George Walford: Viable Societies Do It the Easy Way

During the past two years socialists have suffered some of their worst disappointments. From the time of Robert Owen apparent achievements bad often proven hollow, but with first the Russian Revolution and later the victory of Mao and his comrades, with one country after another coming under the rule of bodies flying the Marxist banner and at home a party sometimes called socialist winning elections, it was beginning to seem that the labour and the wounds had not been in vain. Now we see the ground won being lost. Great states long regarded as socialist are returning towards capitalist democracy, with their satellites sometimes racing ahead. The British electors have returned to power, three times running, a government more harshly anti-socialist than any this century, nationalisation is being unwound and Neil Kinnock has repudiated socialism, saying the job of his party is to operate capitalism more efficiently. Are we seeing merely a hesitation in a progress which will resume, or a return from a blind alley to the main line of social development?

Changes during the past two Centuries have included spreading literacy and education, the advent of mass communications, extension of the franchise, demotion of the Church and the monarchy from positions of power, accession of revolutionary movements to control of powerful state machines, immense scientific and technological development, outbreaks of war and of peace, repeated booms and slumps. Most of these have been proclaimed, before the event, the one thing more that was needed for a socialist victory; when, singly and together, they all fail to enable this, it becomes difficult to think of anything that might succeed. But this amounts to little more than saying that socialism has not won yet, and that is no basis for firm prediction. What can we sensibly anticipate from the socialist movement in future? Is there any ground on which a rational expectation can be based? John Rowan has recently brought to IC‘s attention a book opening a way into the problem which may have been implied by some of the work done on systematic ideology but has not been directly considered. Back in 1949 George Kingsley Zipf presented the results of twenty-five years of work in six hundred detail-packed pages entitled: Human Behaviour and the Principle of Least Effort. [1] The title is self-explanatory and the theme not at all original; few are likely to be surprised when told that human beings tend to do things in the least effortful way, and in the study of thinking a similar concept has long been familiar as the principle of parsimony. Zipf’s book derives most of its value from the work put into detailing the argument and providing evidence, much of it quantified. Including a good deal of mathematics (though not excluding the innumerate reader), high on detail, low on speculation, seeing society as mainly an assemblage of individuals, supportive of the existing structure of American civilisation and calling for an objective science of society, the book is clearly operating by the ideology of precision.

Studying the way people act rather than prescribing what they ought to be doing, Zipf sees them preferring the quickest, easiest, most convenient way of doing things. This formulation, however, turns out to be not definite enough to permit close study, for the multiple superlatives clash, the quickest way often be neither the easiest nor the most convenient. Noting that each requirement calls for minimum energy-expenditure in a particular connection, Zipf discards their specific features to arrive at the Principle of Least Effort and goes on to show this governing practice in a number of fields.

Avoiding pomposity, he speaks of tools and jobs rather than means and ends; he treats words as tools used in the job of transmitting information. Behaviour extends over time, so Least Effort is sometimes achieved by using extra energy now for the sake of savings in future; this is how roads and bridges get built, and Zipf incorporates it into his theory by taking expectations into account. Analyzing a wide range of instances, among them the arrangement of actual tools in workshops, the activity of squirrels, the structure and dynamics of phoneme systems, the movements of people travelling by bus, intra- and international co-operation and conflict, the incest taboo, the length of books and of articles in newspapers and the Encyclopedia Britannica, he shows, to quote his Summary “that each individual will adopt a course of action that will involve the expenditure of the probably least average of his work (by definition, least effort)” [2]

Those who first establish a principle sometimes fall short of grasping its full scope; Rutherford’s denial of the possibility of nuclear power comes to mind, and Marx’s belief that ideology affected only his opponents. Zipf’s work also is of wider relevance than he recognises, but in order to see this we need to dig a little deeper.

