Dialogue on the Selfish Virtues
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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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The first big influence on how I thought about the world was my dad (of The Fifth Wave and the now-neglected but still excellent Vulgar Morality). Arguments I had with people in High School (in person and online) usually consisted of appropriating an informed opinion that he had and bullshitting my way around it from a substantially less informed point of view. After I started to grow up and actually take reading up on the things I talked about more seriously, I held onto Burkean traditionalist instincts and an interest in specific thinkers such as David Hume that I had first heard about from him when I was too young to approach their writings myself.
I learned about the blogosphere from him first (he was a media analyst by trade), and started my own blog, Sophistpundit; the name derived from the Greek sophists, which he was reading a great deal about at the time and talking about constantly, and Instapundit, a blog he introduced me to. The start of that blog marks the beginning of the time I began to take the matter of discovering my own point of view seriously, as the simple act of writing about it regularly restructured the way I thought.
I’m a storyteller by instinct; even when I was just bullshitting my way around arguments as a teenager I was trying to take things I wanted to be true and fit them into an overall framework. I wasn’t satisfied with one-off explanations or answers or arguments. So when I began to really read works of philosophy and social science, and write about it, I started seeing things about the individual components of what I thought that dissatisfied me. Whether intellectually, or from a storytelling point of view, I couldn’t tell you. I’m not sure I know the difference.
My introduction to serious philosophy began with Karl Popper. I picked up a collection of his essays and was hooked. He had a very accessible style and his ideas seemed incomparably elegant. For a brief time, I was completely won over; I thought I had found the keys to unlocking the universe. Ultimately, Popper was just a great place to start, and though it wasn’t too long before I started drifting from his (quite rationalist) point of view, I’m still glad that I started with him. He was a great place to begin.
From then on I had a fairly regular diet of nonfiction books ranging from classics of philosophy (like David Hume) to more popular stuff (like the Long Tail). Not to mention reading a ton of politics, economics, technology, and personal blogs.
The next big change that came into this brain of mine was libertarianism. And big it was; I’m still reeling from it years after its onset.
I was always generically small-government minded, in the way that most Burkean types are, I think. But there were key differences between where I was and where the libertarians I had exposure to were. For one thing, I was a hawk on the war at the time. For another, I had vague acceptance for labor regulations such as the minimum wage. I also respected traditions generally, including traditions of government. And I was very strongly pro-democracy. Perhaps most crucially, I viewed libertarianism as a rationalism, and I was (and remain) strictly anti-rationalist.
The crucial moment came when I was still working on my BA in history at GMU. I knew I wanted to go into economics by that point, but opted to finish my BA and go for the MA in econ. In the meantime, I would take the prerequisite undergrad courses, starting, of course, with introductory level economics.
The 101 and 102 level courses at GMU are taught by Dr. Thomas Rustici, who is an excellent communicator of economic theory but also a firebrand-style preacher of libertarian ideology. I was made a convert practically before I even realized what was happening. The process was both fast and gradual, in a way. I kept looking at the margin between my positions and full blown, all-encompassing libertarianism and telling myself that I hadn’t been truly converted, but slowly and steadily that margin was chipped away.
I think in retrospect that Dr. Rustici was simply responsible for the initial breech, and the rest of the erosion of that margin came from going straight into the MA program in economics at GMU. The effect was stronger there, less due to the ideology of the professors particularly, and more because of the fact that said ideology (in some form) was widely shared by the peers I encountered there.
Looking back now, it kind of feels like libertarianism was an invading force that entered my mind and started pretty substantially rearranging things. I used to think Richard Dawkins’ theory of religion as a mind virus was just condescension, but frankly it feels apt here; it’s like I came down with a chronic case of libertarianism. It got to a point where arguments I had previously mocked now seemed like the only point of view that made sense. At its pinnacle, I had that “I have the answer to everything” feeling I got from Popper, only much, much more so. Libertarianism (the variety popular among GMU types) is far more all encompassing as a theory of everything from human behavior to morality to history.
With time and distance between myself and GMU econ, I’ve slowly begun to shrink the size of this ideology’s partition of my mind. It will always be part of the pantheon, but I’m starting to move on to other things. I suspect that those other things will be far messier, less internally consistent than libertarianism. But that’s OK; it’s a messy world and even as a storyteller I was always wary of how very clean the ideology is.
Lately I’ve been swayed by people like Nassim Taleb and Nate Silver who think probabilistically about things; an approach that helps me think about challenges to libertarianism posed in forms like this. I’m also exploring more and more of the social sciences beyond the boundaries of economics. And I’m going back to the classics of philosophy I never got to; I recently read Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and I’m hoping to read something on Epicurus’ philosophy next.
