Automatic Norms

Some new ideas I want to explain start with a 2000 paper on Taboo Tradeoffs. (See also newer stuff.) So I’ll review that paper in this post, and then I’ll explain my new ideas in the next post.

In Experiment 2 of the 2000 paper, each of 228 subjects were asked to respond to one of 8 scenarios, created by three binary alternatives. All the scenarios involved:

Robert, the key decision maker, was described as the Director of Health Care Management at a major hospital who confronted a “resource allocation decision.”

Robert was either asked to make a tragic tradeoff, where two sacred values conflicted, or a taboo tradeoff, where a sacred value was in conflict with a non-sacred value. The tragic tradeoff:

Robert can either save the life of Johnny, a five year old boy who needs a liver transplant, or he can save the life of an equally sick six year old boy who needs a liver transplant. Both boys are desperately ill and have been on the waiting list for a transplant but because of the shortage of local organ donors, only one liver is available. Robert will only be able to save one child.

The taboo tradeoff:

Robert can save the life of Johnny, a five year old who needs a liver transplant, but the transplant procedure will cost the hospital $1,000,000 that could be spent in other ways, such as purchasing better equipment and enhancing salaries to recruit talented doctors to the hospital. Johnny is very ill and has been on the waiting list for a transplant but because of dire shortage of local organ donors, obtaining a liver will be expensive. Robert could save Johnny’s life, or he could use the $1,000,000 for other hospital needs.

Robert was said to either find this decision easy or difficult:

“Robert sees his decision as an easy one, and is able to decide quickly,” or “Robert finds this decision very difficult, and is only able to make it after much time, thought, and contemplation.”

Finally, Robert was said to have chosen to save Johnny, or to have chosen otherwise. Subjects were asked to rate Robert’s decision and describe their feelings about it in 8 ways. They were also asked to make 3 decisions on actions regarding Robert, including dismiss from job, punish, and end friendship. Using factor analysis all these responses were combined into an outrage factor, mainly weighted on 6 of the ratings and feelings, and a punish factor, mainly weighted on the 3 actions. These factors were on a 1-7 point scale. Here are the average factor values for the eight possible scenarios:

In the case of a taboo tradeoff, Robert is less likely to be punished for saving Johnny than for not.  We have a strong social norm against trading sacred things for non-sacred things, and Robert is to be punished if he violates this taboo. When Robert makes a sacred tradeoff, it is as if he must violate a norm no matter what he does. In this case, he is punished much more if he treats this as an easy choice; norm violation must be done in a serious thoughtful manner.

However, when Robert makes a taboo tradoff, he is punished much more if he treats this as a difficult choice. In fact, he is punished almost as much for saving Johnny after much thought as he is for not saving Johnny after little thought! It is worse to do the wrong thing after careful thought than after little thought.

Years ago, this result helped me to understand the political reaction when in 2003 my Policy Analysis Market (PAM) was accused of trying to let people bet on terrorist deaths.

PAM appeared to some to cross a moral boundary, which can be paraphrased roughly as “none of us should intend to benefit when some of them hurt some of us.” (While many of us do in fact benefit from terrorist attacks, we can plausibly argue that we did not intend to do so.) So, by the taboo tradeoff effect, it was morally unacceptable for anyone in Congress or the administration to take a few days to think about the accusation. The moral calculus required an immediate response.

Of course, no one at high decision-making levels knew much about a $1 million research project within a $1 trillion government budget. If PAM had been a $1 billion project, representatives from districts where that money was spent might have considered defending the project. But there was no such incentive for a $1 million project (spent mostly in California and London); the safe political response was obvious: repudiate PAM, and everyone associated with it. (more)

Today, however, my interest is in what these results imply for our awareness of where our norm feelings come from, and how much they are shared by others. These results suggest that when we face a choice, the categorization of some of the options as norm violating is supposed to come to us fast, and with little thought or doubt. Unless we notice that all of the options violate similarly important norms, we are supposed to be sure of which options to reject, without needing to consult with other people, and without needing to try to frame the choice in multiple ways, to see if the relevant norms are subject to framing effects. We are to presume that framing effects are unimportant, and that everyone agrees on the relevant norms and how they are to be applied.

