Friday, November 25, 2016

Chesterton’s Fence and Democracy

Among those passages that resonate with those of a conservative temperament, one of my favourites has to be Chesterton’s Fence.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

Do not, in other words, argue from a position of ignorance. It is not enough to know what you dislike about some existing arrangement. You have to know its strengths, especially those which might have justified the policy’s existence. This is the engineer’s version of the Ideological Turing Test. You need to be able to make the best case possible for the existence of the status quo. Only then will you know what is being given up.

As I have written about in these pages before, I find the democratic process to be ridiculous. It seems incredibly unlikely that this is the optimal way to govern a country, but since it’s been imbued with a religious and moral sheen, not many people are able to think seriously about the possibility of getting rid of it, let alone what might replace it (other than braindead answers like ‘tyranny’). As a result, there is extraordinarily little experimentation with genuinely different forms of government.

So we know what we don’t like. But we have to pass the Chesterton Critique. Do we know why democracy, at least in its modern incarnation of the civil service state, works as well as it does? Do we know what aspects we might be losing? This is especially important, because we need to know what kind of traits to try to include in a replacement system. Or if it’s not possible to include all the benefits, we need to know what should be included in the costs column of any reform.

Now, this is different from the Ideological Turing Test, because we are not asked to give the answer that its supporters will give. This is likely to be faulty and delusional. Rather, we want the engineer’s answer, like Maine. We want to know what defense Machiavelli might make. We want to know, in other words, not the democrat's defense of democracy in America. We want to know the reactionary’s defense of democracy.

Here is one answer. I propose to make another.

Democracy holds out the fig leaf of minor, token power to all citizens. Individually, you have a voice. “Your voice matters!”, it cries out. Of course, everyone knows that individually their voice doesn’t matter, but collectively perhaps their voices do matter.

That is the fiction. I, and Moldbug, suspect that the people’s voices collectively don’t matter that much. The permanent civil service and the rest of the cathedral hold most of the levers of power. We are, of course, about to see this idea tested in the Trump Presidency. I forget who exactly wrote this (apologies!), but if Trump wins and proceeds to rule, then Moldbug was wrong. It’s entirely possible, and something on which I’m agnostic (though my best guess is that it won’t happen).

But let’s take the Moldbug hypothesis for now. Voting collectively doesn’t matter. Why might it be useful to keep this mechanism in place?

One trick that the makes of air conditioners for office buildings figured out a while ago is that people have endless fights about the temperature of offices. At almost any temperature, some people find it intolerably cold, and others are roasting. But oddly, people got much happier when they had entirely fake thermostats installed. My office has one. There’s a temperature dial you can fiddle with, and even a button you can press that causes a light to come on for 30 seconds, just to show that it’s hooked up to something, if not actually the air conditioner. On further reflection, it's preposterous. What exactly is this button meant to do? Is it an 'on' button? If so, do I need to press it every 30 seconds, because it keeps going off.

But having these buttons and thermostats there makes people feel like they’re able to do something. It channels their complaints and rage, which previous would have been directed at each other, management, facilities and whoever else, into fiddling with a harmless switch, which they never quite know if it actually does anything or not. Even if they suspect it doesn’t, periodically they’ll fiddle with it, because why not try anyway? Maybe it's the mysterious button, perhaps I need to press it in addition to fiddling with the thermostat. Your voice matters for office temperature!

Voting for candidates in an election is the fake air conditioner switch of the political world. Instead of throwing rocks at the police, or burning down the capital, or plotting a coup, people keep fiddling with their individual political thermostat. This channels their energy into harmless pursuits. But it also increases actual satisfaction, even given the current policies! Often, people aren’t able to accurately perceive the world around them, so may not even know exactly if things have changed. But if they can do something, and see some minor visible effect in the world around them, such as the thermostat being higher or one of “their guys” in charge, they feel happier.

But viewed in this light, it’s easy to see that not all forms of voting will be equally successful at generating this pattern. A key part is that the choice space of actions must be fairly crude, and the measurement of consequences rather difficult. Direct democracy, such as through ballot initiatives, is very destabilizing in this regard. When citizens can form their own specific formulations, firstly they demand quite specific things (“No gay marriage in California”), which are easy to tell if they’re not being implemented. As a result, when the powers that be decide that the peasants’ games have gone too far, they must be explicitly cracked down on, when judges remind people who is actually in charge. Do that too often, and people might figure out that the thermostat isn’t actually connected to anything.

But if you only give people a periodic choice every four years, and they only get one single ‘A or B’ choice placed in front of them, AND their choice is only to launder what they want done through the will of a president or prime minister, who may or may not have been sincere, may or may not have just changed his mind after voting, may or may not have had enough support from within his own party… well, it suddenly becomes very hard to show definitively that the voting didn’t make any difference.

