Tag Archives: Governance

The Coming World Ruling Class

When I got my Ph.D. in formal political theory, I learned that the politics of large democratic polities today, such as metropolises, states, and nations, are usually aligned along a single “ideological” dimension. (E.g., “left” vs. “right”.) What exactly that dimension is about, however, has varied greatly across times and places. It seems to more result from a game theoretic equilibrium than from a single underlying dimension of choice; the real policy space remains highly dimensional.

However, it wasn’t until years later than I noticed that this is not usually true for the politics of families, firms, clubs, towns, and small cities. These usually are usually run by a single stable dominant coalition, i.e., a ruling class. As were most ancient societies in history, at least eventually.

This ruling class might sometimes offer their larger community some options to choose between. But mostly this is when the ruling elite can’t decide, or wants to make others feel more involved. Such as who exactly to put at the top most visible positions. Sometimes real fights break out among coalitions within the elite, but these fights tend to be short and behind the scenes.

The same applies to communities with no formal organization. That is, to “mobs”. While in the modern world large mobs tend to split along a main ideological dimension, small mobs tend to be dominated by a main consensus, who roughly agree on what to do and how. Though with time, smaller mobs are more often becoming aligned to larger political ideologies.

This one-dimensional story also does not apply to large ancient areas which encompassed many different polities. These areas look more like a disorganized set of competing interests. So a one dimensional political alignment isn’t a fully general law of politics; it has a domain of applicability.

A few centuries ago, the world was composed of many competing nations, with no overall organization. During the great world wars, and the Cold War, there was an overall binary alignment. Since the end of the Cold War, we have seen a single coalition dominate the world. And over recent decades we have seen policy around the world converge greatly around the opinions of an integrated world elite.

I’m tempted to put this all together into the following integrated theory of a standard progression. Imagine suddenly moving a large random group of diverse strangers to a new isolated area, where they could survive indefinitely. At first their choices would be individual. Then they’d organize into small groups that coordinate together. Then into larger groups.

Eventually many large groups might compete for control of the area, or for the allegiance of the people there. In their bids for control, such groups might emphasize how much they respect the many kinds of diversity represented by people in the area. They don’t intend to repress other groups, they just want to rule for the good of all. As people became more similar, they would bother less with such speeches.

Eventually, these groups would merge and align along a single main dimension, which might be labeled in terms of two main rival groups, or in terms of some ideological axis. For a while, the two sides of this main dimension might find themselves at a stalemate. Or one side might tend to win, but the midpoint of their conflict might be continually redefined to result in two roughly equally sized sides. This main ideological dimension would encompass many issues, but hardly all. It might encompass more issues as the fight for control got fiercer. But the fight should get weaker as outside threats became more salient.

Eventually a single coalition would come to dominate. Especially in a society with many “high grounds” which such a coalition could come to control. This situation might then oscillate between a single ruling elite and a main axis of conflict. But slowly over time, a single coalition would win out more. The members of the ruling elite would come to know each other better, become more similar, and agree more on who should be among their members, and on what are the “serious” policies worth considering. They would focus more on reassuring each other of loyal to their class, and on making sure their kids could join that elite.

A ruling coalition who felt insecure in its power might work harder to seek out and repress any potential dissent. At the extreme, it might create a totalitarian regime that demanded allegiance and conformity in every little area of life. And it might focus more on entrenching itself than on improving society as a whole. As a ruling coalition became more secure, it might more tolerate dissent, and demand less conformity, but also focus on internal conflicts and division of spoils, instead of its society as a whole.

This story seems to roughly describe national, and world, history. My nation is becoming more integrated and similar over time, with actions coordinated at larger scales, national politics coming more to dominate local politics, and national politics coming to color more areas and issues in life. And a single issue axis aligned to a global cultural elite is coming to dominate politics across the world.

It seems plausible that toward the end of the transition between a period of one main ideological dimension, and a period of a single integrated ruling class, the final main political dimension would be aligned for and against that final ruling class. The last ideology question would be: shall we let this ruling class take over?

That is, shall we let this small subset of us define for us who are “serious” candidates for leadership and what are “serious” policy positions worthy of consideration? As such ruling classes now decide in firms, towns, etc. today. A sign of the end would be when one side of the political axis kept putting up candidates for office who were consistently declared “not serious” by the elites who controlled the the main commanding heights of power, such as media, law, universities, regulators, CEOs, etc.

The pro-ruling-class side would be more dominant in places that are more integrated with the overall culture, and less dominate in places that cared more about local issues. Such as in larger cities, compared to towns.

This model suggests that our current era of roughly balanced forces on two sides of one main ideological axis may be temporary. As the world becomes more closely integrated and similar, eventually a single integrated elite culture will dominate the world, entrenching itself in mob opinion and via as many institutions as possible, especially global institutions.