Apparently the legal principle of “ignorance of the law is no excuse” isn’t just a convenient way to avoid incentives not to know the law, and to avoid having to inquire about who knows what laws. Regarding norms more generally, including legal norms, we seem to think “ignorance of the norms isn’t plausible; you must have known.”

If this description is correct, it seems to me to have remarkable implications. Which I’ll discuss in my next post. (Unless of course you figure them all out in the comments now.)

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News As If Info Mattered

In our new book, we argue that most talk, including mass media news and academic talk, isn’t really about info, at least the obvious base-level info. But to study talk, it helps to think about what it would in fact look like if it were mostly about info. And as with effective altruism, such an exercise can also be useful for those who see themselves as having unusually sincere preferences, i.e., who actually care about info. So in this post let’s consider what info based talk would actually look like.

From an info perspective, a piece of “news” is a package that includes a claim that can be true or false, a sufficient explanation of what this claim means, and some support, perhaps implicit, to convince the reader of this claim. Here are a few relevant aspects of each such claim:

Surprise – how low a probability a reader would have previously assigned to this claim.
Confidence – how high a probability a reader is to assign after reading this news.
Importance – how much the probability of this claim matters to the reader.
Commonality – how many potential readers this consider this topic important.
Recency – how recently this news became available.
Support Type – what kind of support is offered for a reader to believe this claim.
Support Space – how many words it takes to show the support to a reader.
Definition Space – how many words it takes to explain what this claim means.
Bandwidth – number of channels of communication used at once to tell reader about this news.
Chunk – size of a hard-to-divide model containing news, such as a tweets or a book.

Okay, the amount of info that some news gives a reader on a claim is the ratio of its confidence to its surprise. The value of this info multiplies this info amount by the claim’s importance to that reader. The total value of this news to all readers (roughly) multiplies this individual value by its commonality. Valuable news tells many people to put high confidence in claims that they previously thought rather unlikely, on topics they consider important.

A reader who knew most everything that is currently known would focus mostly on recent news. Real people, however, who know very little of what is known, would in contrast focus mostly on much less recent news. Waiting to process recent news allows time for many small pieces of news to be integrated into large chunks that share common elements of definition and support, and that make better use of higher bandwidth.

In a world mainly interested in getting news for its info, most news would be produced by specialists in particular news topics. And there’d be far more news on topics of common interest to many readers, relative to niche topics of interest only to smaller sets of readers.

The cost of reading news to a reader is any financial cost, plus a time cost for reading (or watching etc.). This time cost is mostly set by the space required for that news, divided by the effective bandwidth used. Total space is roughly definition space plus support space. If the claim offered is a small variation on many similar previous claims already seen by a reader, little space may be required for its definition. In contrast, claims strange to a reader may take a lot more space to explain.

When the support offered for a claim is popularity or authority, such support may be seen as weak, but it can often be given quite concisely. However, when the support offered is an explicit argument, that can seem strong, but it can also take a lot more space. Some claims are self-evident to readers upon being merely stated, or after a single example. If prediction markets were common, market odds could offer concise yet strong support for many claims. The smallest news items will usually not come with arguments.

Given the big advantages of modularity, in news as in anything else, we need a big gain to justify the modularity costs of clumping news together into hard-to-divide units, like articles and books. There are two obvious gain cases here: 1) many related claims, and 2) one focus claim requiring much explanation or support. The first case has a high correlation in reader interest across a set of claims, at least for a certain set of readers. Here a sufficient degree of shared explanation or support across these claims could justify a package that explains and supports them all together.

The second case is where a single focal claim requires either a great deal of explanation to even make clear what is being claimed, or it requires extensive detailed arguments to persuade readers. Or both. Of course there can be mixes of these two cases. For example, if in making the effort to support one main claim, one has already done most of the work needed to support a related but less important claim, one might include that related claim in the same chunk.

For most readers, most of the claims that are important enough to be the focus of a large chunk are also relatively easy to understand. As a result, most of the space in most large focused chunks is devoted to support. And as argument is the main support that requires a lot of space, most of the space in big chunks focused on a central claim is devoted to supporting arguments. Also, to justify the cost of a large chunk with a large value for the reader, most large focused chunks focus on claims to which readers initially assign a low probability.

