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Moldbuggian Interlude

Mencius Moldbug is a highly creative political thinker. He represents the club of writers that make the blogosphere worthwhile along with original thinkers like Patri Friedman, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and Dennis Dale.

It had been a while since I visited Unqualified Reservations, and so I was delighted to find this long-form advertisement for elected dictatorship at the top of the blog's front page yesterday.

Moldbug's eccentricity has become so severe that he is no longer merely advocating political arrangements never contemplated by anybody else, but he is now advocating political schemes long rejected by everybody.

To be as mad as Moldbug is an artform. In fact I nominate the phrase "mad as a Moldbug" for entry into the vernacular.

Also on the front page there is this post that argues, among other things, that America's Israel policy is pro-Arab because Israel would have undisputed domain over the Middle East absent other Western powers holding it back.

If this is your first exposure to Moldbug, don't miss the world's only worthwhile "why I am not a libertarian" essay.


Worldview

Human existence is essentially tragic. We inhabit a world not designed for us. Our life span is sadly limited while our ambitions and desires are unlimited. 

Our species awakened in middle of a cruel Darwinian game. The higher cognitive capabilities of sentient animals granted us a survival advantage. But these same cognitive capabilities grant us the ability to suffer. And suffer we must. We imagine beautiful things that we will never have the chance to create. We dream what will never be. In Darwin's world individuals are disposable puppets, bit players to be used up and tossed aside in the latest iteration of the survival game. Only the genes that we carry are allowed immortality.

Our duties to our genes satisfied, we are left to whither away through planned obsolescence. As our bodies and minds break down, our capacity to act upon the world slowly diminishes, then sharply. Our hope for the future narrows as our potential to pursue our goals comes to its end. Our life's work is left to erosion. At the last we fall into darkness, fully conscious the entire way down. 

But even well before we come to the end of the line, our desires clash with the nature of the world.

We are driven by a primal desire to reproduce. Love and family is the source of our deepest joys. And yet for most of our species' existence we were bound by strict Malthusian limits on the number of us that can be supported by available resources in our environment. In modern times technology has only relaxed those limits, not eliminated them. If any humans are born beyond those limits then others must die. Even if we were to defeat nature's obsolescence of our bodies, we would have to give up the ancient desire for reproduction to have a sustainable society. 

As creatures that crave beauty we seek elegant explanations for features of the universe, but its complexity does not admit to elegant explanations. The quest for absolute truth is frustrated by the famous theorem of our own Mr. Gödel. In ethics, in social organization, even in mathematics we are left with ugly contradictions. This is so unpalatable that most humans must pretend that the contradictions do not exist. 

And should we conquer all our limitations, then at last the inexorable entropy of the universe will come for our proud and mighty civilization. 

The tragic character of human existence is the motivating force behind our most famous institutions, as diverse as science and religion. The world we live in is not designed for our happiness, so we try to mold it to our will with technology and discovery. The world is cruel while we last and soon forgets us when we are gone, so we dream of an afterlife without cruelty or impermanence. 

My recognition of our tragic nature is why I find aesthetic appeal in Christianity. If you erase the afterlife from Christianity, it is a very pessimistic religion. It preaches a gospel of flawed people living in a flawed world. It does not pretend that humankind can be perfected. I feel comfortable talking with Christians. Their doctrine of original sin fits nicely with my vision of the dissonance between human aims and the structure of the universe. We share a language; we can communicate. 

This feeling of kinship is odd for me in particular. I am an intellectual atheist and I share much more culture with other young atheists than any Christian population. If a Christian pastor could follow my life or see into my mind, he would blanche. I'm no Starchild, but I will never be elected to office in a Christian nation. And my own childhood was made unbearable by a collision with some of the darker parts of that religion. I ought to hold a grudge. 

But I enjoy the company of other pessimists from time to time. I need a break from the companionship of young revolutionaries, those that assume there must be a neat answer to every puzzle because they want one. 

Besides, Christians have all the best music. 


Administrative note

We upgraded to a newer version of our blogging software on Friday, including some badly needed security updates. There might be a few kinks to work out with the new setup. Please comment on this post if you notice anything acting strangely. I'll leave this up for a few days to make sure we catch everything. 


Dear Liberaltarians

The anti-abortion faction in Congress was the last barrier to the Democrats' health insurance nationalization bill. They very nearly killed it. Social conservatives continue to be libertarians most powerful ally. When it comes to gun rights, federalism, and fiscal restraint, they are often reliable, and they turn out the vote.

Christians value freedom because they have a moral code that they take seriously and it often conflicts with the values of the technocrats in Washington. So they value being left alone.


Happy Dependence Day!

