Redemption

A few years ago, when I was shelving books at Borders, Oprah’s Book Club—that gold standard of the book biz—had a bit of a scandal. A Million Little Pieces, a book about the author sinking into a life of drug abuse and crime and then finding redemption, turned out to be basically fabricated (Wikipedia charitably calls it “semi-fictional”). And this after Oprah’s endorsement—how embarrassing!

But why would anyone pretend to have sunk to lower depths than they really had? What is this modern fascination with redemption stories?

Redemption stories are nothing new, of course, and a taste for them is far from unique to we moderns. Witness the Prodigal Son, a story told to christendom for thousands of years. But I do think there is something particularly modern about our craving for stories like A Million Little Pieces, aside from those elements of the story which are, of course, specific to our era.

There’s an element of voyeurism and virtuous people living vicariously through other people’s stories of debauchery, of course. This less than noble but fairly harmless impulse is behind such recent successes as Netflix’s House of Cards. Or, in history, behind the success of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

But I believe that there’s more to it than that, even. We live in a morally uncertain era. Despite the continuing existence of Christianity, the West is for the most part post-christian in its moral reasoning—even among most practicing Christians. We have gone from having the laws of right and wrong inscribed in the cosmos by an Almighty God to the little gods conjured up by Reason. These little gods do not really persuade; for one thing, they rarely have anything to say about actual decisions made in the course of a human life.

What draws us to the story of redemption is the power of the virtues required to walk down that path. It takes less self-command to avoid doing drugs in the first place than it does to overcome an addiction nursed over many years. It takes less courage to “Just Say No” than to try to rebuild the trust that you have squandered, with the knowledge that at best it will take years and at worst you may never be able to get it back. It requires a greater sense of justice to take responsibility for your own actions when those actions have caused a great deal of harm, than when they have not. And, perhaps most crucially, it requires greater generosity to forgive such a person, allowing the audience to indulge in feeling virtuous after indulging in vicarious sin.

The addict and criminal struggling for redemption shines brightly, much more brightly than those who had the prudence to avoid such debauchery in the first place.

This is not healthy. The man who works three modestly paying jobs to provide for his family, and never allows himself to fall into a cycle of self-destruction, has a moral fiber a thousand times greater than those who fail to destroy themselves and manage to find their way back to the light. The woman who lives modestly for many years to get her PhD and then works hard to pay off her student loans is incalculably superior to even the greatest Saint of Redemption.

Our fixation on such stories is the fault of our storytelling class, who Deirdre McCloskey refers to as “the clerisy”. I share McCloskey’s goal to revive “a serious ethical conversation about middle-class life, the life of towns, the forum and agora.” The conversation about this bourgeois life of ours has not been ethically serious since at least 1848. This does not mean that bourgeois life has been immoral—just that moral thinking on the questions that matter to our daily lives has been confused, to say the least.

We should not need to hit rock bottom to discover what a good life looks like, nor should we require others to do so. I understand the appeal of the redemption story—I have lived one myself (a very, very tame one by the standards of A Million Little Pieces). It is indeed praiseworthy to turn your life around; it should not be forgotten that many who walk down the road of self-destruction never manage to return. But whatever praise we may feel someone deserves for it must be balanced against the harm they did to the people around them, and to themselves, before being redeemed.

Dialogue on the Role of Moral Philosophy

A Year in Writing

At the beginning of the year, Eli and Jerry asked if I would write for an online magazine they were going to launch. The Ümlaut launched at the end of January with a piece I wrote on the long tailI reread Chris Anderson’s book for the piece, which was a fun exercise as I was really just beginning to explore the digital landscape when the book was originally published.

It was very humbling to be asked on board by Eli and Jerry, as, if I may say so, those guys are a way bigger deal than I am—they’ve drawn more attention to themselves, they’re known in the technology and policy space, and they have an institution like Mercatus behind them. I’m just a guy writing about the stuff I’m interested in when I’m not at my day job.

When I started writing for The Ümlaut, I wondered if I would be able to keep it up for the once a week pace that they originally had all the initial authors stick to. I also wasn’t too sure if I could be disciplined enough to write 600 to 1,000 word pieces. At the time, my writing had slowed down to once a month at most, and it usually came in the form of 2,000 to 3,000 word pieces, and beyond—like this one.

