Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Social Design Debt

Technical debt .. reflects the extra development work that arises when code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution. (more)

In the design of complex systems, we have long observed a robust phenomenon: when people only consider local costs and benefits when making design changes, they miss the many costs that changes impose elsewhere. Such costs accumulate, and reducing them requires periodic redesign that considers larger scales of interactions. These sort of costs are naturally limited when systems frequently die to be replaced to other systems started recently from scratch. But long lasting complex systems can accumulate large costs of this sort.

For example, in contrast to most nations, apparently the US has *two federal agencies responsible for collecting economic data. Their authorizing legislation has been interpreted to mean that they can’t share details of this data with each other. A more accurate and consistent picture could be drawn about the economy from the data if such integration were allowed, but its not. Everyone in these agencies knows about this problem, but no one has bothered to try to change the authorizing legislation for a more rational outcome. New nations know to avoid this problem, but in old nations like the U.S. such problems just accumulate.

This seems to me an important and neglected issue for our longest lived social systems, such as in law and governance. In The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), Mancur Olson famously argued that nations tend to decline via accumulating organized interest groups who lobby for changes in their local interest, and veto larger changes to more efficient arrangements. This seems a closely related point, but not quite the same point.

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All Is Simple Parts Interacting Simply

In physics, I got a BS in ’81, a MS in ’84, and published two peer-reviewed journal articles in ’03 & ’06. I’m not tracking the latest developments in physics very closely, but what I’m about to tell you is very old standard physics that I’m quite sure hasn’t changed. Even so, it seems to be something many people just don’t get. So let me explain it.

There is nothing that we know of that isn’t described well by physics, and everything that physicists know of is well described as many simple parts interacting simply. Parts are localized in space, have interactions localized in time, and interactions effects don’t move in space faster than the speed of light. Simple parts have internal states that can be specified with just a few bits (or qubits), and each part only interacts directly with a few other parts close in space and time. Since each interaction is only between a few bits on a few sides, it must also be simple. Furthermore, all known interactions are mutual in the sense that the state on all sides is influenced by states of the other sides.

For example, ordinary field theories have a limited number of fields at each point in space-time, with each field having a limited number of degrees of freedom. Each field has a few simple interactions with other fields, and with its own space-time derivatives. With limited energy, this latter effect limits how fast a field changes in space and time.

As a second example, ordinary digital electronics is made mostly of simple logic units, each with only a few inputs, a few outputs, and a few bits of internal state. Typically: two inputs, one output, and zero or one bits of state. Interactions between logic units are via simple wires that force the voltage and current to be almost the same at matching ends.

As a third example, cellular automatons are often taken as a clear simple metaphor for typical physical systems. Each such automation has a discrete array of cells, each of which has a few possible states. At discrete time steps, the state of each cell is a simple standard function of the states of that cell and its neighbors at the last time step. The famous “game of life” uses a two dimensional array with one bit per cell.

This basic physics fact, that everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, implies that anything complex, able to represent many different possibilities, is made of many parts. And anything able to manage complex interaction relations is spread across time, constructed via many simple interactions built up over time. So if you look at a disk of a complex movie, you’ll find lots of tiny structures encoding bits. If you look at an organism that survives in a complex environment, you’ll find lots of tiny parts with many non-regular interactions.

Physicists have learned that we only we ever get empirical evidence about the state of things via their interactions with other things. When such interactions the state of one thing create correlations with the state of another, we can use that correlation, together with knowledge of one state, as evidence about the other state. If a feature or state doesn’t influence any interactions with familiar things, we could drop it from our model of the world and get all the same predictions. (Though we might include it anyway for simplicity, so that similar parts have similar features and states.)

Not only do we know that in general everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, for pretty much everything that happens here on Earth we know those parts and interactions in great precise detail. Yes there are still some areas of physics we don’t fully understand, but we also know that those uncertainties have almost nothing to say about ordinary events here on Earth. For humans and their immediate environments on Earth, we know exactly what are all the parts, what states they hold, and all of their simple interactions. Thermodynamics assures us that there can’t be a lot of hidden states around holding many bits that interact with familiar states.

