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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  • arch1

    It seems to me that, in addressing both change over time and predictive uncertainty, adaptiveness is more important than robustness. But maybe that’s just using different words to say the same thing.

  • The “seems to me “conclusions seems childish place simplistic. The decentralized markets on any scale would not exist without the extensive structure and regulation. Think: Hanseatic League

  • Silent Cal

    Decentralized markets are extremely resistant to disappearance, but they can experience sharp declines in how well they work.

  • Wei Dai

    A market can make the lives of the individual participants better, but it doesn’t allow them to choose among alternative global scenarios. James Hughes wants to have such choices, and he is proposing a strong global government as a way for humanity to have and make such choices. These two things just serve different purposes. It may be that markets are more robust in the sense that it serves its purpose in a wider range of situations than a global government would serve its purpose, but if the thing you really want can only be delivered by a global government, then you probably don’t care too much about that.

    I think there’s also an argument that a global government would be more robust than typical structured organizations. A lot of organizations fail not because they stopped serving their participants, but due to external competition (e.g., invaders, market competitors, or internal stresses caused by having to rapidly make lots of changes to keep up with competitors). A global government wouldn’t have this problem.

    • Joe

      That depends of course on the actual likely outcome of global government. I think global government gets some amount of undeserved popularity as a solution because it’s very easy to mentally pair with any outcome that is desired. Alternatives are, to varying degrees, more constrained in the outcomes they produce – you suggest a mechanism and then have to argue that this mechanism actually does produce desirable outcomes. Whereas ‘global government’ is usually followed implicitly by ‘which does what I think it should do’ which is perhaps not as clearly likely as it can feel.

      This is obviously a very old and well-trodden argument, and I think it can sometimes be taken too far. It shouldn’t suggest that global government is never the right answer – only that it seems like a very unpredictable mechanism, with there being lots and lots of scope for variation in what outcomes it actually produces. And that it’s therefore perhaps worth looking more closely at the outcomes of more predictable, robust mechanisms to see if they’re really sufficiently bad as to make risking the dangerously unpredictable option of global government the least bad choice.

    • One could claim that a global government is a robust solution to many problems in many situations, but there should be some sort of argument to support that claim.

  • Lord

    Most governments have been around longer than most businesses, so even if slower to adapt and change, they are quite robust as well as being able to accomplish things markets can’t.

    • Alfred Differ

      Many markets have been around much longer than many governments. While businesses may come and go, market structures are robust. In some ways, we could argue market structures are anti-fragile in Taleb’s sense of the term, but not all parts.

      • Lord

        Only in the traditional sense. Modern markets have only been around since the industrial revolution. Before that there was only trading in narrow, customary, traditional forms.

      • Salem

        Very few governments have been around since before the industrial revolution.

      • Alfred Differ

        I don’t think history supports you. The Chinese have had a large internal trading area for many, many centuries with minimal internal tariffs. I agree that markets evolve especially in how money is handled, but the basic structures are still pretty much in place.
        Globalized markets have also been around for many, many centuries. The Indian Ocean was a trading lake while the Portuguese were working their way around Africa. The North Sea was a trading lake long ago for the Hanse cities. Trade in the Med is positively ancient

      • Lord

        In traditional societies, you inherited your position, most production occurred within household/estates, most work was performed by slaves/serfs /servants/staff /family, and most living was only slightly above subsistence. Most incomes and prices other than food were set by custom and trading was often reciprocation. Trading occurred but only in select areas, generally chartered, regulated, and taxed. Markets and governments, just as customs and people, both existed changed and altered over time. Markets just did so more often, its chief advantage, but commonly reliant on the stability provided by government.

  • msreekan

    Great post.

    Our tendency is to think top-down, basically to enforce some order. But most of the time we forget that the bird’s-eye view like blueprint has to be an outcome of some underlying forces.

    We need to reconcile outcomes with the requisite underlying mechanisms. Basically, we cannot engineer anything without understanding the scientific behavior of the building blocks.

    With regards to social phenomenons, we need to at least have some theory regarding how humans will respond and act within some incentive framework. Otherwise we act like an engineer who is randomly plugging circuit boards hoping to create the next iPhone!

  • chaosmosis

    Markets in general may be robust to change, I guess, but are competitive ones? Those are historically rare when unaccompanied by governmental enforcement of rights. The government also needs to play a role in preventing monopolies from emerging. But then there’s the danger of regulatory capture. And regulation is going to lag in response to revolutions. With all the difficulties currently associated with keeping global markets well functioning in the status quo, it’s surprising you would say that they are likely robust to dramatic future change. They do work better than anything else when they are not being prevented from functioning correctly, but meeting that prerequisite is difficult. And growing moreso with technological progress, as demonstrated by all the current difficulties faced in intellectual property law. People and corporations and governments all have strong incentives to distort competitive market activity for their own gain at the expense of others’ well being. I would think that the first movers in situations of dramatic change, whatever those might be, would take actions detrimental to market functioning.

  • I had a very unpleasant interaction with James Hughes on Facebook where he accused me of “racist fear mongering”.

    • Joseph Miller

      Man does that guy not play fair. I’m annoyed for you.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    Per Hayek, many people have a deep yearning for the social structures we evolved in – small tribes of people who all know each other and are deeply interdependent. And for the sense of “caring” and “community” and rough social equality that goes with it.

    Any time radical change is discussed, such people naturally look at the change as an opportunity to move things in this preferred direction.

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  • Riothamus

    What if we view radical policies, when implemented, as discovering information about the actual distribution of important real world details?