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A Little Chaos Theory
In politics as much as in resurrecting dinosaurs, you will only ever have the illusion of control.
Jurassic Park is pretty high on my list of favorite movies. The rest of the film franchise never quite lived up to the first movie, but I did eventually dive into the book series and came to really like them, perhaps even more so. I especially found the first book very intriguing as the Ian Malcolm character further expands on his chaos theory ideas. It helps to really reinforce the overall theme of that first theme-park-gone-wrong story as a warning against the arrogance of humanity, unintended consequences, and the short-sightedness of utopian ideas that assume the capacity to control uncontrollable forces.
In the early stages of the story, Ian Malcom’s character reacts in shock and horror to the resurrection of the dinosaurs while everyone else is captivated by wonder and awe. His background as a chaos theory mathematician gave him a completely different perspective from the other characters. Without going too terribly deep into chaos theory (it’s a bit of a mind-boggling pandora’s box), suffice it to say that Ian Malcom’s mathematical perspective allowed him to understand that even small and seemingly insignificant catalysts could dramatically alter a course of events in unforeseen and sometimes catastrophic ways and that the permutations of cause and effect are so inscrutable that forecasting let alone controlling outcomes is essentially impossible. The essence of chaos theory is that no matter how seemingly ordered a chain of cause and effect might appear, chaos eventually results as the layers of consequence stack upon themselves.
Ian Malcolm’s horror, then, was that resurrecting dinosaurs introduced a species of animal that hadn’t evolved in circumstances that allowed for them to coexist with humanity and that humanity’s survival of this introduction of competing apex predators relied upon the assumption that the park could control their existence. He reeled at the arrogance of the scientists who “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Faced with the assertion that the park could control the existence of the dinosaurs, Ian offered the epochally foreshadowing observation: “If there’s one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories, it crashes through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously, but life finds a way.”
And we all know how things went in the story. No matter how much John Hammond’s character “spared no expense” in trying to control the circumstances of the dinosaurs’ resurrection, unforeseen events shattered the illusion of control. A computer guru trying to make a fortune through corporate espionage, DNA splicing leading to the unintended ability of the dinosaurs to reproduce asexually, a huge pacific hurricane…these were unforeseen circumstances that no amount of control could have predicted or avoided.
But why am I writing about any of this in a political newsletter? It’s because this story provides a useful allegory for approaches to governance that rely on the presupposition that uncontrollable forces can be controlled.
Most ideologies can generally be divided into two categories: utopian and utilitarian. The division largely rests on where the starting point of philosophical inquiry originates. A utopian ideology builds a case for the perfect society and then draws a roadmap for getting there. A utilitarian ideology observes the realities of human nature and then builds a practical society that accounts for those realities.
The utopian approach assumes the ability to control society toward a desired end and/or ignores the permutations of events that keep society from inevitably progressing toward an assumed end. In most cases, utopianism necessarily endorses a large, centralized government empowered to control the development of society.
But, similarly to our observations from Jurassic Park, this large and powerful centralized government is never more than an illusion of control. There are simply too many permutations in human behavior to be able to foresee, let alone control, the development of human society. And the more attempts are made to nudge things in desired directions, the more these attempts introduce unintended consequences. The inevitable result is not utopia and a harmonious social order but dystopia and chaos.
In other words, human beings are not constructs. No centrally planned effort can alter the realities of human nature. The utilitarian reality of social and political organization is that what ought to be cannot overcome the gravity of what is. So, any approach to the constitution of a society that relies on control rather than erecting auxiliary precautions based on the realities of human nature inevitably invites chaos.
Specifically, human beings seek the maximal autonomy consistent with a reliable sense of security. History cries out in mockery of those who believe humanity can be controlled. The more any society has achieved a sense of control, the more chaotic was its eventual demise. Freedom is a fundamental human desire.
This is why a classically liberal political theorist like me reacts with horror and dismay when government abandons the simple maintenance of liberty and goes down a path that treats human progress as a government program. I reel at the arrogance of political scientists so preoccupied with what they think they can do with government that they don’t stop to consider whether they should.
My horror derives from my understanding that the more government tries to control society toward desired ends, the more the system comes under strain as individuals bristle at being treated as constructs. My observation is that no amount of asserted control can account for all possible permutations in the development of society and that the more a society relies on the illusion of control, the more it invites inevitable chaos. And my warning is that if there’s one thing the history of politics and humanity has taught us, it’s that people will not be contained. They break free, they expand to new territories, and crash through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously, but freedom finds a way.
There have been a few changes with my newsletter setup, though much of it has been in the background, so it may have gone largely unnoticed. A few of you may have read the updated newsletter description and observed that it is now described as “the flagship newsletter and podcast of the Freemen Foundation.” So, what the heck is that?