Now it is true that when many simple parts are combined into complex arrangements, it can be very hard to calculate the detailed outcomes they produce. This isn’t because such outcomes aren’t implied by the math, but because it can be hard to calculate what math implies. When we can figure out quantities that are easier to calculate, as long as the parts and interactions we think are going on are in fact the only things going on, then we usually see those quantities just as calculated.

Now what I’ve said so far is usually accepted as uncontroversial, at least when applied to the usual parts of our world, such as rivers, cars, mountains laptops, or ants. But as soon as one claims that all this applies to human minds, suddenly it gets more controversial. People often state things like this:

I am sure that I’m not just a collection of physical parts interacting, because I’m aware that I feel. I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves. So even though I have a physical body made of parts, and there are close correlations between my feelings and the states of my body parts, there must be something more than that to me (and others like me). So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care mainly about feelings, not physical parts interacting; we want to know what out there feels so we can know what to care about.

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

Thus it seems hard to square a belief in this extra feeling stuff with standard physics in either cases, where feeling stuff does or does not have strong interactions with ordinary stuff. The obvious conclusion: extra feeling stuff just doesn’t exist.

Note that even if we are only complex arrangements of interacting parts, as social creatures it makes sense for us to care in a certain sense about each others’ “feelings.” Creatures like us maintain an internal “feeling” state that tracks how well things are going for us, with high-satisfied states when things are going well and and low-dissatisfied states when things are going badly. This internal state influences our behavior, and so social creatures around us want to try to infer this state, and to influence it. We may, for example, try to notice when our allies have a dissatisfied state and look for ways to help them to be more satisfied. Thus we care about others’ “feelings”, are wary of false indicators of them, and study behaviors in some detail to figure out what reliably indicates these internal states.

In the modern world we now encounter a wider range of creature-like things with feeling-related surface appearances. These include video game characters, movie characters, robots, statues, paintings, stuffed animals, and so on. And so it makes sense for us to apply our careful-study habits to ask which of these are “real” feelings, in the sense of being the those where it makes sense to apply our evolved feeling-related habits. But while it makes sense to be skeptical that any particular claimed feeling is “real” in this sense, it makes much less sense to apply this skepticism to “mere” physical systems. After all, as far as we know all familiar systems, and all the systems they interact with to any important degree, are mere physical systems.

If everything around us is explained by ordinary physics, then a detailed examination of the ordinary physics of familiar systems will eventually tells us everything there is to know about the causes and consequences of our feelings. It will say how many different feelings we are capable of, what outside factors influence them, and how our words and actions depend on them.

What more is or could be there to know about feelings than this? For example, you might ask: does a system have “feelings” if it has some of the same internal states as a human, but where those states have no dependence on outside factors and no influence on the world? But questions like this seem to me less about the world and more about what concepts are the most valuable to use in this space. While crude concepts served us well in the past, as we encounter a wider range of creature-like systems than before, we will need refine our concepts for this new world.

But, again, that seems to be more about what feelings concepts are useful in this new world, and much less about where feelings “really” are in the world. Physics call tell us all there is to say about that.

(This post is a followup to my prior post on Sean Carroll’s Big Picture.)

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Presumed Selfish

Imagine that some person or organization is now a stranger, but you are considering forming a relation with them. Imagine further that they have one of two possible reputations: presumed selfish, or presumed pro-social. Assume also that the presumption about you is somewhere between these two extremes of selfish and pro-social.

In this situation you might think it obvious that you’d prefer to associate with the party that is presumed pro-social. After all, in this case social norms might push them to treat you nicer in many ways. However, there are other considerations. First, other forces, such as law and competition, might already push them to treat you pretty nicely. Second, social norms could also push you to treat them nicer, to a degree that law and competition might not push. And if you and they had a dispute, observers might be more tempted to blame you than them. Which could tempt them to demand more of you, knowing you’d fear an open dispute.

