Over on Clarissa’s blog, there’s a bit of an ongoing debate as to whether it is possible to ‘perfect’ Communism in such a way that implementing it doesn’t result in millions upon millions of innocent people dying. On the one side of the debate are the people (myself included) who argue that the fact that it has failed spectacularly every single time that it has ever been tried is strong evidence that the social and economic model it promotes suffers from irreducible flaws. On the other side are those who (at the risk of charicaturing their arguments) take something of a you-can’t-make-an-omelet-without-breaking-some-eggs approach. Likening the development of different societal models to that of any other technology, they argue that prior to about a hundred years ago, heavier-than-air flight was also widely seen as impossible (also on the grounds that it had failed spectacularly every time it had been tried), and that getting it to finally work was simply a matter of experimenting with different designs until one of them finally stuck.
Anyways, I found this argument somewhat interesting, on the grounds that it effectively underscores one of the many ways in which social sciences cannot be conducted in the same manner as natural sciences. Namely, you will notice that it nicely glazes-over the fact that, when you’re refining the design of a plane, you lose (at worst) the lives of a few test pilots who consented to undertake the test, while fully informed of the risks, of their own free will; by contrast, any further attempts to refine the communist model, even if they eventually hit upon a design that worked, would almost certainly result in tens of millions more deaths before this success was achieved. Even ignoring the fact that the people who administer such ‘social experiments’ have, historically, not been what you would call ‘dispassionate researchers,’ I need hardly explain why this is grievously immoral. I’m sure we’d agree that it would be unethical for a doctor to experiment on a patient in a manner that might kill him without his informed consent–even if this experiment ultimately resulted in a cure for a deadly disease. Why then would it not be a million times more unethical to experiment upon a million patients in a manner that might kill them without their informed consent–even if this experiment ultimately resulted in a utopia?
But it got me to thinking: what if there was some way to test societal models in a controlled setting? A sort of “societal windtunnel,” if you will, in which (to carry the analogy with planes to its natural conclusion) different models could be tested-out in a laboratory without any risk to anyone. I started considering this problem in terms of my own discipline.
Now, obviously, this precise ethical problem rarely comes-up in the various domains of physics: however, there exist certain systems studied by physicists which are simply impossible to conduct controlled experiments upon; a good example of this would be the question of galaxy formation in the early universe: how the hell do you go about testing your different hypotheses on a system so huge, so vast, and so ancient? One way, of course, is to do so observationally, but in the case of societal models that would just lead us back to my earlier point that observationally, communism doesn’t work.
The other way in which it is commonly done, however, is modelling it out upon a computer. You see, it’s possible to program the laws of physics into an iterated simulation, set up a some initial conditions, and then just watch the way that your assumptions would play-out in the real world, time-step by time-step. Would it be possible, in principle, to do something similar with a societal model? Where your initial conditions, in this case, could consist of things like wealth distribution, social mobility, tons of manufactured goods, life expectancy and so forth?
My gut instict, personally, is that no, such a simulation would not be possible–societies are actually a great deal more complicated than most physical systems, and I suspect, more prone to “stochastic” behaviour based upon even slightly modified initial conditions. Plus, there’s also the critical difference that no one can seem to agree, in broad terms, how the damn thing actually works. Even still, I think it’s an amusing thought-experiment.