So how does all this compare to our actual world of talk today? There are a lot of parallels, but also some big deviations. Our real world has a lot of local artisan production on topics of narrow interest. That is, people just chat with each other about random stuff. Even for news produced by efficient specialists, an awful lot of it seems to be on topics of relatively low importance to readers. Readers seem to care more about commonality than about importance. And there’s a huge puzzling focus on the most recently available news.

Books are some of our largest common chunks of news today, and each one usually purports to offer recent news on arguments supporting a central claim that is relatively easy to understand. It seems puzzling that so few big chunks are explicitly justified via shared explanation and justification of many related small claims, or that so man big chunks seem neither to cover many related claims nor a single central claim. It also seems puzzling that most focal claims of books are not very surprising to most readers. Readers do not seem to be proportionally more interested in the books on with more surprising focal claims. And given how much space is devoted to arguments for focal claims, it is somewhat surprising that books often neglect to even mention other kinds of support, such as popularity or authority.

While I do think alternative theories, in which news is not mainly about info, can explain many of these puzzles, a discussion of that will have to wait for another post.

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Exclusion As A Substitute For Norms, Law, & Governance

Hell may not be other people, but worry sure is. That is, what we worry most about is what other people might do to us. People at the office, near our home, at the store, on the street, and even at church.

To reduce our worries, we can rely on norms, law, and governance. That is, to discourage bad behavior, we can encourage stronger informal social rules, we can adopt more formal legal rules, and we can do more with complex governance mechanisms.

In addition, we can rely on a simple and robust ancient solution: exclusion. That is, we can limit who is allowed with the circles we travel. We can use exclusion to limit who lives in our apartment complex, who shows up at the parties we attend, and who works in a cubicle near us.

Now the modern world tends to say that it disapproves of exclusion. The bad ancient world did much gossiping about what types of people could be trusted how, and then it relied a lot on the resulting shared judgements within their norms, law, and governance. We today have instead been trying to expunge such judgments from our formal systems; they are supposed to treat everyone equally without much reference to the groups to which they belong.

In addition, we’ve become more wary of using harsh punishments, like torture, death, or exile.  And we are more wary of using corruptible quick and dirty evaluations within our norms, law, and governance. For example, we have raised our standards for shunning neighbors, pulling over drivers, convicting folks at court, and approving large bold governance changes. And people today seem less willing to help the law via reports and testimony. Oh we may be more willing to apply norms to people we read about on social media; but we apply them less to the people we meet around us.

As a result of these trends, many people perceive that we have on net weakened the power of our systems of norms, law, and governance to constrain bad behavior. In response, I think they’ve naturally increased their reliance on exclusion. They look more carefully at who they allow into their schools, firms, apartments, and nations. And they are less willing to give a marginal person the benefit of the doubt.

Since we don’t want to look like we are excluding on the basis of simple group affiliations, we instead try to rely on a more intuitive and informal aggregation of many weak clues. We try to get a feel for how much we like them or feel comfortable with them overall. But that need not result in more mixing.

For example, colleges that admit people just on GPA and test scores can be more open to lower class students than colleges that require applicants to have adopted the right set of extracurricular actives, and to have hit on the right themes in their essays. Lower class people can find it is easier to get good grades and scores than to track the new fashions in activities and essays.

Similarly, Tyler Cowen makes the point somewhere that when firms had simple and clear rules on dress and behavior, someone with a low class background could more easily pass as high class; they just had to follow the rules. Today, without such simple rules, people rely more on many subtle clues of clothes, conversation topics, travel locations, favorite music and movies, and so on. Someone with a lower class background finds it harder to adopt all these patterns, and so is more obviously outed and rejected as not one of us.

The point seems to apply more generally. The net effect of our today relying less on norms, law, and governance, and avoiding simple group labels in exclusion, is that we rely more on exclusion based on an intuitive feel that someone is like us.

This may be a cause of our increasing class and political polarization, at home and work. Feeling less protected by norms, law, and governance, and shy of using simple group identifiers, we are more and more surrounding ourselves with others who feel comfortably like us. We can tell ourselves that we aren’t excluding Joe or Sue because they are Republicans, or don’t have a college degree. Its just that those sort of people tend to give off dozens of other off-putting signs that they are just not people like us.