For example, consider which gas station you’d prefer, Selfish Sam’s or Nuns of Nantucket. If you buy gas from the nuns, social norms might push them to be less likely to sell you water instead of gas, and to offer you a lower price. But you might be pretty sure that laws already keep them from selling you water instead of gas, and their gas price visible from the road might already assure you of a low price. If you start buying gas from the nuns they might start to hit you up for donations to their convent. If you switched from them to another gas station they might suggest you are disloyal. You might have to dress and try to act extra nice there, such as by talking polite and not farting or dropping trash on the ground.

In contrast, if you buy gas from Selfish Sam’s, laws and competition could assure you that get the gas you wanted at a low price. And you could let yourself act selfish in your dealings with them. You could only buy gas when you felt like it, buy the type of gas best for you, and switch it all when convenient. You don’t have to dress or act especially nice when you are there, and you could buy a selfish snack if that was your mood. In any dispute between you and them most people are inclined to take your side, and that keeps Sam further in line.

This perspective helps make sense of some otherwise puzzling features of our world. First, we tend to presume that firms and bosses are selfish, and we often verbally criticize them for this (to others if not to their faces). Yet we are mostly comfortable relying on such firms for most of our goods and services, and on bosses for our jobs. There is little push to substitute non-profits who are more presumed to be pro-social. It seems we like the fact that most people will tend to take our side in a dispute with them, and we can feel more free to change suppliers and jobs when it seems convenient for us. Bosses are often criticized for disloyalty for firing an employee, while employees are less often criticized for disloyalty for quitting jobs.

Sometimes we feel especially vulnerable to being hurt by suppliers like doctors, hurt in ways that we fear law and competition won’t fix. In these cases we prefer such suppliers to have a stronger pro-social presumption, such as being bound by professional ethics and organized via non-profits. And we pay many prices for this, such as via acting nicer to them, avoiding disputes with them, and being reluctant to demand evaluations or to switch via competition. Similarly, the job of being a solider makes soldiers especially vulnerable to their bosses, and so soldier bosses are expected to be more pro-social.

As men tend to be presumed more selfish in our culture, this perspective also illuminates our male-female relations. Men commit more crime, women are favored in child custody disputes, and in dating men are more presumed to “only want one thing.” In he-said-she-said disputes, observers tend to believe the woman. Women tend more to initiate breakups, and find it easier to get trust-heavy jobs like nursing, teaching, and child-care, while men find it easier to get presumed-selfish jobs like investors and bosses. Female leaders are more easily criticized for selfish behavior, e.g., more easily seen as “bitchy”. Women tend to conform more, and to be punished more for nonconformity.

This all makes sense if men tend to feel more vulnerable to hidden betrayal by women, e.g. cuckoldry, while women can more use law and visible competition to keep men in line. In traditional gender roles, men more faced outsiders while women more faced inside the family. Thus men needed more to act “selfish” toward outsiders to help their families.

When those who are presumed selfish want to prove they are not selfish, they must sacrifice more to signal their pro-sociality. So men are expected to do more to signal devotion to women than vice versa. Conversely folks like doctors, teachers, or priests, who are presumed pro-social can often get away with actually acting quite selfishly, as long such choices are hard to document. Few with access to evidence are willing to directly challenge them.

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Why Not Walking Talks?

Most people see exercise as healthy, and see walking as a reasonably comfortable form of exercise. Some think that they should spend precious exercise time doing something more athletic, and others just can’t find the time to walk. But most seem to enjoy walking and see it as healthy, if only they could find the time.

I’ve been spending a lot of time giving talks lately, mostly on my book. I’m also back to teaching now that summer is over. Usually, these events all happen in a room, where I stand in front while everyone else sits. Sometimes I teach my class out on the grass instead of in a room. And so I wonder: why can’t we give talks while walking outside?

