Future Fears

People tend to act to help themselves. Sometimes that is good, and sometimes it is bad. We economists distinguish situations where such acts on net 1) help others, 2) hurt others less than they help oneself, and 3) hurt others more they help oneself. We see only type #3 acts as bad, and the others as good.

However, I’m coming to realize that most people actually use a different criteria; they care more about loyalty than efficiency. That is, they ask: are the acts subject to “our” prestige control? How well can “we”, by applying or changing our common notion of prestige, shame people to make them stop, or praise people to make them start?

We fear powerful people who feel free to defy us. When they can make big changes to the world, and put only minor weight on our prestige influence. We are afraid of this even when their actions have so far been of type #1, benefiting us. We fear that their inclination to be helpful could change after they accumulate enough power.

This is the standard attitude of foragers, as described by Boehm in Hierarchy in the Forest, where the main fear was individuals strong enough to defy the consensus of their local band. It is also echoed in the classic “illicit dominator” fictional villain. (A “dominator” needs only a source of power that can defy prestige.) In schoolyards, kids have long sought to ridicule nerds who submit to teachers, instead of joining other kids in resisting teacher dominance.

In the classic tv show Survivor, participants tended to vote off the island opponents strong enough to earn immunity from group votes, no matter what those people’s other virtues. Similarly, in office politics workers who feel productive enough to not need to make arbitrary displays of submission are often seen as “difficult”; putting them in their place becomes a priority.

In larger politics today, the main villains are powers who feel free to defy national or world culture’s regarding proper behavior. Criminals (and “terrorists”) and foreign powers, especially in war, obviously, but also one’s own government unless it uses democracy or something to show its submission to local prestige. In the past, when religion was stronger, churches demanded so much submission that they were vulnerable to being labelled illicit dominators. Politics has often been about gaining support for one power via seeing it as protecting us from other powers.

Today, our other main candidate for illicit dominators are for-profit firms. Bigness triggers forager suspicions all by itself, ordering employees about adds a vivid image of dominance, and a for-profit status declares the limited influence of prestige. So we are very suspicious of big organization choices, especially for-profits, and especially regarding employees. We want to regulate their prices and quality, and especially how they hire, fire, and promote. We mostly don’t trust competition between firms to induce them to benefit us; yeah that might work sometimes, but more direct control feels more reliable. (Even if it actually isn’t.)

All of this makes it pretty easy to predict our fears regarding the future. Foreign powers create the classic apocalyptic conflict, and criminals going wild is the classic post-apocalyptic fear. A foreign power winning over us is the classic alien war allegory. Governments being non-democratic, and acquiring new powers, describes most of the new young adult dystopias. Sometimes there’s a new church with too much power, defying reader prestige rankings.

But if you imagine religions, governments, and criminals not getting too far out of control, and a basically capitalist world, then your main future fears are probably going to be about for-profit firms, especially regarding how they treat workers. You’ll fear firms enslaving workers, or drugging them into submission, or just tricking them with ideology. In this way firms might make workers into hyper submissive “inhuman robots”, with no creativity, initiative, or leisure, possibly even no socializing, sex, music, or laughter, and maybe just maybe no consciousness at all.

And if you are one of the rare people who don’t even fear firms, because you see competition as disciplining them, well you can just fear technology itself being out of control. No one has been driving the technology train; tech mostly just appears and gets used when some find that in their interest, regardless of the opinions of larger communities of prestige. One can fear that this sort of competition and tech driven change will be the force that makes human workers into “inhuman robots.” Making you eager for a world government (or a super-intelligence) to take control of tech change.

This framework seems to successfully predict the main future fears raised early in the industrial revolution. And also the main concerns about the scenario of my book. Of course the fact that we may be primed to have such concerns, regardless of their actual relevance, doesn’t make them wrong. But it does mean we should look at them carefully.

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  • Joe

    Related: for a while I’ve suspected that a big difference in perspective between libertarians and non-libertarians – perhaps the main difference – is that the former have a much narrower view of who is ‘us’. To a non-libertarian, the nation is us, the government are the tribal leaders, political decisions are us deciding how we want to run our tribe. To a libertarian, friends and family are us, everyone else is them. Interactions between strangers within a nation are inter-tribal, not intra-tribal. The government isn’t the tribal leaders, it’s a big powerful tribe ordering our little tribe about.