This world ruling class may then focus more on further entrenching itself, and on repressing dissent more than on making the world better. As everyone becomes more similar, conformity pressures will become stronger, as in most small towns today. Plausibly cutting many kinds of innovation. And our entrenched global institutions may then rot. After which our total human civilization might even decline, or commit suicide.

This may take centuries, but that’s really not very long in the grand scheme of things.

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Will World Government Rot?

We have seen a centuries-long increase in the scale and scope of governance, and today we see many forms of global governance. While the literature has so far identified many costs and benefits of global governance, I here suggest that we add one so-far-neglected consideration to the list: rot. While many kinds of systems tend to innovate and grow with time, other kinds of systems tend to rot, decay, and die. We should consider the risks that global governance may increase the rot of our total world system.

Global Governance

Over the last millennia, the scale of nations has increased, as has the scope and intensity of governance. Particular governance functions have tended to migrate to larger scales, from local to regional to national to global. At the global level, we have increasingly many organizations with increasing abilities to coordinate policy in many particular areas.

In addition to formal organizations like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, we also see an increasingly strong informal global convergence of policy across many areas, such as regarding pandemics, medicine, finance, schools, nuclear, aviation, telecom, and media. This is plausibly due to an increasingly integrated global community of elites and policy-makers, an integration which makes policy-makers in each nation reluctant to deviate far from global policy consensus.

How much wider and stronger might global governance become, and what might be the costs and benefits of such changes? An old literature had identified many relevant factors (Glossop 1993; Alesina & Spolaore 2003; Deudney 2008).

On the plus side, larger scale governance allows for wider standardization, and more trade and migration over larger scales. It also allows for more production of larger-scale public goods such as the promotion of innovation, and dealing with global problems such as CO2 warming. Also, global governance can suppress inter-state warfare.

On the minus side, however, large scale governance encompasses more diverse places, cultures, and populations, and this diversity is an obstacle to coordination. It suggests more internal conflicts within these global systems, and more difficulty reaching consensus, perhaps even leading to armed rebellion. Also, as the threat of external competition weakens, larger scale political processes become freer to focus on internal conflicts and rent seeking, and governance units become freer to suppress dissent and to entrench themselves. Global governance also becomes a single point of failure for the globe, for example increasing risks of both global suicide and of a global totalitarian regime well-entrenched against resistance.

The purpose of this short paper/post is to add one more consideration to this list: rot.

The Question of Rot

Some kinds of systems rot and decay, while other kinds grow and improve. To better judge the potential for rot in our total world system, we need to better understand what distinguishes these two kinds of systems.

For example, over time whole biospheres like Earth seem to slowly accumulate innovations and to spread into more environmental niches. But the individual organisms of which such biospheres are made tend to decay and die, after an initial period of growth. Most individual species, adapted to relatively stable environments, may slowly rot, to be outweighed by the few rare species adapted to varied and changing environments, forcing them to abstract and remain flexible.

Non-trivial software systems seem to consistently rot and decay (Kruchten et al. 2012; Izurieta & Bieman 2013). Software changes resulting from new features and changing hardware and customer environments tend to be haphazard, resulting in more interdependences between previously relatively modular subsystems. This interdependence makes further changes increasingly expensive, so that the system becomes more inflexible and changes less.

While efforts to “refactor” such systems, by streamlining their overall structures, can temporarily increase flexibility, large software systems are almost always eventually discarded, to be replaced by new systems rewritten from scratch.

Over time, legal systems seem to similarly become more complex, interdependent, and resistant to change. Sometimes legal systems are “refactored” to increase flexibility, such as when the Roman emperor Justinian arranged for a restructuring and simplification of the Roman legal code. This Justinian code was later adapted by Napolean, who spread it across Europe, after which European conquests spread it across the world.

While the rate at which firms die does not seem to depend on age (Daepp 2015), older firms do tend to grow at a lower rate (Hosono et al. 2020). That is, individual firms rot.

While industries supplied by many diverse firms seem to consistently grow and innovate, such innovation is greatly reduced when industries are dominated by a very small number of firms (Peneder & Woerter 2014; Delbono & Lambertini 2020). Industry innovation can also be greatly reduced by intrusive and globally coordinate regulations. For example, in the nuclear industry strong regulation has resulting in greatly increasing costs, greatly curtailing its potential (Haas 2019; Hall 2021).

Across human history, entire civilizations and empires also seem to consistently rise and then fall, suggesting that empires also rot (Turchin & Nefedov 2009). Will today’s integrated world economy and culture also rot for similar reasons, or will some important difference in today’s world civilization prevent that?

Does World Government Rot?

