Tag Archives: Politics

Dominance Explains Paternalism

My Ph.D. is in formal political theory, but I’ve come to realize that it is usually best to think of political behavior not as some different kind of thing, but instead as an extension of or variation on ordinary behavior. This seems to me especially true for paternalism, which I’ve spend much effort pondering. I did a game theory analysis of it for my job talk long ago, and Bryan Caplan just reviewed what seems to be a nice book puzzling over “behavioral” explanations. But on reflection a key explanation seems pretty simple.

In our personal lives, we all know that some of the people around us are more “control freaks”; they push harder for control over what they and their associates do. First they push to control their own lives, then they push for more control of shared context and choices, like which restaurant a group goes to, and finally they push for control over the lives of others. Such as by nagging and berating others re what to eat or wear, or with whom to associate. Or by becoming official leaders and authorities, with formal power to make people do what they say.

I just did two polls that say that most of us think that this control freak pressure tends to hurt associates, and also that control freaks tend more to be “do-gooders”, who talk more about making the world better, and more give that rationale for things they do:

Dominance seems to me the obvious interpretation here. Like most animals, humans strive to dominate each other, in order to rise in the local “pecking order”. And control over ourselves and others not only brings many direct benefits, it is widely taken as one of the strongest signs of dominance and non-submission. But unlike other animals, humans have norms against overt dominance and submission, and norms promoting pro-social behavior, that helps others. So we do push to dominate, but we pretend that we are actually just trying to help. And as usual, we are typically not consciously aware of our hypocrisy. In our mind, we are mainly aware of how they are doing the wrong things, and how they would be so much better off if only we could make them do things our way.

It is not just individuals who try to dominate to gain status; groups coordinate to dominate together as well. For example, parents coordinate to dominate their kids. So we push for our groups to have autonomy, and also control over other groups. And so in politics, where our main motive is to show loyalty to our allies, we each push for our political coalitions to have more self-control, and more control over other groups. So when there is an option for “regulators” or other authorities to take more control over ordinary lives, we tend to support that when we see those authorities as part of our coalition, and those “helped” as part of rival coalitions. Else we may resist.

Of course we actually do often need leaders to make central decisions that effect many others. And people do sometimes make bad decisions that can be improved via pressures from others around them. So dominance isn’t the only cause of leadership or paternalism. This is another example of a key principle: people can only successfully pretend to have motive X to cover real motive Y if sometimes X really is a substantial motive. “The dog ate my homework” works better as an excuse than “The dragon ate my homework.” For a cover to work, it has to be sufficiently plausible. So all the motives we pretend to have really do apply to some people at some times; just not nearly as often as we suggest.

So the claim is not that paternalism or dominant leaders can never be appropriate. Instead, the claim is that there’s a strong tendency to try to justify other more selfish and harmful behaviors via such needs. So we need to hold a much higher standard on leadership than “we should do whatever leaders say because we need leaders.” And we need to hold a higher standard on paternalism than “you should do what regulators say because they are authorities.” Leaders and authorities should be accountable to make their choices actually help via more than a mere dominance struggle for power to grab such positions.

In small firms, leaders are often given rewards that depend on the overall success of those firms. And subordinates who feel they are treated badly may well leave. Together, these can greatly temper leader temptations to use powers of their dominant positions to seek to gain status over their subordinates, relative to actually helping their groups. And in the distant past, in small groups within very war-like areas, dominant leaders faced related outside threats of military competition, and of subordinates running away to other nearby areas.

But today in large mostly-peaceful nations, political leaders tend to lack these other disciplines to temper their tyranny. Which is why it becomes so important today to find other ways to hold political leaders and authorities accountable, to limit their arbitrary dominance. Such as via elections, law, and property rights. I’ve tried to explore new methods, such as futarchy and vouching. But until they are fielded we should keep the old ways, and hold our leaders and authorities to much higher standards than “because I said so”.

In our society today, paternalistic authorities often claim that they are disciplined not so much by profit, voters, or law, but by “science”. You see, they only make people do things when “science” says that is for the best. Having seen how such “science” actually works in these contexts, I’m relatively skeptical of this as an effective discipline today. Too often, this is just a way to justify applying the widespread opinions of social classes and coalitions with which regulators ally.

Added 1p: Teaching kids to play a musical instrument is a striking example of paternalism. Even though data doesn’t suggest that it improves discipline or other academic performance, many passionately want to force this on not only their own kids, but also the kids of others, even those who feel strongly that they don’t want to play. Though most adults enjoy listening to music, few of them choose to play instruments, especially among those who were forced.

Yet people argue that we must force all kids to play so that they can enjoy music as adults and be more attractive as mates, or so that we can find the few good musicians, or so that we can increase the supply of music. Which seem pretty laughable arguments. More plausibly people identify with musicians and cultures that respect them, and so want to force others to respect them as well, especially kids whose status contributes to their own personal status.

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Beware RightTalkism

Some religions put “right belief” as a core principle in their qualifications for belonging, if not for eternal salvation. I have coined this religious phenomena as “Beliefism”. (More)

[In contrast to Christianity,] In Rome, individual expression of belief was unimportant, strict adherence to a rigid set of rituals was far more significant, thereby avoiding the hazards of religious zeal. (More)

“A purely symbolic congressional act is one expressing an attitude but prescribing no policy effects. … The term symbolic can also usefully be applied where Congress prescribes policy effects but does not act (in legislating or overseeing or both) so as to achieve them. … in a large class of legislative undertakings the electoral payment is for positions rather than for effects.” David Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection

The word professionalism originally applied to vows of a religious order. By at least the year 1675, the term had seen secular application and was applied to the three learned professions: Divinity, Law, and Medicine. The term professionalism was also used for the military profession around this same time. (More)

A profession is an occupation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain. … There is considerable agreement about defining the characteristic features of a profession. They have a “professional association, cognitive base, institutionalized training, licensing, work autonomy, colleague control… (and) code of ethics” (More)

