Red Lobsters and Black Swans

Back In 2007 Nassim Nicholas Taleb had estimated that, in the following years, the rate of irruption of highly improbable events that change our way to perceive reality would be on the increase. Using his terminology, we would swiftly drift from Mediocristan out to Extremistan. People would have to deal with black swans more often and adapt to the new scenario.

The sudden spreading of Jordan Peterson’s lobsters might be a confirmation of Taleb’s surmise (in Extremistan, the term “surmise” has not any derogatory connotation). “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” is a piece of advice aimed at people who feel overwhelmed by a state of affairs, both personal and public, whose complexity they can hardly grasp. In Taleb’s terms, Jordan Peterson wants to prepare you for a world in which the Black Swans are the underlying reality.

Our quantitative patterns about reality -both physical and social- contribute to preserve fixed relationships among the terms that build up our world and subjectivity -while every now and then the “untimely” burst into our sense of reality. The Nietzschean “untimely” had always been there, out of the reach of our horizon of perception, but ready to appear suddenly and unexpectedly, like the plague in Thebes.

Nevertheless, perhaps there is no underlying chaotic reality, but a Hofstadter’s braid, where Apollo and Dionysus are intertwined: simple and complex phenomena, back to back, the beauty and the sublime. Upon one side, the train of events represented by a correlative train of thoughts; on the reverse, a plane of unarticulated notions that are inherent to those representations.

In this sense, the matrix of Taleb’s Black Swans might not inhabit the undertow of our perceptions, but stand above them, in a plane of a higher degree of complexity. Each new event triggers our brain to readjust our system of classifications. But this readjustment, at its time, triggers off a reconfiguration in the said plane of unarticulated notions that give support to our set of representations. In principle, an arrangement of such events would remain stable, but sometimes some unintended consequences could arise. That is the dynamic of events that Friedrich Hayek had once tried to convey with his concept of spontaneous or abstract order.

Peterson’s Red Lobsters try to make us reflect on the edge of our common patterns of conduct, whereas Taleb’s Black Swans incite us to perform the speculative activity of throwing hypothesis over the singularity of the abstract order, so that to anticipate any unintended consequences of our individual or collective behaviour. Notwithstanding the huge differences that there might be between them, what deserves our main attention is the acknowledgement of that the unplanned, the unexpected, the uncertain, are not alien forces, but the inherent articulation of the patterns of events that constitute the matter we are face to deal with.

George Halm against Common Wisdom on Currency Boards

Motivated by the recent decision of Argentina’s government to ask for an stand-by loan to the I.M.F., after a run on the peso, the last The Economist’s Bello section gives an account of the history of the relationship between them and makes a remark about the Argentine currency board experience between 1991-2002 that today is almost common wisdom: Since convertibility meant forgoing exchange-rate flexibility and an independent monetary policy, fiscal discipline was all-important for its success.”

But by the time the I.M.F. was being created, that was not an unanimous opinion. We have the example of George N. Halm who, in his book Economics of Money and Banking, stated that every Currency Board must implement a countercyclical policy on reserve requirements to be held by the commercial banks. Thus, the Currency Board could neutralize or mitigate an expansion or contraction of the base money by alternatively increasing or lowering the reserve requirements of the banks. For George Halm, a Currency Board could be almost in full command of monetary policy -and even more with respect to any other system, since it retains its political independence.

It is hard to imagine a Halm’s Currency Board that promotes a rapid economic growth which, in turn, could bring any popularity to its implementation. But it is as hard to imagine as the probability that a monetary system as such could end up in a bank run.

Deep Learning and Abstract Orders

It is well known that Friedrich Hayek once rejoiced at Noam Chomsky’s evolutionary theory of language, which stated that the faculty of speaking depends upon a biological device which human beings are enabled with. There is no blank slate and our experience of the world relies on structures that come from the experience in itself.

Hayek would be now delighted if he were told about the recent discoveries on the importance of background knowledge in the arms race between human beings and Artificial Intelligence. When decisions are to be taken by trial and error at the inside of a feedback system, humans are still ahead because they apply a framework of abstract patterns to interpret the connections among the different elements of the system. These patterns are acquired from previous experiences in other closed systems and provide with a semantic meaning to the new one. Thus, humans outperform machines, which work as blank slates, since they take information only from the closed system.

The report of the cited study finishes with the common place of asking what would happen if some day machines learn to handle with abstract patterns of a higher degree of complexity and, then, keep up with that human relative advantage.

As we stated in another place, those abstract machines already exist and they are the legal codes and law systems that enable their users with a set of patterns to interpret controversies concerning human behaviour.

What is worth being asked is not whether Artificial Intelligence eventually will surpass human beings, but what group of individuals will overcome the other: the one which uses technology or the one which refuses to do so.

The answer seems quite obvious when the term “technology” is related to concrete machines, but it is not so clear when we apply it to abstract devices. I tried to ponder the latter problem when I outlined an imaginary arms race between policy wonks and lawyers.