Mark Steyn writes:

If Barack Obama does nothing else in his term in office, this will make him one of the most consequential presidents in history. It's a huge transformative event in Americans' view of themselves and of the role of government. You can say, oh, well, the polls show most people opposed to it, but, if that mattered, the Dems wouldn't be doing what they're doing. Their bet is that it can't be undone, and that over time, as I've been saying for years now, governmentalized health care not only changes the relationship of the citizen to the state but the very character of the people. As I wrote in NR recently, there's plenty of evidence to support that from Britain, Canada and elsewhere.

There is a qualitative difference between living in a country with mountains of private capital chasing new ideas and a country where every spare dollar is sucked up to pay for increasingly expensive government benefits. In our lifetime, it is likely that we will experience that difference.

Progressivism, with its short-term rewards and long-term consequences, is an ideology that is difficult to beat back at the ballot box. America is home to the Western world's only effective anti-progressive movement. And it is currently in retreat.


Battlestar Political-Economica?

I just started watching the first season of Battlestar Gallactica and I find it curious that the Cylons don't appear to have any politics or economic activity. I would think that beings advanced enough to be sentient would have disagreements, factions, problems of collective action, specialization, and trade. Maybe the writers reveal more about Cylon society later in the show.

It is an interesting choice to make the cybernetic lifeforms monotheistic (I'm guessing based on hints through the first six episodes and Caprica). The BSG writers have a more creative imagination than most when it comes to envisioning the culture of killer robots. I'll be disappointed if it stops at that one little detail. Also, I would have been more impressed if the robots developed a religion themselves instead of apparently inheriting it from their human creators.

In episode 3 the humans were wise to choose democracy as a form of rule. Libertarians often criticize democracy because voting acts as an "opiate of the people". By dangling the hope of non-violent change through the ballot box in front of discontents it stifles the growth of revolutionary movements. This is a priceless feature for the government of a tiny human society in constant threat of military annihilation. Governing by the consent of the governed reduces the chance of conflicts that would split the human remnant and leave them weakened. Besides, with only 50,000 survivors they will not have to worry about the danger of a government growing too large, entrenched, and powerful.

I won't be reading any comments so as to avoid spoilers. And yes, I know I am terribly late to the party.


Economics Puzzle

This one has been bugging me for awhile: Why does McDonald's charge 20 cents more for a single cheeseburger than a double cheeseburger?

A Whopper to the commenter with the best answer!


Democrats vote to keep poor kids out of good schools

I guess the more accurate headline would be "Democrats vote to preserve teacher union monopoly". For the second time this week, a party line vote denied funding for the DC Opportunity Scholarship fund.

There are some issues where I am closer to the Democrat platform than the Republican. But on issues like this, the Democrats' shameless bowing to the unions turns my stomach. I doubt that I can ever vote for a Democrat without breaking out in hives.


Markets and Culture

(I wrote this in response to a professor's complaint on a mailing list about the rampant commercialization of modern culture)

Markets enable coordinated action between anonymous individuals. They are essential for the functioning of large-scale society. But they have popped up rather recently in our evolutionary history so they don't sit well with our subconscious. They feel, well, anonymous and impersonal. As they are.

So in the classroom we organize interaction to look like much older social structures that sit better with our subconscious, namely tribes or extended families. One could imagine the professor as an older hunter, passing along his knowledge of tracking game animals in the forest to the tribe's children. Markets for labor and material are used to make the university function but on the inside it doesn't look that way.

It is considered rude for a boss to influence his employee by reminding him that "I pay your salary", although it would be an accurate statement to make. Politeness requires us to temporarily forget that market forces were often responsible for drawing us together in the first place; we remember only when we get a paycheck or a tuition bill comes due. Even at the checkout line in a grocery store we make small talk with the clerk and inquire after his well-being while the true nature of our interaction is as plain as the money we hand over.

At the risk of sounding Panglossian, this seems pretty optimal. There is wisdom in choosing the correct social structure to apply to any given interaction. Markets enable us to build and run structures like universities, but it would feel wrong if a professor charged students for attending his office hours, or if students paid his salary by handing over a $10 bill at the beginning of every class.

But I do think our innate suspicion of markets may be stronger than what is rational and we sometimes fail to use markets in situations that make sense. I also think we tend to underestimate the good qualities of markets, especially when we harken back to halcyon times when markets figured less prominently in everyday life. Yes, life was more personal then, maybe even happier. But people also had a lot less freedom in how they organized their lives. Freedom is one of the market's two most compelling virtues (the other is economic growth).


Who created civilization?

God did.

My own opinion towards religion is that its ontological correctness is one of its least interesting attributes.


Your Future

I'm not sure which is more frightening: the dystopian future presented in this advertisement, or the fact that a company thought this vision would appeal to some people.


Structuralists @Cato

Cato offers some marginal structuralist ideas in lieu of campaign finance reform:

Life Terms Members of Congress serve for life. Few special interests will throw money at the political process in this system, because the cycle of funding and response won’t exist anymore. Elections will be hard to predict and infrequent, and once the election’s over, the member-elect can vote however he wants till he kicks the bucket. Parties and partisanship will be vastly weaker — also a good thing as reformers see it.