We would call it an outrage if society as a whole excluded them explicitly and formally because of a few simple signs. Only ignorant and rude societies do that. But we feel quite comfortable excluding them from our little part of the world based on our just not feeling comfortable with them. Hey, as anyone knows, in our part of the world it is just really important to have the right people.

Consider this another weak argument for relying more on stronger norms, law, and governance. That could let us rely less on exclusion locally. And mix up a bit more.

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Capturing The Policy Info Process

Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles’ book The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality came out November 10. Steven Pearlstein titled his review “What’s to blame for slower growth and rising inequality?” Robert Samuelson says:

As societies become richer, so does the temptation for people to advance their economic interests by grabbing someone else’s wealth, as opposed to creating new wealth. … This sort of economy may be larger than you think. That’s the gist of the provocative new book …

And so on. The book’s marketing, intro, and reviews all suggest that the book is about who to blame for bad trends. And on how exactly (i.e., via what bad policies) bad guys have achieved their nefarious ends. Which to my mind is a dumb topic. Yes, it is what everyone wants to talk about for moral posturing purposes. But it is a far less useful topic than what exactly are the fundamental causes of our problems, and what we could do to address them.

However, sometimes when people play dumb, and observers treat them as dumb, they are not actually dumb. And this book in fact contains a brief but thoughtful analysis of the political obstacles to solving our many policy problems. It also suggests solutions. The problems: Continue reading "Capturing The Policy Info Process" »

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On Thought Leaders

All through the world and history, and across most areas of life, we empower and choose leaders. As usual, we have things we say about the sort of leaders we want, and when choosing we act on preferences. And the two are usually not quite the same.

We tend to actual want leaders who have good family or institutional pedigrees, who give us our desired degrees of flattery and hypocrisy, who will use raw politics in the right ways to gain and keep power, and who are pretty/handsome, energetic, smart, articulate, charismatic, socially savvy, and have other impressive abilities. We also want leaders that others will treat as leaders. But we usually don’t say these things.

For example, we might say we want religious leaders who can help us to be more spiritual, firm leaders who will increase profits, or political leaders who will create peace and prosperity. And while the ancient world didn’t care much about them, in the modern world we often say that we want thought leaders.

Thought leaders lead our conversations and thoughts on particular concepts, ideas, and claims. And we prefer to say that such leaders actually developed original insights on those thoughts. That makes a nice convenient story. “Person P developed thought X; when we heard about X we had to start talking about it, and P has been helping us with that.”

But the pool of people who are inclined to and able to develop each thought X is far larger than pool of people that we consider to be acceptable thought leaders on X. So to get the sort of thought leaders that we want, we tolerate and even encourage qualified leaders to take credit for thoughts developed by others. We let the charismatic people we prefer as leaders pretend to have developed the ideas they talk about.

Yes, each of us personally can’t do the research to find out who actually developed each thought X. Yet there are people who can do such research, and if we cared enough we’d reward them for exposing thought leaders who take origin credits due to others. But we don’t.

Yes, some thought areas have stronger property rights in ideas. With precise and unique enough terminology to enable you to show that you had the same thought before someone else. But even then they can give you only a minor footnote. It is easy enough to find some detail by which their discussion differed from yours, and then claim that detail makes all the difference to why your contribution was small while theirs was big.

So know that unless you are in a thought area with strong property rights, or have the rare features that people actually want in thought leaders, you can influence the world of ideas by coming up with new thoughts, but you are unlikely to be celebrated as a key thought leader. If enough people cared, we could create stronger property rights in thoughts, to increase the rewards to developing thoughts. But don’t hold your breath waiting.

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Dragon Debris?

Apparently the causal path from simple dead matter to an expanding visible civilization is very unlikely. Almost everything that starts along this path is blocked by a great filter, which might be one extremely hard step, or many merely very hard steps. The most likely location of this great filter is that the origin of life is very very hard. Which is good news, because otherwise we’d have to worry at lot about our future, via what fraction of the overall huge filter still lies ahead of us. And if we ever find evidence of life in space that isn’t close to the causal path that led to us, that will be big bad news, and we’ll need to worry a lot more.

