Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Heresy Helps You Think

The main social functions of school seem to be to help students show off their smarts, conformity, and conscientiousness. Schools also babysit, socialize, and indoctrinate. But the two main stated functions that school fans tout most often are (A) teaching students particular useful facts and theories, (B) teaching students how to think for themselves. 

When teaching students to think for themselves, it is not enough to just assign though-provoking essays or stories; students at some point must practice generating and debating their opinions on particular example topics. And it doesn’t work to use topics with obvious agreed-on answers, like “Is the sky blue?” No, to practice thinking for themselves, students need to engage topics where plausible arguments and evidence can be found on at least two sides. 

One standard set of example topics is offered by philosophy, topics such as free will, determinism, infinity, solipsism, or nihilism. But these topics tend to be pretty far from the interests and experiences of most students. Students are much more easily and usefully engaged on topics that are currently considered “controversial” in their world. But most schools are quite reluctant to let their students debate most such topics. Why?

When people listen to a debate on a topic, their opinions consistently tend to move toward the middle of the range of possible opinions on that topic. Thus increasing public attention to a topic is a reliable way to influence public opinion on it. And thus the eagerness of authorities to allow student attention on a topic depends greatly on whether this predictable movement is or is not in their favored direction.

For example, fans of intelligent design push schools to “teach the controversy”, while its opponents hate that idea. Vaccine skeptics would love students to debate vaccine skepticism, while the usual elites would not. And progressive teachers happily encourage students to debate progressive proposals currently unpopular with most citizens, such as race reparations, universal basic income, or a wealth tax. 

Thus schools that are responsive to parents, politicians, or academic elites mostly do not allow students to debate topics where such powers dislike middle positions relative to status quo opinions. But most “controversial” topics are exactly of this form; some existing confident position, like “vaccines are safe”, is challenged by some contrarians, who win even if audiences only move to middle positions of uncertainty.

Thus while school fans claim that schools function to help students learn to “think for themselves”, school authorities mostly won’t let students practice such thinking on the controversial heresies topics most suitable for such practice. Me, I’d be happy to use public polls or votes to select the topics students are allowed to debate in public schools. But I expect that most public school authorities, including most teachers, would strongly opposed such a proposal.

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Thinkers Must Be Heretics

When we form opinions on topics, the depth of our efforts vary. On some topics we put in no effort, and hold no opinions. On other topics, we notice what are the opinions of standard authorities, and adopt those. We often go further to learn of some arguments offered by such authorities, and mostly accept those arguments.

Sometimes we feel contrarian and make up an opinion we know to be contrary to standard ones. Sometimes we instead seek out non-standard authorities that we more respect, and adopt their opinions and maybe also arguments. Contrarian authorities often explicitly mention and rebut arguments of standard authorities, and sometimes we also learn and adopt those counter-arguments.

Sometimes we try to learn about many arguments on a topic from many sides, and then try to compare and evaluate them more directly, paying less attention to how much we respect their sources. Sometimes we generate our own arguments to add to this mix. Sometimes we do this alone, and sometimes in collaboration with close associates. Compared to the other approaches mentioned above, this last set of approaches can be described as more “thinking for ourselves”.

In general, arguments try to draw conclusions from widely accept claims and assumptions. So to dig deeper, we can recurse, by taking the claims X used in arguments on topic T, and treat some of those X as new topics to consider in this same way.

Our associates are interested in judging how well we think, and we are eager to impress them. And as all of these effort levels are appropriate in various practical cases, in principle our associates should want to judge our abilities at all of these different levels. However, as we tend to see deeper thinking as harder, where our thinking skills matter more, we are more eager to demonstrate and judge abilities to do deeper thinking.

And thus we all tend to present ourselves as thinking more deeply than we actually do. Not arbitrarily deeply, which isn’t believable. But maybe as deep as is plausible in a given case. So we tend to present ourselves, when possible, as “thinking for ourselves”.

Note that this thinking-for-yourself approach plausibly produces less accurate and reliable beliefs on each particular topic. Most people are usually less able to integrate info and arguments into an accurate total opinion than is the collective action of the usual authorities. Even so, showing off your abilities, and improving them via practice, often matters more to us than accuracy on each topic. We could of course get both accuracy and practice in thinking if we’d do our own analysis, but then adopt authority opinions even when that disagreed with our analysis. But we rarely do that, as we consider it “insincere” and “two-faced”.

