The Greek, Deodorus, recommends
that the best way to beat a demon
is to dig a pit, about the diameter
of the two of you combined,
and depth that neither may leave
except in standing on the other.
Go into the pit, and stand there
until he comes by, and drops in.
Then, let him defeat you, but
[here the manuscript is incomplete]
Archive for May, 2009
The Greek, Deodorus, recommends
The 21st-century American university is a pathologist’s dream. But surely among its most revolting terminal diseases is a near-complete absence of any genuine intellectual hostility.
The T-cells are depleted. The bone marrow is exhausted. The mind’s immune system is almost done. Exotic cancers and weird infections sprout like desert flowers. Gray berries hang from the liver; Spanish moss burgeons in the lungs. And people believe anything. Fortunately, UR is on the case again – with our special, home-cooked chemo recipe, half LSD and half mustard gas. If it doesn’t cure you, you’ll wish it had.
If we look at what academia is, rather than what it purports to be or what it once was, the cause of this immune degeneration is obvious. Academia is a guild of talented and ambitious professionals who, by demonstrating their large and dextrous brains – not to mention their impeccable networking skills, and their infinite patience with the brown product of the cow – extract money, power, and/or status from USG. Need more be said?
For obvious professional reasons, this structure precludes any genuinely adversarial peer review. Guild solidarity wins. Research empires may play at war, but it’s always easy for both sides to agree that both approaches deserve funding. This is mock battle, like the clash of rutting stags. Nature green in tooth and claw. (Unless there’s an actual interloper trying to horn in on the stream – in which case you’ll see the real claws.)
So as soon as you arrive at grad school, you’ll discover that no mileage whatsoever is to be attained by actually attacking the half-baked ideas of your peers. Proper career strategy is to build coalitions – not tear them down. Actual, rigorous, adversarial science still exists in a few nooks and crannies. The tradition is remembered. But it is by far the exception.
The pleasant flip side of this coin is that there is no punishment whatsoever for consorting with stupidity. After a while the successful academic learns to squelch the slightest hint of a giggle when confronted, on a daily basis, with loaves that have clearly never seen the inside of an oven. At least, he thinks, they’ve been kneaded. The grove is certainly not short of flour or water.
The brazen irony of this situation is that these institutions acquired their reputations over the course of many generations during which they exhibited no tolerance whatsoever for stupidity. What remains is not reputation – but merely position. Bite the ugly bone of it, bitches.
Here at UR, our program is clear: the only cure is the bulldozer. The universities must be razed to the foundation and below – converted into large, open-air swimming-pools, perhaps, like the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Indict the administrators (you can always find something), seize the trademarks, forfeit the endowments. The secret code word is: Pombal.
Since I am neither Stalin nor Pombal, I must resort to mere invective. Today I thought I’d work out on Professor Hanson, who perhaps of all those in his so-called field deserves it least. At least he has ideas, and bakes them – somewhat. But so what? The Chinese say: kill the chicken to scare the monkey. To scare a whole barn full of chickens, however, kill the monkey.
You can read Professor Hanson’s paper on his brilliant idea, futarchy, here. This other fellow – in professorland, it’s never too late to imitate – has attached his own even more tortured coinage to the same idea. Although Professor Abramowicz has quite sensibly toned his sales points down a few notches, and his reasoning is clearer and more precise as befits a law professor, he still does not appear to understand the basic ridiculousness of a “decision market.”
Basically, the summary is this: prediction markets are a fine idea, whereas decision markets are… well… retarded.
I was going to use Dijkstra’s wonderful coinage, considered harmful, but on reflecting I feel that decision markets are too retarded to qualify as harmful. Communism is harmful. Maturity transformation is harmful. Futarchy is retarded.
(This puerile slur has a special sweetness to me because, at the time I was in elementary school, it was just shifting from medical term to juvenile expletive – much like spastic. Obviously, the word is chosen to offend Professor Hanson, not those with actual neurological disabilities.)
Note first that empirical evidence confirms my prediction. Ie: in the actual, real world, decision markets had a glorious and fatal collision with reality. While normally no fan of the demotic style in government, I must admit that on this occasion it worked perfectly as designed. Three cheers for popular common sense.
So far, this catastrophe seems to have done the job. The private sector will not adopt decision markets because they are obviously retarded. The public sector will not adopt decision markets because they got Admiral Poindexter fired. Sounds like multiple organ failure to me.
But inside the Beltway, bad ideas don’t stay dead. If it is obvious to you that decision markets are retarded, feel free to read no further. It’s not obvious to me that it’s obvious to everyone.
Briefly: almost every conceivable application of a decision market is, when conceived as a prediction market, a misdesigned prediction market. A misdesigned prediction market is one that does not produce accurate predictions. Obviously, inaccurate predictions produce bad decisions, making the whole exercise… well… retarded.
One trivial example of a liquid, functioning prediction market that does not, and cannot, produce accurate predictions is the gold futures market. The gold futures market is a large, active and efficient market in future gold, but in hindsight it demonstrates little or no predictive power. The cause is not at all obscure: since both gold and dollars can be stored at minimal cost, a variety of arbitrage strategies bind the gold futures market to the much larger dollar-futures market (ie, the market for loans). The price signal is real, but it is conveying much more subtle data than the market’s net opinion of whether gold will go up or down.
At the neurological level, I think the problem here is that our professors don’t really understand why markets work. Obviously they are not alone in this. While I hate to sound like a leftist, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and “market fundamentalism” is a genuine problem. Markets are wonderful devices, but they are not black boxes. They operate as a matter of engineering, not sympathetic magic. To examine them inductively is to not examine them.
To understand why (almost all) decision markets can’t work, we need to understand why (many) prediction markets do work. Here at UR, we like to work through things from scratch. Once we understand prediction markets and their limitations, the conclusion will conclude itself.
Of course, we can’t understand prediction markets until we understand markets. A market in any two fungible goods, A and B, is any device for discovering the A/B ratio P which equalizes D, the number of people who want to trade P units of A for one unit of B, with S, the number of people who want to trade one unit of B for P units of A.
In general we simplify this description by standardizing A as the currency – remembering that money, even paper money, is not an abstraction of value but just another good. P is price, S is supply, D is demand. Since more is always more than less, supply curves slope up and demand curves slope down.
The first thing to remember about your market is that there is no just price. Supply and demand are constantly fluctuating, and so must price. The market does not know why buyers buy or sellers sell. It records only the price signal.
The second thing to remember about your market is that supply and demand are measured only at the current price. Across any time period, we can see what the supply of B is for that time period, and for the price curve within it, just by counting the transactions. We can only guess what sales might have been at other prices.
Fine. Unless you are a professor, this is all you need to know about microeconomics. Let’s move on to prediction markets.
To create a prediction market, first: amass a large quantity of currency. For no good reason at all, let’s denominate our prediction market in gold. Each prediction note will redeem in gold. To create a prediction market, you issue prediction notes. To give these pieces of toilet paper value, you need to back them with gold. (Or more daringly, with a gold loan maturing on or before the first date at which the prediction test can be completed.)
For each gram of gold in your private Fort Knox, issue multiple prediction notes which pay out one gram of gold, if and only if a certain condition occurs. As along as the conditions on all the notes you match to each gram are mutually exclusive, and the underlying gram is secure, there is zero counterparty risk in your prediction market.
For instance, if the Lakers are playing the Nuggets, for each gram you could print up two notes, one which pays a gram if the Lakers win, one which pays a gram if the Nuggets win, and sell them on EBay. For a horse race with nine horses, etc. This would be perfectly sound from an accounting perspective, if it wasn’t illegal. Trivial, knowledge-independent arbitrage will ensure that the prices (in gold) of all notes backed by each gram sum precisely to that gram.
So far, this sounds like a simple gambling system, which is exactly what it is. What could possibly give this little bookie trick its weird, sibylline power of telling the future?
The assumption, which will be correct in many cases, is that the relative prices of Lakers and Nuggets notes, on Ebay, will indicate the relative probability of a Lakers or Nuggets victory. If you go here, you can see Professor Abramowicz eloquently assuming this conclusion.
Which is certainly correct in many cases. To understand why futarchy is retarded, however, we’ll have to look at this result much more closely.
First, what the heck do we mean by probability? Suppose, on Ebay, you can buy a Lakers gram for 650mg and a Nuggets gram for 350mg. In reality, the Lakers will win and the Nuggets will lose, or vice versa. According to the frequentist interpretation, it makes no sense at all to talk about probability in this context, because we are predicting a one-time event.
The answer indeed demands a frequentist sample space. If we describe the market for NBA prediction notes as that sample space, we can say: for the set of all NBA games, does the market’s prediction tend to match the actual results? Or can we identify any regular patterns of error in the market? For example, if the Lakers-Nuggets odds are 65-35, yet some pattern of which this game is a member predicts 50-50 results, there may be an error. Any event, of course, may be a member of all sorts of sample spaces.