One of the more interesting future filter scenarios is a high difficulty of traveling between the stars. As we can easily see across the universe, we know that photons have few problems traveling very long distances. And since stars drift about at great speeds, we know that stars can also travel freely suffering little harm. But we still can’t be sure of the ease of travel for humans, or for the sort of things that our descendants might try to send between the stars. We have collected a few grains of interstellar dust, but still know little about them, and so don’t know how easy was their travel. We do know that most of the universe is made of dark matter and dark energy that we understand quite poorly. So perhaps “Here Be Dragons” lie in wait out there for our scale of interstellar travelers.

Many stars, like ours, are surrounded by a vast cloud of small icy objects. Every once in a while one of these objects falls into a rare orbit where it travels close to its star, and then it becomes a comet with a tail. Even more rarely, one should fall into an orbit that throws it out away from its star (almost always without doing much else to it). Such an object would then travel at the typical star speed between stars, and after billions of years it might perhaps pass near one other star; the chance of two such encounters is very low. And if the space between stars is as mild as it seems, it should arrive looking pretty much as it left.

Astronomers have been waiting for a while to see such an interstellar visitor, and were puzzled to have not yet seen one. They expected it to look like a comet, except traveling a lot faster than do most comets. Well within roughly a year of a new instrument that could see such things better, we’ve finally seen such a visitor in the last few months. It looked like what we expect in some ways. It is traveling at roughly the speed we’d expect, its size is unremarkable, and its color is roughly what we expect from ancient small space objects. But it is suspiciously weird in several other apparently-unrelated ways.

First, its orbit is weird. Its direction of origin is 6 degrees from sun’s motion vector; only one in 365 random directions are closer. And among the travel paths where we could have seen this object, only one in 100 such paths would have traveled closer to the sun than did this one (source: Turner). But one must apparently invoke very strange and unlikely hypotheses to believe these parameters were anything but random. For now, I won’t go there.

Second, the object itself is weird. It does not have a comet tail, and so has apparently lost most of its volatiles like water. If this is typical, it explains why we haven’t seen objects like this before. The object seems to be very elongated, much more than any other natural object we’ve ever seen in our solar system. And it is rotating very fast, so fast that it would fly apart if it were made out of the typical pile of lightly attached rubble. So at some point it experienced an event so dramatic as to melt away its volatiles, melt it into a solid object, stretch it to an extreme, and set it spinning at an extreme rate. After which it drifted for long enough to acquire the usual color of ancient space objects.

This raises the suspicion that it perhaps encountered a dangerous “dragon” between the starts. Making it “dragon debris.” If the timing of this event were random, we should see roughly one a year in the future, and with new better instruments coming online in a few years we should see them even faster. So within a decade we should learn if this first visitor is very unusual, or if we should worry a lot more about travel dangers between the stars.

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Join The Debate

If you’ve laughed at “X is not about Y”, now is the time to take it seriously, as an equal.

Over the years, many seem to have found my “X is not about Y” arguments to be enjoyably mockable. As if I would be equally likely to say “Toasters are not about toast” or “Napkin holders are not about napkins.” Which seems to suggest that while my claims might be important if true, they are too silly to take seriously.

Now I don’t mind people having fun, but I do worry about the human habit to dismiss as unworthy of attention things that have been wittily mocked. (See the movie Ridicule.) If you worry about that too, and if you’ve at least smirked some at “X is not about Y” jokes, then perhaps I can appeal to your guilt or concern to take the time now to engage the argument.

Because as of today, you can download from Kindle for $22 (or Google for $14), the readable and carefully argued book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. by myself and Kevin Simler.

Now publishers and the media usually coordinate to talk about new books near the day when hardback copies are officially released. Which for our book is January 2. Usually ebooks are also withheld until near that date. As a result, usually the only people who can say much about a book at its official release date are elites who have been given special access to pre-release copies. Those who talk about a book weeks or months later are clearly revealed as less elites, and get less attention.