Thinking-for-yourself, however, has a big problem on topics where there are orthodox opinions, ones on which all good thinking people in some community are supposed to agree. The problem is that thinking for yourself is usually noisy and context-dependent. That is, the process of thinking for ourselves doesn’t consistently produce the same outputs given the same inputs. Many random factors re how we framed or ordered our thoughts often substantially influence our conclusions. And thus people who think for themselves must be expected to reach contrarian conclusions a substantial (~5-50%) fraction of the time.

Note that people who want to create the impression that they think for themselves, without putting in the effort of actually doing so, can just randomly adopt contrarian conclusions at roughly this rate. And this does seem to be the strategy of most ordinary people, who have quite high rates of variation in their opinions, and yet who don’t seem to think very deeply. Their opinions even vary widely across time, as they usually can’t recall the random opinions that the previously generated.

However, this rate of variation is a much bigger problem for people whose opinions are more prominent. If someone publicly states their think-for-themself conclusions on twenty orthodox topics, they should expect an average of ~1-10 heretical opinions in that set. Yet often a prominent enough person publicly endorsing even a single heresy is enough to get them cancelled in a community. Such as losing their job, or any chance for advancement or entry into that community. What to do?

One traditional solution has been for the usual authorities to present themselves as focused on particular topics associated with their positions of authority, and NOT thinking for themselves on most other topics. Especially re most orthodox topics. This was long the usual position of CEOs, for example. Another traditional solution was for scholars, who do often specialize as thinkers on topics at least adjacent to orthodox ones, to speak esoterically, i.e., evasively in public, and only frankly in private to other scholars.

In our society today, however, a great many people present themselves as

  1. relatively prominent and thus worth cancelling,
  2. largely thinking for themselves even on orthodox-adjacent topics,
  3. offering their opinions in public on many such topics, and yet
  4. none of these opinions are heresies.

In fact they often express outrage when they encounter another such person expressing even a single heresy. But if they offer non-heresy opinions on twenty such topics, it is quite hard to believe that all those opinions were generated by thinking for themselves; the natural rate of opinion variation due to thinking for yourself is just too high to produce such a result. Such people are probably deceiving themselves a lot, seeing themselves as thinking for themselves more than they actually are.

And thus we reach the thesis in my title: thinkers must be heretics. If you see people with many opinions none of which are heretical, this just can’t be a random sample of topics on which they are mostly thinking for themselves. And if you plan to manage a herd of deep thinkers in our world today, people who spend a lot of time showing off how well they can think for themselves, you need to either need to keep them away from orthodox-adjacent topics, or keep their discussions internal and private; don’t let them speak on such things in public. Or be securely insulated from cancellation, if that’s really possible.

Note that there might exist a minority of thinkers good enough that their think-for-themselves estimates are actually more accurate than the official opinions of the usual authorities. After all, existing institutions often allow entrenched powers to, for a time, resist switching to better estimates. In this case, we might coordinate to make such better estimates more visible, such as via prediction markets. But such entrenched powers have so far prevented this reform.

Note also that I’ve avoided listing particular heresies here, for fear of seeming to endorse them. Which shows how strong are social pressures regarding them.

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An Alien War Nightmare

Grabby aliens are advanced civs who change the stuff they touch in big visible ways, and who keep expanding fast until they meet each other. Our recent analysis suggests that they appear at random stars roughly once per million galaxies, and then expand at roughly half the speed of light. Right now, they have filled roughly half of the universe, and if we join them we’ll meet them in roughly a billion years. There may be far more quiet than grabby alien civs out there, but those don’t usually do much or last long, and even the ruins of the nearest are quite far away.

While I’ve so far avoided thinking about much war within this scenario, I’ve decided to go there now. So here we go.

First, consider quiet alien wars. Such quiet civs may have internal wars, but different civs rarely get close enough to each other for physical fights. Maybe more advanced ones would sometimes conquer less advanced ones via malicious messages, but I’m skeptical that such events are common. The rare civs who expanded long and quietly mainly to preserve a natural universe and prevent grabby origins within their sphere of control should share goals and thus have little reason to war when they meet. Furthermore, when grabby civs meet quiet ones, abilities would be terribly unequal, and so not much of an occasion for war.

