Tag Archives: War

The Price of Nations

I’m here today at one of those moments where I feel I see an insight, but an insight which I suspect that many others already knew, and have long been trying to explain to me. If you are one of those, I apologize for my thickness.

The insight is this: many of our major policy choices are made largely to promote (or demote) certain social units as our coordination points of allegiance. In particular, in the last century we have assigned many social functions to national governments in order to induce deeper attachments to them, even when they are less effective at such functions than would be other units.

For example, around the world we tend to do the following at the national level: governance, war, law (especially criminal and legal process), regulation, immigrant control, redistribution, medicine, schools, retirement savings, parks, and financing of government.

For a great many of these, I’ve long puzzled over why we don’t instead handle them at smaller or large scales, or not via governments at all. As such alternatives often seem more effective and efficient. But I have to admit that many of us are prone to feel an allegiance and obligation toward whatever social unit provides such functions. E.g., we feel loyal to our doc, even when expensive and not such a great doc.

War has long been very important driver of human behavior, inducing societies to try almost everything they can to induce stronger social cohesion re and allegiance toward our main social unit of war. And for several centuries that unit has been: the nation. Yes, nations have often fought wars as alliances of nations, but even so the nation has been the primary unit of war.

While war might seem like it has faded in importance, and war has in fact been less destructive lately, it is not at all clear that war won’t continue to matter a great deal in the foreseeable future. So, to each nation, it is probably still worth paying substantial costs to maintain and increase its abilities to fight war.

But it seems worth asking if greatly distorting these many other big social areas as we now do is really the most cost-effective way to prepare for future war. Might we instead usefully substitute: more military spending (including conscription), stronger alliances between nations, merging existing nations into larger nations, a harsher and more consistent policy of retaliation against enemies, or stronger pro-fertility, pro-immigration, or pro-growth policies to increase future war capacity?

Perhaps there are advantages to having the same social unit do many social functions, even if it matters less which exact unit that is. However, I’m not sure I can see strong synergies of that sort.

Perhaps some people just feel allied to a unit and want to strength it by adding to the functions it performs, not because that helps in war, but just because of their allegiance; they want that unit to win over all other social units. However, I’m not sure why I should want to encourage that behavior.

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An Alien War Nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Beware Mob War Strategy

The game theory is clear: it can be in your interest to make threats that it would not be in your interest to carry out. So you can gain from committing to carrying out such threats. But only if you do it right. Your commitment plan must be simple and clear enough for your audience to see when it applies to them, how it is their interest to go along with it, and that people who look like you to them have in fact been consistently following such a plan.

So, for example, it probably won’t work to just lash out at whomever happens to be near you whenever the universe disappoints you somehow. The universe may reorganize to avoid your lashings, but probably not by catering to your every whim. More likely, others will avoid you, or crush you. That’s a bad commitment plan.

Here’s a good commitment plan. A well-run legal system can usefully deter crime via committing to consistently punish law violations. Such a system clearly defines violations, and shows potential violators an enforcement system wherein a substantial fraction of violations will be detected, prosecuted, and punished. Those under the jurisdiction of this law can see this fact, and understand which acts lead to which punishments. Such acts can thus be deterred.

Here’s another pretty good commitment plan. The main nations with nuclear weapons seem to have created a mutual expectation of “mutually assured destruction.” Each nation is committed to responding to a nuclear attack with a devastating symmetric attack. So devastating as to deter attack even if there is a substantial chance that such a response wouldn’t happen. This commitment plan is simple, easy to understand, clearly communicated, and quite focused on particular scenarios. So far, it seems to have worked.

Humans are often willing to suffer large costs to punish those who violate their moral rules. In fact, we probably evolved such moral indignation in part as a way to commit to punishing violations of our local moral norms. In small bands, with norms that were stable across many generations, members could plausibly achieve sufficient clarity and certainty about norm enforcement to deter violations via such threats. So such commitments might have had good plans in that context.

But this does not imply that things would typically go well for us if we freely indulged our moral indignation inclinations in our complex modern world. For example, imagine that we encouraged, instead of discouraged, mob justice. That is, if we encouraged people to gossip to convince their friends to share their moral outrange, building off of each until they chased down and “lynched” any who offended them.

This sort of mob justice can go badly for a great many reasons. We don’t actually share norms as closely as we think, mob members are often more eager to show loyalty to each other than to verify accusation accuracy, and some are willing to make misleading accusations to take down rivals. More fundamentally, we might say that mob justice goes bad because it is not based on a good commitment plan. Observers just can’t predict mob justice outcomes well enough for it to usefully encourage good behavior, at least compared to a formal legal system.

