Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Society, Governmental Regulation, and Silly Putty

Like many libertarian leaning people, I have a distinct lack of regard for governmental regulation. I find that I have a difficult time expressing the reasons for some of this to people who don't share the view, but I recently developed a model that describes it. Using silly putty. I use silly putty because 1) It describes the effect in a visualizable way, and 2) I think it's funny.

For those unfamiliar with silly putty, it has some odd characteristics. Given an applied force (like gravity) it will flow to conform to a container. Strike it suddenly, and it will bounce or even break. This is important, as we shall see. (can you imagine me as a professor?) For the purposes of this post, I will use the putty as a model for society, with government represented by actions applied to the putty. I divide the actions into three types.

First up is forces. Forces act by pulling or pushing society in various directions. These are the most basic effects on society and act in a very broad fashion. The desire for stuff, need for security, and political ideology are examples of forces. The need for politicians to do what it takes to get elected would be another. Governmental examples would be criminal law enforcement and broadly designed tax incentives. Forces act in ways that have effects that are usually fairly predictable in a large sense, but less so in the details. When measured by statistics, forces tend to create a 'bell curve' shape if they are balanced by another force, or a 'hockey stick' if they are not. In the silly putty model, forces control where the putty tries to flow towards.

Next up are limits. Limits are properties of the system that keep it within artificial bounds. This would be things like Social Security, Welfare, and minimum wage. I cannot think of any that are not governmental, but that does not mean they do not exist. Limits also act in ways that tend to be pretty predictable, but not always the ones desired. When measured by statistics, limits tend to express as a 'pooling' effect at the limit. (See chart 3 on this report that Luis showed me... this is what got me started on this analogy). In the silly putty model, limits are the container that bounds some areas.

Lastly are focused forces. Focused forces are specific interactions aimed at narrowly target goals. Note that they can push or pull. These would be things like regulations against specific chemicals, incentives towards specific technologies, and demographically targeted laws. The only thing predictable about the results is their unintended consequences. When measured by statistics focused forces tend to express as a temporary 'spike' or 'divot'. In the silly putty model, this is analogous to pushing against the putty with a pencil, or pulling with a hook.

My personal notion is that forces are the best way to manipulate a system, followed by limits. Focused forces have a brief effect, but the inevitably fluid nature of any complex system will always cause it to flow around the obstruction, often with results worse than what the action was trying to fix. Limits are a middle option, to be used when necessary. Broad forces are the least attractive to many policy makers because of the lack of easily predicted point results, but in terms of making real and lasting changes are by far the most effective.

6 comments:

TAO April 28, 2009 at 8:11 AM  

If, government was sized ideally for most libertarians let me ask, what security would you have and or need to entrust your money to a bank?

If it wasn't for FDIC and government regulations why would anyone 'lend' their money to banks?

As an economy grows the economy of scale kicks in and the vaunted individual that most libertarians celebrate becomes less and less viable and or necessary; in fact I would argue that right now, pre Obama, the concept of individualism, individual choice, and whatever other romantic ideal you may have of individualism is just that, romantic and non existing.

You are a number, an account, a non unit. whether you have been a loyal customer of 20 years or just a new one makes no difference.

You fill out a form and a computer scans it and then your data is graded based upon some model.

Its all about fitting predetermined patterns and a norm rather than anything nearing individuality.

Mule Breath April 28, 2009 at 1:35 PM  

While I like your analogy (and will be linking to in on my blog very soon), I think I can offer at least one non-governmental limit. Religion attempts to set societal morals, which would act ast limiters.

Mule Breath

TRUTH 101 April 28, 2009 at 2:01 PM  

Governing for society as a whole benefits the individual. Highway planning. Electrical grid. Management of the airways. Justice system. They all benefit us individually and as a group.

My freedom ends when it infringes on the next guys. I see nothing wrong with government being as big as it needs to be to protect that.

(O)CT(O)PUS April 29, 2009 at 10:00 PM  

OMP, I believe a synonym for silly putty is "stakeholders," and we have lots of them. All those stakeholders pushing, pulling, punching, tearing, and kneading that ball of silly putty in an effort to grab their share of the glob.

When was the last time you played with silly putty? Did it have statistical significance at the time? How far back would you like to regress?

OpenMindedRepublican April 30, 2009 at 1:33 AM  

Tao - I think you are being unduly pessemistic. Due to poor decision making when I was younger, I had a fairly bad credit rating until recently. But as I built up a history with my bank, thet would look past it to my more recent history and cut me a chance. I paid a higher rate as I built my credit back up, but that is as it should be. Stupid should hurt.

What goes around comes around is nearly a natural law, I do not believe anything can change that.

I will address your other point in the post I am working on.

Mule Breath - I think I would classify religion as a force rather than a limit. Like law enforcement, it encourages and disourages various behaviours; it has had little success in stoppinh any entirely (that I can think of, feel free to correct me if I am missing something.)

Truth - Government acts in a balancing fashion, protecting our rights from other individuals while threatening them itself. The real question is where the ideal balance falls, and how far we can stray from that ideal without creating something horrific. In my occasional paranoid musings I am disturbed to realize that a 1984-esq absolute surveilance scenario is now technologically feasible. I can't say I have any immediate concerns, but I am aware that it is one possible future if we go wrong enough.

Octo - Oddly enough, I don't recall ever playing with silly putty. It is just that my model required a non-newtonian fluid and that is the best known. Yes, I am a geek.

TRUTH 101 April 30, 2009 at 11:07 AM  

Individuals that trample on your rights are threatened with criminal or civil penaltiy. That is part of government's duty to citizens.

The accused have their day in court. A judge or jury decides the case. Government at work.


The way you state your case is a fundamental problem I have with "conservatives" or "Republicans." They complain about government but when pressed, they generally, albeit begrudgingly, admit the important role government plays in making our lives better.

We can disagree on the scope of certain policies, and there is merit to much of what thoughtful conservatives say. But you and others notice that even on the big stage, the discussion is reduced to catch phrases about "big brother" "big government" "America hating whatevers" "draconian neocon budget cuts". On a smaller scale, "deluded right wing fool."


What makes this a bad deal for America is this crap worked. There was time when I was sought out specifically for this crap. Although I was quite adept at it, I am glad to say that I think that type of campaign and message delivery are fading away with an awakening of common sense and disgust at the level low level politics have become.

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