Monday, October 02, 2006

Of Chreods, Criticality, and Collapse

Complexity in the Field
By J.B. Ruhl

In this post I return to the theme of cumulative effects and system collpase I introduced in prior posts. One can think of complex societies as exhibiting homeorhesis, a term coined by the prominent evolutionary geneticist Conrad Waddington to describe dynamic systems that return to their trajectory when perturbed by events in the exogenous environment, as opposed to homeostasis, in which the system returns to a prior state. Waddington called the trajectory of a homeorhesic system its chreod. Such systems, of course, have only so much resilience--they can be thrown off track, which for purposes of complex societies increases the potential for collpase.

Dan Farber's work on disasters highlights how large-scale perturbations, a/k/a disasters, can throw the trajectory off track, sometimes at rather large scales (as in New Orleans). It is also important, however, to bear in mind that small-scale events can do the same. Recall my prior post on NK/CS systems: when the K value (number of linkages between system components) is very high, the system has high feedback and feedforward levels that can become highly agitated when perturbed even by small events. In an extreme case of such chaos conditions, even if one component of the system is altered or "fails," the cumulative effect of reverberation through the system of that one small event can be extensive.

It's possible, in other words, for nothing to be less than critical. No part too small, no event too small, to hold the potential to fundamentally alter or bring down the entire system. As historian James Burke once observed of "advanced" social and technological systems, "failure in one area can mean failure in all areas."

This idea served as the theme for Decadence, an obscure, almost bizzare counterculture book investigative journalist Jim Hougan wrote in the 1970s (available online for $0.22). He suggested this very kind of "all is critical" phenomenon in modern society: "The fragility of contemporary technique, its total dependence upon an increasing number of components, its accelerating complexification, increases the probable magnitude of any technical disruption we may experience. When anything is changed in such a whole-system as our own, everything is changed.... It seems reasonable to suppose that, as the whole-system's functioning comes to depend upon more and more parts, it becomes increasingly likely that the system will break down, assuming the fragility of each part remains the same." Not bad for pre-complexity theory thinking.

As for law, chreods and criticality have two implications, assuming we want to stay on trajectory. First, criticality in social, economic, and technological sectors places increasing demands on the legal system. It must respond not only to the initiaiting problem, but the ripple effect problems that spread and which may surface in contexts seemingly unrelated to the initiating problem. How the legal system responds to these demands in turn will influence how the legal system itself becomes structured and whether it builds an "all is critical" structure that may produce the same kind of cascading effects. Indeed, based on work Jim Salzman and I did in connection with environmental regulation, we found that many practicing attorneys believe the environmental regulation system is too tightly knit, with how compliance is achieved (or not) under so many regulations affecting how it is achieved (or not) under so many others. See Ruhl & Salzman, "Mozart and the Red Queen: The Problem of Regulatory Accretion in the Administrative State," 91 Georgetown Law Journal 757 (2003). This is one more reason to explore so-called second generation environmental (and other) regulatory models relying on information flows, market incentives, and adaptive management.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would find helpful more concrete examples with more explanation. Would have loved to see your argument (in brief) on environmental regulation, e.g. Or one might imagine the concept of critical threshold applied to institutional rules that promote economic growth. Acemoglu and Robinson, and others, have written quite a bit about the persistence of economic distributions DESPITE legal change. Other economists (Durlauf, Bowles and Gintis, Azariadis) have written about poverty traps in which, because of institutional rules (like property rights), countries become trapped in poverty, unable to generate sufficient key inputs to growth--capital-to-labor ratios, investment in technology, etc.--to economically takeoff. Outside the world of law and economics, a whole slew of neoinstitutionalist economists are discussing the importance of legal institutional rules. Many of these discussions invoke the concept of critical threshold or "criticality."

On a more general note, I raise this complaint because I think your discussions lose quite a bit of relevance by focusing so exclusively on the features of legal systems themselves without integrating them into their appropriate economic, social or political contexts. Legal rules function as "the rules" of interaction for complex systems of many kinds--economies, social systems (neighborhoods), polities, etc. Why not investigate those, and draw from a wealth of work happening in those fields? Have we become too provincial as legal scholars to wade into those fields? Okay, done venting/ranting....

10/02/2006 3:57 PM  
Blogger J.B. Ruhl said...

I'll put the first point--to summarize the "Red Queen" piece--on the to do list.

On the reference to neoinstitutional economics, that's something I should investigate, and any leads about the best initial sources will be appreciated

On the last point, while I concur fully with the observation that legal systems provide the rules for other systems, I believe it is important to focus on law as a system also. Unless one thinks law is not best thought of as a system interacting with others, then one ought to want to know about the internal dynamics of the legal system and how law responds to perturbations from the other systems and the background environment. While doing so cannot mean looking at law in complete isolation, it also cannot mean looking at law only in an integrated sense. Some things happen within law principally because of other things that happen within law.

10/03/2006 9:02 PM  

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