The Complexity Crisis


We are asking too much of our politicians.

Peggy Noonan

I am thinking about the huge and crushing number of issues we force politicians to understand and make decisions on. These are issues of great variety, complexity, and even in some cases, many cases in a way, unknowability.

All of us, as good citizens, feel that we must know something about them, study them, come to conclusions. But there are too many, and they are too complicated, or the information on them is contradictory, or incomplete.

For politicians it is the same but more so. They not only have to try to understand, complicated and demanding questions, they have to vote on them.

We are asking our politicians, our senators and congressmen, to make judgments, decisions and policy on: stem cell research, SDI, Nato composition, G-8 agreements, the history and state of play of judicial and legislative actions regarding press freedoms, the history of Sunni-Shiites tensions, Kurds, tax rates, federal spending, hurricane prediction and response, the building of a library annex in Missoula, the most recent thinking on when human life begins, including the thinking of the theologians of antiquity on when the soul enters the body, chemical weaponry, the Supreme Court, U.S.-North Korean relations, bioethics, cloning, public college curriculums, India-Pakistan relations, the enduring Muslim-Hindu conflict, the constitutional implications of McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, Homeland security, Securities and Exchange Commission authority, energy policy, environmental policy, nuclear proliferation, global warming, the stability of Venezuela's Chavez regime and its implications for U.S. oil prices, the future of Cuba after Castro, progress in gender bias as suggested by comparisons of the number of girls who pursued college-track studies in American public high schools circa 1950 to those on a college-track today, outsourcing, immigration, the comparative efficacy of charter and magnet schools, land use, Kelo, health care, HMO's, what to do with victims of child abuse, the history of marriage, the nature and origin of homosexuality, V-chips, foreign competition in the making of computer chips, fat levels in potato chips, national policy on the humanities, U.N. reform, and privacy law.

And that was just this week.

Just seven days in the modern political world.

Lucky for us our congressmen and senators are smart as Einstein, good as Mother Teresa, knowledgeable as Henry Kissinger times Robert Kaplan, and wise as Solomon.

Oh wait.

We are asking too much. Of ourselves and of the mere mortals who lead us.

With their areas of responsibility defined as the world, the universe and the cosmos, is it any wonder our politicians and network anchors — our most visible American leaders — tend to act like they have attention deficit disorder? In their professions attention deficit disorder is a plus.

Which leads politicians to the third stage of surprise and dismay: "I just made American public policy on stem cell research, telling Harvard and Yale doctors what to do. Am I not Plato? Would you not like to kiss my hand?"

Why are we asking so much of them? Because everything comes down to law and law comes down to politicians. Because everyone's watching, and trying to pin everyone else down — "But Congressman, the little girl lived in your district and all the local authorities had been alerted, don't you think your office should have done something about the daily abuse to which she was being subjected?"

And yet this is all good for politicians. Because it's good for business. Yes they are overwhelmed and yes they are out of their depth — how could they not be? — but the endless number of questions on which they must legislate leads to an endless number of lobbyists and groups willing to give them money and support in return for a vote.

The Increasing Complexity of Everything is good for liberalism (government should be vital, large, demand and bestow much) and not conservatism (government should be smaller, less powerful, less demanding of the treasure and liberty of the citizenry). When everything is a big complicated morass, regular normal people, voters, constituents, become intellectually disheartened. They can also lose sight of core principles. A leftist who is Machiavellian in his impulses just might look at the lay of the land and think, Good, snow 'em under, they'll get confused. Keep hitting them with new issues and they'll start to make mistakes. They may stop us on gun control, but while they're busy fighting that we'll get Congress to mandate limits on CEO pay.

One feels as a voter not argued into agreement or persuaded into support but complicated into submission.

How do politicians themselves feel about it? I would like to think many of them, and I know some of them, occasionally have a drink with friends at night and let out their surprise and dismay. "I'm just a guy who loved politics! I buy my suits at Moe's Big and Tall! I'm not a theologian, I'm not a scientist! Don't make me make these decisions! I'm stupider than you understand!"

That turns into: "I'm not Plato! I'm not Socrates! Do you really want me to pretend I am?"

But a lot voters do seem to want them to pretend to higher wisdom than they possess.

Which leads politicians to the third stage of surprise and dismay: "I just made American public policy on stem cell research, telling Harvard and Yale doctors what to do. Am I not Plato? Would you not like to kiss my hand?"

This is the ego generated by people of whom impossible demands are made.

What is the answer to all this? I don't know. But there must be one, even though it's probably complicated. I have only three thoughts. One: It is good to keep in mind, at such a time, that we must let as many questions devolve into the private sphere as possible. Not all can but many can, and on so many issues it's better to err on the side of individual freedom than the authority of the state. Two, in making big decisions do not lose simple common sense, which is common human sense, which is, for instance: If you start to clone humans it will have an ugly end. Three: Do not let go of your faith. Do not lose it. In the age in which too much is demanded of the slim wisdom of politicians, it is our only hope, and theirs.