So now we reach the crucial question: are our new systems of global governance more like an open field of competition that innovates and grows, as do open industries and biospheres? Or are they more like individual organisms, firms, empires, and software and legal systems, or like overly-concentrated or overly-regulated industries? Which tend to decay and rot. What are the key parameters that determine renewal versus rot, and how can they be mapped onto systems of global governance? And can we identify the safest least-rotting variations to recommend? Is it sufficient to keep such systems very simple and modular, allowing few dependencies?

References

Alberto Alesina, Enrico Spolaore (2003) The Size of Nations, The MIT Press, November 7.

Madeleine I. G. Daepp , Marcus J. Hamilton , Geoffrey B. West and Luís M. A. Bettencourt 2015. “The mortality of companies” Interface 6, May.

Flavio Delbono, Luca Lambertini (2020) “Innovation and product market concentration: Schumpeter, arrow, and the inverted U-shape curve.” Oxford Economic Papers, November,

Daniel H. Deudney (2008) Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village. Princeton University Press, November 9.

Ronald J. Glossop (1993) World Federation?: A Critical Analysis of Federal World Government.
McFarland Publishing, July 1.

Reinhard Haas, Stephen Thomas, Amela Ajanovic (2019) “The Historical Development of the Costs of Nuclear Power” in The Technological and Economic Future of Nuclear Power, pp.97-115.

J. Storrs Hall (2021) Where Is My Flying Car? Stripe Press, November 30.

Kaoru Hosono, Miho Takizawa, Kenta Yamanouchi (2020), “Firm Age, Productivity, and Intangible Capital.” RIETI Discussion Paper 20-E-001.

Clemente Izurieta & James M. Bieman (2013) “A multiple case study of design pattern decay, grime, and rot in evolving software systems” Software Quality Journal 21:289–323.

Philippe Kruchten; Robert L. Nord; Ipek Ozkaya (2012) “Technical Debt: From Metaphor to Theory and Practice” IEEE Software 29(6):,18 – 21, Nov-Dec.

Peter Turchin, Sergey A. Nefedov (2009) Secular Cycles Princeton University Press, August 9.

Peneder M. Woerter M. (2014) “Competition, R&D and innovation: testing the inverted-U in a simultaneous system.” Journal of Evolutionary Economics 24:653–87.

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‘The Profit’ Socialism Challenge

My very favorite TV show ever is The Profit, because it so well concretely illustrates the essence of capitalism. (My favorite board game is Imperial, for a similar reason.) Season 8 is airing now, and supposedly it will be the last. (See 10min episodes.) Alex summarizes:

The Profit, a reality-TV show on CNBC featuring businessman Marcus Lemonis. In each episode Lemonis buys into a failing small-to-medium-sized business and works to turn it around. …

A typical firm on The Profit, for example, has decent revenues, sometimes millions of dollars of revenues, but it has costs that are as high or higher. What happened? Often the firm began with a competitive advantage–a product that took off unexpectedly and so for a time the firm was rolling in profits without having to pay much attention to costs. As competition slowly took hold, however, margins started to decline and the firm found itself bailing. But instead, of going out of business, the firm covers its losses with entrepreneurs and family members who work without pay, with loans which grow ever larger, and by an occasional demand shock which generates enough surplus revenue to just keep going.…

One of the first things Lemonis does in almost every episode is get the numbers right so he can calculate which products are selling and which have the highest price-to-cost margin. Concentrate production on high-margin, big sellers. Drop the rest. Simple; but many firms don’t know their numbers.

Second, in episode after episode, Lemonis cleans up shop. Literally. He cleans the shop floor and gets rid of inventory that isn’t selling. He then arranges the floor to improve process flow (made easier by concentrating production on fewer products). He then creates an inventory system, tracks orders and the inputs needed to create those orders, and takes advantage of costs savings through economies of scale in input purchases. …

Another lesson from The Profit is that firm problems are personal problems. The son who can’t step out from the shadow of the father and the father who can’t let go. The two brothers who haven’t gotten over the death of their father and the problems this creates in the firm they have inherited. The siblings who are still fighting to get their parent’s attention. If Lemonis has a genius skill it’s in keeping his temper and working through bullshit problems to get to the real festering issues that are at the root of inefficiencies. …

It’s difficult to run a business like a business. The analytical mindset that can separate business problems from personal problems isn’t natural. Many people cannot separate business decisions from their own preferences and emotional biases, which is one reason why great business leaders are rare.

The Profit does a great job of illustrating common small business problems and solutions. Furthermore, it shows why capitalism tends to do a good job of getting people to actually adopt such value-increasing solutions to these problems. It is the capital that Marcus has to offer that makes business owners listen to him; he’d mostly get ignored if he were just a business consultant asking instead to be paid for his advice.

In fact, I’m so impressed with how well The Profit scenarios illustrate the value of capitalism that I now build upon it a challenge to socialists: please describe in detail how The Profit style enterprise reform would happen under socialism.