Talking with Noah Smith yesterday got me thinking about all of this even more, as he seems (from my limited exposure) as ideology-free as is possible for a human being to be. His beliefs seem to have some themes consistent with modern progressivism, techno-futurism, and a dash of libertarianism, but for the most part it appears as though he’s got a grab bag of ideas he more or less believes in that don’t add up to a consistent story. When I asked him what his most absurd belief was, he had trouble answering because it seems he wasn’t quite sure what his beliefs were. This is neither good nor bad, but it’s kind of interesting. I don’t think I have it in me to be that way—the more stories I gather, the more I instinctively try to edit and combine them in my brain to see if I can make a single consistent one. Anti-rationalist though I desire to be, I’m a cathedral builder at heart.
I’m not sure I could tell you what this all adds up to or why this blog is an expression of these ideas. But I like the idea of a consecrated but untamed place, and the spiritual development the term implies, not impressed by a conquering army, or ritual defenestrations, but by those who hoped that one day others might enjoy a cathedral of their own.
-J Arthur Bloom, missionary ground: A brief word on this blog’s title
Jordan’s post made me realize that I have always sought to make my little corners of the web into missionary ground, in the sense that he is describing.
Growing up, I would tell my dad about the stuff I had learned in history (mostly) or English, and he would say something to the tune of—“That’s totally wrong. But remember it because it’s what your teacher will want you to say on a test.” I found this very troubling. Teachers were authority figures, but my dad was the king of authority figures. That their stories did not line up—that they straight up contradicted one another—was really quite unpleasant.
Since that time I have consistently sought certainty in a world where so many stories are presented as though they were born of the true knowledge of the storyteller. Any certainty would do; even a Pyrrhonian certainty that no one knows anything at all. I’ve tried that one on for size many times, and it will always have a hold on me.
In 2004 I set out to conquer the untamed stories by declaring a little corner of the Blogger empire my missionary space—again, in Jordan’s sense. I was not looking to convert the world—I was looking to build my cathedral.
And I did attempt to build it. First, from Protagorean foundations. Then, from Popperian ones. Then, from Humean and social science inspired ones. Between these episodes of attempted craftsmanship was a virtual ocean of reading, quoting, linking, writing, and arguing. Between attempts to raise up an elegant edifice was messy trial and error, and intense devotion to particular ideas for brief and longer periods of time.
The truth is in the mess, and not the edifice. No matter how many cathedrals I start I am always living in the untamed lands, where stories vie for my allegiance. Where sometimes I think Pyrrho was right and we are all little more than dreamers and storytellers, and the rest of the time I am merely certain that my own mind is systematically working against me.
Writing at The Ümlaut this year has been good for me; I have followed trains of thought in a far more focused, less messy manner. Still, I scrutinize my work and wonder whether they form a whole or if they are incompatible pieces to entirely distinct puzzles. Are this, this, and this part of one story or am I contradicting myself? What about this and this? I often have trouble trusting my answer to this question.
Still, I continue to work on my next cathedral, clinging to the hope that this will be the one. I feel I have made a great deal more progress than the last time I made the attempt. But is this an accurate reading of my circumstances or is this the same false confidence I always feel when setting about a task of this sort?
If I have given the impression up until this point that I have some sort of anxiety on this score, I hope you’ll forgive me for that bit of stylistic indulgence. I actually love it down here, in the untamed lands, where I’m never more than half-sure of anything. I don’t know if I’m going to ever finish a cathedral with solid enough foundations to last long, but I do know that I am so much better at navigating these parts than I was even a year or two ago. And I am incomparably better than the 19-year-old kid who planted a flag in the blogosphere nine years ago.
When it comes to cognitive biases and imperfections, I have grown comfortable thinking of my mind as a table at which many strange characters sit. One of those is GMU-style libertarianism, informed largely by people like my friend Eli and the GMU professors who have a large presence in the blogosphere and on Twitter. Then there are people close to me in my life, whose idiosyncrasies I know well; I often think about how any one of them might react to a particular story I have read. Then there are the people I seek out who often force me to experience the cognitive dissonance of disagreement when I know the person I am disagreeing with is intelligent—people like Noah Smith, Claudia Sahm, Bernard Yu—they are numerous these days, I am proud to say. And there are others.
This isn’t to say that I have cataloged the sources of my biases and elevated myself above them—I am just as imperfectly human as anyone else. But I am more comfortable living with my biases than I used to be.
I really am serious about this next effort to build something, but I am also keenly aware that a cathedral is something that no individual can build alone—indeed it cannot even be built in a single generation. We speak of people like Daniel Kahneman or Everett Rogers—to say nothing of Adam Smith or Charles Darwin—as having done immensely important work because after decades or centuries of other people building on top of what they did, we now know that their work was, indeed, important.
So I will continue to do work in the hopes that I can add a few pieces to something bigger than I could ever possibly accomplish on my own.
And in the meantime, I will revel in the madness of this perpetually untamed space of stories and uncertainty.
So the thing you’ve got to realize is, most comic book superheroes make no sense. You don’t even have to think about it very hard. You don’t have to dig under the surface; just look at the surface and they generally don’t make sense. Take the greatest superhero of all—Spider-Man. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spider-Man—my dad just loves to tell people about how his little girl said she was going to marry Peter Parker some day.