Monthly Archives: February 2016

Against DWIM Meta-Law

Smart capable personal assistants can be very useful. You give them vague and inconsistent instructions, and they “do what I mean” (DWIM), fixing your mistakes. If you empower them to control your interactions, you need less fear mistakes messing up your interactions.

But one thing a DWIM personal assistant can’t help you so much with is your choice of assistants. If assistants were empowered to use DWIM on your choice to fire them, they might tend to decide you didn’t really mean to fire them. So if you are to have an effective choice of assistants, and thus effective competition among potential assistants, then those same assistants can’t protect you much from possible mistakes in your meta-choices regarding assistants. They can protect you from other choices, but not that choice.

The same applies to letting people choose what city or nation to live in. When people live in a nation then that national government can use regulation to protect them from making many mistakes. For example, it can limit their legally available options of products, services, and contracts. But if people are to have an effective choice to change governments by changing regions, then such governments can’t use regulation much to protect people from mistakes regarding region choice. After all, a government authorized to declare your plan to move away from it to be a mistake can stop you from rejecting it.

Similarly we can elect politicians who pass laws to protect us from many mistakes. But if we are to have an effective choice of politicians to represent us, then they can’t protect us much from bad choices of politicians to represent us. We can’t let our current elected leaders much regulate who we can elect to replace them, if we are to be able to actually replace them.

I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of private law, wherein people can stay in the same place but contract with different legal systems, which then set the rules regarding their legal interactions with others. Such rules might in effect change the laws of tort, crime, marriage, etc. that people live under. And so such competition between private laws might push the law to evolve toward more efficient laws.

One of the things that legal systems tend to do is to protect people from mistakes. For example, contract law won’t enforce contracts it sees as mistakes, and it fills in contract holes it sees resulting from laziness. Law is often DWIM law. Which can be great when you trust your law to choose well. But if one is to have an effective choice of private law, and real competition for that role, then one’s current law shouldn’t be able to overrule one’s choice of a new law. Instead, one’s choice of a private legal system, like one’s choice of nation, needs to be a simple clear choice where one is not much protected from mistakes.

Today we don’t in fact have such private law, because our standard legal system won’t enforce contracts we sign that declare our intent to use different legal systems. To achieve private law, we’d need to change this key feature of our standard legal system.

Your choice to change nations, either for temporary travel or for permanent moves, can be a big mistake. It might result from temporary mood fluctuations, or from misunderstandings about the old nation or the new. Nevertheless we have little regulation of such choices. Instead individuals are mostly fully exposes to their possible mistakes. For example, while Europe is heavily regulated in general, European teens today can decide to go join ISIS, even when many others greatly regret such choices. We disapprove of nations that prevent people from leaving because that cuts competition between nations to serve people.

Similarly, if we want completion between legal systems without forcing people to move, we’ll have to change our law to accept our not protecting people from bad choices of legal systems. There will have to be a simple clear act by which one chooses a law, a choice not much subject to legal review and reversal. We’d want to encourage people to take such choices seriously, but then to accept the choices they make. Freedom of choice requires a freedom to make mistakes. For big choices, those can be big mistakes.

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Scared, Sad, Angry, Bitter

These four emotions: scared, sad, angry, and bitter, all suggest that one has suffered or will suffer a loss. So all of them might inspire empathy and help from others. But they don’t do so equally. Consider the selfish costs of expressing empathy for these four emotions.

While a scared person hasn’t actually suffered a loss yet, the other kinds of feelings indicate that an actual loss has been suffered. So the scared person is not yet a loser, while the others are losers. When there are costs with associating with losers, those costs are lowest for the scared. For example, if it takes real resources to help someone who has suffered a loss, the scared person is less likely to need such resources.

People who are angry or bitter blame particular other people for their loss. So by expressing empathy with or helping such people, you risk getting involved in conflicts with those other people. In contrast, helping people who are just sad less risks getting you into conflicts.

People who are angry tend to think they have a substantial chance of winning a conflict with those they blame for their loss. Anger is a more visible emotion that drives one more toward overt conflict. Angry people are visibly trying to recruit others to their fight.

In contrast, bitter people tend to think they have little chance of winning a overt conflict, at least for now. So bitter people tend to fume in private, waiting for their chance to hit back unseen. If you help a bitter person, you may get blamed when their hidden attacks are uncovered, and your support may tempt them to become angry and start an overt fight. So by helping a bitter person, you are more likely to be on the losing end of a conflict.

These considerations suggest that our cost of empathizing with and helping people with these emotions increases in this order: scared, sad, angry, and bitter. And this also seems to describe the order in which we actually feel less empathy; we feel less empathy when its costs are higher.

Note that this same order also describes who has suffered a larger loss, on average. Scared people expect to suffer the smallest loss, while bitter people suffer the largest loss. (Ask yourself which emotion you’d rather feel.) So our willingness to express empathy with those who suffer a loss is inverse to the loss they suffer. We empathize the most with those who suffer the least. Because that is cheapest.

Thanks to Carl Shulman for pointing out to me the social risks of helping bitter folk, relative to sad folk.

Added 18Feb: Interestingly, many lists of emotions don’t include bitterness or an equivalent. It is as if we’d like to pretend it just doesn’t exist.

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Does Money Ruin Everything?

