The tyranny of complexity

By Bruce Walker
web posted April 16, 2001

The boldest fabrication of modern liberalism is that society cannot function without endless complexity. Fatherless families with rootless children, illiterate and ignorant adults, boring and nihilist popular culture, and random violence and terrorism are "complex" problems requiring "research and study" by "groups of experts" which must be "supported by government" and so on. What blather! Brute cunning, not intellectual rigor, motivate this absurd modern myth.

We do not have to guess about the character of great thought: It is elegant, not messy. The Heliocentric Theory was superior not because of its greater predictive power. Until the Kepler refined Copernicus, the complex circles within circles of Ptolemy predicted movement of celestial bodies well. What Copernicus proposed was just so much simpler!

The Law of Gravity, Theory of Relativity, and Uncertainty Principle represent the apex of human brilliance by Newton, Einstein, and Heisenberg -- men whose brilliance is unapproachable to the mass of our species. Each of these great jumps in human understanding took the complex and made it simple. When Archimedes stands up in his bathtub and shouts "Eureka!" or when Descartes contemporaries learn of his invention of Analytic Geometry and moan "Of course! It is so simple and obvious!" then we are proving true genius.

What is the passion of physics? The search for GUT (Grand Unified Theory) or TOE (Theory of Everything). Scientists instinctively search for common rules, simple definitions, and the consolidation of a huge and growing zoo of subatomic particles.

Simplicity is the absence of the unnecessary. The difference between headache "noise" and the intellectually elevating beauty of Mozart's 40th Symphony is that each note of the great composer's symphony is essential but not superfluous, while noise is just...noise.

Orson Welles

What makes Michelangelo's David stunningly beautiful? The sculptor removed everything from the marble which was not the physical image of David. Frank Lloyd Wright conceived designs that eliminated fluff and left only exquisite form to match function. Look closely for the irrelevant frames in the films of Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles. These motion picture directors plotted every camera angle, every line, every essence with purpose.

Some authors and poets can ramble and retain literary art -- Dickens and Dostoyevsky, for example -- but most write with a keen eye to rendering all fat from their text. Emily Dickinson moves our hearts because she is brief and direct. Children ramble, trying to make language into art by heaping words into huge piles. That is because they have not yet grown up.

Dante's simple statement before entering Hell: Abandon Hope all you who enter here. George Orwell's most haunting line? At the end of 1984, when Winston Smith, recently released from the torture chambers of the Ministry of Love, emotionally crippled by his forced betrayal of Julia (and she of him), drowning his vanishing identity in cheap gin which the Inner Party supplied free, at a Party Rally where "He loved Big Brother."

The greatness of the American Republic is captured in a few brief documents. The Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, Gettysburg Address, and the marvelous inscription on the Statute of Liberty -- a modestly endowed schoolboy could read and comprehend all within a single hour of study. Before Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, he was preceded by great and long-winded orators, yet his short speech overwhelmed all clever rhetoric because it spoke the simple truth of what had happened.

What is true of all the creative disciplines of man is also true of the character of men. Small children finger paint and mess up playrooms, while more aware and more mature children put their clothes and toys in the proper places. The former may seem simple and the latter complex, but the opposite is true: Small children have lives of infinite detail, while older children understand that reducing hundreds of details into a few clear rules makes life manageable and expands their universe of comprehension and action.

Deliberate complexity in modern life, when government is not around, is simply self-inflicted pain or immaturity or a variety of mental illness. When legitimized force climbs into the driver's seat, however, planned disorder is the instrument of tyranny. This plain fact is something those of us who live in traditional free democracies do not always understand.

This does not mean that life itself is simple. Quite the opposite! Chess has only a few easy rules, which a modest man can learn in half an hour, but try to use those simple rules to outmatch an astute chess player! The Law of Supply and Demand, and the other few rules that Adam Smith observed and articulated work well and can be understood without great effort, but the millions of economic transactions that occur each hour seem bewildering.

So when one is tending another's business, then life requires endless rules, constant flows of detailed information, incessant demands for cooperation (and more), and endless hours of hectoring and berating. Liberals require all this to make society work. But is this really true of all foul political systems? Yes.

Was not Nazi Germany just as simple? How about Stalin's Russia? These two monstrous regimes, along with their diabolic siblings were not only complex, but complex by design. Hitler encouraged ambiguity between Party and State, between one area of administration and another, between one Nazi boss and another. The chaos of Nazism is reflected in many ways: hundreds of designs for Luftwaffe planes; grounds forces attached to the Wehrmacht, the SS, and the Luftwaffe; even vastly different treatment of victims like Poles, depending upon which part of occupied Poland in which one lived.

The same is true of Soviet Russia, which had Party and State organizations in parallel form, and on top of that, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was ostensibly rather a confederation, with a First Secretary and Second Secretary of Russia, of Ukraine, of Latvia (and so on). Even within the Communist Party itself it was not the Politburo (Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party) that was the power, per se, but rather the Secretariat of the Central Committee.

Adolph Hitler Joseph Stalin
Hitler and Stalin

It is not accidental that both Hitler and Stalin gained power and held power by deliberate confusion and constant flux in rules and guiding principles. Indeed, depriving people of a means to order their lives is the hallmark of totalitarianism, in which truth is whatever Big Brother says it is today. This is also the process of modern liberalism.

Law, as one example, has value precisely because of its authority as clear and previously expressed allowances and prohibitions. Law today, however, is in constant change, never fixed in anything beyond the last judicial interpretation, the last regulatory pronouncement, the last state or federal legislative enactment. The taming of law to serve ordered liberty has been overwhelmed by the carefully cultivated popular notion that for every new problem "there ought to be a law!" Any idea that problems in free societies resolve themselves naturally seems "too simple."

Another example of the exaltation of muddle mindedness are our so-called "professions" like Education, Psychology, Modern Languages, and the like. Ignorance, craziness, and incoherence can thus be "explained" by "experts" (who seem to lack much sense or clarity themselves). Such quackery is a relatively harmless diversion when peddled to consumers in a free market, but they become debilitating when crammed down the throats of reluctant citizen-subjects.

Children are not just dumbed down, but left with a profound distrust of the idea of learning. Voters -- already scurrying around trying to adapt to this week's campaign concocted by those who, for want of a better term, might be called Orwell's "Inner Party" -- try to focus on the blur of public life. Language itself is melted, twisted, and refrozen into weird nonsense, with the intention of draining power from words.

What can we do? First, recognize that the Tower of Babel fell, that Nazi Germany lost its war from largely self-inflicted wounds, that ultimately the Soviet Union imploded, and that the manufactured helter-skelter of liberalism awaits a similar fate. Second, confront the cobwebs and clutter head on: Be clear and focused. The few who view life clearly have more power than Praetorian Guards of dying empires. Third, and finally, remind people when you can that life requires intellect, but that intellect comes out of our natural gift of organizing life into simple parts. In short, liberate the minds of those around you.

Each conquest for simplicity is a victory for freedom. Each victory for freedom increases your freedom and my freedom. Planned complexity is like heroin, cheap gin, or any other form of unhealthy addiction: It ruins lives. Elegance, by contrast, always enriches and rewards societies and peoples. Let others wear a fool's cap because this week fools are laudable, but you wear the simple, classic clothes of beauty.

Bruce Walker is a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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