Toward Ungovernability

     Every process occurring in nature proceeds in the sense in which the sum of the entropies of all bodies taking part in the process is increased. – Max Planck

     Dunghills rise and castles fall. – Yankee proverb

     If there’s anything a public servant hates to do, it’s something for the public.” – Kin Hubbard

     If you’re not a physicist or haven’t dated one recently, you might not recognize the first statement above as Planck’s verbal formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy, the technical term for the aggregate disorder of a system, is a poorly understood concept among laymen (and among many physics students, as well). It’s been approached several ways by powerful thinkers, but no verbal formulation brings home the concept any better than the one from Planck. That’s because entropy is one of the most maddeningly elusive of physical phenomena: a state function.

     State functions don’t express something you can easily get your hands around. They express an overall property of a physical construct that doesn’t exist in reality: a closed system, i.e., a finite enclosed volume of (space / time) and (matter / energy) whose contents do not interact with anything outside it. Such systems are entirely conceptual; physicists use them to construct models of what would happen within one. That’s right, Gentle Reader: there are no genuinely closed systems, nor will there ever be one under the veil of Time.

     The Yankee proverb that follows Planck’s statement merely restates the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

     That’s the end of the physics for this morning. Now let’s talk about cities.


     In the wake of the failure of failure Lori Lightfoot to gain admission to the Chicago mayoral runoff, The Atlantic, a left-inclined publication, has decided to salve her wound, though not the wound her mayoralty has inflicted upon Chicago, with an article proclaiming that “Big Cities Are Ungovernable:”

     The article is paywalled, but from the graphic above any Gentle Reader can deduce the gist of it.

     If that thesis were put to a for / against debate among scholars of urban history and dynamics, how do you think the discussion would go? Myself, I expect the participants would squabble endlessly over the definitions of “big,” “cities,” and “ungovernable.” (That would consume them so completely that they’d have nothing left for “are.”) Thus they could evade all discussion of the actual proposition until the last of the audience had drifted away.

     Robert A. Heinlein was no fan of the big city:

     “As a thumb rule, one can say that any time a planet starts developing cities of more than one million people, it is approaching critical mass. In a century or two it won’t be fit to live on.”

     And so my own preference is clear, though it might have a Mae West feel, I shall add this: I’ve been a country dweller and I’ve been a city dweller, and honey, the country is better. But that’s all to the side.

     It’s hardly a state secret that America’s largest cities are in bad shape today. They’re overrun with social pathologies, consistently underperform at “public services,” and cost a fortune to live in. Yet that was not always the case. Indeed, during the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani, New York City returned from an abyss of squalor to a quality and livability it hadn’t known since Fiorello La Guardia. The Di Blasio and Adams mayoralties have dissipated that. Los Angeles during Ronald Reagan’s governorship over California was equally a beautiful, highly livable place. It’s not enough to say sic transit gloria mundi and pass on. We must discover the reasons for the changes and what “governability” or the lack thereof has to do with them.


     “I regard politicians rather as I regard the instruments on the dashboard of my car. They tell me what is going on in the engine of state, but they don’t control it.” — Sir Frederick Hoyle

     Large numbers of people cannot be “governed,” in the original sense of the word, by a discrete “government.” (If that statement mystifies you, look up the function and operation of a steam engine’s governor.) They must ultimately “govern” themselves, which destroys the usual interpretation of governable and governability. Moreover, the “large number” doesn’t need to be in the millions, as The Atlantic would have it.

     Here we come to grips with what governments can and cannot do. As no one can compel anyone else to do or not do anything against his will – yes, you read that right – a government’s only tool is to threaten and deploy coercive force, such that the wills of those under its jurisdiction conform to its preferences. But the threats and deployments of force will necessarily be limited by:

  1. The enforcers available;
  2. The money with which to pay them;
  3. The government’s ability to get those enforcers to do what they’re told.

     These are limiting factors whose ultimate determinant lies in the populace itself. Indeed, we must add a fourth factor, which trumps all other considerations of any sort or any size: the willingness of a substantial fraction of the populace to risk defying the government, for whatever satisfactions are available thereby. We’ve already seen how this limits a government’s ability to impose its will. The War on Drugs is the most obvious example.

If a sufficient fraction of the “governed” refuse to be governed,
No scheme for “governing” that populace will work.

     Today, sufficient fractions of the populaces of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and other major cities simply refuse to be governed. They do as they please, aware of the potential consequences but willing to risk them. That has rendered those cities ungovernable, in the sense generally understood by private citizens. But clearly it was not always thus.

     No doubt Heraclitus would have had something to say about this, but he’s dead.


