’s.’ How many experiments do you think she performs before she finds an innovation worth keeping? What we’d need, obviously, is a way of weeding out our mistakes as effectively as she weeds out hers. And the way we could do it is require that every law has to be accompanied by a quantitative feedback mechanism that spelled out in advance what the law meant to accomplish and a methodology for measuring its efficacy. If the law proved successful in terms of its original mission, then it would be automatically extended. If unsuccessful, it would automatically self-destruct.”

“Let me get this straight. Here’s your freedom in action – proposals flying all over the place, lobbyists put- ting pressure on the validation people, arguments over which proposals had to be put to a vote, scads of economists preparing feedback mechanisms.”

“No question about it. There’d be plenty of activity, but not as far as the lobbyists are concerned. The brain is wrapped in a membrane that protects it from extraneous elements. I would think that we’d want to do that with the new governmental entities as w e l l – that is, require that the flow of information be restricted to established, open channels. No back-door stuff. No outside noise.”

” All right. Lobbyists aside. It still seems to me that your freedom could create a bigger mess than we’ve got now.” As time went on only the fittest laws would survive and balance prevail. That should quiet things down a great deal.” “If you say so. Here’s the last paragraph of the handout.”

The brain’s compartmentalization does not mean its various components operate in isolation. On the contrary, each of its 100 billion or so neurons connects with as many as ten thousand of its colleagues. Coursing through this vast, unimaginably intricate network are interoperable waves, triggered at the rate of 40 times a second, that allow data to be shared, associations arrived at, lessons learned, experience tapped, and decisions made, all without the intercession of any sort of master control. By activating some sites and deactivating others, each brain wave creates a fleeting image of reality from which it determines its next course of action so setting off another cycle of trial, error, and readjustment.

“What does that tell you?”

“It tells me that the argument you brushed off at the beginning may be the really critical one. The brain isn’t simply complicated, it’s infernally complicated. Unfathomable. I don’t care how intriguing it is as a model, if we can’t replicate its activities, what’s the use?”

“But we can. Admittedly in a crude way, but it would be a start. Do you realize that more than half of the U.S. population – some 143 million Americans – are connected to the Internet? And at the rate it’s growing – something like 20% a year – it won’t be long before practically everyone’s online. The network’s not only increasing in size, it’s grow- ing in power. Baud rates are going up; more services and functionality are being added. On top of all that, the network’s likely to become more distributive. Networks within networks with each node sharing processing and storage facilities with perhaps hundreds of others in the same group. With all that in place, self-organization shouldn’t be too far behind.”

“So you’re saying the Internet could mimic the brain’s information system?”

“Obviously not. However it does give us, for the first time in human history, the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of decentralization while, at the same time, maintaining social cohesion. Up until now, the focus has been on the Internet’s commercial applications. I believe its impact on politics will be far more revolutionary. Wrap the Internet around the adminent and freedoment, connect the wires, keep everything transparent, and we’d have whatever was needed to build a genuinely workable system. The mess in Washington would finally be cleaned up. That’s my view, at any rate. How does it look from your point of view?”

“From where I sit I see, one, my glass is empty; two, my pipe’s out; three, the tavern’s closing down; and four, if my brain falls any deeper into self-analysis, its going to need therapy. Time to turn in, my friend.”

“Not an easy job being a Founding Father is it?”

“Never was. See you in the morning.”

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