September 30, 2005

Resilience and Disaster

Lex has an intereresting post on Wildavsky's comment on the general resilience of constitutional market societies. One way that market societies tend to have resilience is through the fact that the market process often leads to financing of several different approaches to meeting a particular social need, since different entrepreneurs and investors come to different conclusions about what solution might work best. This is often characterized as "wastefulness" by central-planning advocates, but in fact it is often the only way of determining what solution actually works, not to mention what works best. It is also the case that one solution may seem best under normal conditions, while another turns out to work best in the event of an emergency.

It is also the case that the existence of "surplus" capacity of any sort ususally turns out to be useful in emergency conditions. The British railway sytem was "overbuilt" during the 19th century railway investment mania, but most of the capacity was kept in operation once built, since operational costs could be covered by revenues (more or less) even if the capital costs were never recovered. During the German air attacks in World War Two, it turned out that the redundant capability made it harder for the Luftwaffe to stop rail traffic, since there seemed to always be a line open that they had not managed to incapacitate.

However, it is also the case that the extreme complexity of current technologies has made our infastructure less survivable in emergency in some ways. A hundred years ago, the task of evacuation of large cities would have been done primarily by steam-powered trains. Because railroads had a large amount of passenger equipment, it was fairly easy to create a surge capacity, and because passenger capacity scaled up more quickly than crew requirements, it was realtively easier to deal with surges. Steam locomotives could operate in more deeply flooded areas than modern diesel-electrics, or automobilies, because they had no critical electrical gear at wheel level. Even if signal systems were disrupted, railroads could still fall back on more primitive labor-intensive procedures for traffic control. And of course if fuel supply chains failed, steam locomotives could in a pinch run on anything that would burn. Our transportation systems are a hell of a lot more efficient these days, but they have lost a certain amount of robustness.

There's nothing very Anglospheric in these comments, except for the general fact that one of the underlying reasons for the Anglosphere nation's apparent advantages in operating advanced industrial systems seems to be its ability to generate them in a decentralized fashion utilizing a variety of actors and approaches. Several of the Seedling bloggers have been having an interesting discussion offline about the wisdom of crowds and the applicability of its lessons to Anglosphere success. Perhaps they might like to bring some of that discussion onto the blog.

Posted by Jim Bennett at September 30, 2005 05:50 PM

Oh I can't help it. Sorry. The Luftwaffe did not manage to stop the railways running but you know what? The nationalized British Rail did and we have never managed to recover from that. There is clearly a lesson there.

Posted by: Helen at September 30, 2005 07:56 PM

There's also an interesting story about the EU forcing the MOT to separate roadbed operators from train operators when British Rail was privatized.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at September 30, 2005 10:01 PM

Well, Iain is the expert on the railways, so I shall not stray into that, but I believe that direcive had something to do with the fact that on the Continent railways run across borders. Am I right?

Posted by: Helen at October 1, 2005 01:05 PM

Interesting point about the benefits of a little surplus. Certainly, overbuilding the fiber-optic network here in the States in the 90s will mean that it's easier to make wifi publicly available in the 00s. I'd also point to the lack of a surplus refining capacity that's coming back to bite us now.

Posted by: Joshua Sharf at October 3, 2005 06:48 AM