Dust In The Wind

All we are is dust in the wind. (Song lyrics)


Contra Tyler, the lesson of history is that few things are as effective at launching a revolution as is moral argument. Without the firebrand Thomas “We have it in our power to begin the world over again“ Paine, the American Revolution would probably never have happened. (more)

Imagine standing at the shore of a river. You scoop a handful of water, and throw it downstream. By how much do you expect that act to change the flow of the river into the ocean miles downstream? I expect the effect to be far less than a handful of water arriving a few seconds earlier. More like a few atoms arriving a few seconds earlier. The speed of a river is a balance between gravity and friction, and that balance is likely to be quickly restored after disturbances like throwing a handful of water.

This seems a pretty typical example of influencing the physical world. The vast majority of such influences quickly disappear. So if you want your influence to last, you have to choose carefully. For example, since on Earth nature only rarely moves big stones, you might succeed in assembling a stone wall that lasts for thousands of years. At least if other people don’t want to knock it down.

Now consider trying to have a long term social influence. As with physical influence, we should expect that most efforts to influence the social world also diminish quickly away from the point of influence. After all, many aspects of the social world also result from balances between opposing forces. For example, if US independence was largely inevitable in the long run, then Thomas Paine could have at most influenced when exactly when the US became independent.

But what if there are tipping points? Imagine that a burst of floodwater came to the edge of overflowing a dam. An overflow might dig a channel leading in a new direction, changing the course of a river for a long time to come. So adding or subtracting just a little water near that overflow point might have a big long term effect. Can this metaphor give us more hope for long term social influence?

Well first, such tipping points must be rare – the vast majority of points can’t tip very far. Second, when many people can influence a social event, not only are most people only a drop in a tide of influence, most people are also only a drop in a tide of information. For example, imagine that people were pushing for or against US independence based on their best info on if that is good for the world. In this case Paine could only be in a position to tip the outcome if many other people also could tip the outcome, and if they were pushing in many different directions, with their net effects nearly balancing out.

In a case like this, Paine couldn’t be at all sure that a US revolution was a good idea. After all, an awful lot of people would have best info suggesting it was not a good idea. And in fact Bryan Caplan makes a good case that it wasn’t in fact a good idea.

Of course many people might have been pushing based on private interests, instead of a common good. But this still wouldn’t give Paine much reason for confidence in his tipping the world to a better place. Either many others would try to help the world, or Paine couldn’t have good reason to think he is the only exception.

So are there any good ways to have long term influence? One idea is to find a social situation like the stone wall, where you can add things that aren’t likely to get moved, and where your stones aren’t likely to be added anyway a bit later by someone else. Perhaps doing intellectual work on highly neglected topics is something like this.

See also: Long Legacies

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  • Robert Koslover
  • Christopher Ziemian

    I think you meant “overflowing a dam”, not “overflowing a damn.”

  • TheBrett

    I’ve always though Mohammed not existing would be a drastically different world. You still might get an Arab confederation of tribes overrunning Persia, since they had existed before and Persia was a house of cards. But without any sort of religious-cultural cohesion like what happened in real life, they’d just be absorbed into whatever religions and cultures already existed.

    That’s one of the few exceptions, though. If Tom Paine hadn’t existed, well, there were alternatives. If George Washington hadn’t existed . . . harder to say. It wasn’t just that Washington helped win the war – it was that he voluntarily walked away from power after his two terms and never looked back. He could have been an Agustin de Iturbide (Mexico) or Simon Bolivar, clinging to power as long as humanly possible.

    And in fact Bryan Caplan makes a good case that it wasn’t in fact a good idea.

    With such a large, valuable area of slave agriculture, though, would the British have been more reluctant to abolish it completely? Especially once cotton agriculture became critical to British industry.

    The time to abolish slavery would have been in 1783-1800, before the Louisiana Purchase and back when slavery was still considered a “necessary” evil even in the South. They could have required an abolition of slavery along with the end of the Atlantic Slave Trade, but didn’t. After that, new lands and cotton agriculture come into being, and slavery’s not getting abolished anytime in the next three-quarters of a century without violence.