    • I sometimes think in terms of Trivers’ theory of genetic conflict. Your immediate relatives share half your DNA, so you have some shared incentives, but those aren’t identical. Venture out a ways and you have no real biological reason to assume others share your interests. An extreme libertarian take might be that children are completely owned by themselves rather than their parents, but it seems to me that’s pointless since sufficiently young children are helpless and it’s up to parents to take care of them. But even if the government wants to do something like preventing abortion or even infanticide, I’m wary, because there’s no general reason to expect the government to have some necessary role, and the internal dynamics of a family shouldn’t really threaten the legal/political order. The complicated bit is that I can recognize how the Catholic church meddling in family issues may have produced a western europe that I prefer to the alternative.

      • Sam Dangremond

        Freedom is great!

        But not-freedom gave us all the things I like!

      • I wouldn’t say all the things! Western europe before Aquinas (or the legal “revolution” Harold Berman wrote about) wasn’t hell on earth. The same is true after the Protestant reformation.

    • Jesse Mazer

      Are you talking about “us” and “them” on an emotional level of identification or feeling of tribal identity, or just in the sense of the size of the group whose welfare one is concerned with when weighing different government policies? There are plenty on the non-libertarian left who are motivated more by universalist consequentialist-style arguments about what will produce the best outcome for everyone than tribal emotions, and there are empirical reasons to think more social-democratic policies produce greater mean quality of life than policies closer to those favored by economic libertarians, see the charts here for example. It’s for this sort of reason I tend to favor the more social-democratic policies, not because I feel any stronger sense of emotional identification with some groups of people I’ve never met over others (a related reason I’m not an economic libertarian has to do with arguments like the one made by David Brin here that private property is a means to an end–market competition leading to innovation and fulfilling public desires efficiently, which is again seen as good for basically consequentialist reasons–and not an end in itself, and that too much concentration of wealth can actually lower the levels of this type of creative competition, as was alluded to in the comment by “Lord”).

  • Since only one person can win Survivor, that zero-sum aspect makes it rational to vote off the biggest threat.

    I’m closer to your perspective than most people, but I think this post makes such fears seem more rational than me. There’s no guarantee that any dominator will benefit you, nor a priori is there any reason to expect them to be incentivized to do so. My wariness of “singleton” scenarios is in part because of that (another part is that it seems like putting all eggs in one basket and possibly risking extinction).

  • Lord

    I would say the most common concern of the powerful is their ability to act against competition. from Adam Smith’s conspiracy of businessmen to the robber baron monopolists. Cycles of excess and revulsion are virtually inevitable.

  • Overcoming Bayes

    Of course, people who want to perfrom acts of type #2 or #3 want them to be seen as #1. Hence well-funded “think tanks” and propaganda outlets like the Cato Institute.

    • Dave Lindbergh

      An important fact, critical to communication and social life in any democracy:

      People don’t have a different political opinion than you because they’re selfish.

      Everyone’s political views are driven by morals.

      Liberal or conservative, fascist or libertarian – everyone thinks their political views are just and justified.

      They are not held mainly based on self-interest.

      • Overcoming Bayes

        Yes Dave, and all the companies who run consumer ads do so only because they believe in the products, not for profit.

        People like the Koch brothers would never spend money on downplaying the social cost of carbon, or buying political influence for a net gain.

        In a just world like ours, all rich people will simply work against their financial incentives all the time. After all, that’s how they got rich, by not caring about money.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        You’re fundamentally mistaken. It’s a common mistake – to assume your own side has the moral high ground, and that others are arguing from baser motives.

        The Koch brothers sincerely believe in what they’re pushing, and that if we all did as they recommend, society would be better off.

        They may be WRONG but they’re not insincere.

        The same is true for for almost everyone. I’m certain even Hitler though he was fighting the good fight, for the right reasons.

        Only the very rare genuine psychopaths are exceptions, and they don’t have ideological fellow-travelers.