Taking his concluding definition strictly as it stands we should all commit suicide, for death ends all effort. In the body of the book he speaks not simply of least effort but of the least effort required by any given job, and explains that jobs themselves are undertaken in order to reduce effort; a road gets built in the expectation that this will make it easier to move between the points it connects. But this still leaves the big question open: Why move at all? If our object is to reduce effort to the minimum, why do we take these roundabout and laborious routes towards that end instead of using a bare bodkin? Evidently Zipf s principle operates subject to conditions, and these can be brought into the account by reformulating it human beings use the minimum effort consonant with accomplishment of purpose. And as Zipf discards the specific features of the requirements imposed respectively by ease, speed and convenience to reach Least Effort, so we can discard the specific features of particular activities to arrive at one general purpose for all human action, namely the overcoming of limitations.

All human beings spend much of their time in purposeful actions which follow, so to speak, the shortest route. They eat when hungry, sleep when tired, remain stationary or move about, go here or there, do this or that or nothing at all as may best suit their purpose of the moment, and all the energy expended in behaviour of this type goes directly to the object. Wider experience may come to show that some of it had been misdirected or otherwise wasted, but that risk is unavoidable. Within the conditions obtaining the effort expended remains at the minimum consonant with accomplishment of purpose.

Such action takes into account only those other people with whom the actor is in immediate contact. It usually succeeds in maintaining individual existence, but it also demonstrates that by acting only in this way individual existence can never be completely secure. It brings into view a further range of limitations, and some of these can be overcome by working together with other people in groups too large to be integrated by face-to-face contact. Those who would obtain these benefits, however, must repress their former acceptance of immediate advantage or convenience as their only guides to action and, when taking part in joint activities, agree to be guided primarily by punctuality, regularity, accountability, integrity, responsibility, honesty and the other principles whose practice constitutes predictable behaviour, for only when their members act in this way can large or dispersed groups operate effectively. This commitment does not come easily, for the person it means care, attention, restraint and self-discipline, and in social practice also it brings new burdens, for joint effort has to be organised and the product allocated; participants tending to fall back into the old irresponsible ways have to be kept in line. In small-scale enterprises these additional tasks may not be obvious but they show up in large undertakings as management and administration, sometimes as bureaucracy, and whether performed by the participants themselves or by specialists they impose an energy-demand not arising with independent individual activities. The Principle of Least Effort therefore requires that joint action shall be used only for tasks which cannot be performed by the more direct method. Social practice complies, turning each job over to one person acting alone whenever the required result can be obained in this way. Even when the requirements of joint activity set the conditions, within them the individual person sometimes acts independently, guided by personal advantage and convenience. Although bound to a schedule, lorry-drivers decide for themselves, independently, when to speed up, slow down or overtake.

Joint action using division of labour and cooperation (the two come together) overcomes some of the limitations individual activity finds insuperable, but it also brings new ones into prominence. As joint action brings the ability to produce reliable supplies of food, for example, distance and terrain acquire a new salience as hindrances to distribution.
For societies which have developed joint effort the next major step is to that systematic study of the physical world known as science. This provides knowledge of ways to overcome many of the newly prominent limitations, but only at the cost of introducing yet another level of effort. Scientists have to go beyond principled action to thinking with rigid logic, complying with precise laws and formulae, and using instruments that carry their observations to a degree of exactitude beyond the capacity of the unaided senses. Once more the Principle of Least Effort comes into play. This method, like the previous one, offers benefits provided its application be restricted to purposes which cannot be achieved without it. Here, also, social practice complies, industry using the results provided by science but doing so in a rule-of-thumb rather than a scientific way. Qualified scientists rarely work at the factory bench and laboratory techniques are seldom used in large-scale production.

In overcoming the limitations encountered by joint action science and the industry using its results bring others into view, among them those arising from continuing poverty and despoliation of the environment. So long as none had very much poverty could be tolerated, but to have it continuing alongside overwhelming plenty is a different matter; it then constitutes a limitation which socialists at least will not accept. And when industry goes beyond making full use of renewable resources to damage the biosphere and even the atmosphere, it becomes a liability.