We see instantly that, even in just attempting to discern whether a prediction market is accurate, we face a difficult struggle. Yet our good professors assume their design will work out of the box.
Moreover, we see something even more revealing. By using the example of professional sports, where we know that outcomes are extremely difficult to predict, we realize what we should have known all along: markets are not magic. They aggregate. They don’t create. If the Ebay NBA prediction-note market can set good odds for the Lakers-Nuggets game, it does not pull this information out of the Akashic Ether. Somewhere out there on the Internet, there must be someone who actually knows something about hoops. And he must have money on the game.
Prediction markets cannot defeat the iron law of HR: morons in, garbage out. For a market to produce accurate predictions, there must be genuine experts in the market, and they must be substantially better-funded than the morons. A prediction market funded entirely by dumb money, played entirely by dumb players, will produce entirely dumb predictions.
For example: suppose you sell prediction notes not for a basketball game between the Lakers and the Nuggets, but for a planetary gormball game between the Ganymede Ellipses and the Neptune Lumbos? Is there anyone or anything who (a) knows anything whatsoever about the Ellipses, the Lumbos, or planetary gormball, and (b) has an EBay account? I thought not. Therefore, your market will have zero predictive power. The information just isn’t there.
This is Feynman’s problem of the Emperor of China’s nose. If no one has ever seen the Emperor of China’s nose, can a prediction market predict its length? Mind you, the professors will not tell you that their devices can compute unknown information, such as the length of the Emperor of China’s nose. But they hardly spend much time warning us that they can’t.
Worse, if you do make a market in the Emperor of China’s nose, the prediction notes will trade. They will trade randomly. The worst case is that in which nobody has any way of actually calculating the prediction, but no one in the market is sure that this is the case. Your market signal will look exactly like that of an accurate prediction market, but predict nothing at all.
In this worst case, there is a real signal. You just can’t tell whether your antenna is receiving the signal, or generating its own noise. The perfect basis for decision-making! Why don’t you just go ahead and solder that wire straight to the detonator, Professor Teller. (But I skip ahead.)
So this is our first precondition for an accurate prediction market: there has to be some practical algorithm by which market participants can compute the prediction. No smart players, no smart money, no smart market. Sorry.
Our second precondition, which again though obvious is not obviously obvious to everyone, is that an accurate prediction market must be dominated by its accurate predictors. Ie: the smart money must be the big money. Otherwise, the voice of the market is the voice of stupid.
NBA odds are accurate not just because good NBA predictors are in the basketball prediction market, but because the biggest money is behind the best predictors. The same is true of financial markets – under most normal conditions. (As I write, GM stock, worthless by all conventional measures of valuation, is trading for a buck-fifty.)
This condition of broad, general efficiency is almost always found in large, old, and heavily-traded markets. It is not easy to beat Vegas, or Wall Street. It is a mistake to assume, however, that general efficiency is an automatic property of the market design, or even of the amount of money that is put into it. It is certainly a mistake to believe that an efficient market can be created in some professor’s DARPA-funded experiment, using fifty undergraduates playing for six months with Monopoly money.
Any efficient market is a Darwinian, adaptive, phenomenon. Good predictors dominate because, and only because, good predictors tend to win and keep playing, bad predictors tend to lose and quir. Professor Hanson alludes vaguely to this phenomenon when he writes:
And the rich do not tend to throw their money away easily; those who do, do not stay rich very long.
Indeed. But Professor Keynes once alluded to the limitations of this approach:
The markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay liquid.
In an old and healthy prediction market we would indeed expect to see accurate predictions. But only in the case in which Darwinian forces have been operating for a substantial period of time, selecting in favor of the good predictors and against the bad. And, of course, there has to be a good prediction algorithm and people who can apply it. Otherwise – irrational markets exist.
A market, to exhibit efficiency, must be trained. It is necessary, but not sufficient, to have an actual signal and an actual algorithm for predicting that signal. Then you need a population of “speculators,” as Hanson so charmingly puts it. (As a student of modern European history, I’m afraid that whenever I hear this word, my brain cannot help appending “and Jews” – an edit which converts certain White House emissions into perfect material for the Völkischer Beobachter or Radio Rome.) Over time, due to said Darwinian forces, the observer can expect the smart speculators and Jews to flourish and multiply, and the stupid speculators and Jews to dwindle and drop out. Which should produce an efficient market. Eventually.
Basically, the mathematical construct Professor Hanson and his ilk call a “market” is a market in which this training process has already happened. With this assumption, they permit themselves to ignore the problem of actually building their prediction market. Overnight and without effort, their pinecone turns into an old-growth redwood.
Analogy: humans evolved from chimps, or something like chimps. However, this does not mean that if you send a chimp to Harvard for an MBA, in two years he will evolve into a human and be ready to work at a hedge fund. Similarly, if you recruit a hundred chimps and two professors to participate in a prediction market, the initial prices they produce will be chimp prices.
It’s true that over time, the chimps will prosper and the professors will go bankr – sorry! I mean, of course, that the professors will prosper and the chimps will go bankrupt. But to merely assume the outcome of this process, as a detail of the model, is negligent at best and downright deceptive at worst. Especially when you’re trying to instantiate a new market!
In particular, the adaptive explanation of market efficiency tells us why prediction markets with pretend money are a complete waste of time. These just aggregate the whims of the participants. There is no evolution at all. In other words: we are back at the democratic fallacy, vox populi vox dei. You might as well just hold an election.
Worse, the training process that produces an effective prediction market is not only long, difficult, and expensive – it is fragile. It is easy to mistrain a prediction market. Example: any market which contains multiple equilibria – such as a loan market based on maturity transformation (eg, fractional-reserve banking).
If the market has multiple states which it can switch between, a market which is perfectly trained for the “good times” state may well be perfectly mistrained for the “bad times” state. Gaia herself has seen a lot of this tsuris in the Holocene, with its constant bipolar wobbling between ice ages and interglacials. Not good for the sabertoothed tigers. And financial examples of mistraining are not exactly hard to find these days.
A third precondition is that the prediction market is not arbitrage-bound to some other market, which may not be efficient. Again, the market for future gold does not function as a prediction market, because it is bound by arbitrage to the market for spot gold and the market for future dollars. At least one of these so-called markets is substantially the product of official intervention. This effect is not relevant to most decision markets, so I’ll ignore it for now.
It’s our fourth precondition that starts to get interesting. A prediction market only makes valid predictions if it can resist feedback, where feedback is any effect of the market’s result on the interests of the players. Until now, we have been assuming that the price signal produced by the market has no external consequences. But obviously, if we are using it to make decisions, this cannot be true.
The trivial example of a prediction market with a fatal feedback disorder is a market which predicts its own result. For example, the gram of gold underwrites two notes, A and B, such that the gram will be issued to whichever of A and B trades at a higher price on such and such a day. This is obviously a completely deranged market – a tape-painting contest.
Feedback creates a problem which is quite different from the ordinary market-manipulation problem. Without feedback, there is no systematic way to profit by manipulating a market. You can buy up any security to drive the price higher, but your only avenue for profit is selling. This is the “burying the corpse” problem.
But with feedback, players with a financial interest in the effect of the prediction have an interest which conflicts with the efficiency of the market. Depending on the prediction’s effect, their profit may be arbitrary – policy control can be quite profitable. And it can be extracted without burying the corpse.
The loss? Well, it depends. See how Professor Hanson addresses this objection:
If prices determined policy, and if trades move prices, then could someone buy a favorable policy just by making the right trades? No; a new trade typically moves prices because other traders suspect that this new trader has new information. When other traders with deep pockets can clearly observe that a particular person is trading for non-information reasons, such traders will not allow the price to change.
This apologia contains three serious fallacies.
First, a new trade does not move prices because it is observed. It may have such an indirect effect, but it starts with a direct effect. A new trade moves prices because it represents new demand (or supply), and prices are set by supply and demand. For this direct effect to be countered, the speculators and Jews must actually trade against the new buyer.
Second, the implied assumption that our speculators and Jews can observe the order flow, and know who is trading and why, is completely contrary to both the theory and practice of financial markets. The whole point of a market is that it produces one information stream: a price signal.
Third, and most important, note the “other traders with deep pockets” – these are our trained speculators and Jews. What Professor Hanson is saying is that because the market is dominated by smart money, interested feedback players will not be able to move the market. Of course, this assumes a market dominated by smart money.
Professor Hanson is perfectly correct in his analysis of his own model. In this model, in which market efficiency is enforced by speculators and Jews who are both omniscient and infinitely funded, any attempt to move the market for feedback purposes – or any other purpose – will either (a) fail, or (b) lose an infinite amount of money. Thus, the potential profits of feedback are irrelevant. However profitable steering the prediction may be, this profit must be finite, so it will not exceed the losses from the scheme – which are infinite. QED.