It’s actually surprised me how easy it has been. I have questions on my mind, I always have. I deal with such questions by reading, talking with people online and in person, and then writing about them. Churning out a piece week after week has allowed me to follow lines of thoughts much further than I otherwise would have, in the space of a year. Writing pieces between 600 and 1,000 words long has forced me to focus; what might have been a 2,000 word piece might work fine as two or three shorter pieces. In fact, so far, it has been better.

In fact, I ended up writing more than necessary. My natural state this year has been, for the most part, two or three weeks ahead of where I need to be. And I’ve still written the odd longer piece—I just bring it back over here to do so. And I write personal pieces over here, and some geeky things that wouldn’t really be appropriate even for The Ümlaut’s very broad mandate.

Writing pieces like this has become like second nature to me. When I burn through my queue and only have a day or two left before Monday, I’ve found that I can usually churn out a first draft of a 600 or more word piece in less than an hour. It’s no exaggeration to say that I think about and talk about this stuff fairly constantly, with Twitter being a perpetual conversation machine in this regard. So I usually have two or three partly baked ideas that I can get something from in a pinch.

I had such an easy time that I thought it might be high time to start working towards getting to that same point for fiction writing. My idea for doing this was fairly straightforward: writing nonfiction four times a month had been a great experience, maybe doing that for fiction would help me develop in that area.

I’m not really satisfied with the results. I didn’t think I was being very demanding of myself—I told myself I could write literally any length of fiction, even a single paragraph, as long as I did it four times each month. But in practice since I didn’t give myself a set time when I’d do it (since I didn’t give myself a set time for writing nonfiction) I just put it off and then it started to feel kind of like a burden. While I’m glad I finally did get myself to write some fiction, the fact is that I didn’t write anything of the sort in November or December.

I’m not going to give up, though. I’m actually OK with a creative process that has fits and starts, I just also think that I need to build good habits if I want to get anywhere. So I’m going to be drawing some inspiration from Austin Kleon and change things up a bit in 2014.

I can’t overstate how happy I am with the experience of writing at The Ümlaut, though. I’ve got 49 pieces and growing over there. Some questions I’ve looked at:

Is mankind tending towards more diversity or more homogeneity, and if the latter, does this mean that we are globally becoming a single point of failure? Pieces in this topic:

This year I also struggled with the question of what role stories play in human affairs—and under “stories” I also put things like theory and ideology.

  • A Race of Storytellers is, if I’m being honest, a rehash of stuff I’ve said elsewhere.
  • Institutional Spamfighting makes the case that formal rules matter very little relative to unarticulated practical knowledge.
  • The Dogma of Central Banking basically says the same thing as the previous post, but applies it specifically to macroeconomics. Macro theory is just a bunch of storytellers, central banking is a practice that bears little relationship to the theory. I’m honestly not sure if I believe this as strongly as I worded it.
  • This piece claimed that ideology and headline politics have nothing to do with electoral outcomes, next to big things like movements in the economy or catastrophes. It’s my Mandate of Heaven theory of democracy, which I’ve wanted to write about ever since I learned about the concept in Chinese history.
  • Science is a Bourgeois Pastime was probably the ultimate form of this line of thought—draws heavily on Taleb and McCloskey, and looks at this material again from a less hostile perspective.

Last year I intended to write a paper that combined ideas from Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations, Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, and Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions. Life got in the way, and I didn’t end up writing that paper. But writing at The Ümlaut gave me the opportunity to following related trains of thought.

  • It all culminated, really, with this post over here. Along with the thinkers mentioned above it threw in stuff I had gleamed from Paul Adams’ Grouped and Oakeshott’s writing, as well as writing about Oakeshott’s philosophy. I’m still in the process of fleshing this out further for a paper, drawing on developments in network science from giants such as Albert-László Barabási.
  • The probabilistic stuff is highly inspired by Nassim Taleb, and Chris Reid has a great roundup of my Ümlaut pieces applying this framework and his thinking to policy and analyzing the structure of government.
  • Institutions Matter is pretty self-explanatory. Too many people talk in generalities like “government” or “markets” or “society”. Let’s talk about the common law, or the NOAA, or supply chains.

How do you live with the knowledge that you’re fundamentally biased and flawed?