What about grabby civs? After a few million years they’d probably reach near max possible tech abilities. Which I guess makes them pretty immune to malicious messages. But such civs and their parts might vary in how well they had used a shared origin to promote internal cooperation. And a lack of perfect cooperation would likely result in some internal wars. The higher the rate at which they spend a fraction of their fast-access resources to fight or prevent fights, the faster they’d use up such resources. As a result, such fast spending civs might only get resources for a long time if some of their resource sources, like black holes, only allowed slow extraction.

Long-distance ballistic directed energy weapons, which couldn’t be redirected along the way, would only be of use on targets whose locations could be predicted long enough in advance. As a result, grabby cis would usually ensure that the locations of important resources vulnerable to such attacks could not be so predicted. Similarly, they’d end or stay away from objects like stars that might be induced to explode by outside prods. Thus militarily-useful resources would likely need to maintain unpredictable locations and would need to be located quite close to where they’d be used. So conflicts would tend to be won locally by those with more military resources locally available near the point of conflict.

If grabby civs are not more able to or inclined to cooperate internally than with other civs, then each small part of such a civ should be similarly wary of neighboring advanced life, regardless of its civ of origin. In which case, the boundary at which different grabby civs meet might not have that much significance. Who wins each local conflict would mainly depend on their relative size, resources, level of internal cooperation, and local geography, but not civ of origin. On 100Mlyr and larger scales, this should add up to a pretty uniform picture.

However, what if at least some parts of some grabby cigs could use their shared origin to cooperate more strongly internally than they could with other grabby civs? In this case, they’d expect more conflict at the border where grabby civs meet, compared to at other locations. As a result, the cooperating units on both sides might then try to send resources to that border, in anticipation of such conflicts. And then a key question arises: just how fast is it feasible to move militarily useful resources?

Grabby civs expanding at half the speed might seem surprisingly fast, but this does seem roughly feasible given that they can afford to spend huge resources on speeding tiny seeds that can then use local resources to quickly grow exponentially into huge civs. Alas, no similar exponential strategy seems available to move resources from one place to another. If the resources required to accelerate resources to near the speed of light can be efficiently recaptured at a designation location, then perhaps resources could in fact be efficiently sent very far very fast. But otherwise, sending resources far fast (e.g., >2% of c) may only be possible at crazy high costs.

At the border between two grabby civs, imagine that one of the civs had better managed to tax internal regions to send more resources to that border from within that civ, and at a very rapid speed. In this case, then after a while the resources accumulated on one side of that border might be far larger than that on the other side. Then if the natural advantage of defense over offense were not too large, the stronger side might be able to initiate a war and take territory from the other side. And in fact this outcome might become so obvious that the losing side would be very sure to lose, and not even want to fight.

If merely threatening to attack with overwhelming force was usually sufficient to quickly rout the weaker side and win new territory, via induced surrender or flight, or if actual fights did not take too long or destroy too much of an attacker’s resources, then an attacker might continue to move forward into the other side’s territory at a rapid pace. And if that pace were on the order of 2% of the speed of light, that might be sufficient to completely take over all the territory of a neighboring grabby civ within the roughly hundred billion years remaining before the time when, it is now estimated, dark energy makes galaxy clusters disconnected, never more able to see or reach each other. Such attack threats might then be seen as existential risks to such a civ.

Putting this all together seems to me to create a nightmare scenario, one which might greatly worry many young grabby civs who take very long term views. And, importantly, they’d have to decide how scared to be of this scenario long before they had much info on each particular neighboring civ, or even on any other civs besides themselves. Thus fear of the unknown might push many such civs into paying huge costs to maintain strong governance able to heavily tax internal activity to fund the movement of large amounts of resources out to be ready for unknown future border conflicts. Resources which might be mostly wasted if two such well-prepared civs were to meet.

Thus the possibilities of (A) long term civ-level views, (B) cheap fast movement of military resources which were hard to convert back to civilian use, (C) a sufficiently low advantage of defense over offense, (D) within-civ governance strong enough to tax and transfer resources to the border, and (E) weak enough governance unable to prevent your side from fleeing or surrendering given overwhelming attackers, all of this together might induce the waste of much, or perhaps even the vast majority of, available resources. Resources that could instead be used to compute far more meaningful peaceful lives near where the required resources sat originally.