I trust the discerning UR reader has seen this sort of spherical cow before. The crucial point in this case is that for Professor Hanson’s theory to work, the cow must not just be roughly round, but a perfect Platonic sphere. Otherwise, the losses at the hands of the remorseless speculators and Jews need not be infinite – and the feedback scheme may well net a profit. Oops.
And fifth – oh, fifth. A prediction market, like any other market, functions only in the general absence of asymmetrical information. It is with some pain that I absorb the realization that a member of the George Mason School is unable to correctly apply this concept.
In plain English, the rational approach to a market in which other players have more information than you is not to play. If insiders who have material non-public information are trading, the rational player without it will avoid the market. “This mechanism is repeated until a no-trade equilibrium is reached.”
I mean, duh. This is one of the many reasons why insider trading is illegal (a prohibition I am not sure Professor Hanson agrees with). In my libertarian utopia, insider-trading enforcement would invoke sufficient deterrent penalties through the employment contract – insider trading is breach of contract, not a crime against the State, but you should be free to sign a contract that decapitates you if you’re caught at it. But whatever. If insiders were free to trade stocks, no one but insiders would trade. Did we need Professor Akerlof to tell us this?
Consider how this applies to Admiral Poindexter’s brilliant baby, the terrorism prediction market. Who has asymmetric information about future terrorist attacks? Um…
To preempt this concern, Professor Hanson can only note that in theory this attack could be performed with anti-corporate terrorism and short-selling of stocks, and it hasn’t:
Suspicions about the Tylenol poisoning case and the World Trade Center attacks were never substantiated.
All I can say is that I prefer my security to operate on principles which are deductive, not inductive. There’s a first time for everything.
There also isn’t a lot of anti-corporate terrorism. Sovereigns, to whom Professor Hanson is recommending his market design, differ from corporations in two ways: they leak a lot more internal information. And they have a lot more enemies.
So we’ve seen the five preconditions required for an accurate prediction market. Now, in case it isn’t already obvious why futarchy is… retarded, let’s summarize.
First: because its uncanny accuracy is not a product of magic, but of adaptive evolution, an accurate prediction market cannot simply be instantiated. It must be trained. During the training period, it is an inaccurate prediction market.
This is fatal to the entire design. Obviously, a decision market driven by inaccurate predictions is a deranged form of government. An accurate market cannot be created overnight. But who wants to run an inaccurate futarchy for a training period? Again: retarded.
Second: while one can imagine schemes for training market players on a scratch monkey, any deployment of a decision market would be irresponsible without some way of testing whether the market is predicting accurately, and thus producing sane decisions rather than insane ones. But as we saw earlier, testing the accuracy of a prediction market – ie, distinguishing between a real market and a noise market, an Emperor-of-China’s-nose market – is close to impossible.
Consider Professor Abramowicz’s objection to Professor Hanson’s more aggressive sales pitch. This criticism, while accurate, is so understated as to be comical:
As discussed in Chapter 7, conditional prediction markets may each have enough noise that comparison of the market prices is meaningless. This may be an even greater problem than Hanson allows, because probably only a relatively small percentage of policy proposals would be big enough to have a significant impact on GDP+. Suppose, for example, that the level of precision of each conditional prediction market would be within 0.1 percent. That would mean an error of approximately eleven billion dollars based on current values, so proposals whose impact would be in the millions or low billions of dollars could not be clearly evaluated.
To be fair to Professor Abramowicz, I suspect that this paragraph was written before 2008. But suffice it to say that if you have a formula for predicting GDP “within 0.1 percent,” you don’t need to worry about money.
Of course, in order to make an accurate bet that some policy or other will increase GDP, as opposed to no policy at all, you first need an accurate estimate of GDP assuming no policy change at all. Whose error bars are shorter than the impact you expect from the policy change.
In other words, Professor Hanson is basically expecting the AM antenna on his ghetto blaster to pick up signals from Alpha Centauri. Do our professors know anything about financial markets? Eg: have they ever traded a stock? Again: retarded. Give me Macro Man any day.
And third: if the prediction market is not functioning efficiently, the decision market becomes exactly what its name suggests, and what it is designed not to be: a market on which decisions are purchased. The defense against decision purchases assumes a perfectly efficient market.
Since there is no test for efficiency, and since the market has no reason to exhibit this efficiency until it has been trained, in real life every decision market is likely to consist of noise and feedback until some critical mass of speculators and Jews works out a prediction algorithm. We cannot know when this happens – even after it happens. Once more: retarded.
And fourth, there is one other small point which deserves mention. Obviously, futarchy cannot condition a prediction note on the difference between two mutually exclusive policies A and B, since only one of A and B can be enacted. Instead, it must issue two classes of prediction note, each conditional on a decision: A is better than nothing, versus A is not better than nothing; B is better than nothing, versus B is not better than nothing. “A is better than B” cannot be computed – even with a perfectly efficient market.
As we’ve seen, the comparison to nothing is clunky and implausible, because it depends first and foremost on a very accurate prediction of the null policy. But let that be. These conditional notes have a second problem. What happens to the B notes, if policy A is enacted?
Professor Hanson’s answer is that all transactions in them are rolled back. Indeed, this is the only conceivable solution. For example, if when A is chosen, we simply close out the B notes at their current price, we get a perfect feedback market. It is worth noting, however, that while systematically reverting all transactions in a given security is theoretically possible – it is anything but a normal feature of financial markets. Professor Hanson does not mention this. Frankly, he should.
As a detailed explanation of why futarchy is… retarded, I feel this should suffice. But we started out with a much larger point. We need to get back to it.
Clearly, Professor Hanson does not suffer from actual neurological deficits. So what leads this loyal, imaginative, and relatively sensible servant of USG to invest so much effort in an idea so blatantly fscked in the head? The answer leads us to more tasty delusions.
In this big-picture analysis, our new question is: why? Why would anyone even consider the possibility of considering so… retarded an idea as futarchy?
Our first clue to the answer is provided by the marketing orientation of both Professors, Hanson and Abramowicz. Their primary angle seems to be in recommending decision markets to USG. This may not seem odd, but it is.
After all, those who know USG know that daring procedural innovation is not exactly its strength. If futarchy or predictocracy is truly an effective new way to make decisions, don’t you think our good professors would have better luck in marketing it to, say, Apple? I mean, why doesn’t Apple use decision markets already? They seem so, well, wired.
Well. I have never worked for Apple, but I have worked for some of its competitors. And I can tell you exactly how decisions get made at Apple. Or at its competitors.
You see, Professors, when Apple wants to make an important decision, here’s how Apple does it. First – not being un-PC, just quoting Mark Twain – Apple finds a man. Hires him, in fact. And having hired this man, it tells him: sir, this decision is yours.
Consult with your subordinates, consult with your supervisor, consult with your colleagues, consult with El Stevo himself. Do you need data? Immerse yourself, sir, in data. Is technical input required? Apple’s star nerds shall file, one by one, into your cube. But at the end of the day, you are a man, this decision is yours, and you are responsible for its consequences.
No process is more foreign or repugnant to USG. Granted, a decision or two makes its way up, in carefully premasticated form, to the Oval Office. Even then, the masticators tend to be pretty certain of what the result will be, if not which masticator it will favor. The One, though a Lightworker, is human – what he knows is what he is told. And more important, his decisions are entirely reactive – he can’t wake up in the morning and decide to close the Department of Commerce. The system treats him as an oracle. In fact, rather as if he was a decision market. Power is in the hands of those who formulate the questions.
But for its normal business, 99.9% of which never gets near the White House, USG abhors personal decisions and personal responsibility pretty much the way the Devil abhors garlic. Even the idea of a decision is slightly repugnant to the mindset of governance – it sounds almost dictatorial. Hitler made decisions – he could do the wrong thing, or the right thing. USG has no such vulnerability to personal whim. It always does the right thing.
The question is how that right thing is defined. Within USG, here are the preferred sources of policy, ranked in order of rough precedence.
#1: the law. A USG employee is always on extremely solid ground when his actions are dictated by the majesty of the law. He has no choice at all. Therefore, he cannot possibly be accused of any personal turpitude, and nor is he responsible for any suboptimal outcome. Fiat justitia, ruat coelum. Sorry, bub, it’s the law. He just works here. Of course, anything good that happens in his vicinity will redound to his credit. With the law – you can’t lose.
#2: science. The ordering of #1 and #2 are a matter of taste, as the two hardly ever conflict these days. Indeed, when science is available, if you read the law it will generally say: follow science. And #2 enjoys all the fine benefits previously described under #1.
#3: public opinion. USG is, of course, a democracy. Sometimes it is helpful, in future-proofing one’s ass-covering, to know not just what public opinion is today, but what it will be tomorrow. Ask a journalist – that’s his job. Of course, when today’s public opinion conflicts with science or the law, it is the role of the brave civil servant to defy it. And of the journalist to mend it.
