The Complexity Conundrum

Many years ago I read a science fiction story in which earthmen are conducting a war against a primitive people in a far distant star system: the natives, while less developed than their Terran overlords, were putting up quite a fight, and the colonizers, in an effort to stamp out the insurgency, launched an effort to utilize their chief advantage – high technology – and finally crush the enemy, which was armed with little more than bows and arrows.

The story details the invention of one super-weapon after another: mobilizing all their vast scientific and financial reserves, Terran scientists make breakthrough after breakthrough in an astonishing and continually ascending arc of accelerated technological development: an invisibility cloak, a weapon that reads the mind of the enemy, and other wonders of the science fictional imagination, which are wheeled out, one after the other – alas, to no avail.

The problem is that, with the introduction of each new super-weapon, the insurgents merely shift their tactics and learn to adapt. The response from the United Governments of Earth is to deploy weapons systems of increasing complexity – and that fatal weakness is their undoing. For if one aspect of these complex systems fails, then the whole edifice comes crashing down, which is precisely what happens to the earthmen. Terran strategists are forced to return to the drawing board, and start from scratch, this time tasked with simplifying their tactics and weaponry.

The memory of this story is, admittedly, faded by the years – if anyone can identify the title and author, I’d be grateful – and I may have the details wrong, but in essence the theme of this well-told tale wasn’t just a warning that technology may not hold all the answers, but also that increasing complexity is a problem, one inherent in the very nature of “advanced” civilizations. In any case, this story came immediately to mind as I read the first installment of “Top Secret America,” by Dana Priest and William Arkin, currently being serialized in the Washington Post.

The authors have all Washington atwitter because it exposes the prime narrative that makes the Beltway what it is: the center of a vast bureaucracy of Byzantine complexity fueled by an ever-increasing flow of tax dollars. They tell the story of how the intelligence-gathering and terrorist-tracking apparatus of the national security bureaucracy ballooned out of control on account of an unprecedented infusion of funding:

“The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”

Priest and Arkin cite the testimony of retired Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who had been tasked with tracking “the Defense Department’s most sensitive programs.” Gen. Vines, we are told, “was stunned by what he discovered,” averring in testimony before Congress:

“I’m not aware of any agency with the authority, responsibility or a process in place to coordinate all these interagency and commercial activities,” he said in an interview. “The complexity of this system defies description.

“The result, he added, is that it’s impossible to tell whether the country is safer because of all this spending and all these activities. ‘Because it lacks a synchronizing process, it inevitably results in message dissonance, reduced effectiveness and waste,’ Vines said. ‘We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe.’”

With a budget much bigger than the official figure of $75 billion, we can’t even know if we’re making any progress. The problem, in short, is epistemological. Friedrich von Hayek, the great libertarian economist and author of  The Road to Serfdom, knew this: his central thesis – that we are, after all, only human, and cannot know or keep in our minds the sum total of what is necessary to centrally plan the economy – is confirmed by “Top Secret America,” which is surely a lesson in the ineffectiveness of Big Government. In this case, it isn’t economic intelligence-gathering by government agencies that we’re concerned with, but the same principle applies: increasing complexity of intelligence-gathering systems leads to an inevitable breakdown.

In the end, we know everything, and nothing – a paradox that led to the two most recent breakdowns. As Priest and Arkin point out:

“These are not academic issues; lack of focus, not lack of resources, was at the heart of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 dead, as well as the Christmas Day bomb attempt thwarted not by the thousands of analysts employed to find lone terrorists but by an alert airline passenger who saw smoke coming from his seatmate.”

In an interview, the former director of national intelligence, retired admiral Dennis C. Blair – the man who was supposed to be in charge of this vast army of officials, analysts, and private contractors – sheepishly remarked:

“After 9/11, when we decided to attack violent extremism, we did as we so often do in this country. The attitude was, if it’s worth doing, it’s probably worth overdoing.”

Well, yes, but the question is: worth it to whom, and for what? In the wake of 9/11, an entire industry was born, one that grew larger as grandstanding “tough on terrorism” politicians threw money at our anti-terrorist efforts. For the War Party, it was a bonanza just begging to be exploited, and they did so on a grand scale. In our recessionary economy, this may be one of the very few growth industries. The second part of the Post series details the commercial aspect of all this, and the key role played by private contractors – who profit, I might add, from the very complexity that threatens to defeat us.

Government programs have many more lives than the mere nine attributed to cats: efforts to kill them off or even trim them down meet with defeat a great deal of the time. This hardiness is rooted in their very existence, which automatically creates a made-to-order political constituency. Once a government program is created, a pressure group – consisting of the economic beneficiaries of the program – inevitably arises which lobbies to extend and expand it. This applies in spades to those “private” companies whose sole “customer” is the US government, and it is one of the chief energizing factors behind the exponential growth of “Top Secret America.” It is also the classical libertarian explanation for the growth of Big Government, not only in America but everywhere the State exists.

Not that you have to be an anarchist to understand why these programs take on such vast and ultimately unwieldy proportions. To give us an idea of just how vast, Priest and Arkin report:

“With the quick infusion of money, military and intelligence agencies multiplied. Twenty-four organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008 and 2009.”

This manic momentum, which is self-generated and self-sustaining, has ended up blinding us and making us more vulnerable to another 9/11.

Conservatives who question the utility of multiple layers of bureaucracy, and even cite Hayek, usually fail to apply the same principle to the realm of national security, where they’re all for what they would otherwise denounce as “big government.” Yet the general principles governing economic science are equally applicable to all the realms of human action, including intelligence-gathering and the defense of the nation. Indeed, it is precisely here, where failure to understand those principles can lead to mass death, that they must be applied most stringently.

I suppose it’s a fool’s errand to go on a campaign to urge the Obama administration’s bureaucrats to read Hayek, but surely there’s someone in Washington who will wake up to the deadly danger posed by the complexity conundrum – before it’s too late.


In the comments, reader John Dowser has identified the short story in question: "Superiority," by Arthur C. Clarke (1951). Yes, looks like I got some of the details wrong: the earthmen were battling not primitive insurgents armed with bows and arrows, but merely a civilization somewhat less advanced technologically. My point, however, as made by the narrator in Clarke’s story, stands: 

"The ultimate cause of our failure was a simple one: despite all statements to the contrary, it was not due to lack of bravery on the part of our men, or to any fault of the Fleet’s. We were defeated by one thing only — by the inferior science of our enemies. I repeat — by the inferior science of our enemies."

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].