Also note that at the line-shaped borders where three grabby civs meet, all three might have equal resources. Even so, two of them allying against the third would gain an advantage. And if this were sufficient, they might together advanced into the third region, sharing the gains. After which, each of them might have a geometric advantage, partially encircling the other side where their border bends. The possibility of this ally advantage should induce grabby civs to try to seem more similar to each other, to induce others to ally with them.

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Sacred Money

In many important areas of life like medicine, law, counseling, education, journalism, charity, governance, etc. we rely on giving great discretion to prestigious professionals, who tell us we can trust them due their professional ethics, internal professional review, and deep devotion to these sacred causes. No need for incentives, transparency, outcome tracking, or legal liability, really; you can just trust them. We usually pay extra for this prestige, validated by prestigious schools.

Some of us suspect we might do better in such areas to instead give strong results-based financial incentives to for-profit organizations. But alas many see this as sacrilegious. Such sacred ends are instead to be pursued “for themselves”, not selfishly. Using money is seen as encouraging selfishness. In addition, money uses numbers when sacred things aren’t supposed to be measurable, and money highlights tradeoffs, when sacred things are said to not conflict; we can have them all.

Now many of these rules of the sacred are rules of delusion; while our priests in each area are well aware that tradeoffs exist, numbers are relevant, selfishness is rampant, and money deeply involved, the veneer of priestly devotion can hide all this from those who don’t want to see.

To try to break through this wall of denial, or at least to reveal its contours, I suggest a provocation: sacred money. Create a kind of money that can only be spent on sacred things. People and orgs could convert ordinary money into sacred money, but not vice versa, and then spend sacred money on sacred activities and outcomes. With sacred money, people and orgs could create sacred property, sacred debt, and sell shares in sacred ventures.

Importantly, if someone offered sacred money as an incentive to others to produce measurable sacred outcomes (as with social impact bonds), it would become harder to object that doing so was profane. After all, it would be harder to complain that people seeking to win sacred money were doing so for selfish reasons, as such money could only be spent on more sacred things.

There are many details to work out here, and I expect efforts here to expose many delusions and disagreements on what should count as how sacred. For example, a famous “Taboo Tradeoffs” study found that many are irate to hear of a hospital administrator who spent money on hospital maintenance and salaries instead of saving the life of a particular patient. And they were almost as irate if that administrator thought a lot about the decision before choosing instead to save the life. Is hospital maintenance and salary spending really profane? Are efforts spent on deciding what to do profane? And is money spent on salaries to produce sacred outcomes still sacred if recipients spend some of those salaries on luxuries rather than necessities?

I don’t have answers to offer here. The point of this exercise would be to force people to make such choices, so as to come up with a more coherent and less delusional way to manage the sacred. One that might allow for more sensible mechanisms and institutions. Such as paying for results.

Added: A relevant SMBC comic.

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Clean Politician Bonds

Used to be, many ads appeared in local newspapers, which competed for attention via their local news coverage. This induced such papers to fund local investigative journalism, often looking for dirt on local politicians, which induced such politicians to avoid looking dirty. Which was good.

Alas, in the last few decades local ads have become disconnected from local news, contributing to a great fall in local investigative journalism, and likely a big rise in dirty politicians. But I see a simple fix:

If typical voters are anywhere this responsive to such a move, candidates would face strong incentives to offer such bonds. They’d ask their donors to give them money to create such bonds, or to more directly back such bonds. Which would fund more journalists to seek such dirt, again inducing politicians to avoid looking dirty. Which would again be good.

Here is a more detailed vision, in time order.

A) Groups of apparently-politically-neutral investigation-experts team with financial orgs to offer bond holding and judging services. Each such service J would declare the kinds of dirt topics T they feel qualified to judge, and the kinds of assets they can bond. For each such topic T, they declare an evaluation fee $E.

B) A politician P approaches such a service J, deposits asset $X of appropriate form, and chooses a topic set S. Judge J then creates a bond that pays $X to anyone who, by deadline D, proves dirt on P re any topic T in set S.  Politician P can now publicly announce the existence of this bond, to induce voter confidence.

C) Any investigator who thinks they have found dirt on P of such a type T in S can approach service J by deadline D, pay appropriate evaluation fee $E, and then present their evidence in support of this dirt claim. This induces J to evaluate this claim. If J decides that the claim is valid, this fact is announced, and the $X asset is transferred to this investigator.