Yes, you’d have to forego visual aids, unless someone works out some pretty fancy tech. And yes, you’d need to pick a walking route that is quiet enough so that the audience could hear the speaker, and so a full-throated speaker won’t bother others along the route. Sometimes the weather isn’t agreeable. The audience would find it harder to see the speaker’s face, and a bigger group would need a louder speaker and more tolerant neighbors. And those who can’t walk might need someone else to push them in a wheelchair.

But none of these seem insurmountable barriers. We already manage to schedule lots of shared activities outdoors. We already have walking talks when guides take groups through battlefields, museums, and other special places. Is it so hard to have talks not focused on the immediate physical surroundings?

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Write To Say Stuff Worth Knowing

I had the following thought, and then went looking for others who had said it before. Wasn’t hard to find:

There are two types of writers, Schopenhauer once observed, those who write because they have something they have to say and those who write for the sake of writing.

If you’re young and you think you want to be a writer, chances are you are already in the second camp. And all the advice you’ll get from other people about writing only compounds this terrible impulse.

Write all the time, they’ll tell you. Write for your college newspaper. Get an MFA. Go to writer’s groups. Send query letters to agents.

What do they never say? Go do interesting things.

I was lucky enough to actually get this advice. .. A fair amount of aspiring writers email me about becoming a writer and I always say: Well, that’s your first mistake.

The problem is identifying as a writer. As though assembling words together is somehow its own activity. It isn’t. It’s a means to an end. And that end is always to say something, to speak some truth or reach someone outside yourself.

Deep down, you already know this. Take any good piece of writing, something that matters to you. Why is it good? Because of what it says. Because what the writer manages to communicate to you, their reader. It’s because of what’s within it, not how they wrote it.

No one ever reads something and says, “Well, I got absolutely nothing out of this and have no idea what any of this means but it sure is technically beautiful!” But they say the opposite all the time, they say “Goddamn, that’s good” to things with typos, poor grammar and simple diction ..

So if you want to be a writer, put “writing” on hold for a while. When you find something that is new and different and you can’t wait to share with the world, you’ll beat your fat hands against the keyboard until you get it out in one form or another. (more)

I’ll actually go much further: hold yourself to a far higher standard than merely having something you feel passionate about saying, which many readers will like. Instead, find a way to contribute to a lasting accumulation of knowledge on topics that matter.

Yes, you could weigh in on some standard topic of opinion, one where many have already stated their opinion, and where little progress seems possible. This might make you and your readers feel good. But your one vote will contribute only a tiny amount to long-term human understanding.

You’d do better to focus on a topic where opinions seem to change over time in substantial part due to arguments. Then you could contribute to our collective learning by declaring your support for particular arguments. In this case you’d be voting on which arguments to give more weight. But if many others vote on such arguments, you’d still only make a small fractional contribution. And that fraction might be smaller than you think, if future folks don’t bother to remember your vote.

Better to find a topic where humanity seems to be able to make intellectual progress via arguments, and then also to specialize in a particular subtopic, a subtopic about which few others write. If you can then get other influential writers in overlapping topic areas to read and be persuaded by your argument, you might contribute to a larger process whereby we all learn faster by usefully dividing up the task of learning about everything. You could do your part, and the rest of us could do our parts, and we could all learn together. That can be writing worth reading.

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Talks Not About Info

You can often learn about your own world by first understanding some other world, and then asking if your world is more like that other world than you had realized. For example, I just attended WorldCon, the top annual science fiction convention, and patterns that I saw there more clearly also seem echoed in wider worlds.

