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Playboy 60th Anniversary Essay: Entropy
  • December 23, 2013 : 15:12
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The second law of thermodynamics asserts that things move from a state of high energy to a state of low. The universe, which began as a ball the size of a marble, exploded with such energy that it is still expanding X years later.

Rain falling from the skies dissipates the energy imparted to it by gravity. This rain, falling over millennia, seeks the lowest possible level, the level, that is, where the energy could no longer be dissipated. In its descent the water has carved rivers, valleys, streams and paths. When Boston was a village, cows and cowherds followed these riven paths, and the paths became the growing city’s streets. The city planners and residents laying out the streets allowed not only the energy of the water but the energy of decision to move freely, letting it take the easiest path “downhill.” They built along the cow paths, called the cow paths streets and later paved them.

Imagine now the nation’s first immigrants, flowing from a state of high order (Europe) into a state of low (the New World). Europe, in this case, could be said to be shedding its energy, as any engine must do, and this new source of energy—the immigrants—transformed the land.

The Native Americans lived here for millennia in more or less the same way. Nothing much changed their culture, as there was no new energy source to do so. Then the Spanish introduced the horse, which was—and is—a machine harnessing cheap energy (the sun) and turning it to use. The use to which Native Americans turned this new device was marauding, theft and conquest: in short, war, which is, finally, the dissipation of excess energy in the quest for cheap energy. (There is, proverbially, nothing more difficult to get than “easy money.” And otherwise incomprehensible wars may, perhaps, be explained as the thermodynamic effect of “throwing good money after bad.”)

The First World War was fought between the two most advanced and most closely aligned civilizations in Europe. Germany and England, in the heat of the Industrial Age, had energy to expend (look at their military uniforms), and this excess energy was spent in braggadocio and the incessant prosecutions of various claims of territory and allegiance. These claims were as real to those rulers, and perhaps to their peoples, as is first love to a 17-year-old. The force of their claims was not delusion but truth, driven by the intolerable goad, in the youth, of hormones and, in the state, of wealth.

America, at the height of our power, more powerful than any nation in history, blundered into that war that announced and accelerated our imperial decline. Was it “a good idea” to spend 10 years in Vietnam at the cost of 60,000 American dead and, quite literally, inestimable treasure?

How did it happen? May we not indict the second law of thermodynamics? For the roots of this war, as that of the First World War, may be found in pretension born of excess. Germany had pretensions to stewardship of various Balkan states. And we to be stewards of Indochina—why? What poor man has these delusions? They are an outgrowth of surplus.

Greater power demands more effective outlets for its use, which is to say for its dissipation and waste—either directly (the internal combustion engine) or through inefficiency (fashion). Here, the emperor is like the billionaire, who has the power not necessarily to accomplish his supposed goals (a bigger yacht, a cliffside home) but to expend energy in their pursuit. The richest man, with his pick of mates, may marry a shrew. He must make decisions, and whichever decisions he makes will involve the expenditure of energy and the risk of total—and the certainty of potential—waste.

The billionaire may also invest his money. Here, in addition to risking his investment, he is diluting his power over it. Here he has, like a sovereign nation, made an alliance with other forces of control: advisors, accountants, lawyers, consultants. These treaties are made to promote not only the stated goal, mutual security, but the unstated pursuit, individual self-estimation. Both are at risk. He may give money to a hospital; the hospital bearing his name may prove inefficient or corrupt. Britain may have had treaties with Czechoslovakia and France against Hitler, but Chamberlain broke the British treaty of military support with Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak army, the most efficient on the continent, was larger than Hitler’s and could have defeated him. Having sacrificed Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain then abided by a treaty with France for the mutual defense of Poland; both of these actions, his original betrayal and his subsequent support, led to World War II. Why would Chamberlain act with such absurd inconsistence? Because he was human.

As we are a product of energy (some quantum folks would say we are energy), we must run downhill; that is to say, we, forced to make decisions, must regularly choose wrongly, which is to say, expend irretrievable energy. Therefore, all civilizations must eventually fail. Lincoln put it magnificently in his Second Inaugural Address, in which he suggests that all the wealth accrued through slavery may have to be dispersed through the medium of war.

But there is, of course, no status quo ante, and the effects of slavery, and of the Civil War, are, even today, occupying our energies, physical and mental; and original unfortunate choices in the source of cheap energy (slaves) are still playing out their course downstream in affirmative action, welfare, “diversity,” busing and our foreign policy (those with darker skins are considered “more worthy”), just as they did in Jim Crow segregation, lynching and miscegenation laws.

Is this progression toward chaos a sign of man’s evil nature or, put differently, of our ineradicable propensity to search for an easy way to do a hard job? The introduction of slavery into the United States, and the refusal of the Continental Congress to outlaw it in our Constitution, was a predictable human vote for something-for-nothing, for cheap energy; or, say for energy conservation, in the avoidance of a difficult choice. It turned out, in the event, to be the most expensive choice our country ever made.

Slavery was abolished at the cost of great agony, sacrifice and waste. It was the expenditure of energy in the service of Good (a rather unique choice and one recapitulated by our participation in World War II). Here the United States, as a body politic, acted to defend the powerless, with no ulterior motive. But two things occurred, the first being that such massing created the most expeditious machine for the dissipation of energy the world has ever known, the Federal Government; and the second, that we, as a people, had learned a Good Trick.

This trick (“doing good”) gave to the body politic great satisfaction, as it should, and to politicians great opportunity to exert and expand their power and to solidify their perch on the catbird seat, through demagoguery.

Our Good Trick, in fighting the Civil War for Good, persisted. We fought the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines for similar reasons, not the least of which was to defend the honor of an American white woman who was supposedly examined and affronted by Spanish officials in Cuba. Our cultural memory retained the sterling example of heroism in the Civil War, and newspapermen like William Randolph Hearst, and others who might otherwise profit from the Spanish-American War, brought it about.

The presumption of goodness, on the part of a country or an individual, is moot. Information is costly, and we humans tend to make the easiest choice and call it good. So the defeat of tyranny in the Second World War, as the machine was not yet exhausted, led to the occupation of Japan and Germany and the restoration of their economic health.

But our occupation of Japan led to the defense of South Korea and thus to our doctrine of opposition to Communism, which led us to Vietnam.

Was our stance against Communism a mistake? In Asia, arguably so (North Korea is Communist today, as is all of Vietnam); in Europe, we must say no, as our presence through the Cold War kept Europe free of totalitarian slavery.

But note that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States’ presence in Europe, always opposed by the very folk protected by it, is decried at home; and we, in the waning days of our empire, withdraw our forces, creating that cheap energy (material resources and slaves) that will, in time, be garnered by Russia or by a revived Ottoman Empire.

We cannot escape the essential nature of the machine, which is human nature and its elaboration into society. The billionaire must have a bigger plane, and the country must have its excess cathected into war, government “programs” and other attractive waste.

The healthy uses of our energy are spelled out in the Constitution, and they are reducible to the law that the government shall do only those things the States cannot do, and the States only those things from which the individual may profit but with which he cannot supply himself (courts, roads, sewers and so on).

The attempt of the body politic to live under the Constitution has resulted in 226 years of strife. It must, as individuals must differ in their intelligence, goodness, information, resolve and willingness to debate. That is the meaning of “a free society.”

The Constitution is the possession of the American people. It is not the fiefdom but rather the rule book of those employed to administer it. It is, however, inevitable that with the growth and prosperity of the Country, energy would become diffuse—flowing from a state of high entropy (the individual) to one of low, the government.

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read more: News, politics, issue january 2014

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