The Pareto Principle, Part III:
Entropy and the Impossibility of Equality
“If you don’t like something change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” – Maya Angelou
Let’s talk about the Second Law of Thermodynamics…
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that “the entropy of a system never decreases over time. Instead, systems evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium, which is the state of maximum entropy.”
In layman’s terms, this means that everything in the universe has a natural tendency to fall apart. To become less structured and more chaotic.
And by ”everything,” I mean everything: the galaxies, the solar system, and the Earth. The Earth’s oceans and mountains, its countries and cultures, its denizens, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles.
In our day-to-day lives, entropy is the reason that absolute order – in anything – can never be maintained. As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, explains, there are simply so many more ways that things can go wrong than right:
“Imagine that you take a box of puzzle pieces and dump them out on a table. In theory, it is possible for the pieces to fall perfectly into place and create a completed puzzle when you dump them out of the box. But in reality, that never happens. Mathematically speaking, an orderly outcome is incredibly unlikely to happen at random.”
Entropy and Equality
Let’s switch topics for a moment and get back to an idea that we looked at in Part I of this series. [LINK 7/13] I’m talking about the idea of equality and the current global movement to achieve equality in economics, governance, education, and even health.
When I was young, the campaign for equality was about the protection of equal rights under the law. The law was based on the Constitutional thesis that all men are created equal and are thus endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Today, the call for equality is very different. It is a call for equality in terms of outcomes. The logic is that inequalities in desirable circumstances – e.g., income or social standing – are inherently bad.
(Please notice that I am not addressing the “why” argument advanced by post-modern leftists: that the cause of inequality of outcomes is “systemic” racism and gender bias. We don’t need to address that for the purposes of this discussion.)
Question: How does this idea of equality – this ideal of equal outcomes – work in the real world? How does it fare in a discussion that accepts the validity of one of the most important laws of physics?
Answer: Not very well.
Let’s start with this…
Equality is about order. It’s about balance, aesthetic preferences, and, for many people, ethics: how things should be.
But from the perspective of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it’s easy to see that it is an impossibility. Actual equality – in any form whatsoever – is a state that is contrary to that law. Nature is designed to destroy it. Its chances of existing in any system (anything, anywhere) are one in a trillion. And if, by chance, some state of equality occurred, it would be dissolved in a nanosecond because of entropy.
As applied to wealth, equality is an idea that we may find appealing. We can, if we want, make it an ideal towards which to strive. But the effort, however great and sustained, will be futile. Because the universe, as I said, will not tolerate it.
Imagine wealth equality as an acre of landscaping – a patch of perfection that you create in a tropical jungle. If you worked 24 hours a day trimming, fertilizing, watering, and otherwise tending to every blade of grass, you might be able to maintain its perfection for a while. But the moment you took a nap, the jungle would reclaim its rightful domain.
Consider the many historical revolutions that occurred to (at least partly) establish economic equality. What happened with them?
In every single case, it was the same. The revolutionary leaders (who were mostly upper- or upper-middle class) replaced the former rulers (also mostly upper- or upper-middle class). Most of the wealth of the ejected class was claimed for “the people,” but stayed in control of the new rulers. A sprinkling of that wealth was dusted on the poor. (Which did them no economic good at all, as their numbers, as a percentage of the population, did not diminish.) The laboring class continued on as the laboring class. The big losers were usually the merchant class – the entrepreneurs that were responsible for the wealth that existed. They paid the bill. (No need to believe me now. I will prove it to you in a future essay.)
My big point is this: Attempts to equalize wealth have never worked. The inequality that was so unbalanced before the revolution was always – after a year or so – equally unbalanced after the revolution. The only difference was that some of the faces at the top changed.
Once again, the Pareto Principle :
This, of course, gets us back to where we started: the 80/20 Rule, a.k.a. the Pareto Principle.
We have established that in virtually every free market economy (and even most controlled economies), there is an inequality of wealth ownership/control that is roughly 80/20. And we have wondered why that is.
My idea is this: Pareto’s Principle “works” because it is aligned with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, one of the most universal principles of physics. The Pareto Principle is, in fact, a mathematical ratio that roughly describes the natural state of entropy.
Put differently, the Pareto Principle tells us that with respect to wealth, the universe wants there to be an imbalance that is roughly 80/20. And that, however much we try to equalize wealth through legislation and economic incentives, nature will do everything it can to achieve this preferred equilibrium.
You may find my little proposition repugnant. The notion that inequality is nature’s preference rubs against the grain. It argues with your better instincts. You want to dismiss it out of hand. You find it absurd.
I get it. But I think the evidence is on my side.
Two questions I’ve been trying to answer since I got on this train of thought:
- Why would nature want entropy to be the standard? Why would the universe be designed to move from order to disorder? It seems like the wrong direction.
- If the universe is programmed to move towards disorder, why do people keep trying to create order? Why do we continue to try to improve our lives? Why are we always trying to make everything better?
For the moment, I have only two weak answers to these questions.
Why is the universe falling apart? It’s not really falling apart. It’s expanding. Falling apart is how it feels when you are a tiny part of it. For you, things are always out of order. But for the universe, things are moving as they should – outward.
Why do we keep trying to create order out of chaos? Why not just give up and go with the flow? Because it’s just the way we are. Homo sapiens is a peculiar animal. It is 99% the same as all other animals, but 1% different. And that 1% has to do with our undeniable and unstoppable instinct to change and improve things.
Whether it’s a question of how we find shelter or feed ourselves or protect ourselves, the history of Homo sapiens is the history of one of 100 million animals trying to create change.
And that, to me, explains the current ideal of equality in the US. Since the old standard of equality under the law has been largely attained, social justice warriors now are clamoring for a new standard: equality in outcomes. Today, if you are some version of a thinking ape and equality is your subject matter, you are being pressured to advocate for this change… regardless of whether it makes any sense in terms of the Second Law of Thermodynamics or the Pareto Principle.
It’s not going to work. But you can try. And if you do, you will likely feel virtuous – righteous and morally superior.
If you try very hard, you may be able to change the wealth inequality ratio from 80/20 to 70/30 or even 60/40. But remember this: The new equilibrium will last only for a brief moment in time. Because the very second you achieve that bit of change, everything in nature, including the people you are “trying to help,” will begin the relentless move back to nature’s comfort zone. Which, thanks to Vilfredo Pareto, we understand.
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