D) If deadline D is passed, no investigator has been awarded the bond, and no investigator evaluation remains in progress, then the asset $X is returned to the politician or their backer.

Prediction markets on whether any investigator will ever win a particular bond could offer voters more refined confidence indicators on a candidate.

This system design should handle most cases, though I could imagine problematic cases in which an investigator’s evidence raises many suspicions, but doesn’t quite rise to the level of persuading the judges J. Then a subsequent investigator might collect more evidence, at which point the judges J are persuaded. Perhaps in this case the judges might split the asset $X across these investigators.

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My Videos

Which ideas get more video attention can be pretty random. 

At the low attention extreme, I’m most known for my work on prediction markets, yet these are the most viewed videos of me on that:

At the other extreme, while most videos on my first book Age of Em have only a few K views, one of them is my most viewed video on any topic:

My second book Elephant in the Brain sold far more copies, but videos on that are far less popular:

However one other person’s book review on that on did much better:

Many news articles have mentioned my great filter concept over the years (several in the last week), but I’ve only ever once been invited to talk on it:

My work on grabby aliens has not yet resulted in a talk invite, or substantial media coverage. But videos on it have been very popular. This one (+ a sequel) now has the most views:

But I predict this next one will soon overtake it, as it has gone halfway there in only 5 days.

Even so, this one (+ 3 excerpts) will likely long remain the winner in terms of views times video length:

These on grabby aliens are less popular, but still pretty popular:

My debate with Curtis Yarvin (aka Mencius Molbug) was sorta popular:

Finally, for comparison my videos on vouching and the sacred are far less popular:

Added 11a: Someone just added many of these videos at BitChute.

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More Or Less Sacred

Children were almost twice as likely to be willing to share their most treasured belonging after winning the game than after losing. … Only people in the first group—primed to consider the unreliability of their close friends or romantic partners—reported greater uncertainty that they could count on others and an increased attachment to objects. (more)

Many adults own a ‘favorite dress’ or a ‘lucky sweatshirt’ to which they feel emotionally attached, whether for aesthetic (‘I like how I look when I wear it’), sentimental (‘My mother gave me this necklace’), or superstitious purposes (‘If I wear this on gameday, my football team will win’). … For example, an older woman who possesses an art project her child made in elementary school may find that, over time, her attachment to the art project increases the more that she uses it as a cue to reminisce about her time as a young mother. (more)

We like to see sacred things as pure, lasting, clearly distinguished from profane things, and not in conflict with each other. Thus in our view things aren’t more or less sacred, there is just the mutually-supporting package of sacred things clearly distinguished from everything else, and such sacred things were always this way. We did not choose or make the sacred.

But in fact, we do choose and cause some things to be sacred, things are sacred to varying degrees, and these degrees often change gradually over time as a direct result of our choices. And I think the clearest way to see all this, and to see in detail how the sacred works, is to look at the slow personal processes by which get deeply attached to ordinary people, places, events, and things. (Children and the elderly both do this more, just as tend they both tend to be more religious.) Looking at some concrete examples, I can see how this works in me, and I think if you try you will be able to see it it you as well.

For example, when shopping for shirts, we are quite willing to consider many details and tradeoffs. But then once we buy a shirt and wear it for many years, we become much less willing to sell or trade it for other shirts. And we come to like it less for its particular features, or for particular aspects of how it fits or looks. Its details matter less; it matters more as a symbol.

Our shirt has become identified with us, and we have become identified with it. By embracing this shirt, we bond with all the other people we have been in the past, and all the people will be in the future, at least all wearing this shirt. The identify-affirming property of our shirt feels especially important to us when our identity is threatened; for example, you seem especially likely to wear your favorite shirt after a romantic breakup.

In this state, we seem quite eager to embrace implausible claims about how our favorite shirt expresses or embodies high ideals. We might see it as using our favorite color, see the words on it as the motto of our life, or see its design as the perfect quintessence of shirt design. We often similarly idealize our favorite amusement park, restaurant, person, TV show, or holiday; we are eager to find ways to see them as embodying widely accepted high ideals. And we are reluctant to see any of our favorite things as in conflict with each other; why of course I could wear my favorite shirt to my favorite restaurant on my favorite holiday.