Now consider the subject of making peace deals to end wars. Such as the current war between Russia and Ukraine. An awful lot of people, probably a majority, of the Ukrainian supporters I’ve heard from seem to be morally offended by the idea of such a peace deal in this case. Even though the usual game theory analyses of war say that there are usually peace deals that both sides would prefer at the time to continued war. (Such deals could focus on immediately verifiable terms; they needn’t focus on unverifiable promises of future actions. In April 2022 Russia and Ukraine apparently had a tentative deal, scuttled due to pressure from Ukrainian allies.)

Many of these peace deal opponents are willing to justify this stance in consequentialist terms: they say that we should commit to not making such deals. Which, as they are eager to point out, is a logically coherent stance due to the usual game theory analysis. We should thus “hold firm”, “teach them a lesson”, “don’t let them get away with it”, etc. All justified by game theory, they say.

The problem is, I haven’t seen anyone outline anything close to a good commitment plan here. Nothing remotely as clear and simple as we have with criminal law, or with mutually assured destruction. They don’t clearly specify the set of situations where the commitment is to apply, the ways observers are to tell when they are in such situations, the behavior that has been committed to there, or the dataset of international events that shows that people that look like us have in fact consistently behaved in this way. Peace deal opponents (sometimes called “war mongers”) instead mainly just seem to point to their mob-inflamed feelings of moral outrage.

For example, some talk as if we should just ignore the fact that Russia has nuclear weapons in this war, as if we have somehow committed to doing that in order to prevent anyone from using nuclear weapons as a negotiating leverage. The claim that nations have been acting according to such a commitment doesn’t seem to me at all a good summary of the history of nuclear powers. And if the claim is that we should start now to create such a commitment by just acting as if it had always existed, that seems even crazier.

If we have not actually found and clearly implemented a good commitment plan, then it seems to me that we should proceed as if we have not made such a commitment. So we must act in accord with the usual game theory analysis. Which says to compromise and make peace if possible. Especially as a way to reduce the risk of a large nuclear war.

The possibility of a global nuclear war seems a very big deal. Yes, war seems sacred and that inclines us toward relying on our intuitions instead of conscious calculations. It inclines us toward mob war strategy. But this issue seems plenty important enough to justify our resisting that inclination. Yes, a careful analysis may well identify some good commitment plans, after which we could think about how to move toward making commitments according to those plans.

But following the vague war strategy inclinations of our mob-inflamed moral outrage seems a poor substitute for such a good plan. If we have not yet actually found and implemented a good plan, we should deal with a world where we have not made useful commitments. And so make peace, to avoid risking the destructions of war.

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From Norms to Law In War

Humans have long had norms against “starting” fights. Even so, those who start fights are often able to point to things that the other side did first to “really” start the fight. For example, Putin says that actions by the West forced his hand in Ukraine.

Within a nation, law is usually able to draw a clear enough line to decide who started a fight. But if you think about it, at the global level the world is not very clear on what counts as an “act of war”. Many have said the following are not acts of war: selling weapons, econ sanctions, cyberattacks, troop advisors, and even bombings.

You might agree that we haven’t written down an exact clear rule, yet still feel like that it seems pretty clear in most cases. But due to “automatic norms” this is usually less clear than we think. Me four years ago:

categorization of some of the options as norm violating is supposed to come to us fast, and with little thought or doubt. … we are supposed to be sure of which options to reject, without needing to consult with other people, and without needing to try to frame the choice in multiple ways, to see if the relevant norms are subject to framing effects. We are to presume that framing effects are unimportant, and that everyone agrees on the relevant norms and how they are to be applied. … “ignorance of the norms isn’t plausible; you must have known.” (more more more)

For war, this norm ambiguity is especially unfortunate, as it causes more war. What we should hope for instead is to deal with war less via vague informal norms, and more via formal law.

You might object that without a strong central world government, we can’t really have law; we can only have treaties enforced informally, by a threat of shame in the eyes of a world community. But actually, the world has long seen many different kind of legal systems, including legal systems that are stronger than informal norms, yet using powers short of a strong central government.

For example, in one classic legal system, courts issue rulings without having any further power to enforce their rulings. Their threat is just that if you don’t do what they say, they may officially label you an “outlaw”, after which anyone is free to harm you without fear of legal penalties.

Such a classic legal system could be further strengthened if its subjects were to give it hostages. For example, a financial hub which holds many financial assets of subjects could also serve as a legal system, if those assets held could be forfeit in the case of adverse legal rulings. (And if that hub were run by a distinct non-partisan community proud to serve in its legal role, and sufficiently able protect itself from outside attack.)

Thus it seems possible for the world to have a legal system wherein a widely-used sufficiently-defended financial hub agreed to enforce treaties between the nations whose assets were held there. Then if a nation violated its treaty, and refused to abide by this court’s ruling against it, then this law could declare that nation an outlaw, and grab its held assets.