And so the system is stable. Dissent is channeled into harmless outlets, and it stays there because nobody can every quite prove that the outlets are indeed harmless.

But even more than that, there’s a genius that comes from the nature of voting itself. Specifically, it’s a participatory act. And not only that, it’s costly. You have to get off your butt, drive to the primary school, and fill in the damn form.

Cognitive dissonance being what it is, people who have wasted their time filling out a form will convince themselves that the form is actually a really important practical and moral act. Otherwise, why have I been doing it for so long, wasting my time on it? In other words, by making the action slightly costly, people are even more likely to tell themselves absurd stories about how voting can actually change the world.

Now, this is something that is harder to achieve in a monarchy. The King explicitly wants it known that he is in charge. If you dislike the King, stiff $*** – he’s the King, and you’re a peasant. Now, with a sufficiently stable power structure, this is okay. But it means that the peasants have to obey out of either a) inherent loyalty and love for the ruler, and/or b) fear of punishment. Do these right, and they should be enough. But there’s an extra insurance policy of having a system that fools some fraction of the potential mob into thinking that they either ARE already in charge, or can be if they just sit patiently and keep pressing the right button every four years.

Sovereign corporations offer people a different bargain – you can’t choose how the country is run, but you can choose if you want to stay. This may well be fine too.

Again, none of this means that we shouldn’t ditch democracy. We just should know what we’ll be losing, and ponder if there's any way to replicate it in what we'd like to create.

The second large benefit I can see is what I think of in my crude financial terms as the analysts consensus forecast problem, or the wisdom of crowds. Suppose every analyst observes the true earnings estimate with some independent error term. Then the average of many analysts will be more accurate than any individual analyst.

Now, you might think that I am arguing that the average person will be wise in what policies to implement, but that is not my purpose at all. Unlike the analysts version above, not all electors are equally informed about policy. If many of your analysts are morons, you probably want to exclude them entirely.

So what are voters actually good at knowing? Pretty much only one thing – whether their life has gotten crappy recently, or whether it’s improving. They may know something of the specific cause, or they may not. They are unlikely to have much useful to add about how things need to change. But if you just want to find out how the overall realm is going, a vote is not a bad option.

Think of voting it as a button labeled ‘Throw the Bums Out’. By voting for the incumbent, they’re saying they’re happy. By voting for the other guy, they’re not. Not only do you get information about the aggregate answer to this question, but with exit polling, you can approximately figure out who was unhappy, which might tell you why.

The problem for a king is that this kind of knowledge is dispersed over the whole kingdom. It’s the standard central planner’s problem, and why you want to rely on prices. Think of voting as like a very crude version of average opinion for the ‘Do things need changing?’ question.

Of course, viewed from this angle, what we really want is just an opinion poll. And ideally we'd like to ask a lot more detailed questions, rather than just one. Perhaps something more like the census. But if there’s one thing the Trump election showed, it’s that people sometimes falsify opinions to pollsters, especially when they have to answer in person. The trusted anonymity of the polling both means you get a) genuine answers, even if they’re misguided, and b) avoid the sampling error from limited polling.

Now, you definitely don’t want this kind of voting mechanism hooked up to the actual levers of power. But it’s the kind of information that a genuinely benevolent leader would want to collect in some form or another. It doesn’t need to look like voting, but something to achieve a similar effect is probably useful. It helps solve the hubris that comes along with absolute power – when you feel you’re a genius, and all your underlings are sycophants, how will you actually find out if your policies aren’t having the intended effect? Turns out it’s not so easy, until one day you're on the palace balcony giving a speech, the peasants start jeering, and suddenly the jig is up. Woe be to the leader who forgets to find out the real opinions of his peasantry.

These are surely not an exhaustive list. Out of the two broad classes, I think the ‘harmless outlet for dissent’ is considerably more important. But it’s a problem worth pondering.

‘Tear Down This Wall!’ makes for great rhetoric. But it should be the last stage of a lot of reasoning.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The purgatory of eternal twilight

In the strange no man's land between sleep and wakefulness, I sat on the plane. I had only gotten four hours of sleep the night before, but, unusually for me, sleep would not come now. I turned on my laptop, felt tired, turned it off again, but still couldn’t sleep.

And as my mind eventually turned to introspection on my situation, a meandering thought drifted towards a strange meeting I had last week.