In fact, the things we chose will vary in how easily they are in fact idealized. For example, compared to history or the arts, we find it harder to idealize sports, due to the higher salience in sports of selfishness, competition, bragging, numbers, and money. Science is easier to idealize than sports, but still harder than the arts, due to its emphasis on numbers, objective evaluation criteria, and skepticism regarding mysticism.

As another example, I grew up going to Disneyland annually, so I often long to return there regularly, and I find myself eager to frame the place as achieving high ideals, even though many other academics hate it. While no particular view or activity there seems especially appealing to me in my imagination, the abstract idea of going back to be a kid again in the place I loved as a kid seems quite appealing. That abstract appeal doesn’t depend much on when I go there, or what I do there, and I feel a bit ashamed to wonder if the price is too high to make it a good deal.

Our homes and families may not seem especially idealized when we see them up close during a holiday meal. After a few hours, we may even look to escape them. But months or years beforehand, and when far away, it seems very important to join them for that meal. There is little that inspires troops to fight for their country more than seeing themselves as defending their sacred homes and families, see abstractly from afar. And medicine inherits much of its sacred appeal from the way it is said to have helped some preserve their sacred families against the threat of death.

All of this helps us to see how the sacred works. Whatever we get attached to, we come to value. And then we naturally look for ways to idealize those things and value them more by seeing them more abstractly, as if seeing them from a distance. This distance method helps us to see and value such things the same across our lives, as our perspectives change. And it helps us to see and value such things the same across diverse communities.

While we have rules regarding appropriate beliefs and attitudes toward sacred things, we actually accept compromises quite often there. Yes we try to treat things as more sacred, but in fact that’s just one of our many relevant considerations. I think this is the answer to most questions of the form “how to we actually manage to enforce all these sacred rules?”. Such as: how do priests of sacred things avoid getting profane views from seeing sacred things up close so much? They just do, and we put up with it.

Even so, we are sometimes willing to “go to war” to express outrage when others treat sacred things in less than perfectly sacred ways. I suspect there’s a lot of opportunism in such choices.

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Preferred Unfair Evaluations

Imagine a company had a team of sales people, who were assigned to sales regions that varied in their promise and difficulty of sales. The people assigned to easy rich regions tended to have high sales, while those assigned to poor difficult regions tended to have low sales. And such sales figures were used to decide compensation, raises, promotions, etc.

You might imagine many would call this unfair, and that embarrassed leaders would change their evaluation system to control for the varying sales regions. They might rotate people between different regions, or change the size and location of regions to make them more similar.

But in a great many places, you’d just be wrong. They wouldn’t change the regions, and they’d feel fine using region sales to allocates praise and rewards. Don’t believe me?

Consider that we teachers are judged on student evaluations that do not control for the difficulty of our class or students. Consider that we judge students on GPAs that don’t control for difficulty of class or teacher or time of day. Consider that we academics are judged on our number and level of publications, but without controlling for what resources or obstacles we had re such things, like grants, teaching loads, student assistants, prestigious affiliations, etc.

It would be straightforward to start down the road of trying to control such things. Things might get harder somewhere down that road, but the first part of the road is pretty easy. Yet we don’t even start.

And consider that we all know that elections are distorted by the fact that many voters are not very well informed. It would be easy to correct for this, as Jason Brennan explains:

On Election Day, everyone gets to participate, and participate as an equal. However, when they participate, they do not merely vote for a candidate, party, or position on a referendum. Rather, they have to do three things:

1. Tell us who they are, by indicating their demographic information, such as sex, gender identity, income level, ethnicity, employment status, and so on. …

2. Citizens will take, say, a thirty-question quiz of basic political information.

3. Tell us … which candidate or party they support in an election, or which position they support in a referendum.

… Once we have all three sets of data, the data is anonymized and released to the public domain. The government electoral commission then uses the data to estimate, via predetermined methods, what the public would have wanted if it were demographically identical but had gotten a perfect score on the knowledge test. This result—the public’s enlightened preference—is then instantiated. For instance, if the enlightened public favors Remain but the actual public favors Leave, the country remains. Since the data is public, the government’s calculations can easily be verified or challenged. …

What goes on the test? Answer: Have the citizens decide using a deliberative poll. A month or so before preference voting day takes place, randomly select, say, five hundred citizens from around the country. Pay them to spend a few days deliberating to design the thirty-question battery of questions. Require their employers not to penalize them.