Repeal the Seventeenth Amendment We hear much about the corporate influence in politics, and many worry that it is bought through campaign contributions. The solution to the problem of faction, as our founders understood it, was not to prohibit faction, which would restrict liberty, but to set one faction against another. Let the corporate interests have the House of Representatives. The Senate will once more be elected by state legislatures, which will use their powers to advance interests not necessarily in line with the corporate agenda. Faction will check faction, and free speech will survive.

Election by Lot In ancient Athens, important officers were commonly chosen by lottery among all the citizens. This method, called sortition, may be asking a bit much of our citizens today, but it would certainly end the problem of shady campaign contributions. This measure would be most effective if it came with a life pension for former members, to avoid all fears of bribery and to compensate citizens for their interrupted lives.

The Old Legislators’ Home Much like sortition, ostracism has a fine pedigree in western democracy. Here’s to bringing it back.

We hear a lot about the “revolving door” between lobbying and serving in Congress. Let’s end it once and for all, not by restricting lobbying groups, but by restricting congressmen. Whenever anyone retires from Congress, they aren’t allowed to go back to work in the private sector… as anything. They’re permanently retired.

We’ll send them to the remote, though very pleasant, Hawaiian island of Molokai, where they will be maintained in idleness, with all reasonable expenses paid, for the rest of their lives. (An inducement to early retirement would also do much of the same good work as term limits.)

Unlike Seasteading, these ideas are too dependent on the whims of the majority of a Democratic populace to ever get enacted. But it's still good to see people think outside of the policy box from time to time.


Lefty Structuralists

Lessig makes a structuralist case against US Govcorp


Question for Open Borders Folks

What do believers in open borders do about terrorists who want to immigrate, or other people of an unsavory character? What if the extent of a potential immigrant's transgressions was praising terrorists in public press? He hasn't actually harmed anyone, so to prevent him from immigrating would be unjust according to an open borders philosophy.

I think it clear that the government should prevent such a person from immigrating. In the worst case scenario, he is actually a peaceful person and our country will lose a tiny bit of economic benefit through the loss of economic exchange with him. But if he is not a peaceful person then the decision to let him immigrate is disastrous.


Odd Ends

In discussing politics, I prefer to focus on outcomes over ethics. This sounds like I am taking a stand on the ageless means versus ends controversy but I'm not. Rather I consider the use of good means to be part of a good outcome. Means and ends are fungible; they can be traded off against each other.

To sum up my political values in one phrase: I don't like to treat people poorly and I don't like for awful things to happen. This captures the way that many people think about politics, maybe even most people.

However, libertarians tend to elevate means above ends to an extent that is unpalatable to the popular conscience. The standard way that libertarians wiggle out of this criticism is to deny that libertarian means ever lead to anything but the best possible outcomes. But that is when the movement takes on an air of a religious phenomenon - economic scientology. It assumes the existence of a benevolent world that is not guaranteed.

If you can't think of one instance where libertarian policy might create a sub-optimal outcome under some circumstances, then we're not going to have very interesting policy conversations. Anyways, I'd rather discuss structure instead of policy.

Libertarian ethics has a weird effect when it comes to the policy decisions which shape the substantive character of the world in which we live. Current governments possess an odorless, colorless quality called "publicness", and therefore libertarian ethics condemns these entities as illegitimate managers of the land they possess. Moreover, it strictly limits the policies they may ethically pursue. Governments may not create a public safety net which alleviates the worst suffering of citizens from sudden illness or injury - the taxes to pay for it would be coercive. Nor may governments seek to shape immigration policy in favor of well-educated and highly-skilled persons, or prevent pollution in situation where the cost of doing so through courts is infeasible (e.g. pigovian gas taxes), or offer incentives to have children to a population breeding below the replacement rate. A manager cursed with the quality of publicness must sit on its hands and hope that everything works out for the best.

But in some future world where all governments have passed through at least a momentary period of "privateness" (think seasteads or burbclaves) libertarian ethics allows managers to enact any set of policies they damn well please. If every government in the world were a fundamentalist theocratic mormon dictatorship that flogged gays and banned coffee, libertarian ethics would consider that perfectly fine as long as the management was put in place by some legitimate owner.

Libertarian ethics can lead to weird outcomes in some extreme circumstances, outcomes that most libertarians wouldn't like. I suggest we should allow outcomes to shape our decisions in concert with our ethics so we can live in a world that is pleasant to be in and not just a world that satisfies all the checkboxes of our moral philosophy.

This is the Libertarian Paradox again. It is also a good case for Moldbug's Formalism, which is less about ethical navel gazing and more about designing governments that have the incentive to function well.