  • A Cathedral of Their Own was inspired by a post by Jordan, and was about the futile but never ending craving for certainty, but also how fun it is to wrestle with the uncertain.
  • Portrait of an Irrational Mind is much more about the theory of self that emerges from familiarity with the behavioral economics and cognitive science literature.
  • This followup post is highly naval gazing, mostly coming to terms with the fact that I became very libertarian in a very short period of time, and now feel myself drifting from that somewhat. Includes a They Might Be Giants song and the statement “I came down with a chronic case of libertarianism”.

There’s a bunch of posts that fall under the header of—what is a good life? How can we improve our lot, make the most of what we have? Maybe it’s a sign of getting older, but I’m finding this question increasingly more interesting than larger, ideal-policy type questions.

  • Break the Cycle of Web Addition offers the best advice that I’ve been terrible at following. It boils down to: limit the time you dive into rapidly updating sources of information like Twitter, but when you do dive in, dive deep. Then spend long periods of times reading long essay, or writing, or working on something that requires your absolute attention for extended periods of time—it can even be video games. I like to think I’m much closer to this ideal than I was when I wrote it, but I’m still not very close.
  • How to Survive a Major Media Event was written after I saw people hurting themselves by following every tiny detail (true or false) that came out about the Boston marathon bombing the day the event happened and the day the perpetrators were being hunted down. Not worth it. This is advice that I do stick to, and always have.
  • Better Living Through Video Games makes the claim that video games can be rewarding. I stand by this.
  • The Option Value of Satisfying Work is based on an ethic passed down to me from my parents, who said that the point of work was the provide for yourself and your family, and you can always devote yourself to what you love in your free time. I’m proud of this piece and wouldn’t change a word of it.
  • The Universe is Indifferent to Your Illusion of Control is something I want to scream from the rooftops sometimes. Too many of my news and policy minded friends immiserate themselves by focusing intensely on things that they cannot control. You are only ever a small part of a larger whole. Pretending otherwise is no more wise than swallowing a porcupine.
  • This post over here is about improving your life by paying attention to and participating in the right conversations. This includes treating the sort of news you consume as part of ongoing conversations—it’s why I read industry publications but don’t read CNN, why I read Marginal Revolution but don’t read The New York Times.
  • Virtue is a Desire Modification Technology is the result of a seed that was planted over a year ago when I read Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues but wasn’t quite sure what I had read. The next step came when I read Seneca, who Taleb had recommended. Now I’m kind of diving into Virtue Ethics head first, seeing where it takes me.

There were also a couple of one-off pieces I was proud of that don’t quite fit neatly into the threads above.

  • Death in the Modern World is probably the piece I am proudest of writing, perhaps ever.
  • The Matt Bruenig piece I’m also proud of, for different reasons. He and I have very different points of view, but I wanted to represent him both fairly and correctly, so I asked for his help, which he freely gave. I had to scrap my first draft entirely (I actually turned pieces of it into two short posts) because I got him completely wrong. Then I wasn’t sure how to even write about him in an interesting way. I returned to one essay by Oakeshott and it turned out to be the perfect response to Bruenig’s thinking. Most of all, I was happy to write about someone I disagreed with in a constructive way.

Writing has always been a part of my life, since I was a little kid. But very lately I have begun to feel the payoff of having spent so many years on it, and it makes it so much more enjoyable to invest yet more time into it.

I can’t wait to get started writing stuff for 2014.

Dialogue on the Selfish Virtues

Eli Dourado’s Anarcho-Curious Structuralism

Fellow Ümlauteer Eli Dourado is not just your garden variety GMU-trained, public-choice-heavy, anarcho-curious libertarian. He also comes to any discussion with an interesting, deeply structuralist view of human social systems. As The Ümlaut closes out its first calendar year, I thought it might be fun to dig into the larger story that emerges from across Eli’s writings on the web.

Anarcho-Curious

Eli is an affirmed philosophical anarchist, and from what he has written publicly and from our overlapping GMU education, I can surmise where he stands on anarchy as an ideal. I think Eli’s ideal governance arrangements look like the “ordered anarchy” revealed in the work of people like Bruce Benson; both in the private law in places like pre-Battle of Hastings England, and the private international law such as the Lex Mercatoria.

 These systems have the benefit of removing outright coercion while also providing mechanisms to defend against violent crime, theft, and all the other things we tend to believe a government should protect its citizenry from. He does not believe these systems as they existed historically were without their serious flaws, but no system is perfect.