Robin Hanson argued some time ago that politics isn’t about policy. … “We (unconsciously) don’t care much about the consequences of such policies – we instead support policies to make ourselves look good” … How would we know if Robin was wrong? I think that no matter what your policy priors are, there are some obvious things policy should incorporate if in fact we did care about policy outcomes. The lack of these policy features suggests to me that Robin is correct. (More)

Folk activism … leads activists to do too much talking, debating, & proselytizing, & not enough real-world action. We build coalitions of voters to attempt to influence or replace tribal political & intellectual leaders rather than changing system-wide incentives. (More)

The numbers of women or people of color in management do not increase with most anti-bias education. “There just isn’t much evidence that you can do anything to change either explicit or implicit bias in a half-day session,” … anti-bias training can backfire, with adverse effects especially on Black people, perhaps, he speculated, because training, whether consciously or subconsciously, “activates stereotypes.” … likelihood of backlash “if people feel that they’re being forced to go to diversity training to conform with social norms or laws.” (More)

The answer to racist policing … starts with hiring. The majority of police officers do not have four-year college degrees. They don’t start their career with a foundational education that will broaden their worldview, make them empathetic to other cultures or understand human psychology. (More)

The Chinese legal system originated over 2000 years ago in the conflict between two views of law, Legalist and Confucian. The Legalists, who believed in using the rational self-interest of those subject to law to make them behave in the way desired by those making the law, were accused by later writers of advocating harsh penalties to drive the crime rate to near zero. They supported a strong central government and equal treatment under law. Confucianists argued for modifying behavior not by reward and punishment but by teaching virtue. …

resembles the conflict between 18th and 19th century British approaches to crime and punishment. The dominant view in the eighteenth century saw criminal penalties as deterrence, their purpose to make crime unprofitable. The dominant view in the nineteenth century saw criminals as victims of their own ignorance and irrationality, the purpose of penalties to reform them, make them wiser and better. … Both approaches survive in modern legal theory and modern legal systems. …

One might interpret the [Chinese] examination system as a massive exercise in indoctrination. …Those who had fully internalized that way of thinking would be better able to display it in the high-pressure context of the exams. … The Confucian solution was education and example, making people want to be good and teaching them how. The ideal Confucian Emperor would never punish anyone for anything, merely set an example of virtuous behavior so perfect that it would inspire all below him. Seen from that standpoint, it made some sense to set up a system designed to produce good men, put them in power and then leave them alone. (More)

An “ism” is a system of beliefs, and many isms are versions of “righttalkism”. That is, they are systems which claim that one of if not the most important way to make the world better is to push most everyone to more oft and loudly express good and deny bad beliefs. Such pushing is done via early-life education, later-life sermons and retraining, favoring right-thinkers for prestigious positions, and seeking out and punishing deviant heretics.

As the examples of Christianity and Confusianism illustrate, righttalkism has been quite common in history, though righttalkists have varied somewhat in where and how much they tolerate deviants. Rightalkism is arguably the main justification offered today in support of most religious activity, education, news, licensed trained professionals, social media conflict, etc. Which adds up to a big fraction of human behavior.

While widely expressed beliefs surely do have some causal effect on the world, most versions of righttalkism seem to me clearly false in far over-stating that influence. That is, pushing right talk is vastly over-emphasized as a way to make a better world. And the reason why seems obvious: political coalitions continually vie for dominance, and when beliefs are markers of coalition membership, then coalitions can win by promoting those who share their markers and hindering those with conflicting markers. That is, coalitions win by helping us and hurting them.

Yes, right talk can sometimes help to promote right policy. And coalitions can gain by promoting policies that favor coalition members, and also policies that help larger social units, at least when such gains will be widely recognized and credited to the wisdom and generosity of that coalition. Its just that coalitions gain far less from righttalk via these channels than via more directly helping members to win over members of other coalitions.

While politics is usually less about policy than people pretend, it could be that you are unusual in caring more than most do about good policy outcomes. In that case, you should care less than do most others about righttalk. You should care less about changing the rightness of what is said via news, schools, social media, care less about how many people are exposed to such messages, and care less about the righttalk of people chosen for prestigious positions.

Instead, care more about concrete non-talk actions, and about talk that can’t be easily classified as supporting or opposing existing coalitions. Instead of joining in on existing political battles, pull the tug-o-war rope sideways.

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Utopia’s Garden, World, and Wall

Imagine that you lived in the “human quarter” of a vast city full of diverse aliens, all on a planet far from Earth. These aliens are quite strange and hard to understand in many ways, and so cannot simply be trusted, though your city does manage to usually maintain basic overall peace and law. As your human quarter is too small to be self-sufficient, it must trade and interact a lot with the rest of the city. Not just in physical goods, but also in work and social coordination. As a result, many humans participate in many alien-dominated orgs.

In this “human quarter in an alien city” scenario, your social concerns would come in three areas: (a) close relations between humans (b) global coordination among all species across a city or larger scales, and (c) humans interactions with aliens. That last area of concern is the one that seems the most interesting to me, and where I have the most to say.

Close human relations are harder to reason about abstractly, and can depend greatly on human nature and local culture. Global coordination is the sort of topic that many compete to discuss, making it unlikely that I can add much, or that the world would listen to me if I did. But it seems more feasible to find interesting and general things to say about how very different and distrusting species can usefully interact.

Consider this in terms of “utopia” (or “heaven”). If it were possible, we’d all like to built and maintain utopias. And utopias have three key issue areas, which I’ll call “garden”, “world”, and “wall”.

Well inside each utopia is a “garden”, full of rich detailed life, energy, color, aromas, passions, conflict, and play. Gardens give deep and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction, but depend crucially on complex opaque details of residents. Each utopia may have very different gardens, all full of life, but living very different lives. Making it hard to say much in general about how to manage gardens. Each utopia may have to mostly learn on its own here.