#4: a committee. Sadly, some decisions appear for which #1, #2 and #3 produce no clear answer at all. In this case, the only remedy is to gather as many “stakeholders” as possible in the same room. After all, too few cooks spoil the broth, they say.
#5: personal authority. This is sometimes sufficient to order pens. But usually not.
The pattern here is not hard to find. USG craves mechanical processes for decision-making. If a decision is made mechanically, no one is responsible for any bad results. Since mechanical management tends to produce bad results, this ass-covering imperative perpetuates itself. Of course, everyone in USG wants to be “in the loop” on everything – even the disasters. Better to be in on a fiasco than twiddling your thumbs around a success. Who needs responsibility?
And mechanical decision models have another benefit. Obviously, USG makes real decisions all the time. Somewhere inside the great machine, there are real people with real power. But, since they exert that power by massaging a mechanical decision process – by disguising their personal whims, which are just as personal as anyone’s, in the trackless bureaucratic wastes of law or science or the like – they get to rule in secret. Power without responsibility. What fun!
Mechanical decision processes perform a kind of power laundering. Because all these processes can be gamed and hacked and massaged, they are not truly mechanical at all. But since the machine is so complex as to be incomprehensible to outsiders, no one can see the true power structures of the Beltway.
Thus the incentive for futarchy. If it wasn’t retarded (and indeed, it is no more retarded than many of the phenomena that inside the Beltway pass for law or science), it would fit perfectly in this hierarchy, right between #2 and #3. Law, or science, or the market. Of course, if science tells us to ask the market – then there’s no conflict, then, is there? And so it goes.
You might think this is a new problem. Au contraire. It is intrinsic to 20th-century economics, which stole the good name of 19th-century political economy and applied it to the science of economic central planning. Like any zombie, the whole field cries out for its nine grams of lead. And its cold, stinking life in death is older than most can imagine.
Consider Professor Hanson’s favorite statistic – GDP. If we translate GDP into Apple terms, it is gross revenue. GDP is simply the total sales of all American companies.
So suppose our man, at Apple, had access to a perfect Hansonian decision market, which for any policy could calculate whether or not that policy would increase Apple’s sales. Forget all the problems – assume the design just works. Would he find this tool useful?
Somewhat, I’m sure. But only somewhat. Many bad decisions increase gross revenue. What about costs? What about quality? What about customer service and brand reputation? What about employee morale? Etc, etc, etc. Your man must balance all these factors. Whereas his decision machine, magic as it is, sees only one.
Snap back to the sovereign sphere – and back 150 years. Let’s go to that great critic of economics: Carlyle. Mr. Dismal Science. I’m ashamed to admit that when I first read Carlyle, I was still under the spell of Mill, Cobden and Bright, the “classical liberals.” I did not see the tremendous power and prescience of Carlyle’s economic critiques.
Such as this one:
A witty statesman said, you might prove anything by figures. We have looked into various statistic works, Statistic-Society Reports, Poor-Law Reports, Reports and Pamphlets not a few, with a sedulous eye to this question of the Working Classes and their general condition in England; we grieve to say, with as good as no result whatever. Assertion swallows assertion; according to the old Proverb, ‘as the statist thinks, the bell clinks’! Tables are like cobwebs, like the sieve of the Danaides; beautifully reticulated, orderly to look upon, but which will hold no conclusion. Tables are abstractions, and the object a most concrete one, so difficult to read the essence of. There are innumerable circumstances; and one circumstance left out may be the vital one on which all turned. Statistics is a science which ought to be honourable, the basis of many most important sciences; but it is not to be carried on by steam, this science, any more than others are; a wise head is requisite for carrying it on. Conclusive facts are inseparable from inconclusive except by a head that already understands and knows. Vain to send the purblind and blind to the shore of a Pactolus never so golden: these find only gravel; the seer and finder alone picks up gold grains there. And now the purblind offering you, with asseveration and protrusive importunity, his basket of gravel as gold, what steps are to be taken with him? —Statistics, one may hope, will improve gradually, and become good for something. Meanwhile, it is to be feared the crabbed satirist was partly right, as things go: ‘A judicious man,’ says he, ‘looks at Statistics, not to get knowledge, but to save himself from having ignorance foisted on him.’ With what serene conclusiveness a member of some Useful-Knowledge Society stops your mouth with a figure of arithmetic! To him it seems he has there extracted the elixir of the matter, on which now nothing more can be said. It is needful that you look into his said extracted elixir; and ascertain, alas, too probably, not without a sigh, that it is wash and vapidity, good only for the gutters.
Twice or three times have we heard the lamentations and prophecies of a humane Jeremiah, mourner for the poor, cut short by a statistic fact of the most decisive nature: How can the condition of the poor be other than good, be other than better; has not the average duration of life in England, and therefore among the most numerous class in England, been proved to have increased? Our Jeremiah had to admit that, if so, it was an astounding fact; whereby all that ever he, for his part, had observed on other sides of the matter, was overset without remedy. If life last longer, life must be less worn upon, by outward suffering, by inward discontent, by hardship of any kind; the general condition of the poor must be bettering instead of worsening. So was our Jeremiah cut short. And now for the ‘proof’? Readers who are curious in statistic proofs may see it drawn out with all solemnity, in a Pamphlet ‘published by Charles Knight and Company,’ — and perhaps himself draw inferences from it. Northampton Tables, compiled by Dr. Price ‘ from registers of the Parish of All Saints from 1735 to 1780’; Carlisle Tables, collected by Dr. Heysham from observation of Carlisle City for eight years, ‘ the calculations founded on them’ conducted by another Doctor; incredible ‘document considered satisfactory by men of science in France’:—alas, is it not as if some zealous scientific son of Adam had proved the deepening of the Ocean, by survey, accurate or cursory, of two mud-plashes on the coast of the Isle of Dogs? ‘Not to get knowledge, but to save yourself from having ignorance foisted on you!’
What constitutes the well-being of a man? Many things; of which the wages he gets, and the bread he buys with them, are but one preliminary item. Grant, however, that the wages were the whole; that once knowing the wages and the price of bread, we know all; then what are the wages? Statistic Inquiry, in its present unguided condition, cannot tell. The average rate of day’s wages is not correctly ascertained for any portion of this country; not only not for half-centuries, it is not even ascertained anywhere for decades or years: far from instituting comparisons with the past, the present itself is unknown to us. And then, given the average of wages, what is the constancy of employment; what is the difficulty of finding employment; the fluctuation from season to season, from year to year? Is it constant, calculable wages; or fluctuating, incalculable, more or less of the nature of gambling? This secondary circumstance, of quality in wages, is perhaps even more important than the primary one of quantity. Farther we ask, Can the labourer, by thrift and industry, hope to rise to mastership; or is such hope cut off from him? How is he related to his employer; by bonds of friendliness and mutual help; or by hostility, opposition, and chains of mutual necessity alone? In a word, what degree of contentment can a human creature be supposed to enjoy in that position? With hunger preying on him, his contentment is likely to be small! But even with abundance, his discontent, his real misery may be great. The labourer’s feelings, his notion of being justly dealt with or unjustly ; his wholesome composure, frugality, prosperity in the one case, his acrid unrest, recklessness, gin-drinking, and gradual ruin in the other,—how shall figures of arithmetic represent all this? So much is still to be ascertained; much of it by no means easy to ascertain! Till, among the ‘Hill Cooly’ and ‘Dog-cart’ questions, there arise in Parliament and extensively out of it ‘a Condition-of-England question,’ and quite a new set of inquirers and methods, little of it is likely to be ascertained.
Alas, the inquirers and methods of Carlyle’s day would strike any servant of USG as wildly, fantastically phronetic. In the 1840s, this rotting ulcer, this pizza-sized melanoma, the great fraud of the mechanical decision process, was just a little pimple. Carlyle saw it, and diagnosed it. You’ll find little here at UR which isn’t in the Latter-Day Pamphlets. And the condition of England? In 2009?
Unspeakable. Or dare I say… retarded. No – there is only one conceivable solution:
“Twice I triumphed with an ovation,
And thrice enjoyed a curule triumph,
And twenty-one times I was named emperor…”
Divus Augustus! Could we borrow you now?
Find us in brick? Find us in ferrocrete,
Potholes, aerosol, grease and tangled bar –
“Oppressed by the domination of a faction,”
And the same: eternal Milo; timeless Clodius.
In Rome, man is wolf to man. Abroad
The Parthians demand tribute, and get it.
The Roman wolf, as automated camel-tit.
Men live or rot. Republics rot and live,
And time cannot improve them. What of it?
What: is Earth’s belly short of marble?
Find us, Augustus, and your solid silver
Bust, thin nose, sharp and tired eyes,
Shall be set high above the atrium
Of every major North American mall.