I’ve heard that, under socialism, workers would vote on who they want to be managers, or that some government agency would allocate capital to applicants asking to create or expand their ventures. But I just can’t see those processes going well in these concrete cases, getting someone to look in detail at their problems and then use the prospect of capital as a lever to get venture managers to change their ways. Show me some plausible stories of how these or other socialist processes could achieve such value-increasing changes remotely as well as does Marcus Lemonis, and I’ll pledge my support and allegiance to socialism.

Added 3Nov: Bizarrely to me, many have interpreted my challenge as “offer some good arguments for socialism”. No, I asked for something very specific, namely plausible scenarios for how socialist mechanisms would help in these very particular cases. 

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Are Political Freedoms a Fluke?

Through most of history, econ density and development went with less political freedom:

For most of the past 5,000 years, … kingdoms and empires were ‘exceptional islands of political hierarchy, surrounded by much larger territories whose inhabitants … systematically avoided fixed, overarching systems of authority. (More)

In contrast, over the last few centuries we’ve seen increasing levels of peace, democracy, and political freedoms. Many take these trends to be strong and nearly inevitable consequences of industry. Here is some interesting skepticism about such views, by Daniel H. Deudney in his great book Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village:

United States of America … a “new order of the ages,” distinctive both from the early republican city-states and the “republic” of Europe. … Widely recognized as being “exceptionalistic” in several ways. … It combined familiar forms of popular sovereignty, formal state equality, balance of power, and division of power to create a negarchic political order novel in its overall configuration. (p.161)

The American founding occurred on the eve of the industrial revolution, whose main external security consequence was to increase sharply the scope of the state system and the size of viable units within it. … In this brutally competitive interstate environment, the only reason that republican politics would plausibly survive, let allow prevail, was that the United State of America had combined republication government with empirelike size via feral unions. All other democratic republics were implausible candidates for survival in the global-industrial era, except as allies of the United States. … In the World War II phase of the struggle, democratic republics at the Western core, already shrunk o a handful in northwester Europe, ere either overrun by Nazi German armies, were neutrals vulnerable to assured eventual conquest by Germany, or were snatched from conquest by massive American aid and Hitler’s quixotic grand strategy. Outside of the European core, democracies were few, scattered, and weak. They were spared immediate Axis conquest only by their remoteness and American assistance or their proximity to the United States.

After the defeat of Axis imperialism, liberal democracies faced another mortal peril from communist Russia and China, and the survival, reconstruction, and expansion of democracy in the second half of the twentieth century vitally depended on American military and economic power. … “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that since World War I, the” fortunes of democracy worldwide have largely depended on American power.” …

Looking at the overall picture, two facts stand out. First, without American power, there would probably not be any democracies at the end of the twentieth century. Second, the democracies that have behaved so impressively pacifically toward one another have largely been junior allies of the United States in a very hostile ad competitive interstate environment. (pp.183-185)

Consider the counterfactual world where the American continents never existed. In that counterfactual, there is never a new big place available to try out a new form of government, which then comes to control a huge empire. Most empires are based on more traditional governance forms, which then mostly win the big world wars, and mostly run the world today.

Democratic governments which ensure many political and economic freedoms may be nothing like an inevitable consequence of industry-era changes. In which case it seems less likely that such freedoms will continue long into the future.

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‘Long Reflection’ Is Crazy Bad Idea

Some futurist philosophers have recently become enthused by what seems to me a spectacularly bad idea. Here is their idea:

Some effective altruists … have argued that, if humanity succeeds in eliminating existential risk or reducing it to acceptable levels, it should not immediately embark on an ambitious and potentially irreversible project (such as space colonization) of arranging the universe’s resources in accordance to its values, but ought instead to spend considerable time— “centuries (or more)” (Ord 2020), “perhaps tens of thousands of years” (Greaves et al. 2019), “thousands or millions of years” (Dai 2019), “[p]erhaps… a million years” (MacAskill, in Perry 2018)—figuring out what is in fact of value. The long reflection may thus be seen as an intermediate stage in a rational long-term human developmental trajectory, following an initial stage of existential security when existential risk is drastically reduced and followed by a final stage when humanity’s potential is fully realized (Ord 2020). (More)

The long reflection. Perhaps it’s a period of a million years or something. We’ve got a lot of time on our hands. There’s really not the kind of scarce commodity, so there are various stages to get into that state. The first is to reduce extinction risks down basically to zero, put us a position of kind of existential security. The second then is to start developing a society where we can reflect as much as possible and keep as many options open as possible. William MacAskill

It seems that first comes computer science and global governance and coordination and strategy issues, and then comes long time of philosophy. Lucas Perry (more)

And here is Toby Old from his book The Precipice, quoted at length so we can all be very clear about what is this idea:

I find it useful to consider our predicament from humanity’s point of view: casting humanity as a coherent agent, … what all humans would do if we were sufficiently coordinated and had humanity’s long term interest at heart. … We should [proceed]… in three phases: 1. Reaching existential security 2. The long reflection 3. Achieving our potential … A place where existential risk is low and stays low. I call this existential security. …

This will involve major changes to our norms and institutions (giving humanity the prudence and patience we need), as well as ways of increasing our general resilience to catastrophe. … Take our time to reflect upon what we truly desire, … call this the Long Reflection. … What is essential is to be sufficiently confident in the broad shape of what we are among at before taking each bold and potentially irreversible action – each action that could plausibly lock in substantial aspects of your future trajectory. … For example, … genetically improving our biology … or giving people the freedom to adopt a stunning diversity of new biological forms.