It was an office visit, with a casual work friend at another company. I hadn’t seen him in perhaps a year or so. When I got to the door, he seemed scattered and disheveled. He was dressed in an unusually casual manner – an oversized army jacket that didn’t fit properly, and a black t-shirt advertising some business or other. The man who had escorted me there commented that it looked like my friend had just woken up. “I had, actually”, my friend replied. When our escort left, my friend still seemed out of sorts, fiddling with his phone, rubbing his eyes, looking in odd directions.

I expected him to regain his composure and for us to talk business, but he still seemed distracted after a minute or two. His conversation had odd extended pauses, halting as if he were constantly losing his train of thought in mid-sentence, and he didn't make much eye contact.

At some point, he said ‘I actually have an alarm that requires me to answer arithmetic puzzles before it turns off’. He showed it to me. I cheerfully made conversation by asking him if he used the snooze button, and he said he did. ‘I found that I actually had a lot of success by giving it up altogether’, I continued. ‘Once you get into the habit of always getting up immediately at the first alarm, it becomes almost a Pavlovian response, no matter how tired you are.’

As if my words only partially registered, he rambled about how a friend of his had an alarm clock that would walk around when it went off, and you had to get up to switch it off. ‘The effect’, he said, ‘was that he just got really adept at picking up objects and throwing them at the alarm.’ The motion he made while he did this was to dramatically pick up his keys and turn towards the wall, pretending to throw them. It was the only display of alertness the whole time, and jarring in contrast to the general struggle and sluggishness he had displayed otherwise.

By this point, the conversation had started to go on past the point where we would have been expecting to move on to substantive matters, but instead we had been on a single topic of smalltalk the whole time, which had started to feel like it had lingered too long. ‘I really wanted to come in and meet you, even though I was really tired. I’ve only gotten about 12 hours of sleep this week.’

It was Thursday.

And suddenly, the penny dropped. He was suffering from crippling insomnia.

I felt absurd, wishing to take back my self-satisfied stories about the benefits of willpower in avoiding the snooze button. My friend was drowning, for lack of sleep. He talked about it so much, for the reason that old war memoirs talk about food much more than fighting – because they were starving and wretched, and it was the only pleasure they sought in life. At a certain point of hunger, getting food becomes all consuming, and mere prospect of getting a bullet at some stage in the future becomes much more distant.

Embarrassed at myself, I heard him talk more. ‘Things got a bit worse when my wife got a job in a distant town, which means she has to get up at around 6. I’ll try to get up to give her a kiss before she goes, and…’

I don’t actually remember the way that sentence drifted off, but I was struck with an immense sadness. Suddenly the enormity of the problem became apparent. I could see him, struggling to maintain a functioning relationship with his wife in his zombie-like state, and tenderly giving up precious minutes of rest to show her affection. His work must surely be suffering too. We were halfway through our meeting time and hadn’t even begun to talk business. I cannot imagine that things got better without me there.

At last, as he started to slowly become more coherent, the conversation finally turned more towards our main productive endeavors, and he seemed to slowly approach proper functioning. When we first walked in, it was as if he were literally drunk. By this point, he seemed to be merely tipsy, slowly sobering up.

I found my eye drawn towards the odd shape of his car keys. The top of the remote was all covered with a strange uneven rubbery plastic substance, leaving only a small hole for the button. As events started to make sense, I wondered if he had dropped them a lot in his haze.

As I write these words, I wonder if he himself was the “friend” in the story with the walking alarm. The keys were quite possibly broken from being thrown in exactly the manner that he pretended. He had developed a Pavlovian response, alright. It was a visceral rage at whatever was denying him the thing his body wanted most in the world.

I wanted to say something about his plight, but as is the introvert’s curse when dealing with unfamiliar situations, the words didn’t come. His life looked like it was falling apart from tiredness, and to comment on it, even if wholeheartedly sympathetically, would risk emphasizing just how obvious that was. The only consolation was that he was probably so distracted that this might not register. I was struck by a very strange urge to give him a hug, not because it would have made things better, but out of a primal desire to offer some sort of comfort, even if wholly ineffectual, even if wholly inappropriate.

As I write these words, I can think of what I should have said. “I’m sorry to hear you’re not sleeping well, mate. I really appreciate you coming in just to see me today, given it seems tough right now.” The sympathy of the staircase, so to speak.

Sometimes, the cross that the unafflicted must bear is seeing the pain of those whose welfare one desires, knowing there’s nothing one can do.

Sometimes, even the standard consolations for this don’t work. There is no one to get angry at. There is no constructive solution you can offer. There is no hope of even finding a remotely satisfying explanation for why things are the way they are.

And in this suffering, one can only console oneself with the fact that one’s own reflected misery is a tiny problem to bear by comparison, and one should strive for compassion for others in this unsatisfactory world.

Existence is suffering, as the sage put it.

Ponder this, and wisely reflect.