Socialists propose a way of overcoming these limitations. They phrase it in many different ways but, generally, it consists in putting the welfare of the whole (to which we all belong) before individual or sectional interests. Originally taken to mean the human race, this whole has recently come to include also the environment, but however it be envisaged the point for our present purposes is that to put its welfare first is something not easily done. Even if we keep to the older, narrower conception, putting into practice the idea that the welfare of the human race as a whole should be given priority over the interests of nation, state, team, regiment, firm, neighbourhood, school, family, partner and self presents difficulties of a type not encountered by the other methods. Socialism imposes yet another level of effort, and this means the benefits it offers come subject to the built-in condition that it shall not be used for tasks which can be performed by more direct methods.

Among the purposes which can be achieved in non-socialist ways production of material goods ranks high. After untold millennia of scarcity and insufficient production, the problem now is rather one of controlling the powers available. Under advanced capitalism farmers are sometimes paid to restrict cultivation, yet the mountains and lakes of grain, butter, meat, milk and wine still accumulate, and manufactured goods follow a similar course; triumphs of engineering skill choke the streets and others soar overhead to pollute even the skies with noise. Meanwhile productivity goes on increasing.

These advances take place where individual interest has continued to enjoy acceptance as the motive and operating principle; where the attempt has been made to suppress or eliminate this, setting the common interest in its place (even though it be the interest only of a national community, rather than the full, world-wide one), the outcome has been reduced success if not failure or even disaster. In the countries trying to establish communism or socialism skill, intelligence, attention, enthusiasm and material resources have been redirected, away from operation of the productive system into the effort of ensuring that it shall comply with the socialist prescription. Since that system produces only too well by the more direct individualist method this contravenes the Principle of Least Effort, and as the consequent wastage, frustration and shortages become too obvious to hide the attempt to impose socialism is being abandoned, the collectivised farms and industries painfully returned to more individualistic control.

This raises the question whether socialism has a role at all. Are there any purposes which can only be achieved by socialist methods? Two of the major ones have already been brought forward: to overcome poverty and to ensure the continuing integrity of the environment. There are others beside these and they consist, generally, in overcoming the limitations brought into prominence by the uncontrolled, unbalanced success of a productive system using the results of science and run by groups and people all pursuing their individual interests. Everybody operating any part of the system, from a screwdriver upwards, exercises individual control over it, and for some this extends to the control of factories and even of whole industries. The overwhelming success that has been achieved, a success that threatens to ruin us, is the outcome of all these individual efforts. Individualism drives every part of the productive and distributive systems. But it drives only the parts, it does not and cannot ensure that the system as a whole shall work for the benefit of the human race as a whole, let alone for the benefit of a whole incorporating also the environment. That takes socialism.

In the standard socialist formula, “common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution,” the control outweighs the ownership, for when it comes to ways of operating a system ownership not affecting control can be ignored. Democratic control satisfies the Principle of Least Effort when applied to the means of production as a whole, for control over that cannot be achieved by any less effortful means. Its application to any part of the productive system contravenes the principle, for individual industries, firms, factories, machines and tools can be effectively operated by the more direct method of competitive individualism. They have been operated in this way since they first appeared and the main trouble now is that they have come to work so well as to create a need for overall control. The prospect of success for socialism lies not in the cuckoo-practice of excluding other methods, but in establishing the interest of the whole community as the supreme influence over the productive system as a whole, and that means political control. To the extent that socialism has already established itself it has been as a political, ideological and intellectual influence upon the actions of government, and consideration of the Principle of Least Effort suggests that the best hope for further success lies in that direction rather than in trying to interfere with the mode of production.

[1] Zipf G.K. 1949. Human Behaviour and the Principle of Least Effort; An introduction to human ecology. Cambridge, Mass: Addison-Wesley Press Inc.
[2] Op.cit.p.543, emphasis in original.

from Ideological Commentary 49, January 1991.