We could think of these first two steps of existential security and the Long Reflection as designing a constitution for humanity. … We can’t rely on our current institutions and institution that have evolved to deal with small- or medium-scale risks. … Humanity typically manages risk via a heavy reliance on trial and error. …But this reactive trial and error approach doesn’t work at all when it comes to existential risk. …. This will require institutions with access to cutting edge information about the coming risks, capable of taking decisive actions, and with the will to actually do so. For many risks, this action may require swift coordination between many or all of the world’s nations.

There would be benefits to centralizing some of this international work on safeguarding humanity. … Our options range from incremental improvements to minor agencies through to major changes to key bodies such as the UN Security Council, all th way up to entirely new institutions for governing the most important world affairs. …

Some important early thinkers on existential risk suggested that the growing possibility of existential catastrophe required moving toward a form of world government. … But the term [world government] is also used to refer to a politically homogenized word with a single point of control (roughly, the world as one big country). This is much more contentious and could increase over existential risk via global totalitarianism, or by permanently locking in bad values. Instead my guess is that existential security could be better achieved with the bare minimum of internationally binding constraints needed to prevent actors in one or two countries from jeopardizing humanity’s future.

Okay, they want to first greatly cut our risk of extinction, and then somehow stop irreversible change and have us talk and think for a very long time, after which we would then act again once we had reached a sufficiently strong consensus. But that’s kinda crazy, as discussed here by Felix Stocker:

Is there any way humanity could reach a ‘Long Reflection’ period? Could we sustain it? Could it really discover the way to the ‘optimal’ future? … Can we actually eliminate x-risks without taking any momentous and irreversible decisions, … we would have to have radically different political and governmental structures – perhaps a global government, or a global hegemon … it seems really hard to achieve and sustain. … a significant number of individuals and groups would be forced to sacrifice short term gains … authoritarian political institutions would have to be developed which could prevent individuals and groups from acting in their own rational self-interest. … We couldn’t expect to be able to ‘solve moral philosophy’ just by doing it in a vacuum. … I’m struggling to see the Long Reflection as anything other than impossible and pointless. … If we genuinely could engage in a collective philosophy project for 10,000 years, why would we ever want to stop?

In our world today, many small local choices are often correlated, across both people and time, and across actions, expectations, and desires. Within a few decades, such correlated changes often add up to changes are which are so broad and deep that they could only be reversed at an enormous cost, even if they are in principle reversible. Such irreversible change is quite common, and not at all unusual. To instead prevent this sort of change over timescales of centuries or longer would require a global coordination that is vastly stronger and more intrusive than that required to merely prevent a few exceptional and localized existential risks, such as nuclear war, asteroids, or pandemics. Such a global coordination really would deserve the name “world government”.

Furthermore, the effect of preventing all such changes over a long period, allowing only the changes required to support philosophical discussions, would be to have changed society enormously, including changing common attitudes and values regarding change. People would get very used to a static world of value discussion, and many would come to see such a world as proper and even ideal. If any small group could then veto proposals to end this regime, because a strong consensus was required to end it, then there’s a very real possibility that this regime could continue forever.

While it might be possible to slow change in a few limited areas for limited times in order to allow a bit more time to consider especially important future actions, wholesale prevention of practically irreversible change over many centuries seems simply inconsistent with anything like our familiar world.

So how did all these people get so stuck on such a crazy bad idea? My guess is that they don’t talk enough to social scientists. But that’s just my guess.

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Beware Centralization

Imagine merging three public firms, by making each firm into a division of a single new firm with one new boss. In principle, this new boss has the option to keep these firms running exactly as before. The prior CEOs could become division heads, with complete freedom to run their divisions as before, and paid the same, such as via options on new assets that track the new profits of each division. Under this arrangement, the profits of the new firm could arguably be the same of the profits of the old firms, minus a little bit for the salary of the new boss.

However, this new boss would also have the option to do other things. Like cutting redundancies between some subdivisions, such as shipping or human resources. Or reviewing the major decisions of division managers. Or sharing technology between firms. Or using the larger size of this new firm to negotiate better deals with unions, suppliers, or politicians.

Arguably the fact that there is the option to get at least the old profit levels, combined with many new options for making and using synergies across these firms, suggests that such merged firms can in general make more profits than they could separately. Which suggests that firms should just keep on merging until they are very large. But in fact firms do not do this, because their investors do not support it. For example, firms with more than 250 employees employed only 55% of the private US work force in 2020.

So why don’t firms merge to achieve these gains? Yes, regulators and tax authorities may treat larger firms less favorably. Yes, maybe customers and employees dislike larger firms and so treat them worse. But the typical scale of most firms seems far smaller than can be explained by these effects. There seem to be much stronger reasons why most firms are not much larger.

One usual story is that the manager of the new merged firm just can’t help interfering with and inter-connecting these divisions. After all, he or she has career ambitions which are poorly served by a complete hands-off management style. But after such manager “help”, it becomes harder to evaluate the performance of each division independently from the rest. And the quality of the people wiling to work as heads of these divisions, instead of as CEOs of them as independent firms, gets lower. These costs of size are said to be larger than the benefits to be found from exploiting synergies, which is why firms are not larger.

A similar thing happens with government agencies assigned to manage sectors of society. Imagine that we created a government agency in charge of food for the whole nation. This agency is given an authorization so broad that it could allow exactly the existing food practice and industries, such as farms, grocery stores, restaurants, and personal kitchens. Or it could completely nationalize all these resources, and use tax revenue to reorganize them as it saw fit. Or it could do anything in between. Imagine that such an agency had been created in the U.S. in 1970.

It seems obvious to me that by now such a food agency would have intervened in food production, processing, and distribution far more extensively that has been the case in our actual history. Large government agencies would have formed with many thousands of employees, many of them directly managing food activities. Everyone would get access to some food, and some government activities would achieve larger scale economies than seen in the private sector. But this would be achieved in part via more uniformity, standardization, and stability of food processes. Government managed food would end up with less variety and adaptation to individual circumstances and preferences, and this food would improve and innovate less over time.

The amazing thing is that all this would happen even with high quality oversight and accountability by agencies to politicians, and politicians to voters. Voters would tell politicians about things they liked more and less, politicians would pass on these messages to agencies, and agencies would often change their policies and strategies in the suggested directions. But even in the absence of much corruption, civil servant selfishness, or partisan rancor, and even with the best political processes that we can imagine, a food industry managed by a government agency with broad powers would still probably end up creating a worse world of food over the long run.

Similarly, a new firm that merged three random prior firms would typically earn less profits, even with the sincere and helpful advice of its investors, boards of advisors, and management consulting firms, and even in the absence of stupid or corrupt firm managers and advisors. Processes of governance and oversight can and do help, but they are generally insufficient to cancel the harms from an overly centralized organization structure.

These patterns, if true, are seem important regarding the ideal scales of both business and government. And I fear the U.S. public is insufficiently aware of them, as we seem to be on the verge of a historic increase in the scale and depth of government management of society.

Added 4Oct: Let me emphasize that what I’m describing is theoretically puzzling, in that it isn’t very directly implied by our standard models of profit maximization or democratic accountability. There is something important that we don’t understand well going on here.

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Will Tech Help Totalitarians?

Governments are overthrown when a sufficiently large fraction of local potential military power coordinates to organize a rebellion. To prevent this, a totalitarian government can try to stop people from talking to each other about their inclinations toward or plans re rebellions. Governments can do this by controlling schools and news media, and by hiding many spies among the population. And by packing people densely enough that all said is heard by many, and authority is close at hand to punish violators. And also by recursively doing this all the more among the government official who manage all this.

However, if this society isn’t completely isolated from other societies, then the many extra costs produced by this system can make it lose to outside competitors. (This seems to have happened to many totalitarian governments so far in history.) And the more contact there is across borders, the more than insiders may be able to escape, or to coordinate with each other via outsiders, or to learn that insiders are worse off.

How has this situation changed in the last few centuries? On the one hand, today’s world grows faster, it talks, travels, and trades more widely, and it is more inter-dependent, all of which increases these problems of contact with and competition with outsiders. On the other hand, we have gotten a lot better at managing large organizations, which allows for big complex governments, and with today’s tech it is easier to spread approved news and schooling to everyone. Also, totalitarians could put microphones and detectors at each person to see what they say, and thus don’t have to pack people so close.

What about in the future? You might think that AI also helps to automatically listen and report suspicious talk, but I suspect that for below-human-level AI this is relatively easy to evade by just talking more indirectly. You might also be able to directly put “kill switches” on people, in effect putting bombs on them, but I also don’t see this offering that much advantage over the usual easy ways governments have to kill disorganized locals.

As I discuss in my book Age of Em, those with direct access to the computers running brain emulations should be able to read the surface of em minds. (And also to directly end local copies.) However, I don’t see this offering that much advantage over being able to hear and read everything said, and to control their sources of news and education. Rebels could talk indirectly in ways missed by shallow mind reading, and might be helped by lazy, corrupt, or rebellious enforcers. A bigger concern is that most of the em world would be crammed into one or a few big cities, which makes a world government more feasible and likely. (More on that below.)

In two posts of July 13 & 27, Holden Karnofsky says there’s a substantial chance that widespread totalitarian governments controlling the virtual environments of digital people (e.g., ems) could lock themselves in power for tens of billions of years. Continue reading "Will Tech Help Totalitarians?" »

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Prefer Law To Governance

Libertarians are usually adamant that they prefer less government to more. But sadly this tends to make them reluctant to express opinions on choices between different non-zero government scenarios. After all, that might have them seeming to endorse some non-zero government scenario, while their primary desire is to make it clear that they are anti-government. So the main choices on which they are willing to express an opinion is between ones with clearly “more” versus “less” government.

Alas, because there really are other choices that matter in the world. For example, it might matter how local is the government that is involved in any given area of life, even if a local and centralized government would have the same “amount” of involvement. It might also matter how accountable is government to citizens, and on what timescales; governments can be more or less “democratic” even when they have the same scope for controlling citizens.

One big choice that I think matters a lot is between dealing with a problem via civil law, or via governance. Civil law mainly deals with after-the-fact disputes between equal parties, where judges can’t anticipate whom they will judge, and where judges must articulate clear principles of choice. In contrast, governance gives a lot more discretion for officials to give orders regarding future actions, to pick out the people they want to influence, and to treat similar people quite differently.

For example, governance can deal with pollution by issuing detailed regulations on how, where, and by whom pollutants are made and used. In contrast, civil law can deal with pollution by letting those who suffer from it sue those who caused it. Governance can deal with poverty by taking money from whomever it wants, giving money to whomever it wants, and requiring recipients to abide by any lifestyle rules it wants. In contrast, civil law can deal with poverty by requiring siblings and cousins to take care of each other when in dire need.

Governance can deal with crime by managing police, prosecutors, and prisons who decide in great detail who will be be investigated and punished how and for what. In contrast, private bounty hunters and required liability insurance could make these all private choices, leaving to the community only the choice of what is a crime and how strongly it is to be discouraged and discovered.

Governance dealt with the pandemic by issuing regulations about masks, distancing, lockdowns, etc., by limiting and commanding how vaccines can be tested and produced, and then directly managing their distribution. In contrast, law could have dealt with the pandemic only via requiring liability insurance and the preservation of sufficient info to allow the infected to sue those who caused it.

In all these cases the key difference is less about the overall level of government control, and more about the discretion of government officials, which allows favoritism, corruption, and over-confident micro-management. In the choice between law and governance, I usually prefer law. (Though yes of course, I don’t know how to manage a war well via law.)

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Explainable Governance

My once bumper sticker: “Question Authority, But Raise Your Hand First”.

In families and small groups, we can usually challenge and question our leaders. When they declare an official policy, we can often ask “why?”, and get a moderately coherent response. If we notice inconsistencies between explanations for related policies, we can point them out, and pressure leaders to reduce them. And to a limited extent, we can challenge such explanations, giving counter arguments to official reasons, and offering reasons for alternate policies.

Of course sometimes busy or exasperated parents, and other authorities, retreat to “because I said so”. But if they go there too often or quickly, we think less of them, share that opinion via gossip, and undermine their authority and tenure.

However, as our social systems get larger, we tend to lose this crucial human option, to see and challenge justifications for the policies we live under. Oh sure, some justifications are offered, but such things tend to be more rare, shallow, inconsistent, and unresponsive to criticism.

Today when someone tells you can’t do that, there’s a rule, and you ask why, you mostly get shoulder shugs or vague platitudes. When you hear reasons, there usually seems little point in pointing out contradictions. As a result, you feel disrespected, and these rules feel less legitimate. All of which probably contributes to our living under a less justified and coherent total set of policies.

Can we do better? I can imagine a legal requirement that all laws and agency rules have an explicit justification text, but I doubt that would create substantially better justifications than we see now.

I’ve recently tried to think about how to make our systems of governance better at offering persuasive justifications. To explain my ideas, I will make some simplifying assumptions. Not because I’m sure I need them, but because they seem to make this initial concept exploration easier.

First, let us assume that each policy has a text description, and applies to a subset of the space of policy applications. Each policy also has a text justification, and an author. Assume none of these subsets overlap partially; that is, if there’s any overlap, then one is a strict subset of the other. For each such set, we can (somehow) create a rough dollar estimate of the annual value of good policy in that set. These dollar values add up in the obvious way across sets.

My idea has two levels. The first level just tries to create good policy justifications for fixed policies, while the second allows policies to be changed to get better justifications. Let’s start with the first level.