    • But without any sort of religious-cultural cohesion like what happened in real life, they’d just be absorbed into whatever religions and cultures already existed.

      But the question remains: did achieving this cohesion depend on any specific individual’s existence?

      • TheBrett

        I think it did in this case. There’s no clear case that a similar ideology would have popped up at the same time to provide a similar form of cohesive identity for the Arabs spreading out into Persia and elsewhere. We don’t have a history of multiple monotheistic prophets popping up at the same time in that area.

      • IMASBA

        Well, actually in the case of Jesus there were a lot of competing “prophets”, it’s entirely possible this was also the case with Muhammed. These things are usually about viral effects with many competitors and one person winning through what is 99% luck and 1% some minor advantage(s) that are really only apparent with 20/20 hindsight.

  • We can expect things seemed impossible. I myself have always believed if desired success will reap success if self-effort.

  • Pingback: Practical gradualism vs. moral absolutism, for immigration and revolution()

  • Going back to the original question that motivated Alex’s post, “open borders” works well within the United States (among the 50 States), so it does seem arbitrary not to extend an open border system to Mexico or Canada … But only if Mexico and Canada are willing to reciprocate and open their borders to us … Also, although absolutism is a dangerous and overrated approach, Alex at least is logically consistent: why free trade in goods but not in labor?

    • Thomas_L_Holaday

      > … reciprocate …

      What evidence supports the hypothesis that one-way open borders are not better than closed borders?

      • Do we need to close all the internal borders within the United States to find out?

    • peter_schaeffer

      Imported toasters don’t consume handouts, undermine public education, demand racial quotas, impose linguistic divisions, bring a 50%+ illegitimacy rate, raise crime rates (a lot), make housing unaffordable, increase gridlock, consume scarce natural resources, etc.

      People are not goods. Its an easy point (we fought a Civil War over this very subject). However, the market mania (and dominant cosmopolitan elitism) of our time has obscured this lesson. In the words of the late Swiss writer Max Frisch:

      ”We wanted workers, we got people.”

      Max Frisch had something else to say that’s just as important. He wrote a play, “THE FIREBUGS,”

      The play is a classic cautionary drama from 1958 in which a city is terrorized by unknown arsonists. Frisch compares the advent of the arsonists to the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and to Hitler’s rise to power.

      A quote from Frisch

      “What everyone could see coming for so long duly came in the end: stupidity, never to be extinguished, now to be called fate.”

      One of the best condemnations of Open Borders, ever.

      • Why all this anti-migrant hysteria, especially when all of us (except the Indians) are descended from immigrants. Sure, some migrants are bad, but many more are good, doing the work that many “natives” refuse to do. On balance (from an economic perspective), immigration is good, not bad …

      • IMASBA

        “On balance (from an economic perspective), immigration is good, not bad …”

        “On balance” does nothing for the individual unless there’s a generous welfare state that distributes the benefits to all.

        Also, immigration is only good, even “on balance: up to a point: I can assure you that if all of South America moved to the US and Canada or all of Africa to Europe or all of India to China then the US, Canada, Europe and China would have severe problems with housing, traffic, health care, education, crime and unemployment. Perhaps things would improve for the world population as a whole (that’s not obvious though: even poor Africans would be giving up some things, like living space and relative social standing), but the populations of the US, Canada, Europe and China would be worse off and it is in their interest to vote agaisnt open borders when they have the chance.

        “doing the work that many “natives” refuse to do.”

        Refuse to do or refuse to do for less than proper minimum wage?

      • The problem with your analogy between migration within a country and between countries is that where you have cultures that award very disparate status for the same income, the lower-paid workers become wage undercutters. (There are some jobs at some wages that “native” workers refuse categorically, which would force hire wages without the immigrants).