Yet people seem overwhelmingly opposed to such a policy. I’m not sure what to call it, but there’s something deep and important to understand here, on why we often don’t want to correct when we can for blatant unfairness.

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Why Not For-Profit Government?

Centuries ago, most commerce and production was organized around individuals and small groups. Since then, we’ve seen enormous innovation in business forms and structures. Today, such forms are much larger and more complex, and they do most everything of importance in our world.

We have apparently learned a great deal about how to best run such orgs, and we expect to learn much more in the coming centuries. And one of the biggest things we’ve apparently learned is that businesses are usually most efficiently structured as for-profits, wherein owners can replace management, and get a share of net profits in trade for prior investments. (Also using many other modern business methods.) For example, in the US today only 14% of workers are employed by governments, and 10% by non-profits; for-profits employ the rest.

(Note standard econ theory explains why the winning form tends to be best for everyone, overall, not just best for investors.)

Over those last few centuries, we’ve also seen innovation in the organization of governments. But that evolution has been slower, and it hasn’t yet converged nearly as much on one main winning strategy; there are still many of different forms of government around. For example, only about half of nations today are considered democracies. And although many have wanted governments to displace for-profits in many areas of life, most such attempts tend to go badly; governments still do much less in our world than do for-profits.

In this context, you might think an obvious idea to try would be to organize governments as for-profit enterprises. That is, let investors choose managers and share profits from an organization that holds a monopoly of force over a geographic region. If for-profits are the best way to organize most smaller orgs, and if we aren’t sure how best to organize governments, why not try that most successful business form for them? On its face, this seems completely plausible. Yet we hardly ever hear of governments of this. Why not?

Well first note that a lot of people really hate the idea. In fact, rivals often accuse others sorts of governments of actually being for-profits behind the scenes, secretly run by investors who pull the strings. As if that would be such a terrible thing.

Second, note that this concept has long been a trope of dystopian science fiction:

A Mega-Corp is often a large, shadowy organization with a power base and structure that rivals even The Government. When you take it one step further, with the Mega Corp actually being the government during their Day of the Jackboot, you get … a “corporate state.” … A corporate state is a government run and organized like a business. … At the top is typically a board of executives (more likely than not corrupt…) which makes all the decisions; for the common people, the terms “citizen” and “customer” (or perhaps “employee” is more accurate) are more or less interchangeable. … It’s not uncommon for corpocracies in fiction to wield military power too … may employ Law Enforcement, Inc., or even own them outright as a subsidiary. (more)

Third, note that a for-profit government was actually tried at a pretty large scale, and quite early on, in the form of the British East India Company from 1600 to 1873, This seems to have successfully achieved the task it was assigned, of extracting wealth from distant colonies, and did this on average better than would have other forms of government of the time. It was ended due to a combination of discomfort with its assigned ask, and distaste for the very idea of for-profit government:

In response to the threat that the [British East India Company] posed to the state’s monopoly on governance, public opinion turned negative, and politicians argued that the East India Company had become a danger. In 1773, Parliament … curtailed Company shareholders’ influence and gave the government greater authority … In The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, Adam Smith noted the “strange absurdity” of the Company having both “the character of the sovereign” and that of the “merchant.” Edmund Burke, a member of Parliament at the time, similarly called the Company a “state in the disguise of a merchant” in 1788. The 1784 East India Act further attempted to constrain the Company, … Parliament … nationalized the business in 1858. (more)

Fourth, note that the energy to start the United States came to a large extent from investors who stood to gain from it.

And fifth, let me admit that Curtis Yarvin, whom I once debated, seems to advocate something like this:

In Yarvin’s view, democratic governments are inefficient and wasteful and should be replaced with sovereign joint-stock corporations whose “shareholders” (large owners) elect an executive with total power, but who must serve at their pleasure. The executive, unencumbered by liberal-democratic procedures, could rule efficiently much like a CEO-monarch. (more)

Now you might think it obvious that citizens wouldn’t be sufficiently “protected” from being hurt by a for-profit government. But that doesn’t seem at all obvious to me, as I tried to explain in my last post. Most employees today are protected from employers much less by their government than by employers needing to offer attractive reputations in the face of competition. Also, most governments threaten citizens in many other ways. In addition, citizens could be part owners of a for-profit government, such as via owning direct shares and/or transferable citizenship.