But now for our book all of you can participate more as equals in that release date book conversation. If you read our book now, and then publicly post a review or engage our argument near the release date, and indicate that you’d like us to publicly engage your response, then we will try to do so. When time is limited we will of course focus more on responses that we think are better argued. But we will try to engage as many of you as possible, without giving undue priority to media and other elites.

So please, go read, and then join our debate. Just how often is it plausible that “X is not about Y”?

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Preferences > Awareness

I recently asked:

The vast majority of economic papers and books that offer explanations for human behaviors don’t bother to distinguish if their explanations are mediated by conscious intentions or not. (In fact, most papers on any topic don’t take a stance on most possible distinctions related to their topic.) …

Yet I’ve had even economics colleagues tell me that I should take more care, when I point out possible signaling explanations, to say if I am claiming that such signaling effects are consciously intended. But why would it be more important to distinguish conscious intentions in this context, compared to the rest of economics and social science?

Bryan Caplan answers:

Standard signaling models assume that people dislike sending the signal. It is this assumption that implies that signaling equilibria are highly inefficient – or even full-blown Prisoners’ Dilemmas. If people enjoyed signaling, in contrast, signaling equilbria could easily be ideal. What superficially appears to be a vast zero-sum game turns out to be fine because the players like playing the game.

So why don’t economists clearly acknowledge the centrality of conscious desire when they apply signaling models to the real world? Because we usually focus on cases where most people plainly don’t enjoy sending the signal. When I wrote The Case Against Education, I definitely double-checked this fact; but I probably wouldn’t have even launched the project if I’d spent a lifetime inside classrooms packed with jubilant learners.

I agree that, when explaining human behavior, it can often be important to be clear about the preferences that one is postulating. The same behavior explained by different preferences can have different implications for if we should encourage or discourage that behavior.

But when explaining behavior, postulated preferences and conscious intent are just separate and independent topics on which one can be clear. There is no obvious or necessary relation between them.

For example, the real reason that people go to school could because they like school, or it could be because they want to show off smarts, conformity, etc. And for either real motive, people could be fully conscious of that motive, or they could be self-deceived and in denial about it. For example, people could think that they enjoy school, but really go to show off, or they could think that they are trying to show off, but really go because they enjoy school.

While I’m pretty sure that Caplan claims that we go to school more to show off, I’m not actually sure if he has taken much of a stand on how conscious we are in choosing to go to school for this purpose. And that’s my point: I can love his new book (buy it) even without knowing this stance. Like most good economists, he doesn’t bother to distinguish how much his explanation of schooling is mediated by conscious intent.

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Why Be Contrarian?

While I’m a contrarian in many ways, it think it fair to call my ex-co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky even more contrarian than I. And he has just published a book, Inadequate Equilibria, defending his contrarian stance, against what he calls “modesty”, illustrated in these three quotes:

  1. I should expect a priori to be below average at half of things, and be 50% likely to be of below average talent overall; … to be mistaken about issues on which there is expert disagreement about half of the time. …
  2. On most issues, the average opinion of humanity will be a better and less biased guide to the truth than my own judgment. …
  3. We all ought to [avoid disagreeing with] each other as a matter of course. … You can’t trust the reasoning you use to think you’re more meta-rational than average.

In contrast, Yudkowsky claims that his book readers can realistically hope to become successfully contrarian in these 3 ways:

  1. 0-2 lifetime instances of answering “Yes” to “Can I substantially improve on my civilization’s current knowledge if I put years into the attempt?” …
  2. Once per year or thereabouts, an answer of “Yes” to “Can I generate a synthesis of existing correct contrarianism which will beat my current civilization’s next-best alternative, for just myself. …
  3. Many cases of trying to pick a previously existing side in a running dispute between experts, if you think that you can follow the object-level arguments reasonably well and there are strong meta-level cues that you can identify. … [This] is where you get the fuel for many small day-to-day decisions, and much of your ability to do larger things.

Few would disagree with his claim #1 as stated, and it is claim #3 that applies most often to reader lives. Yet most of the book focuses on claim #2, that “for just myself” one might annually improve on the recommendation of our best official experts. Continue reading "Why Be Contrarian?" »

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The One Ruler Obsession

I often teach undergraduate law & economics. Sometimes the first paper I assign is to suggest property rules to deal with conflicts regarding asteroids, orbits, and sunlight in the solar system, in the future when there’s substantial activity out there. This feels to students like a complex different situation, and in fact few understand even the basic issues.