His main reason for being merely “anarcho-curious”, as far as I can tell, is that there doesn’t appear to be any practical path to old school ordered anarchy in any countries currently existing on the planet. We’re certainly not going to get there through the democratic process. And even if by some fluke some small enclave of ordered anarchy sprung up on some corner of the Earth, the current underlying structure of human affairs would probably doom it before long.

The Industrial Revolution is a History of the Technologies of Control

The post of Eli’s that had the greatest impact on my own thinking was written two years ago. It is called Technologies of Control and Resistance. The piece is framed against the then-recently published Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, and The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen. The former argues that technological innovation has been accelerating, the latter that it has been stuck in a rut. Eli makes a can’t-it-be-both argument by distinguishing between two types of technological innovation.

Let’s start with the first:

The first kind of innovation is geared toward brute maximization of production. It is typically centralized and makes use of economies of scale. Examples might include an assembly line factory or a big, coal-fired power plant. Because these innovations tend to be centralized, they introduce points of control. The capital is typically fixed and therefore easy to tax and regulate. It’s well known in the development literature that it’s really hard for governments to control rural peasants who live off the grid. Once they move to the cities and plug into centralized services, it is easier to require them to send their children to school, for instance. Because these innovations introduce points of control, I will call them technologies of control.

Eli’s story of the Industrial Revolution goes something like this: there was a sudden explosion in the development of technologies of control. This expanded pure output to a phenomenal degree; I will here refer you to Deirdre McCloskey’s conservative estimate that US standard of living has increased sixteen-fold since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. It is hard to understate how big a discontinuity this was from previous human history.

However, there are no free lunches, even in gigantic welfare improvements. Back to Eli:

What determines how invasive the state will be? Call me a cynic, but I think it correlates strongly with the availability of points of control. When factors of production are fixed, when demand for government supplied public goods is inelastic, when there are lots of points of control, the government will exercise more control.

So many explanations for the growth of government draw on the rise of specific ideologies or the specific history of a country like the US. But as GMU’s John Nye has put it, growth in government spending as a percentage of GDP was far too global, far too cross-cultural, for any of these explanations to make much sense.

Eli makes the more persuasive case that growth in government came on the heels of the Industrial Revolution as its impact was felt around the world. For it is intricately linked with technologies of control, which provide big fat high-population density, enormously wealth-producing targets.

Abandon Anarchy for the Utopia of Infinite Elasticity

Moving on to the second form of innovation that Eli describes:

On the other hand, not all innovations are about brute maximization of production. Some are about producing things that we already know how to produce in ways that have ancillary benefits. An important ancillary benefit is evading control. Examples of these innovations include 3D printers and solar power. The evasion of control that is possible with 3D printers is the subject of Cory Doctorow’s short story Printcrime. And portable solar power cells can make people harder to control by supplying electricity without the need to register an address, have a bank account, stay put, and so on. These are obvious examples, but control can be evaded through more subtle innovations as well. I will call innovations that circumvent points of control that can be used by governments or monopolies to exploit, tax, or regulate technologies of resistance.

In Eli’s view, Brynjolfsson and McAfee are correct that innovation has been accelerating, but Cowen is also correct because it has been accelerating in an area that does not produce much in the way of output, proportionately.

 The stagnation debate was in many ways just a set piece with which to present this dichotomy, which is far more important to Eli’s larger view of things. In another piece, Eli reveals his practical programme for promoting a more libertarian world:

Imagine a world in which all factors of production were as mobile and elastic as financial capital. If labor and physical capital could flea instantaneously and at low cost from bad policies, there would be little danger from either the predatory or incompetent state. In short, it would be a libertarian utopia.

This utopia seems hard to realize. It’s hard to believe that labor and physical capital could ever be as elastic as financial capital is today. Nevertheless, I think this framework provides a way forward for libertarians who have given up on political reform (and maybe even those who haven’t yet). Even if we can’t make the supply of most factors of production infinitely elastic, maybe we can make their supply more elastic. To the extent we succeed, we reduce the power of governments around the world.

Bold added by me.

In fact, Eli is all about giving up on political reform. The far ideal of infinite elasticity provides more concrete possibilities for an ideological minority like libertarians. In the previously quoted post, he lists a few examples of how we might move in that direction; everything from refining 3D printers and solar cells to promoting a global lingua franca.

He has returned to this theme several times. Back in July of this year, he asked Can We Engineer for Liberty?

