Monthly Archives: March 2015

What If the Government Was a Brain?

My previous post A Scheme for Future Metaphysics invites cross disciplinary comparisons. For example, chemistry examines the interactions of elements and compounds while sociology examines the interactions of individuals and groups of people. Physics uses differential equations to precisely map out the point at which physical objects in the universe will interact, while economics uses differential equations to precisely map out the point at which entities in an economy will transact. Psychology studies how a brain manages the body and reacts to the external environment, while political-science studies how a government manages its people and assets and reacts to other states.

The last comparison in particular made me wonder: if the government is like a brain and the country is like a body, how big should the government be? There are two ways to look at this question: physical size and resource consumption.

The human brain weighs about 3 pounds, which makes it about 2% of the entire mass of a 150 pound human. The most logical way to measure the “mass” of a nation of which I can think is population, which is currently 320 million in the United States. 2% of that total population would mean that the government, if brain-like, would employ 6.4 million people. According to the United States Office of Personnel Management, the federal government employes just over 4 million people, but other sources like this blog estimate the number to be between 20 and 40 million. Obviously the real number is hard to measure if we have contractors working solely with the government, so for now let’s just conclude that we don’t know, but there is a chance that the real number is close to 6.4 million.

The next area of examination would be the government’s footprint. The best comparison here would be the energy intake of the human brain in calories, versus the caloric intake of the the entire body. The brain consumes about 300 of the resting body’s 1300 calories per day, or about 23%. This, if the metaphor is to be taken seriously, would mean that the government should consume about 20% of United States GDP. According to US Government Spending dot com, the government has varied from consuming between seven and forty percent of National GDP over the course of the last 100 years, with that number being towards to the higher end of that range in recent years.

Is this comparison valid? Well, maybe… but maybe not. Economics may be reduced to just a few simple laws like physics, but we can’t predict Southwest Airlines’ sales on January 22, 2021 as accurately as we can Neptune’s position on April 9, 16550. Could we ever be able to predict human social behavior accurately enough to create a periodic table of the personalities? (Note: a Google search for “periodic table of the personalities” lead me to this.) Similarities have been analyzed by the great Santa Fe Institute between symbiotic relationships in nature and markets, but does that mean we can relate biological systems to society to the point of asking questions like “is the government like a brain and does that suggest it has an optimal size?”

Maybe not; it sure seems like the natural sciences have an element of predictability that the social sciences and humanities do not share, but reductionism has always been an integral part of science and academia. The motions of the celestial bodies in the sky were once completely mysterious and patternless to our yet-to-be-interested ancestors. The colors of trees, the process of procreation, and disease also seemed like powerful enigmas at one point in human history, but our knack for observation, model-making, and reductionism allowed these phenomena to be grasped and even mimicked or manipulated. Perhaps the social sciences, and even the humanities, will be as well understood as the natural sciences one day, because we will have perfect models that can reduce their phenomena all the way down to their predictable parts.