At WorldCon, most of the speakers are science fiction authors, and the modal emotional tone of the audience is one of reverence. Attendees love science fiction, revere its authors, and seek excuses to rub elbows with them. But instead of just having social mixers, authors give speeches and sit on panels where they opine on many topics. When they opine on how to write science fiction, they are of course experts, but in fact they mostly prefer to opine on other topics. By presenting themselves as experts on a great many future, technical, cultural, and social topics, they help preserve the illusion that readers aren’t just reading science fiction for fun; they are also part of important larger conversations.

When science fiction books overlap with topics in space, physics, medicine, biology, or computer science, their authors often read up on those topics, and so can be substantially more informed than typical audience members. And on such topics actual experts will often be included on the agenda. Audiences may even be asked if any of them happen to have expertise on a such a topic.

But the more that a topic leans social, and has moral or political associations, the less inclined authors are to read expert literatures on that topic, and the more they tend to just wing it and think for themselves, often on their feet. They less often add experts to the panel or seek experts in the audience. And relatively neutral analysis tends to be displaced by position taking – they find excuses to signal their social and political affiliations.

The general pattern here is: an audience has big reasons to affiliate with speakers, but prefers to pretend those speakers are experts on something, and they are just listening to learn about that thing. This is especially true on social topics. The illusion is exposed by facts like speakers not being chosen for knowing the most about a subject discussed, and those speakers not doing much homework. But enough audience members are ignorant of these facts to provide a sufficient fig leaf of cover to the others.

This same general pattern repeats all through the world of conferences and speeches. We tend to listen to talks and panels full of not just authors, but also generals, judges, politicians, CEOs, rich folks, athletes, and actors. Even when those are not the best informed, or even the most entertaining, speakers on a topic. And academic outlets tend to publish articles and books more for being impressive than for being informative. However, enough people are ignorant of these facts to let audiences pretend that they mainly listen to learn and get information, rather than to affiliate with the statusful.

Added 22Aug: We feel more strongly connected to people when we together visibly affirm our shared norms/values/morals. Which explains why speakers look for excuses to take positions.

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Alas, Unequal Love

We each feel a deep strong need to love others, and to be loved by others. (Self-love doesn’t satisfy these needs.) You might think we could pair up and all be very satisfied. But this doesn’t happen for two main reasons:

  1. We each prefer to love the popular, whom more others also love. So a few get lots of love, while the rest get less.
  2. We can more easily love imaginary fictional people than real people. Especially ones that more others love.

So even if you are my best source for getting love, the love I get from you may be far less than the love you are giving out, or than I’m giving out. And a few exceptional people (many of them imaginary) get far more love than most people need or can enjoy.

This seems an essential tragedy of the human condition. You might claim that love isn’t a limited resource, that the more people each of us love, the more love we each have to give out. So there is no conflict between loving popular and imaginary people and loving the rest of us. But while this might be true at some low scales of how many people we love, at the actual scales of love this just doesn’t seem right to me. Love instead seems scarce at the margin.

Can we do anything about this problem? Well one obvious fact is that we don’t love people we’ve never heard of. And we can control many things about who we hear of. So we could in principle arrange who we hear about, in order to get love spread out more evenly. But we don’t do this, nor do we seem much inclined to do anything like this. We instead all devote a great deal of time and effort to hearing about as many popular and fictional people as possible. And to trying to be as popular as we can.

I don’t have great ideas for how to solve this. But I am convinced it is one of our essential problems, and it is far from obvious that we’ve given it all the careful thought we might. Please, someone thoughtful and clever, figure out how we might all be much loved.

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Change Favors The Robust, Not The Radical

There are futurists who like to think about the non-immediate future, and there are radicals who advocate for unusual policies, such as on work, diet, romance, governance, etc. And the intersection between these groups is larger than you might have expected by chance; futurists tend to be radicals and radicals tend to be futurists. This applies to me, in that I’ve both proposed a radical futarchy, and have a book on future ems.

The usual policies that we adopt in our usual world have a usual set of arguments in their favor, arguments usually tied to the details of our usual world. So those who want to argue instead for radical policies must both argue against the usual pro-arguments, and then also offer a new set of arguments in favor of their radical alternatives, arguments also tied to the details of our world. This can seem like a heavy burden.