This whole topic came to my mind because I recently visited Prospera, which is in many ways close to being a for-profit government. It sits within the nation of Hondoras, whose government has agreed to let it take over many local functions of government for a long duration. Prospera seems to be successfully achieving those functions at a substantially lower cost than does ordinary Honduran government, a fact that substantially lowers the cost of doing business there. (I may have helped convince them to use liability insurance in deal with law risk.)

As a result, Prospera seems to be doing well, and I expect it will prosper. And I urge you to consider doing business there. Except, the Honduran government has been making noises about maybe reneging on their promise. And Prospera keeps getting nasty unfair world press, due to so many really hating the idea of for-profit government. And yes, enough hate might take it down.

My best guess is that this hate has something to do with disliking profane money connecting to sacred governance. Which is another reason to try to study the sacred more. To see if there is any way around this problem.

Added: In interesting intermediate form would be if management consulting firms ran for office in democratic elections, based on their worldwide track record of performance in such roles. Alas many would probably also hate this as a profane-sacred violation.

Added 10a: Many are saying that what we really need is more competition between governments. Which would of course help, yes. But that seems to me a separate issue from what I’m discussing here. Also note that by allowing hostile takeovers, for-profit forms would introduce a new form of competition over governments.

Added 12Nov: Curtis Yarvin and I had a brief email exchange:

Yarvin: You should note that the subject population of a for-profit government is its capital base, giving it an aligned incentive to preserve and promote the health of the people—the traditional motto of government, salus populi supreme lex.

Revenue or even profit are not the purpose of a company, but only growth of capital—profit including appreciation/depreciation. So the incentives are aligned (not perfectly aligned, as in the case of ZMP people, but well aligned.)

Me: Yes, I’d guess most for-profit govts today would have incentives sufficiently well aligned. The main problem seems to be public hostility to the concept.

Yarvin: But public opinion is downstream from power. Power can persuade everyone to believe in anything. It can fool almost everyone almost all the time. Look around you!

Therefore, if such a regime can establish itself, it can maintain itself. Not only can it inculcate its doctrines in the whole population—this is especially easy if those doctrines are true.
As for bootstrapping, the people of today are frivolous and ironic and fanciful. The best way to do anything with them is to get them to do it for fun. They will do anything for fun—ergo, the revolution will have to be fun.
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Who Watches The Watchers? You.

We humans can’t do much on our own; for that, we must join orgs. Orgs like families, firms, schools, clubs, and nations. But the more deeply involved we get with such orgs, to benefit from them, the more we also get attached to them, and entrenched within them. And thus the more we risk being exploited or hurt by others in those orgs.

One way to minimize such risks is to always stay ready to switch at a moment’s notice. Don’t invest in the particulars of any org, but only in skills and resources that are similarly valued by many orgs. And then switch often, leaving your marriages, firms, nations, etc. at the first hint of problems. This approach avoids both the largest harms, but also the largest gains, of org attachment.

Another approach is to make careful choices early in life, before one gets much attached. Collect track records about who does how well when attached to which orgs, and then pick those that have done best for people like you. However, much of the suffering of the attached is hidden; their associates would punish them if they showed it more publicly. So good track records can be hard to find. And early in life you may not be good at judging track record claims.

A related approach is to look to your early allies, and choose orgs as they choose. Some of them have probably considered the above issues, and by going into orgs together you and your allies can help each other there. At least if you can trust them to stay your allies.

A last approach is to try to reason out the game theory of each org, to guess roughly how bad it could get and what are your chances. For example, internal arenas of competition may mitigate some possible harms. And many orgs have formal “dispute resolution” processes that they say help you in cases of your being especially hurt by associates. But how sure are you that those internal games will stay the same, or that you really understand them, especially early in life when you must choose?

Governments often claim to be especially useful in protecting you from harms that you might suffer from being attached to other orgs. And they often claim that you can especially trust them, relative to other orgs, due to their transparent internal processes. But these claims seem suspect to me. Like most orgs, the main reasons to trust governments are the track records you can find for them. Which don’t seem to me substantially better than for most other kinds of orgs.

In my next post, I’ll talk more about these track records.

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