Utopias all exist in a larger “world”, a larger world that will try to coordinate in many ways, but will also fail to coordinate in as many ways. How exactly that grand coordination should be organized will always be a big political issue, on which many will compete fiercely to influence. Your utopia will want to play its part in this larger game, but can’t expect to have great influence there.

As David Lloyd Dusenbury argues in a thoughtful essay:

The basic intuition of all utopian fiction [is that] the perfect modern state—like the optimal city of antiquity—is sheltered by strong borders.

If your utopia is a small part of a nearby larger world, then to achieve many of their ends residents will want to interact with that larger world in many ways. And as those other parts of the larger world aren’t part of your utopia, you will have to be careful about how you do this. The world today is actually full of creatures that may look human-like and understandable, but are actually quite alien and inscrutable. You’d do better to treat them as aliens than as friends.

Thus your utopia must have a “wall”, i.e., an interface between it and the world. You can’t presume that those you interact with out there share your utopian norms, culture, attitudes, or feelings of utopian solidarity. And if you try to make your interactions depend on the details of their norms, culture, etc., you’ll need to do that differently for each of the different kinds of others with which you interact.

There thus may be a place for thinking in general about utopian walls. About how your utopia’s precious garden might be better promoted via the right levels and types of interactions with outsiders. And instead of using a different type of interaction for each different type of outsider, it may work better to find good general ways that people from different utopias and sub-worlds can reliably and useful interact. That is, utopias may well want to have rather similar walls, even if they have very different gardens.

This is how I’ve come to think about my work onpaying for results.” It is a hands-off distant relation, in which you admit that you don’t know much about how to judge the expertise you are trying to buy, and you don’t seek close emotionally-satisfying relations with such experts. Thus you are willing to consider simple general interaction policies, designed to let you get as much as possible out of the relation, while also allowing as much skepticism as possible about those strange outsiders and their odd and untrustworthy ways.

I fully admit that it isn’t enough for a utopia to merely have good walls, or to sit in a good-enough world. It will also need good gardens, and arms-length paying for results may be poorly suited for that. But good walls are an important element, and that is at least something where abstract thinking and analysis of the sort I’m good at may well have a lot to offer.

Added: In this Twitter poll, my answer is least popular:

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Board Games As Policy Arguments

When we want to convince others to support our policy positions, we often tell stories. We tell people about things that happened to us, to people we know, and to people we’ve heard of. Journalists tell stories about what happened to famous people recently, or to whole sets of people in “studies”. Popular books also include such policy-lesson stories. And fiction often tries to persuade about policy using “true-like” stories, which are not actually true.

The way that these stories are supposed to support policies is that we are invited to imagine how such stories would have turned out better with different policies. That is the policy “moral” of a story. A big problem with this approach, however, is that even if the story is true, and even if we can correctly judge how a policy would have changed a story, each policy influences a great many other stories. Policy advocates are likely to select the stories that make their policy look best, out of all the other possible stories they could tell.

Academias often tell these kinds of stories, but we also tell other kinds that better avoid this problem. For example, formal game theory models describe entire formal worlds, including agents, resources, actions, info, locations, and preferences. So one can judge if a policy is good overall in such a world. A similar benefit holds for agent-based simulations, lab experiments, and field experiments. In each case, one can judge how much a policy helps or hurts overall for the world that is studied.

Of course most of these methods actually only consider relatively small worlds, which at best correspond to small parts of our big world. So if a policy has effects outside of the scope of the world that it considers, these methods won’t see that. You can try to analyze the many small worlds that a policy influences, and add up the overall effect across them all, but that is hard to do well.

These sorts of small world models also make many assumptions about the basic situations in the small worlds that they consider. So the lessons that they draw from their small worlds need not apply to the corresponding parts of our big world, if those assumptions are bad approximations to our big world. This is less of a problem when one relies on true stories drawn from our actual world. So both sorts of methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and one should plausibly use both when drawing policy conclusions.

All these methods by which academics model policy in small worlds have one big disadvantage: it is hard to use them to persuade ordinary people. They and their supporting analysis can be complex, and also just boring, and thus not emotionally engaging. Dramatic stories from the real world can overcome these big disadvantages.

However, there is another kind of policy story that has so far been neglected, but which can combine the advantages of a wholistic policy evaluation across an entire small world, with the advantages of being simple enough for ordinary people to understand, and also emotionally engaging enough to get them to pay attention. And that is board games. Consider Monopoly:

In 1903, Georgist Lizzie Magie applied for a patent on a game called The Landlord’s Game with the object of showing that rents enriched property owners and impoverished tenants. She knew that some people would find it hard to understand the logic behind the idea, and she thought that if the rent problem and the Georgist solution to it were put into the concrete form of a game, it might be easier to demonstrate. …

Also in the 1970s, Professor Ralph Anspach, who had himself published a board game intended to illustrate the principles of both monopolies and trust busting, fought Parker Brothers and its then parent company, General Mills, over the copyright and trademarks of the Monopoly board game. (More)

The rules of each board game describe both an entire small world, and also the policies that govern player actions in that world. So when people play a board game, they get an intuitive feel for how that world works, how much they enjoy living in that world, and how alternate rules would change their enjoyment. At which point they are ready to hear and understand this policy argument:

If we changed these policy-setting rules (as opposed to these world-defining rules) in this game, that would turn this into a more enjoyable game, and/or make the world it describes more admirable. So to the extent that an important part of our real larger world is like this game world, we should try to move our real policies more toward these better game policies.

Now as far as I can tell, these policy argument fail badly in the case of Monopoly. People like playing the Monopoly game as it is, and do not enjoy it as much when its rules are changed to embody the alternate property and tax policies favored by those who designed and developed it. But the basic approach to policy argument seems valid, at least as a complement to our other story approaches.