I suppose I am probably notorious for not only not moderating my comments, but not even reading them. An unorthodox approach, I admit. But essential to UR’s famous objectivity.
However, my brain has little ears. I have no idea what y’all are talking about, but I can guess.
So first: obviously, I am not the Preston Brooks of the Internet. When I spoke of using Will Wilkinson as a punching-bag, I meant no physical harm. (Indeed, men of letters will recognize it as an homage to Hunter S. Thompson’s interview of Leon Spinks, in The Great Shark Hunt. HST references are not hard to find, here at UR.)
It was Will’s soul alone that needed a punch or two – and that just to drive the Devil out. Indeed as I write, perhaps he glares grimly into the eyesockets of that awful, crested Aboriginal skull, high as an albatross on his meth-laced Iowa ditchweed, and thinks: but if I believe my own eyes, not the Computer, will they ever let me on NPR again?
Alas, Will, the Ring doesn’t just slide off like that. Your talents are great! It’s not too late to use them for good, rather than evil. You get to be a nine-fingered Boromir, or a ten-fingered Witch-King. (Or more precisely: Alpha.) It’s your choice, dude.
And in case you’re wondering what sent me into Preston Brooks mode, it was this:
The sadly common libertarian-conservative penchant for “brave” counter-PC truthiness (e.g., “Women do love the welfare state!” “Blacks really do have lower IQs!”) certainly doesn’t help.
I’ve bold-faced the word at which I realized the gutta-percha would have to get involved.
(Of course most Americans of 2009, I suspect, understand why Brooks did what he did about as well as they understand the difference between the Liao and Sung Dynasties. In case you are in this set and you care to fill in your knowledge of medieval China, read first this, then this.)
Moving on: to the Jews. Obviously this is a favorite subject here at UR, which is a pro-Jew blog and always has been. (Jabotinsky is my nigga.) The road to the New State is long, long, long, and we have barely started down it. But we know one thing: the New State will be a Jew State. Or at least, it will be chock-full of Jews. (And of Tamil Brahmins, for the same reason.)
As I recall, I compared the Israel lobby to a piece of dental floss, and the Palestine lobby to an arm-thick iron rope. Now, it’s true that if your definition of “lobby” is “something like the Israel lobby,” there is indeed no Palestine lobby at all. There is an AIPAC; there is no APPAC. Indeed, I don’t know that the Palestinians have any organization at all for bribing Congressmen, though I suppose they must have something or other.
But, I mean, duh. This is exactly the point. The situation is not at all symmetric. If you have an arm-thick iron rope, do you need dental floss? Why do you think the Israel lobby needs to bribe Congressmen? Because they don’t have an arm-thick iron rope.
As throughout Zionist history, Israel’s enemies make a living by painting defense as aggression. “Cet animal est très méchant: quand on l’attaque, it se défend.” This tactic is not exclusive to the problème juif; it is an eternal staple of the Left. See here, for instance, or here:
This much we know: Hand evil a big, sticky gob of power, and it quickly becomes a feral monster, dangerous and cruel and willing to sell its own shriveled heart and the heart of its very remorseful mother for a shot at everlasting infamy, even more power and maybe some fresh, raw kitten blood, intravenously, just for the hell of it.
Indeed, Mr. Morford. Project, much?
But what exactly is this iron rope? If the Palestine lobby is not a lobby, precisely, what is it, and how can we see it? This is exactly the optical illusion that produces dreadful phenomena like The Palestinian Conservative. If you see the dental floss and you don’t see the iron rope, it’s quite sensible to assume that US foreign policy is a marionette dancing to the strings of the Jew. After all, there’s the string! Right there! In front of your eyes!
The question that lets you see the true state of affairs is simple. Which side of the Arab-Israeli conflict does the US support? Obviously, both are “special interests,” and an easy way to tell whose pull is stronger is to see whose side USG favors.
There’s a wrong way to answer this question and a right way. The wrong way is to start by asking: what should US foreign policy in the Middle East be?
Having answered this question, we can define the answer as the “center,” and then compare what USG’s policies are to what they should be. Ie, if USG’s policies are more pro-Israeli than the center, the pole is tilted to the right, and the Israel lobby must be stronger. If USG’s policies are more pro-Arab than the center, the pole is tilted to the left, etc, etc.
This procedure is not useful because, to answer the question, we must first judge the dispute. Here at UR, we are absolute sticklers for international law – and we mean classical international law, not the 20th-century forgery that has stolen its identity. Despite this giant mountain of lies, the law of nations is immutable. It lies sleeping, like Barbarossa. One day it will return.
As a consequence of that liberty and independence, it exclusively belongs to each nation to form her own judgment of what her conscience prescribes to her, – of what she can or cannot do, – of what it is proper or improper for her to do: and of course it rests solely with her to examine and determine whether she can perform any office for another without neglecting the duty which she owes to herself. In all cases, therefore, in which a nation has the right of judging what her duty requires, no other nation can compel her to act in such or such particular manner: for any attempt at such compulsion would be an infringement on the liberty of nations.
Indeed. And in case it needs to be any clearer:
War cannot be just on both sides. One party claims a right; the other disputes it: – the one complains of an injury; the other denies having done it. They may be considered as two individuals disputing on the truth of a proposition; and it is impossible that two contrary sentiments should be true at the same time.
It may however happen that both the contending parties are candid and sincere in their intentions; and, in a doubtful cause, it is still uncertain which side is in the right. Wherefore, since nations are equal and independent, and cannot claim a right of judgment over each other, it follows, that in every case susceptible of doubt, the arms of the two parties are to be accounted equally lawful, at least as to external effects, and until the decision of the cause.
Of course, we are still entitled to argue the case. But this judgment is not relevant to the problem at hand, namely, ascertaining objectively which lobby is stronger.
So the right way is to start with an objective question: if USG’s involvement in the conflict were to cease, which side would benefit? If the answer is “the Palestinians,” USG’s involvement must logically favor Israel, and thus the Israel lobby is stronger. If the answer is “the Israelis,” vice versa. This procedure produces an answer without the need for any sort of judgment.
Once we ask this question, the answer is obvious. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a case of asymmetric warfare; we can agree that the Israeli military is stronger than its Arab enemies. This is an objective assessment, and a clear one.
Despite this, USG’s preferred outcome in the conflict is that Israel lose territory it now holds militarily, and Palestine gain territory it now holds militarily. But if USG (and its European satellites, of course) agreed to close its eyes for a year, at the end of that year, Israel could easily be occupying the entire Muslim world from Karachi to Mauritania. Strictly as a matter of military power, of course.
Thus the question is answered. In reality, there is no such thing as “asymmetric warfare.” Or if there is, the stronger party just wins and the weaker just loses. Typically the latter will just surrender beforehand, to avoid the mess. The game will certainly not drag on for 60+ years.
Whenever you see a situation that looks like “asymmetric warfare,” check your math. There is probably an iron rope you’re not seeing. That the Arabs expect to gain ground and the Israelis expect to lose it, relative to the current state of affairs, is a pretty solid indication that the Arabs are indeed the stronger side. But their advantage is not military – so what is it? The iron rope. And on its other end: USG.
This analysis tells us that, relative to the “normal” view of the conflict, or at least that view shared by the (Jew-controlled) New York Times, (Jewlatto) Steve Sailer, and Taki (“trust a snake before a Jew, and a Jew before a Greek”) Theodoracopoulos, we are missing a variable. The iron rope. But what is the iron rope, exactly?
The answer is that the Palestinian movement is just another “nationalist” puppet force in the clientela of the world’s true, secret overlords. I refer, of course, to the international Protestant conspiracy – or, of course, our old friend Universalism. Ie, radicalism, revolutionism, progressivism, and leftism in general. (Even Al Qaeda is not “Islamofascist,” but Islamocommunist – firmly on the left. Looking for Islamofascists? Try Saudi Arabia.)
Our iron rope is that very same string that pulled Byron to Missolonghi and sparked the guns of Navarino, that made the British Navy run interference for Garibaldi, that drove Poles to their doom in 1830 and Germans in 1848, and that incites the Tibetans, Chiapans, and Tamils to this day. Arguably, it was also the cause of the fatal Anglo-American interventions in the Continental wars of the 20th century, and thus of pretty much all the 20th century’s death and destruction.
Arab nationalism is an American product, pure and simple. Specifically, it is a product of the great wave of missionary Protestantism that swept across the world in the late 19th century and early 20th. Michael Oren (or should I say – Bornstein) has an excellent summary in this book.
The seeds of the iron rope are institutions such as the American University of Beirut, the American University of Cairo, Robert College, and the like. Like little metastases, these spread progressive Protestant nationalism and democratism across the Middle East, which has by no means finished harvesting the missionaries’ grapefruit-sized tumors of wrath.
There was once an actual indigenous culture in the area, of course, no trace of which now exists. It is generally known as the “Ottoman Empire.” It bore about as much resemblance to the PLO as the Han Dynasty to the State of Oregon.
