The Iowa caucuses, complex systems, and the beauty of simplicity

It’s Primary Weekend in New Hampshire, when Granite Staters ask questions of candidates, national reporters ask questions of Granite Staters, and the entire political universe asks, “What the heck, Iowa?”

On Monday, the Great Iowa App-ocalypse occurred. In an evening of dumbfounding incompetence, the Iowa Democratic Party may have done what Michigan, California, Florida, Delaware and woke progressives nationwide have failed failed for generations to achieve — slay the Iowa caucuses.

In response, Gov. Chris Sununu, Secretary of State Bill Gardner, and other state officials held a press conference to announce that New Hampshire election officials have got this.

“The 2020 presidential primary will take place against the backdrop of New Hampshire’s long history of conducting elections that are fair, with complete integrity, well run and with a very high level of voter participation,” Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said.

As Josiah Bartlett Center President Andrew Cline pointed out in The Wall Street Journal mid-week, Gardner’s insistence on simplicity has served New Hampshire well. Gardner has insisted on a decentralized, low-tech system of paper ballots, voting machines not connected to the Internet, and local result announcements. The simplicity is itself a sort of elegance.

Voters can take a lot of lessons from Iowa’s failure and New Hampshire’s long history of success. (Let’s hope Tuesday continues the streak.) The biggest is the virtue of simplicity over complexity.

Complex, bureaucratic systems are prone to failure for multiple reasons. One is that they have more moving parts and therefore more opportunities for something to go wrong. Another is that they tend to suppress individual autonomy and ingenuity.

A system wholly reliant on expert designers and managers cannot be fixed in the field by a layperson if it breaks. That problem was illustrated well in Iowa Monday night.

It also discourages individual users from improving it through their own creative adaptations.

The complexity of the Iowa caucuses contrasts with the beautiful simplicity of the New Hampshire primary, where every vote is recorded on paper with a pen — and counts.

Though the caucuses are not socialist, they do bear the mark of “expert” planning. They keep failing not because Iowans are bad at voting, but because the caucus system first imposed by the Iowa Democratic Party in 1972 is a textbook example of a bad design imposed by planners who were not as clever as they thought they were.

Planned economies fail in largely the same way. Market economies might be complex, but not from the hand of a master planner who seeks to exert control. No one person has to know how the whole system works. It functions precisely because millions of people are expert in their own small area and no one is required to manage all of it as a whole — sort of like the decentralized system Gardner devised for the New Hampshire primary.

Planned economies, by contrast, don’t turn out so well. In “Heaven On Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism,” author Joshua Muravchik shows how the planned systems designed by various utopian collectivists failed. From the very smallest communes to China and the Soviet Union, planners always made the people poorer and their societies weaker. They could never replicate the success of the unplanned market economies.

The abject failure of the long parade of planned community experiments is seldom taught today, which is why we are holding a talk at the Millyard Museum this Saturday night with a renowned expert on those failures.

Dr. Joshua Muravchik, author of “Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism,” is the featured speaker at our latest Civil Discourses event happening Sat., Feb. 8, at 6:30 p.m. at the Millyard Museum in Manchester. For more details or to make your reservation, please click here.

If you can’t make it, you should consider reading his excellent book.