The following appeared in Peggy Noonan's July 20th column, "The Heat Is On", in the Wall Street Journal.

It is always a delight when you're a writer not to write things you later judge to be idiotic, or, to be charitable to oneself, flawed. But last week I'd no sooner seen my column online than I disagreed not with its assertions and arguments but, I suppose, with its tone. And not only tone, but its incompleteness.

My argument was that things in politics, the policy issues we face, are too complicated. That you no sooner bone up on Iraq than you must bone up on stem cells and Putin and the history of marriage. And that having to have views on these things puts too much pressure on politicians, who after all are not Plato. And yet daily they make decisions that are above their pay grade, and above most everyone else's too.

I said this trend tends to favor liberalism, and that if you're of a conspiratorial bent you'd even think they did it on purpose to so muddy the waters that no one could swim, no one could break through to the top, everyone would be caught in the weeds as the current tugs left.

I do wish I'd been explicit in saying: I believe liberals in fact enjoy the complexity, not only because they love government — love to obsess on it, and think it is the last best hope of man on Earth — but because complexity justifies big government. Big complex question. Big complex response. Laws and rumors of laws.

Conservatives don't live for government and don't love it, either. They like other things. They think government is a necessity and a potential evil. This is because they know human nature, and they know humans run governments. Ergo extremely flawed and even damaged people are governing us. Ergo don't give them a big sandbox to play in; keep it as small as possible. That way their depredations will be, by definition, limited.

This point of view — humans are imperfect, governments even more so — is not inherently pessimistic but rather optimistic about other things: life, faith, relationships, gardens. A conservative politician who does not enjoy gardening, reading, taking a walk or seeing a play more than governing is a human warning sign: Don't go there.


I also wish I'd said that if we have to have such complicated issues addressed by law, it is better politicians do it than the courts. Politicians, being as flawed and imperfect as you, me and all newspaper columnists, are at least answerable in a direct and measurable way to the people they represent. The people on the ground in America who vote them in and out.

People punish and reward them for the stands they take. So politicians have to at least seem in touch with the common wisdom back home. The other day 236 congressman out of 433 voted for a constitutional amendment to codify society's wishes that marriage in America be defined, as it has been through recorded history, as something that takes place between a more or less adult man and a more or less adult woman. The House members voted this way for various reasons and with various motives, but one, in many cases, would be this: The people back home would make them pay if they didn't.

There is more often than not a lot of wisdom in the people back home. Certainly more than we have seen the past half century on the bench, which as we all know is a problem, because judges in America are pretty much answerable to no one. Thus we get decisions — Kelo, anyone? — that, right or wrong, lack even the saving grace of reflecting a common human wisdom.

I note here what is to me a mystery. It is that people with lower IQs somehow tend, in our age, to have a greater apprehension of the meaning of things and the reality of life, than do our high-IQ professionals, who often seem, in areas outside their immediate field, startlingly dim. I don't know why intellectuals — or cerebralists or eggheads or IQ hegemonists — seem to miss the most obvious things, floating on untethered by common sense. If you talk to a brilliant scholar at a fine university about social policy, chances are he will say with honest perplexity that he cannot understand — really cannot understand — why people would not want men to marry men, or women women. I wish there were a name for this, for the cluelessness of the more intellectually accomplished, the simpler but truer wisdom of those who are often less lettered and less accomplished.

But I have strayed from my point, which is that in the midst of the increasing complexity we should limit as much as possible what is decided by government, limit its power, and have some actual sympathy for politicians who have to master the arcane subject matter. Better they make decisions than our black-robed masters.



Peggy Noonan. "The Complexity Crisis." The Wall Street Journal (July 13, 2006).

Reprinted by permission of William Morris Agency, LLC on behalf of the author.


Peggy Noonan is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal. She is also a contributing editor of Time magazine and Good Housekeeping, a member of the board of the Manhattan Institute and author, most recently, of John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father. Ms. Noonan was special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. In 1988 she was chief speechwriter for Vice President George Bush as he ran for the presidency. Her first book, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era, was published in 1990. She is also author of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness (1994), On Speaking Well (1998), The Case Against Hillary Clinton (2000) When Character Was King (2001) and A Heart, A Cross, And A Flag: America Today (2003).

Before entering the Reagan White House, she was a producer at CBS News in New York, where she wrote and produced Dan Rather's daily radio commentary. She also wrote television news specials for CBS News. In 1978 and 1979 she was an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. Ms. Noonan lives in New York.

Copyright © 2006 Peggy Noonan

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