How is that different from a large world alliance spontaneously agreeing to treat a nation as an outlaw and then grab whatever assets they can? It would be the difference between norms and contract law. An alliance might not be fair. It might instead not protect a once-ally if that were inconvenient, or it might opportunistically use its power to unfairly dump on a nation if that happened to be convenient. In contrast, with a more formal law, we might have more (though hardly infinite) hope for principled consistent non-partisan rulings.

The world doesn’t need to have a strong world government to have a functioning contract law between nations. Treaties can be more than expressions of hope.

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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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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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Re Privacy Wars, Sue For Peace

Imagine: your relative is a celebrity, currently the focus of a media scandal. You and other relatives are talking together, strategizing. Reporters are asking for interviews, and digging into your world, probably via both legal and illegal means. What should you do?

Some of you say to fight, fight, fight. Threaten legal action, hire a security team, and threaten any relative who doesn’t hold a hard line with expulsion from the family. This is about moral absolutes, after all, and “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile. So never ever compromise.

Others of you suggest compromise. Hold a press conference and directly tell reporters many of the things they want to know. Enough to make them likely sufficiently satisfied to let up on their digging. It wouldn’t be an explicit deal, but they have limited resources and plenty of other things to do. And if they dig more, they may find new issues to focus on.

This second group is usually right. Peace is usually better than war. Maybe in some cases reporters couldn’t be placated, and would still push into all your private niches. But usually not. This is the idea behind the proposal of my last post. Biometrics is getting cheaper and more reliable, our imperfectly-secure smart-phones know a great deal about us, and the people and organizations around us have strong reasons to want to know a few key things about us.

So let’s compromise, I say. Find a way to set up a system to give those people and orgs around us the few key bits that are they most want to know, and that we don’t so much mind them knowing. And then maybe they won’t work so hard to extract this key info out of all the cues that we naturally leak. Key info that they likely could get anyway if they worked hard enough and coordinated, and as a side effect they may obtain and use other info that we might rather keep private.

When conflicts gain a moral color, it can look bad to advocate compromise. But in general, war is bad, peace is good, and compromise can bring peace.

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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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Why Does Govt Do Stuff?

Looking across the many different activities and sectors of society, how well can we predict where governments get more vs. less involved?

Though this is an oft discussed topic, I can’t recall seeing an overall theory summary. So I thought I’d write one up. Here are some big relevant factors, and areas they may explain. Most are tentative; you may well convince me to move/change/add them.

Control – Whomever runs the government prefers to control areas that can be used to prevent and resist opposition and rivals.
Predicts more: religion, military, police, law, news, schools, disaster response, electricity, energy, banking.

Scale – If supplying a product or service has strong economies of scale, network, or coordination, it can be cheaper to use one integrated organization, who if private may demand excessive prices and thereby threaten control.
Predicts more: military, “roads” (including air, boat travel support), social media, money, language, electricity, telecom, water, sewer, trash, parks, fire, software, fashion, prestige
Predicts less: housing, food, medicine, art, entertainment, news, police, jail.

Innovation – As governments seem less able to encourage or accommodate effective innovation, governments tend to be less involved in rapidly evolving sectors.
Predicts more: roads, water, sewer, track, parks.
Predicts less: military hardware, vehicles, tech/computers, entertainment, social networks.

Variety – Governments tend to encourage and be better at relatively standardized products and services, done with fewer versions, more the same for everyone everywhere at all times.
Predicts more: war, medicine, schools, disaster response, roads.
Predicts less: housing, food, entertainment, romance, parenting, friendship, humor.

Norms – Norms are shared, and we like to enforce them together, officially.
Predicts more: religion, law, war, romance, parenting, medicine, drugs, gambling, slavery, language, manners, sports.

Show Unity – As we want to show that we are together, and care about each other, we like to do the things we to do to show such care together in a unified way.
Predicts more: religion, poverty/unemployment/health insurance, school, medicine, fire, parks, housing, food, disaster response, trash/sewer, coverage expansion subsidies.

Show Off – We want to impress outsiders with our tastes, abilities.
Predicts more: research, schools, high art, high sport, roads, parks, shared space architecture, trash/sewer.
Predicts less: low art/entertainment, low sport, gossip.

Hypocrisy – When we profess some motives, but others are stronger, the opacity and slack of government agencies, and better ability to suppress critiques, makes them better able to hide such differences.
Predicts more: medicine, drugs, gambling, schools, police, jail, courts, romance, zoning, building codes, war, banking.
Predicts less: water, sewers, electricity.

If we could collect even crude stats on how often or far govt is involved in each area, and crudely rate each area-factor combo for how strongly that factor applies to that area, we could do a more formal analysis of which of factors predict better where.

Note that scale is the strongest factor suggesting that govt does more when more govt helps more. Innovation and variety suggest that also when those factors are the cause of govt involvement, but much less so if those features are the result. While norms are on average valuable, it is much less clear when govt support improves them. Most signaling likely helps each society that does it, but is done too much for the good of the world overall.

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