Yes, people may have different agendas and priorities regarding life in a board game, relative to their own real lives. But that critique applies as well to all the other kinds of stories that people use to argue for policies. For example, your priorities about the characters in a story you hear may not be the same as your priorities if you were in the story yourself. Yes, to the extent that video games have board game elements, with rules on how players relate to each other, video games can also support policy arguments.

So I’d like to see more people try to make policy arguments in the context of board games. Show us two variations on a game, where the more fun or admirable version corresponds to the policies that you prefer, while the other version corresponds to policies closer to what we have now. Let us prove your claim to ourselves by playing your game. Or maybe find other rules that we enjoy even more, and invite you to prove that claim to yourself by playing.

Yes, I might still not like your policy, because I think your world differs from our real world, or our priorities differ between games and real life.  And yes, the space of fun board games is far smaller than the space of games, so that fun games are far from representative of the larger space. But still, from the point of view of convincing ordinary people about policies, adding game policy arguments probably puts us in a better position than we are in now relying mainly on personal stories, fictional stories, and academic authority.

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The Commanding Heights of Culture

In war, each side strives to control the “commanding heights”. These are places, usually elevated, where it is easier to defend, harder to attack, and especially valuable for helping your other military units. Hilltops, walls, bridges, towns, harbors, etc. With control of commanding heights, you might win even if you don’t have as many troops, tanks, ships, planes, etc.

In a fight between factions within an organization, each faction seeks to control the commanding heights of key positions. Such as CEO, board of directors, head of finance, head of marketing, etc. An alliance can use control of these positions to push its allies into other positions of power. In this way, a faction might take control of an organization, even if it comprises only a minority of organization members. 

In business, firms strive to control the commanding heights where there is more market power, reduced competition, and entry barriers. They seek places where it is harder for rivals to displace them. This can be due to switching costs, network effects, scale economies, customer loyalty, exclusive patents, or a natural monopoly of customers or workers. Society today generally looks suspiciously on such business advantages, seeking to limit them via culture, legal liability, and anti-trust regulation. That is, we seek to flatten such heights, and failing that we often control them via regulation or direct government management. Even so, a big % of wealth today comes from control of such commanding heights of business.

In larger political and cultural conflicts, different factions fight for control over larger social levers of influence. This includes core government positions of leadership. But in a democracy, those tend to be controlled by whomever can gain a majority of the popular vote. And as voters are ignorant and fickle, gaining them can be expensive and uncertain for factions. Yes, if you can get people with money to donate to your cause, you might use that to help attract voters. But as donors are also ignorant and fickle, you also compete with other political factions to attract donations, just as you compete for voters. 

Which is why cultural and political factions also seek other more secure bases – the commanding heights of culture. For example, with an independent judiciary, politicians may not directly control who are the new judges, or their choices may be highly constrained to be acceptable to current judges. In this case, once your political faction controls most judges, you can use that base of power to ensure that only folks who prove they are loyal to your faction become judges. Then your side can set laws and their interpretation to support your political and cultural agendas. Similarly, if your faction can control the schools, or the news media, then you can use those to spread your agenda. 

Now if control over such heights were simply owned and bought with money, then they would be commanding heights of business, but not of culture. For example, if there were a business monopoly that controlled all the media, then you could get it to teach everyone your agenda, but only if you paid it more for that coverage than did your rival political factions. Yes, you might persuade its owners to donate to your cause, via giving up some business revenue to help to your cause. But that’s just competing for donors again.

We get a similar effect if you can’t directly buy control over an area, but that area is still controlled for profit. For example, labor unions might be controlled by leaders seeking mainly to personally profit, on behalf of union members who expect to personally profit from union actions. In this case, a union will only choose to ally with outside groups, or to support their agendas, when those outside groups reciprocally support that union. These sort of unions can be part of an alliance, but they are not otherwise commanding heights of political power. 

So a central feature of the commanding heights of cultural conflict is that they are not bought with money, directly or indirectly. They are instead acquired via political conflict between groups demonstrating their political loyalty to a faction. Oh there may be for-profit firms involved, but those firms are not in full control; there are also professionals who can enforce their own standards. Maybe one of the reason that many do not like such areas to be bought completely with money is that they instead prefer them to be commanding heights, places from which factions can more securely influence society.

In business, you don’t make much net profits when you are in strong competition with rivals. You might then just barely stay in business, paying almost as much to your suppliers as you get from customers. Similarly in cultural conflict, a faction can’t gain much power and security if it is constantly competing for the allegiance of fickle voters and donors. A faction instead gains stable power, and thus profits, when it controls areas not via for-profit priorities, but via political loyalties. Pushing out those who don’t show sufficient allegiance to their political side, and then using that area to promote its agenda elsewhere. 

I see three reasons why a faction might be less eager to control an area of life in this way. One is that control there doesn’t let you push your agenda very much elsewhere. For example, it is harder to push larger cultural agendas via the construction process, relative to development policies of what is built where. And it is harder to promote a cultural agenda via control over the engineering of system back-ends and internals, relative to the design of features and policies that users see and use. 

A second reason to be less eager to control an area is when there is a strong competition for who does which roles how there. For example, if positions on sporting teams are chosen via fierce competitions of sport ability, there may remain too little slack to allow politically-aligned folks in that area to favor people from their side. Making it hard for a political faction to usefully control that area. It may be similar for musicians or actors. An area is only tempting to control if some key people there have enough slack and discretion to be able to favor choosing their political allies, even when those favorites are not quite as good or productive in the usual sense there.  

A third reason to be less eager to control an area is if people there have neutrality norms that say to not use dominance in one area to favor sides in larger political or cultural conflicts. For example, most Western militaries have such a norm. That is, internal factions may struggle for control of militaries, and they might even happen to correlate with larger political factions. But they are not to use control over the military to favor their side in the larger social world. Many parts of police and legal systems have also shared similar norms. Academia, law, and journalism also once had stronger neutrality norms, before the left came to dominate them more. 