        This is just human nature. If you genuinely want to promote the values YOU believe in (rather than just make yourself feel better), you’ll be more successful if you correctly understand your opponent’s psychology.

      • Overcoming Bayes

        This isn’t about “sides”, this is about incentives. Wealth concentration today is strong enough to afford positive feedback loops through spending money on political influence, which helps their business even at a cost to others.

        I do not assume to know what the Koch brothers really believe, but I would be flabbergasted if they, and most other rich people, didn’t use their money to make more money when the option is open to them.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Obviously I haven’t convinced you; I won’t try further.

        But consider that the Koch brothers are very old, and very wealthy.

        If their wealth increased by a factor of 10 tomorrow, how much would that affect their lifestyle?

      • Peter David Jones

        As Dave notes, the Koch brothers are unlikely to be motivated by personal, interest … but group interest us another matter, and what politics is largely about.

      • It’s unlikely that David and Charles Koch are directly motivated by personal interest in their libertarianism. It’s more likely that they’re motivated by personal interest in downplaying the risk of carbon. (In Dave’s words, it’s “closer to home.”)

      • It’s a common mistake – to assume your own side has the moral high ground, and that others are arguing from baser motives.

        As in “Inequality talk is about grabbing” ( http://www.overcomingbias.com/2013/08/inequality-is-about-grabbing.html )

      • Peter David Jones

        Your opponent’s are arguing from base motives by u our definitions, and you are by theirs. An ethical babel isn’t a situation where everyone is objectively moeal, it’s a situation where there is no objective standard.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Of course – that’s what it means to have different moral views.

        By definition anyone who disagrees with my moral viewpoint, has base motives (in my view).

        And vice-versa – I have base motives in their view.

        Because a moral viewpoint isn’t base, and anything that diverges from a moral viewpoint is base.

        My point is only that the situation is symmetrical – both sides see the other as arguing from base motives.

        Neither side is arguing from base self-interested motives.

        Overcoming Bayes thinks otherwise.

      • Everyone presents their views as moral, but no one is primarily driven in politics by morality – except maybe a few utopian anarchists on the far right and on the ultra-far left. Homo hypocritus lives – even if momentarily set back by Robin’s work on ems.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        The closer to home the issue, the more we are Homo hypocritus.

        If we’re talking about whether to put the city dump in my backyard or yours, we will both reach for moral arguments that support the outcome of the dump being far from our home.

        When we talk about abstract ideology, we’re driven by morals.

        That said, morals themselves are subject to evolutionary forces. Those cultures who have self-destructive morals tend to disappear, while those whose morals promote flourishing tend to expand.

        So in that sense our morals are selfish – they reflect ideas of right and wrong that have tended in the past to aid survival of those moral ideas.

      • Which is all I was saying in the first place – except for psychopaths or desperation, people have different politics because they have different morals.

        I don’t think people have different politics primarily because of different morals. It’s more like they have different implicit sociological theories. Different world views more than different values.

      • free_agent

        Heh — of course, any tendency to non-hypocrisy is strongly selected against.

      • Peter David Jones

        Different political views are driven by different ethical outlooks, but not all ethical outlooks are utterly selfless. There is usually group interest involved somewhere.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        I don’t claim that interests have no effect on morals.

        Only that political viewpoints are driven by morals in most people.

        Those morals sometimes indirectly serve self-interest (that’s how morals evolve in the long run).

        But political arguments are not normally made based directly based on self-interested motives. They’re based on sincerely held ideas of right and wrong.

  • We fear powerful people who feel free to defy us.

    Contrary to – and much truer than – the ideologically motivated claim that egalitarianism serves envy. We envy those immediately above us, but we hate and fear the holders of concentrated power.

    • Lord

      No, we tend to be sympathetic and laud those above us and despise those below us as Adam Smith pointed out.

      • But my point is that envy/jeolously is restricted to those who we can reasonably hope to compete with – as Aristotle pointed out.

      • Lord

        I think emulate as much as envy though that varies.

  • marshall bolton

    1. I don’t get this pair “Prestige-Dominance”. I think the contrast is more “Persuasion-Force”. Most of us prefer to be persuaded rather than coerced. Of course persuasion appeals to our hypocritical minds and releases alle kinds of creativity in messaging. Shiny objects work better than blunt objects (if you want to sleep peacefully at nights).