If 3D chemical printers become commonplace, say goodbye to the War on Drugs. If Bitcoin succeeds, it will be more difficult to censor unpopular speech by prohibiting payments. If solar power becomes cheap and ubiquitous, it will be easier to literally live off the grid. If mesh networking gets good enough, the government won’t be able to deputize ISPs to enforce unjust laws or to spy on people. As robots improve, it will be harder to enforce labor regulations, because businesses will just switch from labor to capital as the implicit price of labor increases. And ubiquitous private drones equipped with cameras will place limits on police brutality and misconduct.

Nevertheless, Eli is fully aware that technology in the 21st century so far has hardly been entirely of the resistance variety.

While most of us have until now considered the Internet a great force for individual empowerment, it has also become history’s most effective government surveillance apparatus. Where the ultimate balance of power lies depends crucially on both political and technological choices going forward—on decisions about the Fourth Amendment and about the use of encryption and decentralization.

Plus, the people who have the know-how to actually build these technologies are not necessarily a predominantly libertarian sort—they have to be persuaded, and Eli is deeply skeptical of our ability to succeed by persuasion.

The successes we have had so far have been structural in nature, not persuasive. For instance, the Wikileaks and Snowden strategy:

The Snowden leaks are instructive for a couple of reasons. First, there is good evidence that they have made it harder for the United States intelligence apparatus to function. Congress may limit contractor access to highly classified material, and the NSA has implemented a buddy system for accessing sensitive documents.

Cheap storage and the Internet, plus the sheer number of people who have access to any government agency’s data, make those agencies fundamentally vulnerable to leaks. By leaking that data to the public, rather than using it privately for personal profit, Snowden and Wikileaks reveal the points at which these agencies are vulnerable. The measures that agencies must take to avoid such leaks in the future significantly reduce their operational effectiveness.

Institutions Matter, and So Do Incentives

The components of Eli’s point of view that we’ve looked at here can be boiled down, more or less, to two fairly straightforward assertions.

First, econ 101 is basically right—if you lower the cost of an activity by a lot, people are probably going to engage in that activity more than they had been, and vice versa. If the cost of raising tax revenue falls, governments will raise more money, and subsequently spend more. If it’s easier to impose regulations than it was before, you will get more regulations. If the costs of taking care of people in their last year of life explodes, people will find ways to shorten that year. If we have to obtain permission from slow-moving bureaucracies before we can engage in anything innovative, we will get less innovation.

Second, there an underlying structure of institutions, Hayekian dispersed knowledge, and economic interdependencies—to the extent that these things are even separable—that explain the lion’s share of why anything happens larger human affairs throughout history.

Though anarcho-curious, he does not seem to believe in some notion of rights that are embedded in the very fabric of the universe. Take his most recent piece of Property Rights versus Property Institutions:

[I]t is necessary to revise the shallow lesson of the Cold War—property rights are good—with a deeper lesson: good property institutions are important. The Soviet Union’s property institutions failed to assign rights where they were necessary. But it is an equal and opposite error when our property institutions assign rights that impede human flourishing. Taxi medallions are an indictment not of the idea of property but of the quality of the government that decided to limit taxi service. We have poor rules for spectrum allocation because the FCC is terrible at centrally planning a system of property for spectrum. We have generally efficient rules for property in land because the common law has refined a large series of cases and controversies into an effective body of property law. In every case, what matters is the quality of the institutions that defines the exact contours of property rights.

At the bottom of this is a belief that the best institutions are those that respond to the ever-changing states of technology, individual preferences, and anything relevant to human affairs. As he said recently of the Lex Mercatoria:

In our most successful legal and governance structures, principles are discovered, not stated from the outset.

Sadly, the modern administrative state does no such thing and is, in fact, quite popular. Since it is also usually tied to some form of democracy, this means it is unlikely to be departing any time soon—hence Eli’s yearning for technological solutions to constrain its ability to raise revenue and tell us what to do generally.

If we could half the distance between our present state and the utopia of infinite elasticity, the result would not be chaos. No, as history has demonstrated, the result would undoubtedly be more institutions like the Lex Mercatoria.

And so Eli’s structuralism comes back around to his anarcho-curious side; it’s just that the only sustainable path to get us there is if we manage to reliably win the arms race between those investing in technologies of resistance and those attempting to adapt the infrastructure of control.