Back in 2014 I wrote:

Jobs that lean conservative: soldier, police, doctor, religious worker, insurance broker. These seem to be jobs where there are rare big bad things that can go wrong, and you want workers who can help keep them from happening. That explanation can also makes some sense of these other conservative jobs: grader & sorter, electrical contractor, car dealer, trucker, coal miner, construction worker, gas service station worker, non-professor scientist. Conservatives are more focused on fear of bad things, and protecting against them.

Now consider some jobs that lean liberal: professor, journalist, artist, musician, author. Here you might see these jobs as having rare but big upsides. Maybe the focus is on small chances that a worker will cause a rare huge success. This is plausibly the opposite of a conservative focus on rare big losses.

But consider these other liberal jobs: psychiatrist, lawyer, teacher. Here the focus may just be on people who talk well. And that can also make sense of many of the previous list of liberal jobs. It might also makes sense of another big liberal job: civil servant.

So for a while now the left has controlled the commanding heights of academia, law, journalism, art, and civil service, while the right has controlled medicine, religion, military, police, insurance, construction, and engineering. Recently the left seems to have taken control of two areas previously controlled by the right: medicine, and social tech. This seems to have resulted from the left very strongly controlling elite colleges, the source of new elites in medicine and social tech. The recent academic trend toward dropping objective test scores from college admissions will allow more admissions discretion, which enables more political favoritism.

Not only does the right seem to be on the retreat re controlling commanding heights of culture, the areas that the right still controls seem less valuable as they are (1) more behind the scenes (engineering and construction), (2) more objectively competitive (e.g., sports), and (3) have stronger neutrality norms (e.g., military, police). Perhaps the right will reconsider its neutrality norms, if it takes recent history to suggest that the left will not continue them if it takes over such areas.

As I noted before, our society has tended to seek to shrink the commanding heights of business, via anti-trust policy. But we have no similar policies to shrink the commanding heights of areas like academia, law, etc. I’m not sure how anti-trust could work there, but it seems something worth considering. 

But more fundamentally, I’d prefer to shrink these commanding heights by reducing the slack there, via increased competition. The more that we could buy all these services via paying for results, they less we’d need to let these areas self-regulate, thereby creating fertile and attractive commanding heights for factions to control. In addition to getting more useful and effective teaching, medicine, law, etc., we’d also force cultural factions to more compete for our votes, donations, and allegiance.

P.S. I love to see a board game wherein factions compete to control such commanding heights of culture.

Added July 5: A new study on which sides have which jobs.

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Philosopher Kings in Blue?

When things go wrong in our lives, we are often tempted to invoke governments to fix them. So we add more systems wherein governments do things, and we make more laws to influence what other people do. However, in the messy process of translating our general purposes into particular system and rules, we often allow various groups to control important details, and turn them more to their purposes. We also get random outcomes due to randomness in which political factions happen have more control when we turn our attention to changing each particular system or rule. In addition, we often leave out details because we are hypocritical, and unwilling to fully admit our real purposes. For example, we often want to appear to oppose things more than we do, like say drug use, prostitution, or adultery.

The net effect of these many messy processes is that our government systems and rules are poorly integrated, clumsy, and vague. We don’t bother to work out many details, and we don’t decide how to make key tradeoffs between different systems and rules. For such elaboration, the public and their politicians often punt to judges and government agencies. And for details where agencies don’t set policies, they punt to individual civil servants.

To influence these agencies and their civil servants, we set bosses who can give them orders, and perhaps promote or fire them. Bosses who have other bosses all the way up to the politicians we elect. But we are afraid of new politicians taking too much hidden control over these agencies, say by firing everyone and hiring all their friends. So we often limit politicians’ powers to direct and fire civil servants. This gives agencies and civil servants more discretion, to do what they choose.

Of course in any one social equilibrium, an individual civil servant may not feel they have great discretion. But that doesn’t contradict the claim that collectively they have a lot. That is, there can be many possible government equilibria consistent with the overall government rules and larger political and social worlds. Some of this government discretion may be captured by the schools and other systems that train people to become civil servants.

To enforce rules on both civil servants, and on ordinary people, we threaten to punish people for violating rules. The civil servants we put in charge of this enforcement process are “police” (in which I include prosecutors, judges, and other civil servants with rule-enforcing discretion). And to help police in these roles, we give them various budgets and powers.

The above description so far is pretty generic, applying nearly as well to a quite minimal state as to a strong “police state”, wherein police have strong powers to punish most anyone they choose. Where any one state sits on this spectrum is determined by many factors, including (1) police monetary budgets, (2) police direct powers to invade spaces, demand info, etc., (3) police negotiating powers regarding court proceedings, and (4) the frequency and severity of rules that people frequently violate.

While once upon a time (say two centuries ago) the U.S. system looked more like a minimal state, today it looks more like a police state. Maybe not as bad a police state as the old Soviet Union, but still, a police state. This transformation is detailed in William Stuntz’ excellent book The Collapse of American Criminal Justice. Some key changes:

  1. We’ve added a lot more laws, so many that we don’t understand most, and regularly violate many.
  2. We’ve cut the use of juries and also many legal defenses, which previously helped evade guilty verdicts.
  3. Rise of big cities means county-set laws are set by folks different from those suffer, cause most crime.
  4. States, who set prison budgets but don’t control conviction rates, greatly increased prison budgets.
  5. Legal trial complexity & cost has risen greatly, and is now beyond what most can afford.
  6. Plea bargaining is now allowed, which strongly pushes people to plead guilty, even when they aren’t.
  7. The new doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from many lawsuits.
  8. Most complaints about police have long been investigated by the same agency that employs them.
  9. The rise in civil servant unions, especially police unions.
  10. Surveillance, tracking, and info collection has in many ways become much cheaper.

(Some of these changes resulted from courts seeking to encourage big moral movements, such as those against slavery, alcohol, drugs, prostitution, polygamy, and gambling.)

