Freedom and Planning

I was in our headmaster coaching meeting this morning when the topic of the span of central planning came up. Yeah, that’s a conversation starter!

In his book The Logic of Liberty, Michael Polanyi includes an essay called The Span of Central Direction. He was a chemist before he became a philosopher, so you’ll want to pay close attention to the following quotation, but I’ll comment on it afterward if it causes you excessive stress. Here’s what he says:

This essay may be labouring the obvious…

I affirm that the central planning of production–in the rigorous and historically not unwarranted sense of the term–is strictly impossible; the reason being that the number of relations requiring adjustment per unit of time for the functioning of an economic system of n productive units is n-times greater than can be adjusted by subordinating the units to a central authority. Thus, if we insisted in placing the 100,000 business units of a major industrial country under a single technocratic control, replacing all market operations by central allocations of materials to each plant, the rate of economic adjustments would b reduced to about 1:100,000 of its usual value and the rate of production would be reduced to the same extent….

My point is that it can be demonstrated that an overwhelming reduction, amounting to a standstill in the possible rate of production, must arise from the administrative limitations of a system of central direction.

If the technical stuff was confusing, go back to that last sentence. Maybe pin it on the wall near your television or computer screen or wherever you get your news.

When I made this point, the headmaster I was meeting with responded immediately by saying, “Let me give you a case in point.”

This particular headmaster works for a public charter school, so he has to contend with the consequences of people ignoring Polanyi’s insight every day. His case in point was very simple. He told me that on Friday, President Obama, the de facto central director of America’s schools, issued an executive order that all flags must be flown at half-mast on Monday (yesterday) in honor of all who have died as victims of terrorist attacks.

So far as I can tell, there is no reason to be opposed to President Obama’s gesture, which is a very important point. Polanyi’s argument has nothing whatsoever to say about the quality of the character of the people who are directing things from the center. The argument revolves entirely around the question of viability, and therefore of consequences.

What President Obama seemed not to have adequately taken into consideration is “The number of relations requiring adjustment per unit of time.” Notice a few details here:

1. Relations require adjustment when a director passes down a directive. Always. You can’t ignore this fact because it isn’t mathematical.
2. Adjustments to relationships require time. Perhaps you have noticed that in your personal or professional life.
3. There is a finite, though vast, number of relationships that require adjustment when a central director hands down a directive. For the directive to achieve its desired end, ALL OF THEM must be adjusted to the extent necessary.

Thus, if a man is talking with another man at the water cooler (that seems to be the only place where business professionals can talk), or if a middle manager is meeting with a team of subordinates to plan the execution of next week’s testing directive, or if two teachers are meeting to resolve a tension over the way they handled a student cheating on a test, all of those relationships must be adjusted (meetings ended, conversations redirected, emotions set aside,  etc.) in order to act on the directive handed down by the central director. ALL OF THEM.

Of course, some of them are more easily adjusted than others. The men at the water cooler should not be allowed to slack off and develop a human relationship anyway, and the two teachers should never allow anything like tension between them block the execution of a central directive. But what about important things, like test-planning? Surely even the most hard-hearted defender of central planning can see that central planning can only be sustained by arbitrary and quasi-objective testing? Surely we don’t want to stop a test-planning meeting to lower the flag to half-mast!

Ah, you object, it isn’t that hard to lower a flag. No, it isn’t. But it is hard to get 100,000 people to adjust their relationships to do so. In fact, the inevitable problem in this particular event seems to have occured closer to the source (of which there is only one variable – the central director or President himself) than to the flag pole (of which there are thousands of variables and therefore more opportunities to botch the directive) because my headmaster friend only received this executive order at 2:00 PM on Monday!

Somebody close to the White House, or at least closer to the White House than to the School House, or some group of people, did not adjust their relationships soon enough to help others adjust their relationships soon enough to help others adjust their relationships soon enough to act on time. And so, the school was not in compliance with the will of the central director.

My guess is, that caused some anxiety for the school. Nobody likes to be out of favor with central directors.

Let me summarize by making my point as clear as I possibly can. Planning production or any other human activity can only be effectively done to a certain scale.

Let me try again: When we plan things, we will only succeed if we pay attention to the scale of what we are planning. There are limits to how far we can reach before we are guaranteed to fail by the nature of the task we are planning.

Perhaps it will help if I make the point more concrete: The Public Education system in America cannot possibly succeed because it is too big and too centralized. This is not an ideological statement, or an argument from theory, or a racist position, or anything else.