     If you’re one of the Gentle Readers utterly convinced that “Porretto must intend some point here,” and so slogged through the opening segment about closed systems and entropy determined to thresh out my intent: congratulations: I did have something specific in mind. I was thinking about Coronado, California.

     Just yesterday we had this article about the success of the Coronado city government in dealing with the homeless problem:

     Richard Bailey, the mayor of Coronado, has reinforced a no-encampment policy in his city, which now reports the lowest homeless population in the state.
     Speaking to Fox News anchor Ashley Strohmier, Bailey discussed the policies that he has put in place in his city and how he avoids the mistakes other California cities are making in regard to the homeless crisis that has taken hold of the state.
     “The policies that are in place at the regional and statewide level that are tolerating this type of behavior that is personally destructive and also destructive to the surrounding communities are really enabling this situation to increase throughout our entire state, and throughout our entire region,” said Bailey.
     “Changing these policies will actually have a major impact,” he added, speaking from his own experience.

     So what has Mayor Bailey done?

     Bailey has enforced a strict no-tolerance policy for municipal code violations.
     “We also make it very clear that we don’t tolerate encampments along our sidewalks, and we don’t tolerate other code violations such as being drunk in public or urinating in public or defecating in public,” Bailey said. “We just simply don’t tolerate these basic code violations. What ends up happening is an individual either chooses to get help or they end up leaving.”
     “The fact of the matter is that, although there are a myriad of reasons that people end up homeless, they eventually only fall into two camps – those that want help and those that do not want help,” Baily continued. “And if those that are refusing to get help shouldn’t be granted… the ability to break laws such as tent encampments on the sidewalk or urinating or defecating in public.”

     Amazing! What a city’s enforcers and populace refuse to tolerate won’t hang around! It really is that simple…if the city government has the will of the populace behind it. Coronado is a largely military town. The people who live there actively want a clean and orderly city. Therefore, they back Mayor Bailey’s policy of strict code enforcement, in contrast with the laxity of other California cities.

     But note: Coronado’s undisciplined homeless aren’t dissolving into the luminiferous ether. They’re going somewhere else. Where? Wherever their dissolute preferences will be tolerated. For Coronado is not a closed system. Nor are its residents willing to execute the homeless for violating their municipal code.

     Other California cities tolerate such dissolution. I’d bet Coronado’s undisciplined homeless migrate to those other cities, where their tent encampments and their other antisocial habits will be tolerated. So we might say that Coronado is “exporting” its undisciplined homeless to places more favorable to their “lifestyle.” That will continue until the rest of California adopts the same “No Tolerance!” policy that Coronado has accepted.

     But California’s cities are overwhelmingly too liberal for their own good. Even if San Francisco, for example, were by some quirk of the machinery to elect a conservative, no-public-nonsense city government, it would not be able to use Mayor Bailey’s method…because the people of San Francisco would not accept it.

     The same can be said with equal justice for the other California cities with severe homelessness problems.


     The residents of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, New York City, Chicago, and other homeless capitals have elected to tolerate the public degradation that their homeless populations impose upon them. Conditions there have made them resemble “closed systems” de facto where homelessness is concerned. They would rather tolerate huge homeless camps and what comes with them than strict code enforcement. The homeless find the results congenial to their filthy and dissolute preferences. What the city governments could do, they will not, for fear of electoral backlash.

     And day by day, their entropy increases.

     Is this a verdict on whether “Big Cities Are Ungovernable?” I don’t think so. History speaks to the opposite effect. But it does cast an interesting light on whether large groups of left-liberals are governable.

     See also this baseline essay, and reflect.


  1. While it appears the Atlantic was aiming for sympathy along this line,
    Whistler's Mother

    the thought that comes to mind — in good measure due to the dissolution of the subject herself — is Whistler’s Demon.

    • SiG on March 5, 2023 at 10:15 AM

    There are few social science statements that have the equivalent “unbreakable with no exceptions” character of physical laws, but the only ones that seem close are economics laws.  Supply and demand is about as close to physical law as it gets, in terms of being unbreakable.
    This is obvious throughout the post and in Coronado specifically.  You get more of things you incentivize and less of things you disincentivize.  This should be obvious to even the worst observers, but obviously isn’t.
    In most of the crazy lib cities of California (and Portland, OR, and Seattle and…), they incentivize homelessness and the antisocial behaviors that Coronado punishes.  Therefore, they get an ever-increasing amount of it.
    In my few years in technical management, I took a course in economics.  Although it wasn’t emphasized, economics is the study of incentives.  If it had been emphasized, I might well have gone for a masters in economics.

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