The net effect of all this is that police can, if they so choose, target most anyone for punishment. That is, for most any target, police can relatively cheaply find a rule the target violated, pressure others to testify against the target, and then finally pressure the target to plead guilty. And police collectively have a lot of discretion in how they use this power. (The rich and politically well-connected may of course be able to discourage such use of power against themselves.)

Of course, the fact that police are powerful hardly implies that they use such powers badly. It remains quite possible that, like the proverbial super-hero, they use their super-powers for good. Many people have long claimed that the best form of government is one run by good-hearted but unconstrained philosopher kings.

This is the context in which I’d like you to consider current complaints about police mistreatment of detainees. Police must make difficult and context-dependent tradeoffs between how carefully to avoid hurting detainees, and how aggressively to discourage them from defiance or escape.

These are the sort of areas where, in our system, local civil servants and their agencies have great discretion, and where the basic nature of our government and legal systems makes it hard to pull back such discretion. I’m not saying that nothing can be done; things can and should be done. But I’m pretty sure that the sort of modest changes being now considered (more training, more record keeping, “requiring” body cams, etc.) can’t greatly change what is in essence a police state. (In contrast, changing to a bounty system might do a lot more.)

Look, imagine that while interacting with police you started to insult them and call them terrible ugly names. In many places, this is probably perfectly legal. However, you’d be rightly reluctant to do this, as you’d know they have a many ways to retaliate. If their local people and culture are inclined to retaliate, and to build a “blue wall of silence” around it, there is little most people can do to protect themselves.

This is why you can’t really count on laws that say you have the right to film police, etc. We basically live in a police state, and in such a state its hard for mere rules to greatly change police behavior. We may well be gaining some benefits from such a police state, but being able to exert detailed control over police and how they use their great discretion is just not one of them.

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Farrell On Who Pushes To Open

Recently I wrote:

While the public will uniformly push for more opening, elites and experts push in a dozen different directions. If elites would all back the same story and solution, as they did before, they would probably get it. … So elites and experts don’t speak with a unified voice, while the public does. And that’s why the public will win. While the public tends to defer to elites and experts, and even now still defers a lot, this deference is gradually weakening. We are starting to open, and will continue to open, as long as opening is the main well-supported alternative to the closed status quo. … public pushes will will tend to be correlated in a particular direction, in contrast with the elite pushes which are much more diverse.

Also, my poll on “If in your region, pandemic continues to grow, or decline very slowly, for N more months, you will support a weaker lockdown,” got a median answer N = 1.2.

Henry Farrell responded:

People … are in favor of stay at home orders, … It could be that people are lying …but it would be unprecedented for so many of them to be lying. … So why then, may the equilibrium break down? It’s clearly not because of express demand from the public. Nor because of cheating … The plausible answer is that private power asymmetries are playing a crucial role in undermining the equilibrium. Some people – employees with poor bargaining power and no savings – may find themselves effectively coerced into a return to work as normal. … this is certainly a situation where the state and private actors are looking to get into cahoots, but not in the ways that public choice economists have devoted significant analytic energy to. And if you want an illustration of Marxist arguments about the “structural power of capital” to threaten politicians … Where public choice people seem to perceive a “public” that collectively wants to return to work, I see something different – a set of asymmetric power relations that public choice scholars are systematically blind to …

So here’s my bet. If the public choice analysis is right, and this is about some kind of broad and diffuse “public” pushing back against impossible regulations, then we will see a return to the economy sooner rather than later. But we can reasonably presume that this return will be roughly symmetric. … In contrast, if I’m right, we will see a very different return to “normality.” The return to the economy will be sharply asymmetric. Those who are on the wrong end of private power relations – whether they are undocumented immigrants, or just the working poor – will return early and en masse. Those who have the choice and the bargaining power will tend instead to pick safety. …[This] highlights the frequently brutal power relations that public choice scholars shove under the carpet when they talk about the “public” wanting an end to lockdown and a return to past economic relations.

So, Farrell says that it might look like people want to work, but this is only because “power asymmetries” let bad firms force them. If those firms would just be good enough to keep paying full wages, why then workers would happily stay home forever. Thus proving its not ordinary people who push to open, it is really the evil capitalists pushing. As also proven by those polls. Economic theory (what “public choice” scholars use to study politics) just can’t explain why poor people with less savings might be more eager to work; for that you need “private power relations” theory.

Wow. As you can see, I am not making this up.

Look, even if we kept printing plenty of money to hand out to workers to all stay home, eventually there wouldn’t be anything to buy, because no one was making and distributing products and services. And then no one would be happy to stay home. The fact that someone needs to work in order to make our world function isn’t some conspiracy foisted on us by the asymmetrically powerful, it is just a basic fact about our world that would also apply in Marxist heaven, or any other social system.

There are many channels by which such fundamental pressures will be communicated to the political equilibrium, but they must all lead to the same place. We are paying a real price for not working, we will only continue if we see sufficient value in it, and even then for only a limited time. Every non-crazy theory of politics must predict this. And economists, including those who study politics, do in fact predict that the poor will push first and harder, as they run out of resources first. Maybe you blame the very existence of the poor on evil capitalists, but this outcome happens regardless of why there are poor, it only requires that they exist.

Who pushes the least? Rich elites who can work from home selling abstract arguments that blame all problems, even pandemics, on (other) evil rich.

Note that we also have many non-work social needs that push us to open. And employers are similarly willing to stay home if we keep sending them checks.

Added: Farrell quickly responded:

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Why Openers Are Winning

Three main relevant groups have vied lately to influence pandemic policy: public, elites, and experts. Initially, public health experts dominated, even when they screwed up. But then they seemed to publicly assume that it was too late to contain Covid19, and the only viable option was “flattening the curve” to get herd immunity. At that point, elite opinion worldwide objected loudly, and insisted that containment be the official policy.

