The Pendulum Swings

I've often commented that human beings don't so much solve problems as they trade one set problems for another (in the hope that the new set of problems are more favorable than the old). Yet that process doesn't always follow a linear trajectory. Initial reactions to a problem often cause problems of their own. Reactions to those problems often take the form of an over-correction. And so it continues, like the swinging of a pendulum, back and forth, until it reaches it's final equilibrium.

This is, of course, nothing new. Hegel's philosophy of argument works in exactly that way. You start with a thesis, some sort of claim that becomes generally accepted. Then comes the antithesis, as people begin to find holes in the original thesis and develop an alternative. For a time, the thesis and antithesis vie to establish dominance, but neither really wins. In the end, a synthesis comprised of the best characteristics of the thesis and antithesis emerges.

Naturally, it's rarely so cut and dry, and the process continues as the synthesis eventually takes on the role of the thesis, with new antitheses arising to challenge it. It works like a pendulum, oscillating back and forth until it reaches a stable position (a new synthesis). There are some interesting characteristics of pendulums that are also worth noting in this context. Steven Den Beste once described the two stable states of the pendulum: one in which the weight hangs directly below the hinge, and one in which the weight is balanced directly above the hinge.
On the left, the weight hangs directly below the hinge. On the right, it's balanced directly above it. Both states are stable. But if you slightly perturb the weight, they don't react the same way. When the left weight is moved off to the side, the force of gravity tries to center it again. In practice, if the hinge has a good bearing, the system then will oscillate around the base state and eventually stop back where it started. But if the right weight is perturbed, then gravity pulls the weight away and the right system will fail and convert to the left one.

The left state is robust. The right state is fragile. The left state responds to challenges by trying to maintain itself; the right state responds to challenges by shattering.
Not all systems are robust, but it's worth noting that even robust systems are not immune to perturbation. The point isn't that they can't fail, it's that when they do fail, they fail gracefully. Den Beste applies the concept to all sorts of things, including governments and economic systems, and I think the analogy is apt. In the coming months and years, we're going to see a lot of responses to the tragedy of hurricane Katrina. Katrina represents a massive perturbation; it's set the pendulum swinging, and it'll be a while before it reaches it's resting place. There will be many new policies that will result. Some of them will be good, some will be bad, and some will set new cycles into action. Disaster preparedness will become more prevalent as time goes on, and the plans will get better too. But not all at once, because we don't so much solve problems as trade one set of disadvantages for another, in the hopes that we can get that pendulum to rest in it's stable state.

Glenn Reynolds has collected a ton of worthy places to donate for hurricane relief here. It's also worth noting that many employers are matching donations to the Red Cross (mine is), so you might want to go that route if it's available...