        Although it hasn’t been clearly posed this way (because of the left’s confusion), the real immigration issue is one of economic equality. (Within a country—but across countries too–where undercutters may be found somewhere for every national wage.) In the U.S., restricting immigration historically has been one of the primary roads to some greater equality. ( http://www.aeonmagazine.com/living-together/peter-turchin-wealth-poverty/ )

  • trapezium

    “Paine couldn’t be at all sure that a US revolution was a good idea”

    But he hadn’t been reading Overcoming Bias in his spare time. He was’t a reasonable fellow such as one might find in a university.

    I’m pretty sure he was utterly convinced the US revolution was a fantastic idea. You have to take into account that some people aren’t like you – they have extremely strong beliefs, and haven’t been taught to doubt until the empirical evidence stacks up. He was, after all, nicknamed Mad Tom Paine.

    • B_For_Bandana

      Right, that’s what Robin meant: Paine couldn’t be justifiably sure.

  • blink

    I expect that the most accessible tipping points come from turning mutual knowledge/beliefs into common knowledge/beliefs. To this end, emphatic, uncompromising positions may be most effective. Better to call out the emperor with no clothes than meekly hint at his peculiar sensitivity to the elements.

    Paine’s writing, for example, provided a focal point for coordination and discussion, quickly organizing others according to whether they agreed or disagreed. Like Alex, I think strong stances best reveal views, coordinate action, and speed change.

  • Owen

    “All we are is dust in the wind. (Song lyrics)”

    Song lyrics? Dude, that’s in the book of Job.

  • Peter Thiele says that the only way to make money on a company is to figure out what you believe in that others do not, and that this is how most successful companies make money.

    In other words, you’re banking on the fact that people don’t have perfect information, and that there are market inefficiencies. Perhaps Paine was banking on the same thing…


    If the question posed here is: “how can a random individual with the will to create a lasting, great legacy best proceed?” Then the answer is, it doesn’t really matter what they do, there’s too much coincidence, too many viral effects going on, too much competition. This changes when the person is not a random person but someone who is already famous and respected (like Thomas Paine) or in some other way influential, even being a male with at least average height, a chiseled face and a low voice increases your chances, hell just having the idea of wanting to create that legacy and not being too lazy to try probably already puts you in the top 10% (which still means you have millions of competitors). As a whole society can also produce great legacies if a lot of average people try and a few get lucky.

  • Ari

    At least in my country Finland, a blogger (Jussi Halla-Aho) changed radically the immigration debate, got elected and affected the policy. Relying both on stats, cases, hypocrisy of the opposition and moral argument. I don’t care personally either way. But my nation is small. I doubt the same is possible in a country like US though.

    • IMASBA

      To be fair the guy had to go viral as a blogger first, that’s pre-selection.

  • Joshua Brulé

    I’m not sure that “tipping points” have to be as rare as (I think) you are claiming. I suspect that most people don’t *want* to influence social events. Or rather, most people don’t want to influence social events *enough*; it takes a lot of work to run a revolution.

    Keeping with the metaphor theme: If we imagine the “great world events” as a boulders that began rolling, there might be a lot of them and they might be relatively easy to push. Maybe as many as 1 in 1000 have the intelligence/charisma/whatever to get things going. But less than than 1 in a million actually complete the climb up the hill to check if they are such a person.

    • Tipping points are points in the space of the system as a whole, they are not features of particular people.

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  • Tim Tyler

    Note that the butterfly effect in chaos theory suggests that small random changes often go on to have enormous effects.

    • But not large expected changes.

      • Tim Tyler

        You originally argued that the “vast majority of such influences quickly disappear”. This seems rather contrary to the findings of chaos theory. The problem is more often not that your influence “disappears”, but that its effects are unpredictable.

      • For the purposes of your decisions, unpredictable influence is the same as no influence.

      • Tim Tyler

        It is only the details that are unpredictable in chaos theory. For example, imagine an earthquake hits a room with a pencil balanced on its point. The final direction of the pencil may be highly unpredictable, but it falling over is not.

        Similarly adding a third body to a two-body gravitational system often results in a chaotic outcome. However, it dramatically increases the chances of a collision. Some influence can be usefully and predictably different from no influence – even if the details of the outcome are unpredictable.

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