It is a mathematical certainty.

Let me extend my point just a little bit. American political and economic society has adopted an architecture that cannot hold it up.

I have always admired President Obama and his evident commitment to his wife and to the suffering. I would never ask him to pull back on either of them. But he and his country have made a fundamental mistake. They seem to believe that it is possible to have enough power to bring about changes that will improve conditions for the poor and suffering.

It is not possible. The attempt can only betray the attemptor.

The only hope for the poor and suffering is love of neighbor.

Of course, it is possible for the President and Congress to help some of the poor and suffering. Whoever they favor will no doubt benefit from their power. But on a larger scale, they can only spread misery.

Why? Not because they are evil or anti-Christ or any such nonsense. Because it is mathematically impossible to solve the problems they attempt to solve on the scale they attempt to solve them.

That is why no school reform can ever fix American education. That is why the inner cities will never be reached by federal aid. That is why the Great Society led to widespread cynicism among Americans in regard to their government. That is why the more we rely on our federal government to “change” our society by achieving an abstract equality and justice, the more we become dependent on unelected organizations established by our elected officials but always spinning out from under their control.

It’s also why large corporations waste more time and energy than can be comprehended in a mortal lifetime.

This is not an anti-government diatribe. I am completely in favor of government and believe it to be a noble and beautiful thing – by no means a necessary evil.

Nor is it an anti-business tirade. I love business. My dad owned one and almost half of the employed work force in America works for one.  I don’t even think business people are necessarily vulgar or unklempfed (whatever that means).

It’s a pro-scale appeal. It’s a cry for respect for human beings. It’s a little hopeless, too, because I know how we are overly invested in everything gigantic.

But maybe, as in the Soviet Bloc, Gargantua and Leviathon have been seen to fail and it isn’t too late. Maybe enough Americans are willing to be responsible within their just sphere that we can at least live free, if not dreamily happy.

We’ve made a mistake. A measurable, observable, obvious mistake. Can we learn from it?

Time will tell.

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Why Education Must Be an Apprenticeship

Michael Polanyi wrote an impressive book with the exhilerating title, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, in which he includes a chapter called Skills. You should read it if you possibly can. Some quotations and maybe a reflection or two:

The aim of skilful performance is achieved by the observance of a set of rules which are not known as such to the person following them.

He illustrates this with swimming (breathing is the secret) and bicycling (a proportionate turning of the handlebar that bears an inverse relationship to your speed).

Rules of art can be useful, but they do not determine the practice of an art; they are maxims, which can serve as a guide to an art only if they can be integrated into the practical knowledge of the art. They cannot replace this knowledge.

That is why teacher training can’t consist of lectures and why teaching rarely is effective when it consists of maxims instead of practice. He proceeds to describe the difficulty of scientifically measuring the “touch” of pianists and concludes that much can be done that our measuring devices can’t detect. And therefore, he argues, tradition is essential to learning any art.

An art which cannot be specified in detail cannot be transmitted by prescription, since no prescription for it exists. It can be passed on only by example from master to apprentice. This restricts the range of diffusion to that of personal contacts, and we find accordingly that craftsmanship tends to survive in closely circumscribed local traditions….

It follows that an art which has fallen into disuse for the period of a generation is altogether lost. There are hundreds of examples of this to wich the process of mechanization is continuously adding new ones. These losses are usually irretrievable. …

To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyse and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself. These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition.

To my mind, this passage argues strongly for a different kind of learning than the kind foisted on us by the contemporary school. And it argues that the training of teachers can only be done through apprenticeship. But I don’t want to narrow the meaning and application of this passage. How do you understand it? What does it have to say about your involvement in an activity that is artistic rather than scientific?

Polanyi on Liberty and Nihilism

Freedom of thought is rendered pointless and must disappear, where reason and morality are deprived of their status as a force in their own right. When the judge in court can no longer appeal to law and jstice; when neither a witness, nor the newspapers, nor even a scientist reporting on his expriments, can speak the truth as he knows it; when in public life there is no moral principle commanding respect; when the revelations of religion and of art are denied any substance; then there are no grounds left on which any individual may justly make a stand against the rulers of the day. Such is the simple logic of totalitarianism. A nihilistic regime will have to undertake the day-to-day direction of all activities which are otherwise guided by the intellectual and moral principles that nihilism declares empty and void. Principles must be replaced by the decrees of an all-embracing Party Line.

Micheal Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty