Tag Archives: Politics

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 the 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 to support 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, and the more usual practical task, as authorities haven’t spoken to most of the practical issues we face, we are more eager to demonstrate and judge abilities to do deeper thinking.

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 might be collectively better off due to us all doing more thinking, but this isn’t obvious.

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 personal 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, opinions 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 what arguments we notice, and 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 they generated even a few months before.

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-adjacent topics, they should expect an average of ~1-10 heressy-adjacent opinions in that set. Yet often a prominent enough person publicly seeming to endorse 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 public 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 are a random sample of their opinions 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 being selective in what they say, or deceiving themselves into seeing themselves as thinking for themselves more than they actually do.

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 suggests how strong social pressures regarding them may be.

Added 1Dec: Here I describe myself as a “think for myself polymath.”

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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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Land Speculators Made U.S.

While a U.S. citizen for 63 years, I’d never before heard this story of U.S. origins, told well by Christopher Blattman is his new book Why We Fight (pp. 38-41). Seems the U.S. revolution was a textbook example of war due to elite interests diverging from those of most citizens.  I quote:


Born in 1732, the middle child of an undistinguished tobacco farmer, George Washington found himself on the fringes of Virginia’s elite planter society. Luckily, his older brother married into one of the colony’s most powerful families. Now the tall, lanky young man found himself with powerful patrons. Those benefactors pulled strings to maneuver Washington into a coveted public office: county surveyor. 

Mapping land boundaries promised little profit in well-settled Virginia. Yet to the west, across the Allegheny Mountains, lay millions of acres of unclaimed land—assuming you ignored the native inhabitants, not to mention the French. Within days of his appointment, George Washington headed to the frontier. The young man would help his patrons lay claim to the best lands and scout some choice properties for himself. He was just seventeen. 

An acquisitive zeal consumed the young Virginian and his backers. Claiming, hoarding, and flipping cheap land was an obsession across all thirteen colonies. Most great fortunes in the colonies had come from land speculation. Unfortunately for Washington and his patrons, however, France shared their bottomless appetite for territory. French troops began building a string of forts down the fertile Ohio River Valley, right around modern-day Pittsburgh. They ran straight through the claims Washington had staked. 

In response, Washington’s powerful patrons maneuvered him again, this time to the head of an armed force. Tall and broad-shouldered, Washington looked the part of a military leader. He also showed real talent for command. So his wealthy backers sent him west at the head of an American and Iroquois militia. He was twenty-two. 

France’s colonial forces far outnumbered Washington’s small party. The year was 1754, Britain and France were at peace, and the French hoped to seize the Ohio River Valley without a shot. As the ragtag Virginian militia marched north toward the French Fort Duquesne, the fort’s commander sent a diplomatic force to intercept Washington and parley. They wanted to make a deal. 

Warned of the French party coming his way, unsure of their intent, Washington made a fateful decision: he would ambush and overpower the approaching men. He marched his forces through the rainy, moonless night and launched a sneak attack. 

What happened next is unclear and disputed. Most think the French diplomatic force, taken by surprise, surrendered without a shot. Probably the inexperienced young Washington then lost control of his warriors. We know his militia and their Iroquois guides murdered and scalped most of the French party, including the ambassador. We also know that, as he sat down to write the governor an update, this political catastrophe wasn’t even the most important thing on his mind. Before getting to the night’s grisly events, Washington spent the first eight paragraphs griping about his low pay. 

A British politician summed up the consequences: “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.” Washington’s ambush sparked a local conflict. Two years later, it escalated into what Europeans call the Seven Years’ War. The conflict drew in all Europe’s great powers, lasting until 1763. Washington’s corrupt and clumsy land claims helped ignite a long, deadly, global conflict.

This is not the typical origin story Americans have long been taught. A more familiar tale portrays Washington as a disciplined, stoic, honorable leader. It describes a man whose love of liberty led him to risk his life and his fortune for independence. It describes a revolution with ideological origins, not selfish ones. 

This nobler description is accurate. But what is also true—what biographer after biographer has described, but what schoolbooks sometimes overlook—is that land and his own personal fortune were also at the front of the first president’s mind. “No theme appears more frequently in the writings of Washington,” writes one biographer, “than his love for the land—more precisely, his own land.” Another theme is decadence. George Washington was a profligate consumer. He desired the finest carriages, clothes, and furniture. Land rich and cash poor, he financed his luxurious lifestyle with enormous loans from British merchants. 

This relentless quest for wealth dominated Washington’s pre-revolutionary years. After the Seven Years’ War, he amassed huge western claims. A few he bought legitimately. In some cases, he skirted laws, shadily buying under an assumed name or that of a relative. Other lands he acquired at the expense of his own militiamen—or so some of these angry veterans claimed. As a result of this scheming, Washington died the richest American president of all time. One ranking has him as the fifty-ninth richest man in US history. 

How did these private interests shape Washington’s decision to revolt against Britain, two decades later? Elsewhere in this book we will see the American Revolution had many causes, including a newfound and noble ideology of self-determination. We can’t understand the revolution without that. But we would be foolish to ignore the economic self-interest of the founding fathers, like Washington, as well as the war bias that fostered. 

The greatest threat to George Washington’s wealth was continued union with Britain. By the 1770s, the British Crown had invalidated some of Washington’s more questionable landholdings. Britain also pledged most of the Ohio River Valley to Canada—including some of Washington’s most valuable claims. He would have to relinquish all he’d accumulated. 

The same was true for many who signed the Declaration of Independence. Like Washington, these elites had an incredible amount to lose from British colonial policy. Most Americans at the time opposed a revolutionary war, but then most Americans couldn’t vote in those early years. The founding fathers faced a different set of risks and returns. It is no coincidence that they enjoyed privileges that British colonial policy would undermine—trade interests, vast western landholdings, ownership of enslaved people, and the local legislatures they controlled. If this colonial political and commercial class could not get Britain to revise its trade and commercial rulings, only independence could preserve their privileges. 

We need to consider these elite incentives if we’re going to ask why the revolution took place. A lot of people see it as inevitable. But Canada and Australia found peaceful paths to independence from Britain. If we’re going to take the theory behind this book seriously, then shouldn’t the thirteen colonies and Britain have also found a bargain without a fight? The revolution’s slogan was “No taxation without representation.” Why not strike that deal? We will see several answers in this book. One of them, however, is unchecked private interests. These do not explain the American Revolution on their own, but they certainly made peace more fragile.

Added 8Nov: Jeff Hummel disagrees with many aspects of the above account.

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What Do We Owe The World?

We each owe some degree of consideration to our close associates, and to larger groups with which we associate. But what do we owe the larger world and universe?

Some of us think we should each put in some effort to improve that universe. Not just that this would be nice, but that we are morally obligated to do so. But how should we think about this obligation?

We could try to collect a long list of specific things different people should do for the world, and how those things vary with context. But is there a simpler more general way to describe these obligations?

We can think of ourself as made up of many smaller selves, at each moment in time, and in each possible world. And then standard expected utility theory says that we maximize a weighted sum across these many sub-selves. So a natural way to include the rest of the universe is to expand this weighted sum to include every other creature, and their many component selves.

The relative weight we put on others might vary with their distance in spacetime, and with their similarity to us. But a general problem with this approach is that in many scenarios we will either want to do near nothing or near everything. If we consider some large group of others, then as we increase the weight we put on members of that group, at first we will want to do very little for them, and then as the weight passes a key threshold we suddenly switch to wanting to put most all of our efforts into helping them. The weight must be finely tuned to induce intermediate efforts.

If intermediate levels of help sound more reasonable, one way to get that is to talk in terms of a budget: we might each have an obligation to spend at least some fixed fraction of our resources helping the world. Resources such as money, time, reputation, etc. The simplest version of this would require the same fraction for everyone, though more complex versions could make this vary with context.

Bryan Caplan’s new book is titled How Evil Are Politicians?, based on this essay wherein he seems to embrace something like a budget obligation story, except with politicians having much larger budget obligations:

If you’re in a position to pass or enforce laws, lives and freedom are in your hands. Common decency requires … politicians to make … intellectual hygiene their top priority. Until they calmly recuse themselves from their society and energetically weigh a wide range of moral arguments, they have no business lifting a political finger. At this point, the iniquity of practicing politicians should be clear. How much time and mental energy does the average politician pour into moral due diligence? A few hours a year seems like a high estimate. They don’t just fall a tad short of their moral obligations. They’re too busy passing laws and giving orders to face the possibility that they’re wielding power illegitimately.

To check on all this, I did a series of Twitter polls asking what fraction of their resources different kinds of people are obligated to spend trying to help the world. Here are the resulting (median of lognormal-fit) % estimates:

The basic % of budget moral framing seems confirmed by many answering these questions and few complaining about the framing. Furthermore, respondents do seem to think this budget varies with type of person, and agree with Caplan that politicians have much higher obligations.

However, respondents had enormously divergent opinions on what is that obligation budget % (median standard dev. is a factor of ~18), and even the middle estimates in the chart above seem to me to vary way too much across types of people. It seems to me unfair to demand far more efforts by others than you are willing to make. And it seems disrespectful to demand far less from other kinds of people, as if you don’t see them as sufficiently human to hold them to moral standards.

This looks to me more like a status story, wherein we try to hold higher status people to higher moral standards, as some sort of “progressive taxation” of status. And while progressive taxation might make sense for governments, having moral obligations vary this strongly with status just doesn’t make much sense of my moral intuitions. We should all try to help others, at least to some similarly modest degree.

Added 10a: The prior numbers in the table were wrong due to a math mistake, now fixed.

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Friends, Factions, And Status

We have three different kinds of reasons to favor others: friends, factions, and status. First, we favor those to whom we have relatively direct connections: friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, sport teammates, church-mates, etc. Second, we favor other members of our self-promoting groups, where each such group makes up a substantial fraction of our relevant society. Such as groups who share gender, ethnicity, education level, or religion. Third, we favor people we see as having prestige or dominance, and are thus accepted by most everyone as being better than others.

Over time, groups can move between these roles. For example, Christianity started out as small groups who favored each other due to their direct connections. Then it became a repressed minority faction within the Roman Empire, then a large faction, and then the largest dominant fraction, where it repressed others. Over the following centuries Christianity became so dominant, at least in areas near Europe, that it became part of the local concept of status; Christians were higher status than heathens or atheists, and status within Christianity counted as social status more generally. Lately, Christianity has retreated to become more of a strong faction.

Similarly, science started out as small community, then became a minor faction, but by now has become entrenched and dominant in our society. That is, most everyone accepts that being more scientific is better overall for your status. Anti-science factions are repressed factions, when they are allowed at all. For example, we fight over if economics is “science” as a way to fight over it s status.

Another example is prestigious college degrees. Once these were an optional and contested status marker, but now they are almost universally seen as a powerful marker, quite often required for any elite position.

Over the last few centuries, “liberation” movements have succeeded in moving some group differences in the other direction, from status to faction. For example, regarding aristocrats, ethnicities, gender, and sexual preferences. Previously these were all widely accepted as status markers, with some types better than others, but recently they have come more to be seen as just more ways that people can be different. Some now try to induce similar changes in how we treat looks, age, and urban/rural, but they have so far largely failed.

Humans have long worried that allegiances to friends or factions would interfere with loyalty to other shared units. So regarding friends and family favoritism, firms limit nepotism, judges recuse themselves when they have personal connections, and teachers aren’t supposed to grade their friends, family, or lovers.

Regarding faction favoritism, humans have long had neutrality norms to limit such favoritism. As a result, faction favoritism is a common “hidden motive” to which we are often consciously blind, like other hidden motives we discuss in our book Elephant in the Brain.

For example, you are supposed to set aside faction allegiances when you rule as a judge, or grade as a teacher, or review a journal article. As a firm representative or responsible professional, you aren’t supposed to give better or cheaper service to customers who share your factions. In a firm, you are supposed to argue for choices of personnel, projects, or policies based on what is good for the firm as a whole, not for your within-firm factions.

Some legal rules of evidence, and common norms of good debate, can be seen as trying limit factional support. For example, rules against hearsay can discourage factions from getting their members to lie for each other, and rules against revealing prior criminal convictions to jurors may prevent conviction-correlated faction action. And debate norms that discourage group-based insults or appeals to authority or popularity can also discourage factional coordination.

In most ancient societies, there was usually a single dominant power coalition, and this still holds for most democratic cities today. The founders of US democracy worried a lot about democratic polities plagued by factions. They thought they had a fix (many small ones), but they were wrong; in larger democratic polities, we’ve often seen a consistent split into two main roughly-equally-strong political factions.

Which subgroups comprise these two factions changes during rare “political realignments.” And in such polities, people like judges, teachers, or generals who represent the polity as a whole are usually expected to set aside their affiliations with these two political factions when making key decisions.

In such polities, it is more okay to say that you favor particular political candidates because they favor your factions. But even there we prefer factions to say that they are trying to do good for the polity as a whole. Valid factions, we say, merely hold different opinions on what is good for us all.

Yes, we are aware that factions may hypocritically pretend to serve the general good while actually serving themselves. We are also aware that high status groups like the top-college-educated may in part just be self-favoring factions so powerful that they suppress any substantial opposition. Even so, we prefer hypocrisy to more overt factional self-dealing, and we prefer to suppress the factions that we can suppress rather than to suppress none at all.

In the U.S. since WWII, we have seen increasing and now record “polarization” between the main two political factions. And recently we’ve seen the relatively new phenomena of “reverse discrimination”, whereby some groups which were first seen as low in status, and then second were supposed to be treated neutrally as just another faction, are now third to be treated in key selection processes as if they were actually higher in status, to correct for their past lower status. Is this a new political realignment?

I actually think it is even bigger; we are now seeing a political faction make a bid for promotion, from faction to status. They want most everyone to accept that their side is just morally better. This faction has come to dominate the most prestigious high ends of many social high grounds: tech, academia, media, civil service, finance, charity, and more. And this faction has induced those arenas to set aside their usual professional neutrality norms regarding political factions, to strongly favor this faction.

In wider public discourse, this faction has used direct control over media and tech, and also the threat of punishment in other arenas it controls, to silence disliked parties and points of view. The opposing faction now mainly retains control of roughly half of top political positions, of peripheral locations of all sorts, and of professions like construction, engineering, and the military wherein they still proudly apply professional norms of factional neutrality. Which looks to me like a weak and losing position.

The main thing I can see that could derail this fast strong train is factional infighting. Such as between those focused on anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-capitalism, and pro-immigration. There are plausible cleavages there, but I don’t see them opening much anytime soon; this alliance really does show extreme ideologue/religion/etc levels of passion and bonding. Which has long been the origin of new empires in history.

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Can We Tame Political Minds?

Give me a firm spot on which to stand, and I shall move the earth. (Archimedes)

A democracy … can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. (Tytler)

Politics is the mind killer. (Yudkowsky)

The world is a vast complex of interconnected subsystems. Yes, this suggests that you can influence most everything else via every little thing you do. So you might help the world by picking up some trash, saying a kind word, or rating a product on Yelp.

Even so, many are not satisfied to have some effect, they seek a max effect. For this reason, they say, they seek max personal popularity, wealth, or political power. Or they look for the most neglected people to help, like via African bed nets. Or they seek dramatic but plausibly neglected disaster scenarios to prevent, such as malicious foreigners, eco-apocalypse, or rampaging robots.

Our future is influenced by a great many things, including changes in tech, wealth, education, political power, military power, religion, art, culture, public opinion, and institutional structures. But which of these offers the strongest lever to influence that future? Note that if we propose to change one factor in order to induce changes in all the others, critics may reasonably question our ability to actually control that factor, since in the past such changes seem to have been greatly influenced by other factors.

Thus a longtime favorite topic in “serious” conversation is: where are the best social levers, i.e. factors which do sometimes change, which people like us (this varies with who is in the conversation) can somewhat influence, and where the effects of this factor on other factors seem lasting and stronger than reverse-direction effects.

When I was in tech, the consensus there saw tech as the strongest lever. I’ve heard artists make such claims about art. And I presume that priests, teachers, activists, and journalists are often told something similar about their factors.

We economists tend to see strong levers in the formal mechanisms of social institutions, which we happen to be well-placed to study. And in fact, we have seen big effects of such formal institutions in theory, the lab, and the field. Furthermore, we can imagine actually changing these mechanisms, because they tend to be stable, are sometimes changed, and can be clearly identified and concisely described. Even stronger levers are found in the higher level legal, regulatory, and political institutions that control all the other institutions.

My Ph.D. in social science at Caltech focused on such controlling institutions, via making formal game theory models, and testing them in the lab and field. This research finds that institution mechanisms and rules can have big effects on outcomes. Furthermore, we seem to see many big institutional failures in particular areas like telecom, transport, energy, education, housing, and medicine, wherein poor choices of institutions, laws, and regulations in such areas combine to induce large yet understandable waste and inefficiency. Yes institutions do matter, a lot.

However, an odd thing happens when we consider higher level models. When we model the effects of general legal and democratic institutions containing rational agents, we usually find that such institutions work out pretty well. Common fears of concentrated interests predating on diffuse interests, or of the poor taxing the rich to death, are not usually borne out. While the real world does seem full of big institutional problems at lower levels, our general models of political processes do not robustly predict these common problems. Even when such models include voters who are quite ignorant or error prone. What are such models missing?

Bryan Caplan’s book Myth of the Rational Voter gets a bit closer to the truth with his concept of “rational irrationality”. And I was heartened to see Alex Tabarrok [AT] and Ezra Klein [EK], who have quite different political inclinations, basically agree on the key problem in their recent podcast:

[AT:] Mancur Olson thought he saw … more and more of these distributional coalitions, which are not just redistributing resources to themselves, but also slowing down… change. … used to be that we required three people to be on the hiring committee. This year, we have nine … Now, we need [more] rules. … we’ve created this more bureaucratic, kind of rule-bound, legalistic and costly structure. And that’s not a distributional coalition. That’s not lobbying. That’s sort of something we’ve imposed upon ourselves. …

[EK:] it’s not that I want to go be part of slowing down society and an annoying bureaucrat. Everybody’s a hero of their own story. So how do you think the stories people tell themselves in our country have changed for this to be true? …

[AT:] an HOA composed of kind of randos from the community telling you what your windows can look like, it’s not an obvious outcome of a successful society developing coalitions who all want to pursue their own self-interest. … naked self-interest is less important than some other things. And I’ll give you an example which supports what you’re saying. And that is, if you look at renters and the opinions of renters, and they are almost as NIMBY, Not In My Backyard, as owners, right, which is crazy.… farmers get massive redistribution in their favor. … But yet, if you go to the public … They’re, oh, no, we’ve got to protect the family farm. …

[EK:] a lot of political science … traditionally thought redistribution would be more powerful than it has proven to be … as societies get richer, they begin emphasizing what he calls post-materialist values, these moral values, these identity values, values about fairness. (More)

That is, our larger political and legal systems induce, and do not fix, many more specific institutional failures. But not so much because of failures in the structure of our political or legal institutions. Instead, the key problem seems to lie in voters’ minds. In political contexts, minds that are usually quite capable of being reasonable and pragmatic, and attending to details, instead suffer from some strange problematic mix of confused, incoherent, and destructive pride, posturing, ideology, idealism, loyalty, and principles. For want of a better phrase, let’s just call these “political minds.”

Political minds are just not well described by the usual game theory or “rational” models. But they do seem to be a good candidate for a strong social level to move the future. Yes, political minds are probably somewhat influenced by political institutions, and by communications structures of who talks to and listens to whom. And by all the other systems in the world. Yet it seems much clearer how they influence other systems than how the other systems influence them. In particular, it is much clearer how political minds influence institution mechanisms than how those mechanisms influence political minds.

In our world today, political minds somehow induce and preserve our many more specific institutional failures. And also the accumulation of harmful veto players and added procedures discussed by [AT] and [EK]. Even so, as strong levers, these political minds remain gatekeepers of change. It seems hard to fix the problems they cause without somehow getting their buy-in. But can we tame politician minds?

This is surely one of the greatest questions to be pondered by those aware enough to see just how big a problem this is. I won’t pretend to answer it here, but I can at least review six possibilities.

War – One ancient solution was variation and selection of societies, such as via war and conquest. These can directly force societies to accept truths that they might not otherwise admit. But such processes are now far weaker, and political minds fiercely oppose strengthening them. Furthermore, the relevant political minds are in many ways now integrated at a global level.

Elitism – Another ancient solution was elitism: concentrate political influence into fewer higher quality hands. Today influence is not maximally distributed; we still don’t let kids or pets vote. But the trend has definitely been in that direction. We could today limit the franchise more, or give more political weight to those who past various quality tests. But gains there seem limited, and political minds today mostly decry such suggestions.

Train – A more modern approach is try to better train minds in general, in the hope that will also improve minds in political contexts. And perhaps universal education has helped somewhat there, though I have doubts. It would probably help to replace geometry with statistics in high school, and to teach more economics and evolutionary biology earlier. But remember that the key problem is reasonable minds turning unreasonable when politics shows up; none of these seem to do much there.

Teach – A more commonly “practiced” approach today is just to try to slowly persuade political minds person by person and topic by topic, to see and comprehend their many particular policy mistakes. And do this faster than new mistakes accumulate. That has long been a standard “educational” approach taken by economists and policy makers. It seems especially popular because one can pretend to do this while really just playing the usual political games. Yes, there are in fact people like Alex and Ezra who do see and call attention to real institutional failures. But overall this approach doesn’t seem to be going very well. Even so, it may still be our best hope.

Privatize – A long shot approach is to try to convince political minds to not trust their own judgements as political minds, and thus to try to reduce the scope for politics to influence human affairs. That is, push to privatize and take decisions away from large politicized units, and toward more local units who face stronger selection and market pressures, and induce less politicized minds. Of course many have been trying to do exactly this for centuries. Even so, this approach might still be our best hope.

Futarchy – My proposed solution is also to try to convince political minds to not trust their own judgements, but only regarding on matters of fact, and only relative to the judgements of speculative markets. Speculative market minds are in fact vastly more informed and rational than the usual political minds. And cheap small scale trials are feasible that could lead naturally to larger scale trials that could go a long way toward convincing many political minds of this key fact. It is quite possible to adopt political institutions that put speculative markets in charge of estimating matters of fact. At which point we’d only be subject to political mind failures regarding values. I have other ideas for this, but let’s tackle one problem at a time.

Politics is indeed the mind killer. But once we know that, what can we do? War could force truths, though at great expense. Elitism and training could improve minds, but only so far. Teaching and privatizing are being tried, but are progressing terribly slowly, if at all.

While it might never be possible to convince political minds to distrust themselves on facts, relative to speculative markets, this approach has hardly been tried, and seems cheap to try. So, world, why not try it?

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Brainwashing is Sorcery

Can’t bring yourself to slaughter a nearby village, or a long-time associate? Mysticism can help you believe they already attacked you first, and that the stakes are so much higher than your personal gain. (More)

Most states have breach-of-the-peace laws that criminalize … obscene or abusive language in a public place, engaging in noisy behaviors, fighting in a public place, resisting lawful arrest, and disrupting a lawful assembly or meeting. … vagrancy, loitering, and public intoxication. (More)

Most laws are defined in relatively objective ways, so that society can truthfully say “no one is above the law”. Those who violate the law can be found guilty and punished, while others remain free.