So many who favor radical policies prefer to switch contexts and reject the relevance of the usual details of our world. By invoking a future where many things change, they feel they can just dismiss the usual arguments for the usual policies based on the usual details of our world. And at this point they usually rest, feeling their work is done. They like being in a situation where, even if they can’t argue very strongly for their radical policies, others also can’t argue very strongly against such policies. Intellectual stalemate can seem a big step up from the usual radical’s situation of being at a big argumentative disadvantage.

But while this may help to win (or at least not lose) argument games, it should not actually make us favor radical policies more. It should instead shift our attention to robust arguments, ones can apply over a wide range of possibilities. We need to hear positive arguments for why we should expect radical policies to work well robustly across a wide range of possible futures, relative to our status quo policies.

In my recent video discussion with James Hughes, he criticized me for assuming that many familiar elements of our world, such as property, markets, inequality, sexuality, and individual identities, continue into an em age. He instead foresaw an enormous hard-to-delimit range of possibilities. But then he seemed to think this favored his radical solution of a high-regulation high-redistribution strong global socialist government which greatly limits and keeps firm control over autonomous artificial intelligences. Yet he didn’t offer arguments for why this is a robust solution that we should expect to work well in a very wide variety of situations.

It seems to me that if we are going to focus on the axis of decentralized markets vs. more centralized and structured organizations, it is markets that have proven themselves to be the more robust mechanism, working reasonably well in a very wide range of situations. It is structured organizations that are more fragile, and fail more quickly as situations change. Firms go out of business often when their organizations fail to keep up with changing environments; decentralized markets disappearing because they fail to serve participants happens far less often.

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No Third AI Way

A few days ago in the Post:

Bryan Johnson .. wants to .. find a way to supercharge the human brain so that we can keep up with the machines. .. His science-fiction-meets-science start-up, Kernel, is building a tiny chip that can be implanted in the brain. .. Top neuroscientists who are building the chip .. hope that in the longer term, it will be able to boost intelligence, memory and other cognitive tasks. .. In an age of AI, he insists that boosting the capacity of our brains is itself an urgent public concern.

In a video discussion between James Hughes and I just posted today, Hughes said:

One of the reasons why I’m skeptical about the [em] scenario that you’ve outlined, is that I see a scenario where brains extending themselves though AI and computing tools basically slaved to the core personal identity of meat brains is a more likely scenario than one where we happily acknowledge the rights and autonomy of virtual persons. .. We need to have the kind of AI in our brain which is not just humans 1.0 that get shuffled off to the farm while the actual virtual workers do all the work, as you have imagined.

Many hope for a “third way” alternative to both ems and more standard AI software taking all the jobs. They hope that instead “we” can keep our jobs via new chips “in” or closely integrated with our brain. This seems to me mostly a false hope.

Yes of course if we have a strong enough global political coordination we could stake out a set of officially human jobs and forbid machines from doing them, no matter how much better machines might be at them. But if we don’t have such strong coordination, then the key question is whether there is an important set of jobs or tasks where ordinary human brains are more productive than artificial hardware. Having that hardware be located in server racks in distant data centers, versus in chips implanted in human brains, seems mostly irrelevant to this.

If artificial hardware can be similarly effective at such tasks, then it can have enormous economic advantages relative to human brains. Even today, the quantity of artificial hardware can be increased very rapidly in factories. And eventually, artificial hardware can be run at much faster speeds, with using much less energy. Humans, in contrast, grow very slowly, have limited brain speeds, and are fragile and expensive. It is very hard to see humans outcompeting artificial hardware at such tasks unless the artificial hardware is just very bad at such tasks. That is in fact the case today, but it would not at all be the case with ems, nor with other AI with similar general mental abilities.

