Have you ever wondered why you have two kidneys?
You don’t need two. You can make it through life just fine with one. You also have two lungs. Two eyes. Two ears.
Mother Nature likes redundancy.
Redundancy makes a system more robust and less prone to complete failure – in other words, less fragile. If you damage one kidney, you can continue to live and function. If you damage one eye, you can still see. Essentially, redundancy serves as nature’s insurance policy. With redundant features, it becomes less likely that failure of one part will kill the whole organism, or destroy the entire system.
Mother Nature also avoids too much interconnectedness, because it introduces fragility.
While on some level all things share connectivity, ecosystems tend to function predominantly as independent units. Take the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As bad as it was, and despite the impact on the immediate area, it had virtually no effect on the ecosystem in Antarctica. On the other hand, a tightly interconnected a system becomes more vulnerable to severe damage by the failure of a single part. Consider an epidemic in a remote Mexican village. It will ultimately affect few people. Now consider that same epidemic originating in New York City. With its interconnectedness to the entire world, the epidemic could easily become global.
Mother nature also likes diversification.
Toxicologist Kelli Sladick explains diversification at the micro level, using the immune system as an example.
Each cell type (T-cell, B-cells, neutrophil, etc.) in the immune system is like a little army. Each has a specific purpose and even an order of battle, if you will, for rooting out invaders – disease. If we only had one type of cell to respond, we wouldn’t live too long, because it would only respond in one way. This would eventually lead to these one trick pony cells missing pathogens in the system. With a variety of different types of cells with different responses to invaders, but with the same mission, it’s easier to keep a person healthy.
Philosopher and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that we should look to Mother Nature when developing our own systems. He points out that by building redundancy and diversification into a structure, and minimizing interconnectedness, we can make it more robust, less fragile and less prone to unexpected, traumatic shocks.
“The idea is simply to let human mistakes and miscalculations remain confined, and to prevent their spreading through the system, as Mother Nature does,” he writes in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.
But oftentimes, we ignore Mother Nature and gravitate toward highly centralized, oversized, and therefore less diverse system. Taleb points to the banking system.
The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crisis less likely, but when they happen, they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur…I shiver at the thought.
We ignore Mother Nature at our own peril. And when it comes to government, we’ve completely rejected her wisdom.
Instead of a diverse, redundant system of governance in America, we’ve evolved into a country ruled through highly centralized authority with little to no diversification or redundancy.
Everything flows from Washington D.C.
The system wasn’t created that way.
The founders envisioned a decentralized system with very little power and authority at the top. State and local governments would handle most things, with the central authority exercising powers “few and defined,” as James Madison put it.
The so-called government shutdown gaves us a glimpse at the dangers inherent in the centralized system. A failure in Washington D.C. can paralyze the entire country. And while the most recent shutdown featured more political theater than actual shutdown, we still saw major impact to programs like WIC and Head Start. Some economists expressed fear that a long-term shutdown could cause serious economic issues due to the number of people furloughed and the interconnectedness of government and the economy.
Consider the chaos created by the current situation and then imagine an actual federal shutdown. Imagine if it impacted Social Security and Medicare. Imagine if the government checks stopped. Imagine a shutdown of airline service. Think of all of the things the federal government involves itself in, and imagine if it suddenly all ceased.
America would collapse.
This shutdown serves as a warning. We must decentralize our system. The centralized, big-government model is fragile. Failure could prove cataclysmic.
Our founders actually created a much more robust system. As Madison explained in Federalist 45, state governments should attend to “all objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State.” That includes almost everything. The federal government was meant to exercise a few powers, “principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation and foreign commerce.” In a truly constitutional system Americans would scarcely notice a federal shutdown. Not even if the government ceased operating completely.
Power concentrated at the state and local level means redundancy. Instead of a single entity perched along the Potomac directing everything, you have the diversity of 50 different power centers working somewhat autonomously – like separate ecosystems. Further decentralization to the local level makes the system even more robust. In a truly constitutional system, government failure in California would create ripple throughout the United States, but it would hardly prove fatal to the system. Things would go on pretty much as usual in Massachusetts.
The constitutional, decentralized governmental structure does exactly what a robust model should: confines mistakes and miscalculations and prevents them from spreading through the whole system. The DC-centric system we have today subjects some 350 million people to every mistake and miscalculation the political class in Washington makes.
Simply put, the more eggs you place in the Washington D.C. basket, the more eggs will break when the basket drops.