Last July, Scott Adams (cartoonist of Dilbert fame) decided to poll 500 economists to ask them which presidential candidate has the expert majority’s support, reasoning that the more experts that weigh in on a subject the more likely you are going to get the truth. (Updates here, here, here, and here so far, but no results yet.) Why stop there? Why not ask all of the experts in the world their collective opinion on what the ideal government would be like? One step further: replace all experts with detailed computer simulations that test all possible permutations of government and law, and then put the most ideal system into practice. It is as quixotic as Scott’s idea, and just as doomed.
Computer simulations are used now to solve problems that involve predicting complex results, such as weather, protein folding, traffic flow, evacuation routes, disease outbreaks, and so on. Researchers program the problem as a virtual system in software with rules and actions, set the system’s initial parameters, and then run the model through many iterations on a supercomputer. They can easily test alternative scenarios by changing the starting parameters or adjusting the simulation rules. For example, when testing disease outbreaks, scientists will not only program parameters about the origin and virulence of the disease they’re studying, but will also create tiny virtual citizens: children going to school, parents going to work, doing errands and visiting family. These virtual citizens will thus get “sick” in the simulation in realistic patterns. Some health departments have already used computer generated research to alter public health policy, such as concentrating inoculations on children instead of the elderly. The benefit of simulation is that it only exists as a digital model. Years can be simulated in seconds, and more importantly, only digital people suffer and die in the simulation, to use the disease example.
Predictions are only as accurate as the model that generated them. There are practical limits to what can be effectively or accurately simulated, but one of the rapidly receding limits is access to cheap, abundant computing power. Computer simulations may be used more widely to answer previously unanswerable questions, and will doubtless be applied to answering questions that were once thought impractical to solve through experimentation. Eventually someone may decide to apply the relentless problem-solving skills of a supercomputing cluster to one of mankind’s oldest and most tragic experiments: how to govern.
Some have already created computer games that simulate specific aspects of governments, such as the game SimCity which simulates urban planning. However, someone might eventually create a more sophisticated version that tests real urban planning scenarios with real demographic data over and over until the best result is reached, and a city government may incorporate the results into their actual plans. It is only a matter of time before the simulations are improved and tried on other types of laws in an effort to improve crime and spend resources more effectively, if they aren’t already doing so. The simulations will be compared to real-world results and improved until they are so accurate and useful that they will be indispensable to legislators. Instead of reporters questioning the credentials and motives of a lawmaker, they will question the accuracy and thoroughness of the simulation that suggested the change.
Why not simulate the very form of government itself? Citizens of any nation usually take for granted that the form of government they live under is best. Is that really true? A government simulator would be able to experiment with different permutations of codes of law and answer empirically what is really best, without subjecting millions of real people to suffering for the wrong answer. This would be a huge improvement over how mankind’s self-governing experiment has been performed for centuries until now: on generational timescales, forgetfully, and clumsily. Since there have been no virtual citizens to perform the experiment, the suffering and bloodshed is very real. The government simulator would tackle problems such as election frequency and rules, or the checks and balances between branches of government. The simulation could even explore the criteria to measure government success: are the citizens made to trade freedom for safety, or happiness for prosperity? To answer these questions accurately would require a fantastically complex simulation created by brilliant computer scientists, psychologists, economists, and others. That is the first reason that the government simulator would fail: it could not be built well enough. It would be a project with a scale rivaling the space program, but one with the goal of ending corruption. The likelihood of such a project being funded publicly or privately therefore is extremely small due to this self-canceling condition.
Even if a sufficiently reliable simulation were somehow created and empirically answered once and for all just what sort of laws and rulership is best, who would have the political will to enforce it? Even for simple problems with obvious solutions, there are always people benefiting unfairly from the status quo and vigorously defend their claim, now elevated to right, and now manifest destiny. They would never surrender to reason or compassion, why would they relinquish their death grip on advantage to unfeeling simulations? The motives of the simulation creators would always be questioned. What if there were any changes that required even one person to die? How could anyone morally enforce such a law, given the potential for a flaw in the simulation’s logic? Many dystopias have been imagined with such a pretext. Finally, if all these obstacles were overcome and the ideal government were somehow signed into law, what’s to prevent its eventual overthrow? A critical number of people will disobey even the best laws out of ignorance, apathy, rebellion, psychosis, or simple evil.
Really, no body of law can change the fact that the fundamental inclination of humankind is violent, rebellious, and selfish. Any system of authority, incentives, protections, and punishments we would create for each other, no matter how theoretically perfect or purely conceived, would ultimately fail in solving our real problems. Men would still murder each other in war or in their homes. The poor would still starve. Sicknesses would still go untreated, and many would still suffer and die needlessly. The experiment that proves this has already played out in the real world. As a species, we already have had the means to end world hunger and cure many diseases for decades (for example), but hunger and disease still plague most of the earth. Why? We have failed to govern ourselves. Many people have resigned to believe that suffering is an intrinsic and even necessary part of the human condition. Governments can only claim superiority to each other in relative terms using crude benchmarks to measure suffering like infant morality, jobless rates, and gross national product. It is like a colony of dying lepers bragging about how many fingers and toes they still have.
I feel frustrated watching millions of people clamor for change and cry tears of joy for their saviors, peddlers of a broken promise. I feel pity for Scott Adams’ naïveté and his wasted enthusiasm for the collective wisdom of his 500 economists, grasping at straws of hope. There is no Moore’s law of collective human intelligence, and even if we increase our cleverness and reasonableness by 10% over a decade, the opposing tide of greed will snuff out real change. We are doomed.