Monday, June 9, 2014

Feedback

I never have understood what it is that propels certain ideas to the forefront of my thoughts, but at least it provides me -- and hopefully you as well, Gentle Reader -- with some entertainment. (Hey, ya gotta go with the flow, y'know?) Today the theme is feedback: how it shapes trends in government, politics, and popular attitudes.

Anyone who designs active systems must be aware of feedback, its uses, and its pitfalls. The exploitation of feedback is often an important part of a design: sensing it, determining the proper response, and most critically, limiting the response to prevent a runaway. Some treatments of feedback in the world of inanimate mechanisms attempt to avoid positive feedback, the sort most prone to runaway, completely, while others seek to exploit it with a limiter attached. We can find both approaches in the political realm.

Consider governmental deficit finance. We have here an example of positive feedback bounded, if at all, by the readiness, willingness, and ability of the legislature to put a stop to it. Borrowing to fund an underfunded budget results in debt, which is added to the next year's budget. This increases the government's incentive to borrow while simultaneously dampening economic growth by reducing the capital available to the private sector. The cycle will stoke itself into ever larger borrowing and spending unless and until Congress votes down any and all spending greater than conservatively projected revenues, or a popular revolt destroys the government.

Consider arms races between nations. In keeping with the military dictum that threat is about capabilities rather than intentions, for country X to increase its armaments creates an incentive for surrounding countries to increase theirs. Seldom do nations draw any distinction between offensive and defensive arms once this cycle gets under way. There are two potential limiters here -- Congressional refusal to acquiesce to further military spending, and warfare -- but there is reason to believe that in this age of nuclear weapons, the first cannot halt the progression, while the second might put a halt to much else as well.

This morning, we have a curious example of a form of negative feedback -- the sort of feedback that immediately dampens the stimulus that evokes it -- among Americans of a conservative bent. Two articles at Breitbart.Com are relevant:

These articles speak in somewhat plaintive, uncomprehending terms. Their authors appear unable to grasp why the "gay movement" is encountering public resistance after a long series of advances in popular acceptance. Yet the feedback mechanism here is one that ought to be widely understood. It's closely related to a term that became popular in the Eighties and Nineties: compassion fatigue.

The cited article speaks of compassion fatigue as an individual malady, but it has obvious application to popular attitudes and responses as well. One cannot berate the American people endlessly about some "cause" that demands "action" without evoking resistance, for as Thomas Sowell has said many times, "There are no solutions. There are only tradeoffs." At some point, no matter how poignant the cause nor how eloquent its promoters, our willingness to trade other considerations for it will dwindle to zero, or perhaps go into reverse. We saw this thirty years ago, as popular resistance to the indefinite and eternal expansion of the welfare state rose to check it where it stood.

In the realm of "sexual politics," the advances of homosexuals and deviants in achieving public tolerance at first evoked a positive-feedback dynamic: as resistance to them weakened, the vanguard activists of that movement intensified their demands, pressing for ever more. Eventually they demanded privileges that ordinary heterosexual Americans would not enjoy. They got one of these -- the prohibition of employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation -- before public resistance stiffened significantly around them.

The activists reacted to being thwarted in a perverse manner. (Apologies, Gentle Reader.) They "doubled down," demanding legal recognition of same-sex marriages, mandatory acceptance by homosexuality-averse churches and allied institutions, the legal prohibition of public condemnations of sexual perversion, and lesser accommodations. But the negative feedback merely intensified. In continuing to press for more, they are merely sowing the wind. Public resistance, defied by activist judges who've undermined the institutions and rights to which Americans are accustomed, has become public resentment, which will cost homosexuals and deviants heavily in the future.

Negative feedback is the mechanism that enforces equilibrium. Things change, but they do not change without limit. ("Trees do not grow to the sky" -- Baron Philippe de Rothschild) Every instance of positive feedback eventually self-destructs unless a superior negative influence should rise to counter it in time. We should not be surprised at its dominance, for equilibrium, at least on the longest time scales, is the dominant principle of the universe.

Consider the other "causes" that have dominated American public discourse for a time: the amelioration of poverty, race relations, women's rights, environmentalism, et cetera. Each of these, after a period of positive-feedback-propelled acceleration, has run up against a limiter: a negative force that has overwhelmed the positive one and brought the "cause" to a halt. The striking thing is the uniformity of those limiters: swelling public resentment at having our rights undermined, our institutions re-engineered from outside, and our traditions corrupted.

You might think that resentment is something we should be reluctant to celebrate. But all the emotions with which God has equipped us have their proper place. The important thing is to bring matters to a halt before resentment morphs into hatred and violence.

Food for thought.

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