Experts and the public demurred, and elites got their way. Everywhere in the world, all at once, strong lockdown polices began, and containment became the official goal. But elites did not insist on any particular standard containment policy. Such as, for example, the packages of polices that seem to have worked initially in Wuhan or South Korea. Instead elites seemed satisfied to let the politicians and experts in each jurisdiction craft their own policy packages, as long as they seemed “strong”, involving much public sacrifice. And they allowed official public messages suggesting that relatively short durations would be sufficient.

A few months later, those duration periods are expiring. And in the different jurisdictions, the diverse policies now sit next to quite diverse outcomes. In some places, infections are low or declining, while in others they are flat or increasing. The public is feeling the accumulated pain, and itching to break out. If these flat or increasing trends continue, containment will fail, and lockdown harms will soon exceed plausible future gains from preventing medical system overload.

Elites are now loudly and consistently saying that this is not time to open; we must stay closed and try harder to contain. When confronted with the discouraging recent trends, elites respond with a blizzard of explanations for local failures, and point to a cacophony of prophets with plans and white papers declaring obvious solutions.

But, and this is the key point, they mostly point to different explanations and solutions. For example, this polls shows very little agreement on the key problem:

So while the public will uniformly push for more opening, elites and experts push in a dozen different directions. If elites would all back the same story and solution, as they did before, they would probably get it. If they would say “We agree that this is what we did wrong over the last few months, and this is the specific policy package that will produce much different outcomes over the next few months.” But they aren’t saying this.

So elites and experts don’t speak with a unified voice, while the public does. And that’s why the public will win. While the public tends to defer to elites and experts, and even now still defers a lot, this deference is gradually weakening. We are starting to open, and will continue to open, as long as opening is the main well-supported alternative to the closed status quo, which we can all see isn’t working as fast as expected, and plausibly not fast enough to be a net gain. Hearing elites debate a dozen other alternatives, each supported by different theories and groups, will not be enough to resist that pressure to open.

Winning at politics requires more than just prestige, good ideas, and passion. It also requires compromise, to produce sufficient unity. At this game, elites are now failing, while the public is not.

Added 3p: Many are reading me as claiming that the public is unified in the sense of agreeing on everything. But I only said that the public pushes will will tend to be correlated in a particular direction, in contrast with the elite pushes which are much more diverse. Some also read me as claiming that strong majorities of the public support fast opening, but again that’s not what I said.

Added 6May: Here is data suggesting people are getting out more. Here is data suggesting increasing support for opening.

Added 7May: This poll suggests patience is thin. Lognormal fit says only willing to wait median of 1.2 months (mode 0.08, mean 4.7).

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Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?

A recent influential report posed the key Covid-19 issue today as: to mitigate or suppress? Should we focus on “flattening the curve” under the assumption that most everyone will get it soon, or adopt even stronger measures in an attempt to squash it, so most never get it.

Some simple obvious considerations are:

  1. if successful, squashing saves many more lives,
  2. you have to do a lot more to squash than to flatten,
  3. while flattening policies need be maintained only for a few months, squashing policies must be maintained until a strong treatment is available, probably years, and
  4. squashing is far easier when you have only a few infected and when your trading, travel, and physical neighbors don’t have many infected.

Several nations, mostly Asian, seem to have successfully squashed so far, though they started when they had few infected. China and perhaps S. Korea are the main examples of squashing more than a tiny number of infected, though even they had far fewer than we do now in the West where so many are suddenly eager to squash. China had much recent experience with mass surveillance, controlling population movements, and enforcing strict rules. Even so, they screwed up badly early on, and it isn’t at all obvious that China’s squashing will keep working as they let people go back to work, or when many big neighbors get highly infected.

The main point I want to make in this post is that trying to get your Western government to suppress Covid-19 in the usual way is making a big bet on the quality of they and typical neighboring governments. And also of your public’s commitment. As in the famous Dirty Harry (non-)quote, I ask: “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

Western government agencies and expert communities so far have had a bad record dealing with Covid-19. At first they criticized China’s strong measures and focused on signaling political correctness. The US government badly screwed up the generation and regulation of tests and masks, and the West continues to fail to cut regulation preventing rapid expansion of medical personnel and resources. Western governments only changed policies when public opinion changed, and even now seem more focused on handing out cash to allies, and symbolic but useless acts like banning bicycles.

As with most policy, you must expect that the details matter a lot. So even if you see China policy as a success, you shouldn’t have high hopes if your government merely copies a few surface features of China policy. That only works if this is a simple problem, with simple solutions, and few problems are that simple. This is not just a problem of insufficient moral fervor.

You should have higher hopes if they copied the whole China policy package relatively exactly, and even higher if the Chinese officials who managed their policy implementation personally came to manage implementation here. Even then climate, cultural, or infrastructure differences might mean their policies don’t work here. But no government seems even interested in copying the exact China package, and in my recent poll, 80% of 927 opposed this last idea of Chinese management.

Dear Western citizen, your government has already demonstrated incompetence at dealing with this in the absence of public pressure, and public pressure will mainly push them to do what they guess they would be most blamed by the public for not doing if things go badly. Regardless of whether that actually works; the public may never learn what actually works.

This pandemic has already been allowed to get much bigger than any that has ever been squashed before, and it is harder to squash than most, passing via the air, living on surfaces for days, and with infected folks showing no symptoms for over a week. And in contrast to China, your government doesn’t have much recent experience with the mass surveillance, movement controls, and strict rule enforcement.

And yet now at this late date, you are considering if to authorize these same governments to oversee not just large efforts to flatten the curve, but the more extreme efforts required to squash it. Even knowing that to make it work you’ll need very strong public support in a far less-communal culture than those that have so far managed to squash.

Mind you, you are now considering this not because you have great confidence in your government’s competence, or your public’s support. But mostly, it seems, because it would look morally bad for you to give up hope on the millions who will die even if we flatten the curve well. Really, do you feel lucky, punk?

