The World Forager Elite
My last post was on Where’s My Flying Car?, which argues that changing US attitudes created a tsunami of reluctance and regulation that killed nuclear power, planes, and ate the future that could have been. This explanation, however, has a problem: if there are many dozens of nations, how can regulation in one nation kill a tech? Why would regulatory choices be so strongly correlated across nations? If nations compete, won’t one nation forgoing a tech advantage make others all the more eager to try it?
Now as nuclear power tech is close to nuclear weapon tech, maybe major powers exerted strong pressures re how others pursued nuclear power. Also, those techs are high and require large scales, limiting how many nations could feasibly do them differently.
But we also see high global correlation for many other kinds of regulation. For example, as Hazlett explains, the US started out with a reasonable property approach to spectrum, but then Hoover broke that on purpose, to create a problem he could solve via nationalization, thereby gaining political power that helped him become U.S. president. Pretty much all other nations then copied this bad US approach, instead of the better prior property approach, and kept doing so for many decades.
The world has mostly copied bad US approaches to over-regulating planes as well. We also see regulatory convergence in topics like human cloning; many had speculated that China would be defy the consensus elsewhere against it, but that turned out not to be true. Public prediction markets on interesting topics seems to be blocked by regulations almost everywhere, and insider trading laws are most everywhere an obstacle to internal corporate markets.
Back in February we saw a dramatic example of world regulatory coordination. Around the world public health authorities were talking about treating this virus like they had treated all the others in the last few decades. But then world elites talked a lot, and suddenly they all agreed that this virus must be treated differently, such as with lockdowns and masks. Most public health authorities quickly caved, and then most of the world adopted the same policies. Contrarian alternatives like variolation, challenge trials, and cheap fast lower-reliability tests have also been rejected everywhere; small experiments have not even been allowed.
One possible explanation for all this convergence is that regulators are just following what is obviously the best policy. But if you dig into the details you will quickly see that the usual policies are not at all obviously right. Often, they seem obviously wrong. And having all the regulatory bodies suddenly change at once, even when no new strong evidence appeared, seems especially telling.
It seems to me that we instead have a strong world culture of regulators, driven by a stronger world culture of elites. Elites all over the world talk, and then form a consensus, and then authorities everywhere are pressured into following that consensus. Regulators most everywhere are quite reluctant to deviate from what most other regulators are doing; they’ll be blamed far more for failures if they deviate. If elites talk some more, and change their consensus, then authorities must then change their polices. On topic X, the usual experts on X are part of that conversation, but often elites overrule them, or choose contrarians from among them, and insist on something other than what most X experts recommend.
This looks a lot like the ancient forager system of conflict resolution within bands. Forager bands would gossip about a problem, come to a consensus about what to do, and then everyone would just do that. Because each one would lose status if they didn’t. In this system, there were no formal rules, and on the surface everyone had an equal say, though in fact some people had a lot more prestige and thus a lot more influence.
This world system also looks new – I doubt this description applied as well to the world centuries or millennia ago, even within smaller regions. So this looks like another way in which our world has become more forager-like over the last few centuries, as we’ve felt more rich and safe. Big world wars probably cut into this feeling, so there was probably a big jump in the few decades after WWII, helping to explain the big change in attitudes ~1970.
Elites like to talk about this system as if it were “democratic”, so that any faction that opposes it “undermines democracy”. And it is true that this system isn’t run by a central command structure. But it is also far from egalitarian. It embodies a huge inequality of influence, even if individuals within it claim that they are mainly driven by trying to help the world, or “the little guy”.
This system seems a big obstacle for my hopes to create better policy institutions driven by expert understanding of institutions, and to get trials to test and develop such things. Because as soon as any policy choice seems important, such by triggering moral feelings, world elite culture feels free to gossip and then pressure authorities to adopt whatever solution their gossip prefers. Experts can only influence policy via their prestige. Very prestigious types of experts, such as in physics, can win, especially on topics about which world elites care little. But otherwise, elite gossip wins, whenever it bothers to generate an opinion.
That is, the global Overton window isn’t much wider than are local Overton windows, and often excludes a lot of valuable options.
Notice that in this kind of world, policy has varied far more across time than across space. Context and fashion change with time, and then elites sometimes change their minds. So perhaps my hopes for policy experiments must wait for the long run. Or for a fall of forager values, such as seems likely in an Age of Em. Alas neither I nor my allies have sufficient prestige to push elites to favor our proposals.
Added 11p: It seems to me that the actual degree of experimentation and variance in policy is far below optimum in this conformist sort of policy world. We are greatly failing to try out as many alternatives as fast as we should to find out what works best. And we are failing to listen enough to our best experts, and instead too often going with the opinions of well-educated but amateur world elites.
Added4p: As John Nye reminds me, in the early years of a new tech, only a few nations in the world may be able to pursue it. They then set the initial standards of regulation. Later, more nations may be able to participate, but risk-averse regulators may feel shy about defying widely adopted initial standards.