Sunday, November 3, 2013

Niven's law, as applied to government

Government is Magic says Sultan Knish. Wretchard chimes in that we are seeing the Return of the Sorceror. They are both right but neither goes far enough. The deeper problem is that Government has advanced so beyond our understanding that Clarke's Third Law applies, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". We do not seriously have a grasp of what it is, what it does, how it does it, and where money is being wasted in dead weight losses, fraud, and abuse. Government is a series of nested black boxes that we examine the inputs and the outputs of, sometimes unpacking the top layer or two, but never going down all the way to the last black box and across the entire enterprise. Unless you unpack it all, government is mysterious, unknown, and unexplainable in any rigorous fashion. It is effectively magic. But not only Clarke's law applies but a near converse does as well, "Any sufficiently explained magic is indistinguishable from technology." That's almost Niven's law. At present we occasionally manage to pull the curtain back to see the man behind it, demystifying the process. This should be the normal state of affairs. We should always know what the man behind the curtain is doing, if only in the form of inputs into our intelligent agents creating our business intelligence dashboards so we can keep an eye on things without devoting every waking hour to do so. Government is a technology for getting things done. Some things it does better than the free market. Other things it does worse. The libertarian's list of what it does better is very short, just like the socialist's list of what government does worse. Defining what government does, and how well it does it, is within our technical capability. It is not done because we do not demand that the government supply the information necessary for it to be done. We can and we should.