Attempting to deepen my understanding of human consciousness as part of my research for my next book, I read the Consciousness Instinct, Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind, by Michael S. Gazzaniga, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The concept of consciousness and identification of its locus have bedeviled great thinkers and philosophers from Aristotle to Descartes. It has also been the object of medical research from Galen to modern neuropsychologists including Professor Gazzaniga. However, consciousness, as interesting as it is, is not the subject of this commentary.
In order to illustrate how the human brain works, Professor. Gazzaniga explains how the architecture of the brain integrates 89 billion neurons so that they can work effectively together. He explains that the brain is made up of many thousands of relatively independent processing units he calls modules. These modules need to communicate with each other because each module may make up only part of a brain function such as seeing or speaking. One module may control the muscles, another processes the image or word, another stores it in memory, etc. Just as no one gene makes a person tall or fat, no one module controls all of a particular brain function. And a module may provide a particular input to one brain function and a similar, but different, input to a different brain function.
There are too many neurons and modules for any one module to be able to communicate with all the other neurons and modules. It would be a literal Gordian knot of neurons and receptors. Some brain functions are independent of others and so do not need to be connected directly. If all the modules were directly linked, the breakdown of any particular module might jeopardize the function of the entire brain.
Instead, the brain is organized into layers where modules can communicate within the layer and to nearby layers but not to all the layers. If one module malfunctions, the other modules can continue to function normally, and consciousness remains intact or is only minimally impaired.
As Professor Gazzaniga continued his explanation I had a sudden insight. The thought that popped into my head was the manufacture of a simple pin as described by Adam Smith in his seminal opus, The Wealth of Nations. While the manufacturing process of using a machine to form a piece of metal into a pin is very straightforward there are many thousands of processes that had to occur prior to the manufacture of that little pin. These include the mining of the metal ore and its transport to the smelter. But the miners and teamsters need food and clothing in order for them to do their jobs. The farmers and apparel makers supplying the miners and teamsters also need food, clothing and shelter along with farming tools and maybe even some pins. Thousands of people doing many thousands of tasks are necessary to produce Adam Smith’s pin.
Professor Gazzaniga’s discussion of brain architecture is a very good description of how a free market economy works. The teamsters do not have to communicate directly to the machinists operating the pin-making machinery, but if there is no communication between supply and demand there will be too much or too little metal to make the pins. There are factory managers, accountants, shipping clerks and dispatchers that provide different layers of communication such that the correct amount of metal arrives at the factory in time to be used in the manufacture of pins.
There are redundancies in the manufacture of pins just like in the human brain. That way the entire system does not have to shut down if one teamster has a stomachache and does not show up for work. Professor Gazzaniga describes how evolution has designed the brain to be robust rather than efficient. The brain is equipped to handle the worst-case scenario rather than the average or standard scenario. A design that works efficiently for the average case, may prove fatal in the worst-case scenario and evolution favors those creatures that survive.
The human brain is the most powerful processing unit ever created through evolution. And humans and their brains have survived because the human brain has developed a robust system of managing thoughts and emotions that are derived from sensory inputs and the chemical reactions to such inputs. Evolution builds robust systems because efficient systems will ultimately fail while robust systems will survive.
Likewise, free people will tend to create free market economic systems because free market systems are robust and tend to thrive. Authoritarians of all stripes will try to control free markets, either because they want to capture the economic benefits derived from free markets or to control the people that the free market support. But free markets are inherently more robust than efficient command and control markets.
As noted previously, the organizational structure of free markets and the human brain is very similar. Free markets seem to come naturally to people. When efficient markets break down (a common occurrence in the former Soviet Union) free markets (called black markets by the authorities) spring into life to reallocate products more effectively. Systems developed over millions of years of evolution also seem to work for economics. This, I believe, explains why free markets are so adaptive to human behavior and function so well in meeting human needs.
China is attempting to create a very efficient command and control system of societal organization. Everything in Chinese society functions as the Communist Party of China and President Xi Jinping command. There are no redundancies or dissenting voices to slow down the ruthless efficiency of the state. Chinese government spokespersons tout the efficiency with which the CPC and the state locked down entire provinces to stop the spread of the Coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
But it was China’s command and control structure that allowed the Coronavirus to spread in the first place. Because dissent or criticism of the regime is punished, local Communist Party of China officials arrested the doctor who first reported that the virus was beginning to spread in the population. Because information is property of the state, local medical officials in Wuhan were reluctant to share information with foreign and international medical teams. Misinformation of the nature of the outbreak caused foreign governments to underestimate the danger that the virus represented. And while the Chinese government locked down Wuhan and prevented residents from there to travel around China, foreigners were allowed to travel freely, which transmitted the virus back to their home countries.
So now the Chinese are bragging about their success in containing the disease and mocking the United States and other Western government as those countries struggle to contain the virus’ spread in their free and open societies. But the Chinese were lucky. The lockdown was the appropriate response to the pandemic and the Chinese applied it with ruthless efficiency. But if they had been wrong and had come up with the wrong response to the spread of the disease, they would have applied that error in judgment with the same ruthless efficiency that they applied their correct assessment.
The communist system is efficient, but it is not robust. Every totalitarian society eventually collapses, usually in violent revolution. The Chinese emperors in the past were very powerful, but every dynasty was eventually overthrown or collapsed. Even Mao Zedong’s attempt to create a communist empire collapsed under the weight of its command and control system. Mao applied his mistaken ideas with the same ruthless efficiency that President Xi strives to apply to his edicts. Mao efficiently murdered millions upon millions of his own people. President Xi Jinping has not screwed up yet, but it is inevitable that he eventually will. And that mistake will be applied with ruthless efficiency.
The American system is not efficient. Anything but. But here we are after 240 years still moving along. And we still remain the most powerful and prosperous country in the world. We can elect a knucklehead as president and still survive. When threatened with grave danger we can come together in a force that is powerful because it is the combined will of all the people and not just the party leaders. The leadership of the government in coping with the Coronavirus pandemic has been spotty, with some leaders doing great things and others doing dopey things. We have a redundancy of private sector medical companies that many believe to be inefficient, but that redundancy is robust because one of those companies will find a cure. The architecture of our republican form of government combined with the free market economic system give America the robustness needed to survive this pandemic and any other crisis.