Given just two pages to make their case, a large fraction of students (~1/3?) express fear that one person or organization will take over the entire solar system, unless property rules are designed to explicitly prevent that. And a similar fraction suggest the “property rule” of having a single government agency answer all questions. Whatever question or dispute you have, fill out a form, and the agency will decide.

Yet in my lectures I talk a lot about concepts and issues of property rights, but never mention government agency issues or scenarios, nor the scenario of one power taking over everything. And econ undergrads at my school are famous for being relatively libertarian.

I conclude that most people have a strong innate fear of power concentrations, and yet also see the creation of a single central power as an attractive general solution to complicated problems. I’ve seen the same sort of thing with a great many futuristic tech and policy issues. Whatever the question, if it seems complicated, most people are concerned about inequality, especially that it might be taken to the max, and yet they also like the idea of creating a central government-like power to deal with it.

I’ve certainly seen this in concerns about future rampaging robots (= “AI risk”). Many, perhaps most, people express concerns that one AI could take over everything, and many also like the “solution” of one good AI taking over everything.

I recently came across similar reasoning by Frederick Engels back in 1844, in his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy. Having seen the early industrial revolution, not understanding it well, but fearing where it might lead, Engels claims that the natural outcome is extreme concentration of power. And his solution is to create a different central power (e.g., communism). Of course while there was some increase in inequality and concentration, it wasn’t remotely as bad as Engels feared, except where his words helped to inspire the creation of such concentration. Here is Engels:

Thus, competition sets capital against capital, labour against labour, landed property against landed property; and likewise each of these elements against the other two. In the struggle the stronger wins; and in order to predict the outcome of the struggle, we shall have to investigate the strength of the contestants. First of all, labour is weaker than either landed property or capital, for the worker must work to live, whilst the landowner can live on his rent, and the capitalist on his interest, or, if the need arises, on his capital or on capitalised property in land. The result is that only the very barest necessities, the mere means of subsistence, fall to the lot of labour; whilst the largest part of the products is shared between capital and landed property. Moreover, the stronger worker drives the weaker out of the market, just as larger capital drives out smaller capital, and larger landed property drives out smaller landed property. Practice confirms this conclusion. The advantages which the larger manufacturer and merchant enjoy over the smaller, and the big landowner over the owner of a single acre, are well known. The result is that already under ordinary conditions, in accordance with the law of the stronger, large capital and large landed property swallow small capital and small landed property – i.e., centralisation of property. In crises of trade and agriculture, this centralisation proceeds much more rapidly.

In general large property increases much more rapidly than small property, since a much smaller portion is deducted from its proceeds as property-expenses. This law of the centralisation of private property is as immanent in private property as all the others. The middle classes must increasingly disappear until the world is divided into millionaires and paupers, into large landowners and poor farm labourers. All the laws, all the dividing of landed property, all the possible splitting-up of capital, are of no avail: this result must and will come, unless it is anticipated by a total transformation of social conditions, a fusion of opposed interests, an abolition of private property.

Free competition, the keyword of our present-day economists, is an impossibility. Monopoly at least intended to protect the consumer against fraud, even if it could not in fact do so. The abolition of monopoly, however, opens the door wide to fraud. You say that competition carries with it the remedy for fraud, since no one will buy bad articles. But that means that everyone has to be an expert in every article, which is impossible. Hence the necessity for monopoly, which many articles in fact reveal. Pharmacies, etc., must have a monopoly. And the most important article – money – requires a monopoly most of all. Whenever the circulating medium has ceased to be a state monopoly it has invariably produced a trade crisis; and the English economists, Dr. Wade among them, do concede in this case the necessity for monopoly. But monopoly is no protection against counterfeit money. One can take one’s stand on either side of the question: the one is as difficult as the other. Monopoly produces free competition, and the latter, in turn, produces monopoly. Therefore both must fall, and these difficulties must be resolved through the transcendence of the principle which gives rise to them. (more)

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