But most societies have also included a few less objective and more “flexible” offenses, flexible enough to let the powerful more arbitrarily punishment disliked parties. For example many ancient societies let you retaliate directly against someone who previously attacked you via “sorcery”. And many societies today allow punishment for vague crimes like “vagrancy” and “loitering”.

The key difference is that such “flexible offenses” tend to be defined more in terms of how someone important doesn’t like an outcome, and less in terms of what specifically someone did to induce that resulting dislike. And a big problem is that this flexibility often lies dormant for long periods, so that those offenses don’t appear to be applied very flexibly in practice. Until, in a new period of conflict, potential flexibility gets realized and weaponized.

Our world of talk, conversation, and debate are policed by some official laws, such as on “fraud” and “libel”, and by many more inform norms. These norms are often complex, and vary in complex ways with context. We academics have an especially rich and powerful set of such norms.

While most of these norms are relatively objective and helpful, we also seem to include some more flexible offenses, such as “brainwashing”, “propaganda”, “manipulation”, “deception”, “misinformation”, “harassment”, and “gaslighting”. Again the key is that these tend to be defined less in terms of what exactly was done wrong, and more in terms of a disliked result. For example, someone is said to be “brainwashed” if they afterward adopted disliked beliefs or actions. But if exactly the same process results in approved beliefs or actions, there are no complaints.

In times of relative peace and civility, such offenses are applied flexibly only rarely and inconsistently, when particular powerful people find an opening to bludgeon particular opponents. So we don’t much notice their flexibility. But at other times of more severe, aligned, and polarized conflict, they become key weapons in the great battles. We today live in such a time.

The problem isn’t with the general idea of laws or norms, with the idea of enforcing laws, nor with the idea of shunning or shaming those who violate norms. The problem is with a small subset of especially vague norms, offering “loopholes big enough to drive a truck through”, as they say. And with periods when passions become enflamed so much that people become willing to wield any available weapons, such as flexible laws and norms.

The main solution that I can see is to work harder make our laws and norms less flexible. That is, to more explicitly and clearly express and define them. To more clearly say what exactly are the disapproved behaviors, independent of the disliked beliefs that result. This isn’t as easy as many think, as our social norms do actually tend to be subtler, more context dependent, and less widely understood than we think. Even so, it is quite possible, and often worth the bother. Especially in times like ours.

Another complementary solution is to switch from norm to law enforcement, as I’ve previously suggested. Legal norms are reluctant to allow flexible laws, and legal process is less prone to mistaken rushes to judgement.

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Foreign Policy Is Incoherent

I am quite impressed with Richard Hanania’s new book Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy. It makes a simple but important point: U.S. foreign policy is less due to some persistent grand national strategy than to inconsistent lobbying pressures of various political groups. While at times causes millions to die for no good reason.

For example econ sanctions almost never work, but they satisfy a public desire to “do something”. We support big rivals like the USSR or China with trade as we resist them militarily, because business wants trade while the military wants budget. Hanania explains: 

The whole reason that International Relations is its own subfield in political science is because of the “unitary actor model,” or the assumption that you can talk about a nation like you talk about an individual, with motivations, goals, and strategies. No one believes this in a literal sense, but it’s considered “close enough” for the sake of trying to understand the world. … [But] the more I studied the specifics of American foreign policy the more it looked irrational on a system-wide level and unconnected to any reasonable goals, which further made me skeptical of the assumptions of the field.

The book felt a bit belabored to me, as I’d have been persuaded by an article length analysis. But I get why he did it; academics demand sweat and impressive mastery of literatures.

As a U.S. citizen, I am especially appalled at such waste being done in my name, even though I expect that similar problems bedevil other nations. This feeling is especially strong as I listen to major foreign policy issues being debated this week.

Monetary policy seems to me an especially promising place for a similar analysis. People usually talk as if that were being done by a central actor according to some coherent long term strategy, but that seems a priori unlikely. Yes futarchy could solve this, if only there were some interest in doing some small scale tests to hone such mechanisms. 

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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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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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