Pretentious musings

Information theory

In the May 1988 Liberty, Ethan Waters presents yet another intriguing look at libertarianism. While reading it, however, it occurred to me that there may be one additional option beyond the approaches of the traditional moralist and the consequentialist; the information theory approach.

We know that there are two basic forces at work in the universe: entropy and information. Entropy is always attempting to increase our supply of chaos while information is always at work to provide more structure. What if libertarianism were defined as the system that provided the best structure to our environment?

Note that “structure” does not mean rules and regulations. Rather, structure, as used in this context, refers more closely to a syntax. To give a simple example, no English-speaking person would be very likely to utter the sentence “Map poetic furniture read handy fragile ouch,” not because the words themselves are strange or wrong but because the syntax is. Given all the words in the English language, there are billions of possible sentences. Syntax — the rules that govern the assembly of those words — reduces the actual number of possible sentences to a much smaller number, yet without restricting the expression of new and original thoughts through new and original sentences. In fact, it can be seen that syntax enhances freedom by allowing the expression of new thoughts in a form that is guaranteed to have an audience of others familiar with the syntax and thus ready and able to understand (if not accept) the new thought.

Looking at conventional political processes in this light, we see a lot of the ad hoc decisions that are made as having a poor signal-to-noise (s/n) ratio. They may provide some structure, but not enough for them to be applicable in other situations (whether similar or not). Examples of this include our support of Israel at the expense of the Arabs, and our actions in Korea, Vietnam, and Nicaragua.

An information-based solution would be one that is applicable to the widest number of cases, whether the actual application of that solution is moralistic, consequentialistic, contractual, or legal in execution. This, to me, describes what I perceive as the goal of libertarianism: to provide an objective, structured system against which stimuli and responses can be measured, freeing us from much of the ad hoc thrashing about that we as a nation currently enjoy in our decision-making processes.

This is a brand new concept for me, so excuse me for thinking out loud, but I can see all kinds of possibilities in an information-theory approach. Looking at market economics, for instance, we see that any rigid system of regulation cannot possibly take into account the millions of variables. The libertarian solution — free markets — provides a syntax within which all these transactions can take place quickly and efficiently. Government ownership of property turns out to have a low signal-to-noise ratio, as does government control of everything from airports to business licenses. Foreign policy would become more equitable and military adventurism eliminated. Without going too deeply into it, I also feel that this approach works on a personal level.

For what it is worth, this approach is a polar opposite to anarchy, which some libertarians find attractive.

Alas, it does have one flaw that it shares with consequential libertarianism, and that is a certain lack of emotionalism. Ah, well.