The Freemen Foundation is a project I’ve been working on for the last half year or so. It’s envisioned as a Utah-based nonprofit think tank with the mission to conserve and renew American constitutionalism—a broad and ambitious mission, to be sure. Our immediate goal is to build on and expand this newsletter into an online publication, a goal we hope to accomplish by next fall.
With this goal in mind, I have ceased charging paid subscribers and migrated back to a free subscription newsletter model. Moving forward, the newsletter and the nonprofit organization will rely entirely on tax-deductible donations to operate. (I’ll make donation links available once our 501(c)3 status is confirmed).
Additionally, over the course of this coming year, there will be a slow rollout of companionship newsletters to Self-Evident with additional content to my weekly newsletter, both from myself and from a growing list of freelance contributors committed to providing content when we fully launch the online publication (tentatively titled The Freemen Online, but I’m happy to hear any other suggestions from my readers).
I have already created two such companionship newsletters: Out of the Best Books and The Essayist. Out of the Best Books will publish reviews and discussions on both classical texts as well as up-to-date commentary on contemporary works. The Essayist will provide deep-dive material, extended treatments, and thought experiments that seek to elevate our national dialogue and bring depth to political, social, and economic analysis. If you subscribe to Self-Evident, you have been automatically subscribed to these new companionship newsletters. You can opt out of these subscriptions and manage any future subscriptions on Substack.
As for the regularity of these newsletters, I will continue publishing Self-Evident as a weekly newsletter and will most likely push out new issues on Thursdays or Fridays. Issues of the other newsletters will be intermittent and based on when I have publishable material. I also hope to start pushing out podcast episodes again soon and will probably publish those on Mondays or Tuesdays (twice a month if I can).
Here’s What’s Happening
To Get You Thinking
The GOP Is Split Over Tactics - Noah Rothman: “What divides Republican voters and their representatives in Congress aren’t debates over ideological first principles. Theirs is not a fight over strategy but tactics.”
‘Culture War’ Is the New ‘Blockchain’ - Charles C.W. Cooke: “By describing every single policy that the GOP has proposed as indicative of a ‘culture war,’ the press is signaling nothing more sophisticated than that its members like the status quo, and dislike those who wish to change it. That’s fine, of course. It’s a free country. But the word for that isn’t ‘culture war.’ It’s politics.”
Who Are the Real ‘Realists’ on Ukraine? - Rebeccah Heinrichs: “In the U.S., the most realistic realist argument considers interests and morality. It aims to maximally protect American security, freedom, and prosperity, in accordance with moral precepts supported by the American people.”
Hayek’s Last Gleaming - Jonah Goldberg & Bruce Caldwell: “One of the most brazenly nerdy Remnant episodes ever recorded (which is really saying a lot).”
Trans Rights and Conscience Rights - Michael Brendan Dougherty: “We should pause to take note what a strange duty this is. Are there any other medical or psychiatric treatments that require the active, conscious, and affirming disposition of potentially every member of society? This seems like something quite new in the world.”
Turkey’s Twisted Anti-NATO Tango - Clifford Smith & Jonathan Spyer: “Erdogan’s actions are jeopardizing major geopolitical events and hampering the interests of his fellow NATO members, potentially even jeopardizing the long-term health of the alliance itself.”
Willmoore Kendall’s American Affirmation - Richard M. Reinsch II: “Kendall’s affirmation is a constitutional morality rooted in both the procedure of constitutional power and in the unwritten mores that must guide a people who bind themselves to a limited charter of government.”
Memphis Is Not about Racism - Rich Lowry: “The obsession with white supremacy is perverse and insulting on several levels. It implies that if urban neighborhoods are under-policed and dangerous, that is their natural state. But if they are robustly policed to try to make them safer — a worthy project that tends to be supported by people of all races — that is somehow an inherently ‘white’ initiative.”
‘Gun Safety’ Isn’t the Issue - Kevin D. Williamson: “The overlap between the people the gun-controllers seek to regulate and the people who commit the violent crimes is very, very small.”
And Now for the Local Stuff
What is an atheist doing at a religious freedom summit? - Deseret News: “Any nation that can take away your right to practice your religion can also force a religion onto me. We’re all in this together. Every single person in this room, every group in this room, every denomination, every person on this stage, we’re in the shared struggle together.”
Should pregnant women be able to use the HOV lane? - Deseret News: “Utah has recognized an unborn child as a separate person. We’ve done that with our abortion laws, we’ve done that with our homicide laws, so we might as well do that with our carpool laws.”
Opinion: Even in optimal conditions, nobody can tell what’s on our state flag - Deseret News: “As a meaningful symbol our seal is beautiful, but as a flag I’m not surprised it hasn’t been widely used by the public. Let’s adopt a flag that works as a flag.”