Let the author of the current justification for a policy be continually paid X% (1%?) of the estimated value of its policy set (minus the values for subset policies). At anytime, anyone can challenge that author in a justification court, by offering an alternate justification, and by paying for a jury trial. At the trial, both sides can make arguments beyond the texts of their justifications. If jurors decide that this is a better justification, then that becomes the official justification, and its author now gets paid for its value.

When policies change, policy makers either offer a justification, or its an empty one that should be easy to beat by a challenger. To allow better targeting of justifications, I’d let challengers offer a justification for a strict subset of an existing policy. If the jury likes it, that would become the official justification for that subset, and its author would be paid the value for that subset. To help deal with inconsistency, I’d also let challengers offer a new justification to replace (the union of) any set of existing justifications. The challenger can argue that these different prior justifications are inconsistent, and that this new justification is overall more coherent, and better.

At least that’s my simple first-cut design. I can imagine doing better via betting markets on who would win if a jury were invoked. I can also imagine starting with a small jury and then moving to larger juries only after small jury wins, and only changing the policy justification after a large enough jury win. But for now these issues seem like distractions from our main ones concerns, so I’ll set them aside for now.

My first level proposal seems to create incentives to make policy justifications that ordinary people would accept. At least to the extent that there’s any reasonable way to justify such policies. But what if the policies are just stupid and incoherent, or at least seem so to ordinary people?

My second level tries to address this by moving further in the direction of governance by jury. Now allow challengers to also specify new policies, as well as new justifications for those new policies. As with my first level proposal, they can do this not only for particular existing policies, but also for sets of such policies, and for strict subsets. Juries are now empowered to approve such new policies along with their justifications.

As before, we might be able to improve on this via betting markets, small then larger juries, etc., but as before it seems premature to go into those details. For now, the main question must be: does this whole approach make sense? Would it be good to make policy more coherent and justified, in the eyes of ordinary citizens, even if this may come at the expense of making it less coherent and justified in the eyes of elites who might otherwise decide such things? To whom exactly should policy seem justified, if anyone?

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Governance By Jury

Among the many proposed forms of governance, some are “direct democracy” wherein all citizens vote on key choices, and some are variations on “demarchy”, i.e., assigning key roles to, or filling legislatures with, random citizens. The following proposal is similar in some ways, but seems different enough to be worth treating separately. I’m not sure if “jurarchy” is a good idea, but it seems to me simple and elegant enough to be worth considering.

Here is an especially simple version, though variations (some discussed below) may be better:

There is always a status quo set of government policies, including who sits in each key role. At any time, anyone can propose a change to these policies, if they pay fee $A. A court case then ensues, overseen by a random judge and decided by a random jury of N citizens. A key government agency is charged with defending the status quo in these cases. The judge can declare the proposal unconstitutional, or say that recent changes have invalidated it. But if not, and if M jurors support the proposal, then it becomes official policy, and challenger is awarded bounty $B.

And that’s it; everything is decided this way (aside perhaps from constitution changes). If the cost of pursing a case is $C, then we expect such challenges to be made from purely financial motives when the chance P of winning the case exceeds (A+C)/B.

Of course we might want some jury rules, such as no bribes to buy juror votes. Jurors might or might not be allowed to consult outside advisors, and might or might not be told of jury decisions on recent similar cases. Jurors might be chosen new for each case, or they might learn via sitting on juries that work together on many cases over many months.

One potential problem with the above system is that parties who stand to gain a great deal from a policy change may keep re-trying the same proposal until they happen to get a favorable jury. If they gain $G from the change itself (not via bounty), and if juries make bad decisions at error rate E, then this approach is profitable on ave when E*(B+G) exceeds A+C. Observers who believe a change was made in error would expect to profit by proposing a reversal. But is this solution enough?

A futarchy-based variation might help here. After a jury has ruled in favor of a proposal, we could immediately open up a betting market on the chance that another random jury would also favor that proposal, in a new court case. This new case might use the same values of A,B,N,M, or it might scale these up in the hope of getting a more considered judgment. This new case might be created with chance F. The original jury decision might be said to be confirmed, and implemented, only if this betting market estimated at least a conditional chance Q of confirmation. Yes, markets can also make mistakes, so this in essence just lowers error rate E.

Another potential problem is that this jury process might be too slow to make key changes. To deal with this, we might create a similar betting market as soon as a proposal is officially made, about that first jury process. A proposal might be immediately adopted if that market estimated at least a chance Q’ of the proposal winning.

I’m sure we could think of more problems, and more potential fixes. But there’s a real risk of fixes making things worse, especially as the system gets more complex, and as the citizen audience who must oversee it gets bored with complex details. So I’m attracted to very simple proposals, and tempted to just accept modest problems, instead of adding many complex fixes.

See also: Explainable Governance.

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