Imagine someone said:

The problem with paying people to make shoes is that then they get all focused on the money instead of the shoes. People who make shoes just because they honestly love making shoes, and who aren’t paid anything at all, make better shoes. Once money gets involved people lie about how good their shoes are, and about which shoes they like how much. But without money involved, everyone is nice and honest and efficient. That’s the problem with capitalism; money ruins everything.

Pretty sad argument, right? Now read Tyler Cowen on betting:

This episode is a good example of what is wrong with betting on ideas. Betting tends to lock people into positions, gets them rooting for one outcome over another, it makes the denouement of the bet about the relative status of the people in question, and it produces a celebratory mindset in the victor. That lowers the quality of dialogue and also introspection, just as political campaigns lower the quality of various ideas — too much emphasis on the candidates and the competition. Bryan, in his post, reaffirms his core intuition that labor markets usually return to normal pretty quickly, at least in the United States. But if you scrutinize the above diagram, as well as the lackluster wage data, that is exactly the premise he should be questioning. (more)

Sure, relative to ideal people who only discuss and think about topics with a full focus on and respect for the truth and their disputants, what could be the advantage of bets? Money will only distract them from studying truth, right?

But just because people don’t bet doesn’t mean they don’t have plenty of other non-truth-oriented incentives and interests. They are often rooting for positions, and celebrating some truths over others, due to these other interests. Bet incentives are at least roughly oriented toward speaking truth; the other incentives, not so much. Don’t let the fictional best be the enemy of the feasible-now good. For real people with all their warts, bets promote truth. But for saints, yeah, maybe not so much.

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A Bet I’d Have Lost

Three and a half years ago I made my largest personal donation ever to the Brain Preservation Foundation, to help fund their Brain Preservation Prizes. Just now they’ve announced that 21st Century Medicine has won their $26,735 Small Mammal Brain Preservation Prize, using a more cryonics-based approach. The other main competitor, Mikula, used the “plastination” approach I favored back then:

I offer to bet up to $5K that plastination is more likely to win this full prize than cryonics. (more)

Good thing for me no one accepted my offer; now it looks more like I’d have lost it. Next we’ll see who wins the Large Mammal Brain Preservation Prize, and when.

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Why I Lean Libertarian

Imagine that one person, or a small group, wants to do something, like watch pornography, do uncertified medical procedures, have gay sex, worship Satan, shoot guns, drink raw milk, etc. Imagine further that many other people outside that small group don’t want them to do this. They instead want the government to make a law prohibiting similar groups from doing similar things.

In this prototypical situation, libertarians tend to say “let them do it” while others say “have the government make them stop.” If we take a cost-benefit perspective here, then the key question here is whether this small group gains more from their activity (or an added increment of it) than others lose (including losing via their “altruistic” concern for the small group). Since this small group would choose to do it if allowed, we can presume they expect to gain something. And if others complain and try to make them stop (or cut back), we can presume they expect to lose. So we are trying to estimate the relative magnitude of these two effects.

I see three considerations that, all else equal, lean this choice in the libertarian direction.

  •  Law & Government Are Costly – It will take real resources to create and enforce a law to ban this activity. We’ll have to negotiate the wording of this law, and then tell people about it. People will complain about violations, and then we’ll have to adjudicate those complaints, and punish violators. We’ll make mistakes in which laws to create, who to punish, and how to manage the whole process. More rules will discourage innovation, and invite more lobbying. All of which is costly.
  • Local Coordination Might Work – If people do something that hurts those around them more, often those nearby others can coordinate to discourage them via contract and freedom of association. If playing your music loud bothers folks in the apartment next door, your common landlord can set rules to limit your music volume. And kick you out if you don’t follow his rules. The more ways that smaller organizations could plausibly solve a problem, the less likely we need central government to get involved.
  • Lawsuits Might Work – Legal systems have well-established processes whereby some people can sue others, claiming that the actions of those others have hurt them. Suit losers must pay, discouraging the activity. Yes, people harmed can need to coordinate to sue together, and yes legal systems tend to demand relatively concrete evidence of real harm, and that the accused caused that harm. It might be hard to figure out who to accuse, the accused might not have enough money to pay, and the legal process might be too expensive to make it worth bothering. But again, the more situations where the law could plausibly solve the problem, the less likely that we need extra government involvement.

Again, each of these considerations leans the conclusion in a libertarian direction, all else equal. Yes, they can collectively be overcome by strong enough other considerations that lean the other way. For example, I’ll grant that for the case of air pollution, we plausibly have strong enough evidence of large harms on outsiders, harms insufficiently discouraged by local coordination and lawsuits. So yes in this case central government might be an attractive solution, if it can act cheaply and efficiently enough.

But the main point here is that the three considerations above justify a libertarian default that must be overcome by specific arguments to the contrary. If outsiders complain about an activity, but aren’t willing to buy less of it via contract, or to sue for less of it in court, maybe they aren’t really being hurt that much. There is an asymmetry here: if we don’t ban an activity and might get too much, contract & law could reduce it a lot, but if we ban an activity and might get too little, contract & law can’t increase it much.

Yes, other persuasive contrary considerations might be found, including considerations not based on the net harm of the disputed actions. But the less you think you know about these other considerations, the more your choice will be influenced by these three basic considerations, all of which seem to me pretty solid.

While I have said before that I am not a libertarian according to common strict definitions, I still usually tend to lean libertarian, because in fact arguments based on further considerations often seem to me pretty weak. While one can often make clever arguments, it is often hard to have much confidence in them; the world seems just too complex. And so I often have to fall back on simple defaults. Which, as I’ve argued above, are libertarian.

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