Whereas in contrast, the ideology of Palestinian nationalism is indistinguishable from that of Indonesian nationalism, or Ghanan nationalism, or Chinese nationalism. Hence Bandung. What did all these regimes have in common? Good friends at another Protestant institution: Harvard. (Or patrons there, rather. The relationship is not exactly symmetric.)
And there’s your iron rope. The Palestinians don’t need to bribe Congressmen, because they have Harvard. The Israelis don’t have Harvard, so they need to bribe Congressmen. Capiche?
Finally, I want to deal briefly with the general fallacy of the left-libertarian, which is summarized succinctly in the Nolan chart: the idea that the political spectrum is not one-dimensional (left and right), but two-dimensional (up and down), where “up-wing” means smaller government and “down-wing” means larger government.
Since Will Wilkinson’s face needs some time to heal, perhaps this deeply sincere error is best expressed here (hat tip: ATN), at what seems to be to seasteading as Whole Foods is to Paypal. Again, Michael Strong is basically righteous in his attitude toward the present – he has just been slightly misled about the past. He writes:
The fact is that liberals desperately need to re-think their ideas. They need to return to liberalism, an intellectual tradition that has almost disappeared from contemporary academic life (and, consequently, from the agendas of many mainstream foundations who consider themselves “liberal”).
The Left has, for more than a hundred years, encouraged the belief that if one is not Left-wing, then one is Right-wing. But liberal, properly understood, is neither Left nor Right; it is Up-wing.
There is no sense whatsoever in which it is accurate to call me “conservative.” I am a liberal through and through.
Liberals should regard the contemporary Leftist bias of universities and mainstream philanthropic foundations to be among the gravest threats to human well-being. Had liberalism dominated our universities, instead of the Left, many millions of people might still be alive today, and billions of people around the world would be healthier and happier.
We liberals should sharply distinguish “liberal” from “Leftist.” The latter characterized by anger, hatred, bullying, intransigence, and intellectual dishonesty. These spiritual diseases, legacies of the French Revolution and its Terror, began to infect liberalism in the early 20th century.
In the eighteenth century, liberal authors sketched out a vision of society based on education, enlightened values, the rule of law, constitutional republics, minimal government, free markets, and an ethos of personal responsibility and initiative. This classical liberal framework allowed for the greatest proportional increase in the standard of living of the common people that the world has ever seen. The Liberal Revolution is the greatest miracle in human history.
John Stuart Mill, in some ways the last great classical liberal, provided the core statement of intellectual freedom in his essay “On Liberty.” Mill makes the case that we can only discover the truth, or our best current understanding of what might be true, if we are free to explore all ideas openly, regardless of how offensive or reprehensible those ideas might at first appear.
Und so weiter. But strangely, at the bottom of the page, we read:
In Alcoholics Anonymous, after one has become sober, one faces an obligation to seek out those individuals whom one has harmed. Indeed, facing up to one’s failures is a key to spiritual growth in most religious and spiritual traditions. This principle of human psychology rings true even for this secular humanist.
Robert Heilbroner, a lifelong socialist, is a model of such integrity. Towards the end of his life, he acknowledged:
“Capitalism has been as unmistakable a success as socialism has been a failure. Here is the part that’s hard to swallow. It has been the Friedmans, Hayeks, and von Miseses who have maintained that capitalism would flourish and that socialism would develop incurable ailments. All three have regarded capitalism as the ‘natural’ system of free men; all have maintained that left to its own devices capitalism would achieve material growth more successfully than any other system. From [my samplings] I draw the following discomforting generalization: The farther to the right one looks, the more prescient has been the historical foresight; the farther to the left, the less so.”
I had always seen this quote cut off after the first sentence, and I’m quite grateful for Strong to bringing “Heilbroner’s law” to my attention. Of course I had noticed the same effect myself, but Heilbroner noticed it first.
But wait – which is it, dude? Does Heilbroner’s law only apply to the 20th century? The story according to Strong: in the 18th and 19th centuries, Left is right and Right is wrong; in the 20th, Right is right and Left is wrong. If nothing else, this anomaly calls for some explanation. What changed, and why did it change?
Your mileage may vary, of course. But from the UR perspective, there are two simple answers.
The first is just that Strong’s history is right in the 20th century and wrong before it. That is, in the 20th he sees the reality, whereas from the 19th he remembers the fantasy. Thus, for example, Strong presumably takes the Left side in the case of Governor Eyre, with Mill, Darwin, Bright and Spencer; he rejects the Right side, with Carlyle, Dickens, Ruskin, and Tennyson.
If he reads this, he is encouraged to look into the facts of the matter. Start with Froude. It is extremely easy to judge the Right in the 18th and 19th centuries, when you have never read a single work of the Right from those centuries. It’s like being at a trial in which only the prosecution speaks.
Well, surprise, gentlemen: the defense has a case as well. If Froude tweaked your interest and you want an overview, start here. You’ll find that there’s a rather remarkable resemblance between 19th-century leftists and 20th-century leftists.
While the continuity between John Stuart Mill and Barack Obama may not be obvious – considering as their preferred policies are almost opposite – it is there. They are part of the same great movement, which it is perfectly fair to describe as “liberal,” a word which both gentlemen would have used to describe themselves.
The policies changed. But the movement is one. 19th-century Radicalism and 20th-century progressivism are unified by a single force: the collective quest for power.
19th-century Radicals favored libertarian policies because they faced an ancien regime which still, to some extent, existed. This was the old regime of Throne and Altar, of mercantilism, Anglicanism and Anglo-Catholicism, imperialism and colonialism – in a word, Toryism.
When Toryism was a reality rather than a bugaboo, liberals could only seek power by destroying it. Thus they sought to cut off its air supply, destroying its sources of profit: protectionism, venal offices, chartered companies, and so forth. They favored rigorous economies of government, and other such ideals quite foreign to the modern liberal.
As they gained power through these aggressive measures, the liberals entered government itself. Thus their interests naturally shifted, toward enlarging and empowering the State. A State that had become “us,” rather than “them.” And thus, the Left went from libertarian to statist.
Thus when we look at policies, which as good democrats we should, we see a discontinuity. But when we look at power structures, which as good reactionaries we must, we see a continuity.
The key is to remember that the Left, at all times, is an adaptive phenomenon. If it were a conspiracy (organized by – the Jews) it would not be Left, but Right. Right is organized; Left is distributed.
The Left is the alliance of all those who seek power through the mind – intellectuals, basically. The Right is the factious and impotent collection of all those who seek to resist the Left, by any means – corruption, or violence, or propaganda, or (seldom, very seldom) the truth and nothing but the truth.
Thus, there was no one in 1900 who said “okay, guys, enough with the libertarianism, our work there is done. Now let’s bring on the statism.” At all times, the Darwinian dynamic of the Left has favored those ideas which brought their thinkers power.
In the 19th century (and before), that power was the power to destroy the ancien regime. Victory in this task naturally brought authority to the destroyers, who established a regime of their own. The ideas of power then became expansive ones, and liberalism pulled its 180.
But if you read Roylance Kent, you’ll see that the type of people it attracts hasn’t changed a bit. They were shills, stooges and climbers then, and they are shills, stooges and climbers now. It just so happens that in the 19th century they were usually right and in the 20th they were usually wrong, but this is a mere accident of history. As Hunter S. Thompson put it, even a blind pig finds an acorn every now and then. Capiche?
And left-libertarian Will Wilkinson, in a predictably indignant response, has coined this useful pejorative. Democraphobia! Is it worth embracing? Time alone will tell.
But it’s been too long since UR worked out on Will, so let’s slip a hook through his neck and use his face as a speed-bag. Then, we’ll talk about seasteading for a little bit.
The UR reader, hardened though she is to great torrents of text, can skip most of Will’s post. From our perspective, he spends most of his gas merely in proving his remarkable, if hardly unusual, inability to distinguish freedom from power. A sort of political colorblindness, as it were. (If colorblindness were transmissible.)
It may be pointless to explain the difference between red and green to any such congenital deuteranope. But 360 years ago, one greater than I tried anyway:
Truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever; but I must tell you their liberty and freedom consists of having of government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having a share in government, sir, that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and sovereign are clear different things.
There’s an easy way to define democracy: every adult subject of the State is deputized, drafted or dragooned as a part-time government official. The sum of these petty officials constitutes a gigantic committee, holding the exact same formal authority as Charles Stuart.
(And much less actual authority. Though if Charles’ powers were so absolute as his murderers pretended – well, to quote Trent Lott, we wouldn’t have some of the problems we have now.)
And even supposing the formal were actual: by what right does Will hold his nanoslice of power? By what right did Charles hold his full slice? Certainly he insisted on that right, just as Will insists on his.