Also consider: even if your local government manages to successfully squash its internal infections temporarily, what happens if half of its neighbors fail, and become mostly infected? Or what if they succeed for a while, but half of their neighbors fail? What will it take to keep external infections from overwhelming you then? Or what will it take for your government and others to coordinate to ensure that most governments succeed? Remember, these are the governments who have so far largely failed to prevent massive illegal immigration, and who continue to fail to coordinate to limit global warming, war, and ocean overfishing, or to promote global innovation.

This wouldn’t matter much if the policies for squashing looked much like the policies to flatten, so we could actually flatten but pretend for a while that we were trying to squash. But there are policies that could help to flatten that look obviously bad for squashing, such as deliberate exposure, which might cut 3/4 of life-years lost. And locking down the economy and social contacts for many years at a level that looks at all like it might succeed in squashing is going to involve enormous costs to the economy and your freedoms.

In my recent polls, 73% and 74% of 393 and 533 respondents predicted US and world (respectively) will become >25% infected before an >80% effective treatment was given to >80% of world. So 3 in 4 agree that global containment just isn’t going to happen. Yet, to show that they care, most governments are giving lip service to squashing as their goal, not flattening. How far will we all go in paying huge costs to pretend that this is at all likely?

Before we all jump off this cliff together, can we at least collect and publish some honest estimates of our chances of success? Such as perhaps via conditional betting markets? If you aren’t willing to exactly copy the whole China policy, or have them manage it, how serious could you really be about succeess?

Look, this is like starting a war. Its not enough to ask “would it be nice to win such a war”; we also need to ask “can we actually win?” Don’t start what you can’t finish.

I fear suppression is a monkey trap; afraid to let go the nut of saving everyone, we’ll be trapped in the gourd of not saving nearly as many as we could have.

Added 20Mar: Note that the many responses defending suppression talk about how many lives could be saved, and how they can imagine a plan that would work, but none address the issue of how competent is our government to implement such plans. Amazing how easily people slip from “it could be done” to “my government could do this”.

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Respectable Rants

I’m not very impressed with most political arguments, especially those targeted at mass audiences. I don’t mind such things being informal, passionate, rude, speculative, rambling, or redundant. But I need them to address what I see as key issues. Yes, my tastes may be unusual, but there are many others like me. So let me explain what I want to hear in a good political “rant”.

Don’t Exaggerate – You know who you are, and you know what I mean. There is plenty enough at stake in most areas to motivate me without your exaggerating. At least pretend toward honesty. All of history isn’t at stake, and no this by itself won’t decide between freedom and despotism. Yes, I can roughly correct for your exaggerations, so this item does the least harm. But it still bugs me.

Admit Tradeoffs – We usually can’t get more of something good without also getting less of something else good. Or more of something bad. I might be willing to go for the package, but don’t pretend there won’t be costs. If this choice isn’t new, tell me why we made the wrong tradeoff before. If this used to be a private choice, explain why private choices about this tend to go wrong.

Show Search – The world is complex, our systems in it have many parts, and things keep changing. So much of finding better policy consists of searching in a vast space of possible system-situation combos. Don’t pretend that the best combo is obvious, or that you are sure what will happen under your favored option. Tell me about what options we’ve tried, what we’ve seen there, and about new promising combinations. Tell me about key design principles, and how you may have found a rare design option that happens to embody many good design principles at once.

Prepare To Learn – This is the most important, and neglected, item. Don’t just tell me you have a plan, with details on request. Tell me how we will learn to adapt and improve your plan. What size experiments do we start with, where, and measured how? How we will change our designs in response in new iterations? Don’t tell me we will all make those decisions together, that just won’t work. Instead, tell me who will make those decisions, and especially, what will be their incentives to do this well.

If you want to just copy something that’s worked out pretty well elsewhere, okay maybe I mainly want to hear about tradeoffs seen there. Data. But if you want to do something new, then I need to hear a lot more about your learning plan. Especially when your proposal has a wide scope, its outcomes are hard to measure, and take a long time to be revealed.

Look, our main social problem is how to organize activity so that we can learn together how to be productive and useful to each other. There are other problems, but they are minor by comparison. Somehow each of us must react to the signals our world sends us, and send our own signals in response, to induce all the stuff that needs to happen, and efficiently and well. It is all terribly complex, but also terribly important.

Every policy proposal is of some way to change this huge system. We need some theory not only to estimate consequences of your proposal, but also to deal with its many unanticipated consequences later. Please give me some indication of what theories you’ll rely on. The weaker the theories you need, the better of course, but you’ll need something.

For example, if you propose to nationalize US medicine, tell me which other nationalized system you plan to copy. How does it decide on which treatments are covered, and where new facilities are built? How are doctors evaluated and if needed disciplined? How do patients express their differing individual preferences within this system? And since those other systems don’t contribute much to global medical innovation, tell me that you are okay with a big reduction in global medical innovation, or tell me how your system will be different enough to promote a lot more innovation.

For example, if you propose to regulate social media to be less addictive, stressful, and fake-news-promoting, tell us exactly what is the scope of powers you propose to grant regulators, what standards they will use to measure such things, and how the rest of us are to judge if they do a good job. Is this new proposed feedback process plausibly more effective than each of us individually switching our social media platforms when we feel addicted, stressed, or faked?

As you know, most political discourse purposely avoids most of what I’ve asked for here. Advocates instead tend to frame each dispute as a simple and fundamental moral choice. Details are avoided, dangers are exaggerated, and tradeoffs, search, and learning are rarely unacknowledged as issues. Politicians refer to goals and avoid talking about difficulties of implementation, incentives, measurement, or learning.

And that’s a big reason to be wary of letting political systems manage complex things of wide scope. When I buy something from a private source, they tend to say more about details, about how to measure payoffs, and about how they and I will learn about what works best. Maybe not an ideal amount, but definitely more. They more tell me what I want to hear in a rant, or an ad. If you want to make a to-my-ears good political rant, learn a bit from them.

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