A common biology lesson deals with how energy is passed from one layer of creatures to another, as demonstrated by the graphic on the right. The yellow bar is 1000 pixels tall, representing the energy that comes from the sun. The next bar is only 100 pixels tall, and this represents the energy taken from the sun by plants for their own use. The next bar is 10 pixels tall, representing the energy which herbivores get from the plants they eat. The final bar is 1 pixel tall, representing carnivores and the energy the get from the animals they eat. I could go on a few more levels, but it’s hard to draw a bar only a tenth of a pixel tall. Each level only gains about 10% of the energy from the layer below.

Vegetarians often use this principle to illustrate how much more efficient it would be if we switched from the carnivorous level to a plant-based diet. Doing so would mean that we would have a tenfold increase of energy available to us. But there’s one big problem with this idea — a carrot just doesn’t barbecue as well as a steak. The carrots slip right through the bars and onto the coals.

Ignoring grilling carrots for the nonce, the laws of thermodynamics explain how energy moves from one layer of life to another and why the energy levels keep dropping in each layer. While an in-depth discussion of thermodynamics is way beyond the scope of this article, it’s still worth taking a quick look at the principle.

1st Law of Thermodynamics — energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed.
2nd Law of Thermodynamics — the disorder in an isolated system will never decrease.
3rd Law of Thermodynamics — absolute zero, the absence of any kinetic energy, cannot be reached, only approached closely.

Since that’s a little dry, here’s how C. P. Snow, a British scientist, described these three laws:

1st Law — you cannot win
2nd Law — you cannot break even
3rd Law — you cannot leave the game

The laws of thermodynamics tell us that any time we do work, we are converting energy from one form to another. Dams take potential energy and convert it into kinetic and electrical energy. Cars take chemical energy and convert it into kinetic energy. That’s the 1st law in action. The 2nd law explains that each time energy is converted, at least some energy is lost in the process. No car engine can convert gasoline into kinetic energy (the vroom) with complete efficiency. Some of the energy from the gasoline is turned into noise and waste heat, neither of which is used. The same thing happens in living machines like you and me. As we eat our grilled steak and carrots, we imperfectly convert that chemical energy into new skin, muscles, and 5K runs.

The 2nd Law describes entropy. Entropy is the spreading out of energy in a system, going from more organized and useful energy into disorganized and less-useful energy. There is no way to reverse this trend other than on a small scale, and doing so will still increase the overall disorder and energy change in the total system.

Bored already? Have you remembered why you didn’t like science classes? Now for the kicker — these laws, but most especially the 2nd Law, apply to life, as the diagram above shows. On average, only 10% of the energy from one layer makes it into useful energy for the next layer. This loss of energy also applies to people, nations, and organizations.

So what is the most efficient way to move money (that’s financial energy for you and me) from one person to another? Notice the trend below:

– You give $100 to someone.
– The Federal Government taxes $100 from you and gives money to someone.
– The Federal Government taxes $100 from you, gives money to a state welfare department, which hands money to the local welfare department, who hands money to someone.

Do you see the extra layers appearing? Remember, as money moves from one layer to another, this movement costs money. So as this $100 passes through the layers of bureaucracy, some is skimmed off to pay for salaries, the buildings and maintenance, and petty cash expenditures. Of our original imaginary $100 taxed from you, the end recipient on welfare gets less than $25. That means over $75 of your hard-earned tax money was lost in pushing your taxes from one department to another. In other words, for every one welfare person you help with your taxes, you have funded three bureaucrats. Gives you a nice warm fuzzy feeling, doesn’t it?

This is one reason why I instinctively favor smaller government over larger government. Smaller organizations cost less to staff, not only in numbers of people on the payroll, but because with fewer layers of bureaucracy there is less entropy as money (energy) passes through. We do need government and the services it provides, but these services come at a cost, both seen and unseen. This is why Thomas Jefferson was correct when he said, “That government is best which governs least.” This is true even on a thermodynamic level.

Some people discuss and fantasize over a world-wide government that would make world-wide laws and policies just as the Federal Government currently makes national laws and policies. But I cannot look on this idea with as much eagerness, because the principles of thermodynamics tell me that adding this extra layer of bureaucracy will sap even more of our financial energy. Knowing how inefficient government already is, why would I want to add yet another layer?

I see no benefit of a world-wide government that would outweigh the cost of having it in the first place.

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