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Power Corrupts, Slavery Edition

I’ve just finished reading a 1980 book Advice Among Masters: The Ideal in Slave Management in the Old South, which mostly quotes US slave owners from the mid 1800s writing on how to manage slaves. I really like reading ordinary people describe their to-me-strange worlds in their own words, and hope to do more of it. (Suggestions?)

This book has made me rethink where the main harms from slavery may lie. I said before that slaves were most harmed during and soon after capture, and that high interest rates could induce owners to work slaves to an early death. But neither of these apply in the US South, where the main harm had seemed to me to be from using threats of pain to induce more work on simple jobs.

However, this book gives the impression that most threats of pain were not actually directed at making slaves work harder. Slaves did work long hours, but then so did most poor European workers around that time. Slave owners didn’t actually demand that much more work from those capable of more work, instead tending to demand similar hours and effort from all slaves of a similar age, gender, and health.

What seems instead to have caused more pain to US south slaves was the vast number of rules that owners imposed, most of which had little direct connection to key problems like shirking at work, stealing, or running away. Rules varied quite a bit from owner to owner, but there were rules on where and when one could travel, times to rise and sleep, who could marry and live with who, who could talk to who when, when and how to wash bodies and houses, what clothes to wear when, who can cook, who can eat what foods, who goes to what sorts of churches when, and so on. Typical rules for slaves had much in common with typical “upstanding behavior” rules widely imposed by parents on their children, and by schools and armies on students and soldiers: eat well, rise early, keep clean, say your prayers, don’t drink, stay nearby, talk respectfully, don’t fraternize with the wrong people, etc.

With so many rules that varied so much, a standard argument against letting slaves visit neighboring plantations was that they’d less accept local rules if they learned of more lenient rules nearby. And while some owners emphasized enforcing rules via scoldings, fines, or reduction of privileges, most often violations were punished with beatings.

Another big cause of pain seems to have been agency failures with overseers, i.e., those who directly managed the slaves on behalf of the slave owners. Owners of just a few slaves oversaw them directly, and many other owners insisted on personally approving any punishments. However still others gave full discretion to overseers and refused to listen to slave complaints.

Few overseers had a direct financial stake in farm profitability, and many owners understood that such stakes would tempt overseers, who changed jobs often, to overwork slaves in the short run at the expense of long run profitability. Even so, short run harvest gains were usually easier for owners to see than long run harm to slaves, tempting overseers to sacrifice the former for the latter. And even if most overseers were kept well in line, a small fraction who used their discretion to beat and rape could impose high levels of net harm.

US south slave plantations were quite literally small totalitarian governments, and the main harms to such slaves seems to parallel the main libertarian complaints about all governments. A libertarian perspective sees the following pattern: once one group is empowered to run the lives of others, they tend to over-confidently over-manage them, adding too many rules that vary too much, rules enforced with expensive punishments. And such governments tend to give their agents too much discretion, which such agents use too often to indulge personal whims and biases. Think abusive police and an excess prison population today. Such patterns might be explained by an unconscious human habit of dominance via paternalism; while dominant groups tend to justify their rules in terms of helping, they are actually more trying to display their dominance.

Now one might instead argue that the usual “good behavior” rules imposed by parents, schools, militaries, and slave owners are actually helpful on average, turning lazy good-for-nothings into upright citizens. And in practice formal rule systems are so limited that agent discretion is needed to actually get good results. And strong punishments are needed to make it work. Spare the rod, and spoil the child, conscript, or slave. From this perspective, US south slave must have led decent lives overall, and we should be glad that improving tech is making it easier for modern governments to get involved in more details of our lives.

Looking to the future, if totalitarian management of individual lives is actually efficient, a more competitive future world would see more of it, leading widely to effective if not official slavery. Mostly for our own good. (This fear was common early in the industrial revolution.) But if the libertarians are right, and most dominant groups tend to make too many overly-harsh rules at the expense of efficiency, then a more competitive future world would see less such paternalism, including fewer slave-like lives.

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