    2. Nor do I get this hurting others a little so you can profit more yourself. My values say that this should be shunned – and to hell with efficiency.

    3. Norman O. Brown in “Life Against Death” (1959) predicted the beneficence of the Em World, when he wrote: “The effect is to substitute an abstraction, Homo Economicus, for the concrete totality of human nature, and thus to dehumanize human nature. In this dehumanized human nature man loses contact with his own body, more specifically with his senses, with sensuality and with the pleasure-principle. And this dehumanized human nature produces an inhuman consciousness whose only currency is abstractions divorced from real life – the industrious, coolly rational, economic, prosaic mind.”

    4. Perhaps sometimes blunt objects are necessary.

    • On #1, see http://www.overcomingbias.com/2010/02/two-kinds-of-status.html
      On #2, I was referring to economist values, not ordinary values.
      On #3, for ems a virtual body, senses, and pleasure would be good enough, if real physical ones are good enough for us.

      • marshall bolton

        On On#1: I think the word prestige has much more importance for Americans than Europeans. When I see an American tv news-reporter I get sick to the stomach. Maybe this also explains our (sometimes ill hidden) discomfort when our American cousins visit us. If I may use some humor: We don’t want your stinking’ prestige.

        On On #2: Shame on economists when they espouse values that are antagonistic with ordinary values. (And yes I can hear Bryan sputtering in the background.)

        On On #3: This is one of my main criticisms of the Em World: Almost everything there is a simulation. And everyone is a productive little bee. So back to point #2.

        A clog A clog. My kingdom for a clog.

      • I wonder of people who think they won’t like the em world don’t want to buy the book, because they feel that would endorse the em world.

      • marshall bolton

        I would and have recommended the book (and there are lots of good bits in it about the now-living – as Tyler has said) – but I would also hope that every reader rushes to the barricades. As to whether people don’t buy the book in fear of endorsing the em world – not every x is a y.

      • Would you have written about it had you hated it?

      • internet

        The book is easily available for free (pirated) online download so hopefully no one resists reading it only for dislike of some economic signal it may send to buy it.

      • For most people the time to read a book is their main investment in a book. That time could be taken as an endorsement just as much as the money to buy it could be.

  • free_agent

    An interesting article just came out in the business press about how courts interpret contracts — basically, based on human expectations, not the text — and its implication for radically new business models. (“Blockchain Company’s Smart Contracts Were Dumb” http://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-06-17/blockchain-company-s-smart-contracts-were-dumb) But the underlying sentiment is the same: Collectively giving power to the collective prestige system of judging peoples’ actions.

  • free_agent

    Of course, none of this is surprising: I want to ensure that everyone with power has to be at least somewhat concerned with my opinion (and at the same time attempt to escape that control on my own actions).

  • sflicht

    I wonder if Robin is the first person ever to (non-ironically) refer to Survivor as a “classic” television show. Upon reflection, the term doesn’t seem entirely unapt. It was groundbreaking in some ways.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    It’s not just trained economists. Per the work of Jon Haidt, people have different moral views.

    I’ve had no formal economic training (as may sometimes be obvious), yet I’ve always had ‘economist values’ – positive sum outcomes are good, negative sum are bad, by definition.

    There’s a famous set of studies showing that people would rather be richer than their peers even if that means they are absolutely worse off. (http://www.economist.com/node/12795581)

    To me, per your #3, that has always seemed the very definition of evil.

  • Michael Vassar

    I’m curious as to why anyone would want to allow uncontrollable entities with a history of taking the #2 type of action. Even with no such history, such entities should worry us greatly, hence FOOM being a problem by default.

    That said, I think it’s important to distinguish between power that flows from capabilities and power that flows from threats. In general, I think it’s safer to have fairly unaccountable powerful people around if their power flows from the ability to do things than if their power flows from their ability to threaten others and make the others do things. On this account, hackers are less scary than equally powerful politicians. There appear to be people with the opposite set of intuitions, and I find that such people very unsympathetic.

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