In both cases: by initial conquest and subsequent inheritance. Political power is a property right, however you slice it. It is owned, not deserved. It is not a natural or “human” right. And it has no more to do with freedom than brake fluid with fondue.
If you’ve ever lived in a foreign country, you know exactly what life is like without the nanoslice: pretty much what life is like with it. Except for the Zen of abandoning the constant, unrequited longing for control that is the cruel karma of the democratic citizen, and the breath of honest fresh air in exchanging a first-person government for a third-person one, not “we” but “they.”
Of course, power has consequences. Nanoslices add up. And so when Peter Thiel says that when women got their nanoslice, the competence of this gigantic committee deteriorated (from his perspective, in which good government equals libertarian government – which is also Will’s perspective, and also more or less mine), he is making a factual statement. His point is neither philosophical nor normative.
If one can say that Louis XIV was a more effective ruler than Louis XV, one can say that a gigantic committee of men was a more effective ruler than a gigantic committee of men and women. The point can be argued, of course. But it must be argued with facts, rather than gas.
All this is UR 101. We know it cold. So we return to Will, and his alternative:
If libertarians are going to shift the politics of the countries we live in, we’ve got to get it through our thick skulls that many people have considered libertarian ideas and have rejected them for all sorts of decent reasons. We’ve got to take those reasons, and those people, fully seriously and adequately address them.
Will, if you do happen to read this, I’m not just the Internet’s most notorious Jacobite blogger – I’m also an expert in narcotics and dangerous drugs. And no offense, but are you sure you’re loading your bong correctly? High-grade marijuana will often contain small, clear crystals of pure resin. But if the bowl contains a single large, white crystal or “rock,” be warned! You may not be smoking what you think you’re smoking.
Still, we must be grateful for this whiff of teh democrack. Many assume it; few think it; even fewer say it. To see it written, sincerely and without irony, is both refreshing and educational.
Dear Will: you mention IQ. Perhaps you’re aware that the average IQ is 100. Have you ever collaborated with, employed, or otherwise befriended anyone with an IQ of 100? If not, it’s never too late to moonlight in “food prep” at your local Hardee’s. You could also enlist in the Marines; train as a cosmetologist; or work as a telemarketer. Or why not all of the above? Don’t you want to connect with your good friends, the People?
After these learning experiences, you may be inspired to set up a special, simplified version of your blog, to explain the virtues of Rawlsekianism to voters in this bracket – who have, as you say, “considered libertarian ideas and rejected them for all sorts of reasons.” (An accessibility feature, as it were. One small step ahead of the ADA.)
But 100 is just for average white people! Alas, as you may know, not everyone is white. You also mention cranial thickness. A fascinating topic, much neglected. Consider the problem of transmitting “Rawlsekianism” through this cranium (est. IQ, 65; number of votes, 1), or this one (est. IQ, 75; number of votes, 1). (Compare.) If your dream of democratic libertarianism seems just as practical in Papua New Guinea or Haiti as it is in Montgomery County – and why wouldn’t it be? – we’ll have to hope your auger is just as sharp as your tongue.
Of course, there are not a lot of Australian aboriginals roaming Montgomery County. But not to fear! Supposing your IQ=100 demolibertarian blog, which explains why Rawls and Hayek kick ass in words of no more than three syllables, takes off, goes triple viral squared, and starts to threaten the Powers that Be – what, oh what, shall they do?
Well, import some Australian aboriginals, perhaps. No shortage of those. And if there is, why not just breed more? As long as they can be taught to recognize the “D” line on the ballot, refrain from masturbating in public, and endorse their welfare checks, TPTB are home free. Remember, Will – no person is illegal. I believe Brecht had some thoughts on the matter.
But all this badinage is quite unfair. There is an easy and devastating answer. Our punching-bag may not punch back – but that’s no reason to let our dukes down.
Consider the case of Marxism. No one could possibly argue that Marxism is simple. Indeed, while a true understanding of Rawlsekianism may demand both a gigantic brain and a fully enlarged mind, I myself special-order my millinery and am one of only twelve men ever awarded the title of Space Admiral Emeritus – outranking Baba Ram Dass himself. And I have no hope of understanding Das Kapital, either because these qualifications are inadequate, or just because it makes no sense at all.
Nonetheless, you’ll note that Marxism in its day attracted the sincere adherence of billions of people, including quite a few whose skulls could smash Zinedine Zidane’s like an eggshell. And if Marx could do it, why not Rawlsek? Or – gasp – Will himself?
No one with an IQ of 90 can possibly understand Marx. Nor can anyone with an IQ of 190. Both, however, can learn to parrot Marx. (Indeed, with the right ASL translation, so can a chimp.) And since both (unlike the chimp, or Carlyle’s Dobbin – so far) has and of course deserves exactly one vote, they can elect Marxism just as easily as they can squawk it.
Ergo: cannot libertarianism, Rawlsekian or otherwise, succeed in exactly the same manner? Is it necessary to actually explain the matter? Must every man be a philosopher, or need he only fancy himself one? For he votes the same in either case.
We now arrive at the fundamental comedy of democratic libertarianism – a proposition no less grimly hilarious for its infinite boneheadedness. At the start of the 20th century, “classical liberalism” was conventional common sense, and Marxism and its relatives were on the fringe. Now, Marxism and its progeny are as ubiquitous as cytomegalovirus, and the lineage of John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Jefferson infects only a few nerds, stoners and other freaks. (And the world, of course, has gone to hell in a handbasket.) Is this just a coincidence?
Um, no, duh. It’s not just a coincidence. Because if you and your friends can parrot Marxism and get it together to capture the State, Marxism gives you: (a) money; (b) power; and probably (c) women. Whereas if you and your friends can parrot Rawlsekianism and get it together to capture the State, Rawlsekianism gives you – what? Philosophical satisfaction? So: which of these creeds would you expect to be more popular with the masses?
So what we’d expect, just from rational first principles, is that if you start with a libertarian democracy, it will eventually become socialist. Socialism, as a theology of vote-buying and worse, is perfectly preadapted for Darwinian success in a democracy. If democracy is like cancer, socialism is like terminal cancer – the natural, entropic endpoint of the process.
And indeed, not only does the experience of American democracy demonstrate this effect – so does the accumulated wisdom of both Greco-Roman antiquity and classical Europe, both of which regarded democracy and socialism as (a) contemptible and (b) synonymous. You’ll note that the Greeks, in particular, saw upward of five zillion independent city-states over the course of about half a millennium, so their experience is by no means to be taken lightly. (“Aristotle! Plato! Socrates! Morons…”)
Therefore, what the left-libertarian has the courage and forthrightness to propose is not just that a libertarian democracy can remain libertarian – contrary to history, reason, and wisdom alike – but that a socialist democracy can become libertarian! Through the same democratic process that sent it in the other direction! Time reverses, water runs uphill, dogs meow, and old women become young and beautiful. Will, this is why I wonder what your dealer’s selling you.
The truth about “libertarianism” is that, in general, although sovereignty is sovereignty, the sovereign whether man, woman or committee is above the law by definition, and there is no formula or science of government, libertarian policies tend to be good ones. Nor did we need Hayek to tell us this. It was known to my namesake, over two millennia ago.
Wu wei – for this is its true name – is a public policy for a virtuous prince, not a gigantic committee. The virtuous prince should practice wu wei, and will; that is his nature. Men will flock to his kingdom and prosper there. The evil prince will commit atrocities; that is his nature. Men will flee his kingdom, and should do so ASAP before he gets the minefields in.
And the gigantic committee should practice wu wei. But will it? Can it? Has it ever? It, too, has a nature. Before you tell us what it you’re going to make it do, you might want to consider what it is.
Anyway. Enough with poor Will. Please visit his blog, comment on it, say only nice things, and contribute to his face-transplant fund. Now, let’s talk about seasteading.
Sadly, reason compels me to believe that seasteading is basically a crazy idea. I mean this in the good sense of the word as well as the bad. Of all things that the endeavor reminds me of, it reminds me most of Shaw’s epigram that all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
I’m glad that smart people are crazy enough to do crazy things like this, and I’m glad that billionaires are crazy enough to put their money where their mouth is. What will come of it? We’ll see. Or our children will, at least.
But in the cold light of reason, let’s take a couple of sharp and serious looks at the project.
First, we need to look a little more closely at this word freedom. From my perspective, which is of course both reactionary and correct, freedom is not an abstraction. The extent of your freedom is the extent of your own practical control over your own mind, body, and property.
For example, I don’t think the conversion of Southern slaves into Southern sharecroppers made anyone much freer, because it created few practical options for the people involved. Before, you were an agricultural laborer who worked on the same farm for your entire life; after, ditto.
Defined in these terms, when you move onto a floating pole somewhere in the ocean, the first effect on your freedom is a massive decline. You have sworn fealty to King Neptune. Neptune accepts your service, as he has accepted so many before you. His court is glorious, his riches are infinite, his territory is vast. But Neptune is a stern and capricious lord.
To live at sea, you need not just love liberty. You need to love the sea. Spend a little time with Moitessier, Slocum, and the like; read this fine collection, and possibly this (pretty much all of Jonathan Raban’s books are good); etc, etc. Yes, I’m aware that seasteading is not yachting. I’m aware that no one intends to take their floating poles around Cape Horn. But you are still at sea, and a subject of Neptune you remain.
For example, until they can form a large enough seastead colony to support regular seaplane service (let alone floating runways, etc), the subjects of Neptune are isolated, in an way that no one on Earth now is. Perhaps the closest equivalents are the small spots of humanity dotted across Alaska. Would you move to Alaska? (Why New Hampshire? Why not Alaska?) Life at sea is likely to be no freer than life in the Alaskan bush. If this is the lifestyle you want, it is as free as anything. If not, it might as well be a jail.
I would be slightly more confident in the seasteading project if I had the sense that the people behind it were true lovers of the sea. I don’t really get that impression. Perhaps I am wrong. They clearly are lovers of technology, and perhaps once the technology is there the sea-lovers will come out of the woodwork. Again: the unreasonable man. Praise him! But emulate him only if you know what you’re doing.
A crucial test for any form of “escape” is its ability to attract normal, sensible people whose interest in the project is not especially romantic, religious, “ideological,” or otherwise crazed. The English colonies in North America, whose history most of us know, are excellent examples. Neptune had his way with the colonists for a month or two, but after that they were on dry land – and pretty good land, too. And there was no shortage of pure economic emigrants. And still, getting to this level of bootstrap was not at all easy.
My second criticism is that I feel the seasteading project, as is all too common these days, has mistaken a political appearance for a political reality. The Roman Empire was not the Roman Republic. It pretended, in every possible way, to be the Roman Republic – but woe be to those who could not see the difference.
Before the 20th century, Planet Three was divided among a number of independent powers. Some of these powers were strong and others were weak, and they behaved accordingly. Since we’re speaking of the sea, see under: Admiral Semmes. A work worth reading for many reasons, but not least the completely unexpected (at least to me) amount of paper devoted to the laws of the sea. Even in the 19th century, it turns out, the pretense of maritime neutrality was quite a bit thinner than the reality.
Since 1945, the government of Planet Three has consisted of (a) USG; and (b) USG’s enemies. (For various complicated reasons familiar to all UR readers, the enormous decaying hulk that is USG is particularly good at nourishing its own enemies.) As USG decays, we are starting to see a new class of state, the “post-anti-American” regimes of Russia and China, whose relations with USG are starting to vaguely approach the 17th-century ideal of Westphalian neutrality. They have a long way to go, though; they remain exceptions; they are not exactly noted for their libertarianism; and, while they need not always knuckle under to Washington, neither do they have any desire to offend it. As alternate protectors they seem quite unsatisfactory.
For the rest, the “new international order” consists of USG and its satellites. There are no true international institutions. (Indeed, the concept is a contradiction in terms.) There are only American institutions, which pretend to be a partnership of equals. So did the Warsaw Pact. Unlike the Warsaw Pact, the United Nations order does not of course serve the interests of Americans or report to American officials. Its personnel are indeed genuinely international. But all its ideas are American, both in origin, in the flow of new thoughts (to the extent that it has any new thoughts), and in the structure of prestige. This is quite sufficient.
Thus you have a basic problem: you’re trying to escape from a planetary government, by moving somewhere else on the planet. At least if you move to, say, Costa Rica, you are sheltered by the pretense that Costa Rica, which is actually a satellite or external province of USG, is (as it appears to be) a sovereign country.
If you really wanted to escape from USG, you wouldn’t seastead. You’d space-stead, or possibly star-stead. Ideally, there would be some vast, opaque nebula between you and the New York Times. Then, you might have a chance. Best not to tell anyone where you’re going, though.
The seasteaders have a page on this problem. It strikes me as inadequate, because I’m not sure it’s fully informed by an understanding of the historical and political dynamics. The take reminds me too much of the attempts to create digital gold currencies and other alternative financial systems, which have not been conspicuous in their success.
Basically, USG has two kinds of enemies: pretend enemies to its left, and real enemies to its right. It is not possible to conceal the basically hostile intention of the seasteading movement, which makes it an enemy; and its political alignment (libertarian is a subset of conservative) makes it an enemy to the right. Toward right enemies, USG is incredibly dangerous.
The pretend enemies (such as the Communist countries in the Cold War, other Third World nationalist thugs, revolutionary Islamists, etc, etc) are actually best defined as partial clients. Unlike full clients such as the OECD democracies, their friendship is only with one side of the American political system (the left side, duh). If their “anti-Americanism” actually reaches the level of military combat, the war is a limited war and essentially a civil one.
Right enemies include: Nazis and other fascists, of course; apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia; the Portuguese Estado Novo and Franquista Spain; the Greek colonels; and, of course, Israel. You might notice a property shared by all but one of the regimes on this list, which is that they don’t exist anymore. Sometimes there will be patron-client relationships on the right side of the equation, but they are always tenuous. Even in the last case, the “Israel lobby” is a piece of dental floss compared to the arm-thick steel cable that is the Palestine lobby. (You’ll notice that USG’s policy is that the war should end by Israel giving money and land to the Palestinians, not the other way around.)
To its left USG uses proxy forces to prey on itself. To its right, it uses its own forces to prey on others. To its left, it finds excuses not to act. To its right, it creates excuses to attack. To its left, it never takes no for an answer – the olive branch is always extended. To its right, it never takes yes for an answer – feed it an arm, and it comes back and demands your leg. This is how it ended up ruling the world.
So here is what I suspect USG’s reaction to seasteading will be: ignoring it, until or unless it shows some tendency to actually succeed. At that point, the fangs will emerge.
Again, when you seastead, you have acquired a sort of dual citizenship: you are a serf of both USG (satellites included) and Neptune. Neptune takes away quite a bit of your freedom, and offers no protection at all against USG. So what freedom, exactly, have you gained?
Not the freedom to violate USG’s laws, for USG will enforce its laws against you wherever you live. Perhaps you can smoke a joint, out there in the Pacific. Can’t you do that already? Really? And it’s actually a lot easier for USG to seize your seastead for a rock of Will Wilkinson’s finest, than for USG to seize your backyard because one of its dogs found a roach there.
But can you perform unlicensed economic activities? Can you, for example, run a free-market hospital that lets doctors and patients choose any treatment they think might work? Can you escape from tax laws, labor laws, patent laws, copyright laws, or any other laws? Not a freakin’ chance. You’re bending over and mooning about twelve government agencies, all of which would be very happy to eat your life and devour your soul, to the tune of thunderous applause from the New York Times. And your political protection? Ron Paul?
So again: what precisely does this freedom mean? Freedom to do what? I don’t see an answer. If there is one, I’d like to hear it.
My best guess at an answer is that seasteading, to the great credit of its proponents, does not pretend to be anything but a long-term project – and I mean very long. Generations. It can surely absorb a considerable quantity of human effort in tasks which are rewarding solely on account of their difficulty. Men climb mountains, explore the Arctic, sail around Cape Horn, etc. So why not? I can think of many far more boring and pointless endeavors – most notably, democratic libertarianism.
And the timeframe brings up an old joke which I believe is due to Robert Heinlein. Apparently, a long time ago a thief was caught in the king’s treasury. This king was quite strict about such matters. But he was a king, so he brought the thief before him and asked: “Why should I spare your life?”
The thief, thinking fast, said: “Simple. I’ve fallen on evil times, I admit, but once I was the world’s greatest animal-speech instructor. Give me a year, and I can teach your favorite horse to talk. What do you have to lose? If I’m lying, you can just hang me anyway.”
The king agreed. And every day thereafter, the thief was in the stable, teaching the horse to talk. He flapped its lips, he whispered in its ears, he pulled its tongue, he did everything.
One day a stableboy came up to him and said: “Look, you seem like a sensible fellow. You know that horses don’t talk. So why are you doing all this?”
The thief said: “Yes, I know that horses don’t talk. But, you know, I have a year. In that year, a lot could happen. The king could die. The horse could die. Or the horse could learn to talk.”
Thus with seasteading. In a project with a multidecade time horizon, many things can change. The sea will always be the sea – but technology changes, and more importantly, so does USG. For better or for worse, no empire is forever. As USG decays, it will probably not become easier to reform, but it may well become easier to resist. We can only hope.
So my official stance on seasteading: cool to lukewarm. At least from what I’ve heard so far. Enthusiasts should feel free to try to change my mind, if they care.
Some may ask: do I have an alternative? Yes, I have an alternative. I’ll discuss it in my next post. But for now, suffice it to say that when the impossible is ruled out, we are forced to consider the improbable. If it is impossible to reform USG, and impossible to escape USG – what other option is there?