Now, we can extend these concepts to whole populations. Which of these nations will prevail over the other ones: the countries whose citizens are enabled with a set of abstract rules to based their decisions on (the rule of law) or the despotic countries, ruled by the whim of men?

The conclusion to be drawn is quite obvious when we are confronted with a so polarised question. Nevertheless, the problem becomes more subtle when the disjunction concerns on rule of law vs deliberate central planning.

The rule of law is the supplementary set of abstract patterns of conduct that gives sense to the events of the social reality in order to interpret human social action, including the political authority.

In the case of central planning, those abstract patterns are replaced by a concrete model of society whose elements are defined by the authority (after all, that is the main function of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan).

Superficially considered, the former – the rule of law as an abstract machine – is irrational while the latter – the Leviathan’s central planning – seems to respond to a rational construction of the society. Our approach states that, paradoxically, the more abstract is the order of a society, the more rational are the decisions and plans that the individuals undertake, since they are based on the supplementary and general patterns provided by the law, whereas central planning offers to the individuals a poorer set of concrete information, which limits the scope of the decisions to those to be based on expediency.

That is why we like to state that law is spontaneous. Not because nobody had created it -in fact, someone did – but because law stands by itself the test of time as the result of an evolutionary process in which populations following the rule of law outperform the rival ones.

In the Search for an Optimal Level of Inequality

Recently, the blog ThinkMarkets published a post by Gunther Schnabl about how Friedrich Hayek’s works helped to understand the link between Quantitative Easing and political unrest. The piece of writing summarized with praiseworthy precision three different stages of Friedrich Hayek’s economic and political ideas and, among the many topics it addressed, it was mentioned the increasing level of income and wealth inequality that a policy of low rates of interest might bring about.

It is well-known that Friedrich Hayek owes the Swedish School as much as he does the Austrian School on his ideas about money and capital. In fact, he borrows the distinction between natural and market interest rates from Knut Wicksell. The early writings of F.A. Hayek state that disequilibrium and crisis are caused by a market interest rate that is below the natural interest rate. There is no necessity of a Central Bank to arrive at such a situation: the credit creation of the banking system or a sudden change of the expectancies of the public could set the market interest rate well below the natural interest rate and, thus, lead to what Hayek and Nicholas Kaldor called “the Concertina Effect.”

At this point we must formulate a disclaimer: Friedrich Hayek’s theory of money and capital was so controversial and subject to so many regrets by his early supporters – like said Kaldor, Ronald Coase, or Lionel Robbins – that we can hardly carry on without reaching a previous theoretical settlement over the apportations of his works. Until then, the readings on Hayek’s economics will have mostly a heuristic and inspirational value. They will be an starting point from where to spring new insights, but hardly a single conclusive statement. Hayekian economics is a whole realm to be conquered, but precisely, the most of this quest still remains undone.

For example, if we assume – as it does the said post – that ultra-loose monetary policy enlarges inequality and engenders political instability, then we are bound to find a monetary policy that delivers, or at least does not avoid, an optimal level of inequality. As it is explained in the linked lecture, the definition of such a concept might differ whether it depends on an economic or a political or a moral perspective.

Here is where I think the works of F.A. Hayek have still so much to give to our inquiries: the matter is not where to place an optimal level of inequality, but to discover the conditions under which a certain level of inequality appears to us as legitimate, or at least tolerable. This is not a subject about quantities, but about qualities. Our mission is to discover the mechanism by which the notions of fairness, justice, or even order are formed in our beliefs.

Perhaps that is the deep meaning of the order or equilibrium that it is reach when, to use the terminology of Wicksell and Hayek’s early writings, both natural and market interest rates are the same: a state of affairs in which the most of the expectancies of the agents could prove correct. The solution does not depend upon a particular public policy, but on providing an abstract institutional structure in which each individual decision could profit the most from the spontaneous order of human interaction.

Law and Liberty: Hobbesians vs Rechtsstaaters

Individual freedoms are tethered to law, but in what sense? We could call Hobbesian the insight into law and liberty which states that norms are addressed by the sovereign power to the individuals. The Sovereign is the only one who prescribes the law, being the individuals subject to the legal obligation. Even the limitations to the power of the government in the face of fundamental rights – such as the Due Process – are not expressed in terms of limits to the sovereign power but of commands to the public servants: for example, the imprisonment of an individual without accomplishing the legal standards of Due Process allows the government’s agents to punish their unlawful colleagues. The law is always addressed, in the last resort, to an individual by the State.

Proponents of individual liberty thus advocate equality before the law, which means simply “only one state for everyone,” or “individual rights before the state.” Examples include the said guarantee of Due Process, or a system of check and balances among the branches of the government as safeguards against arbitrary coercion by the State. However, they all have a severe difficulty in defending individual liberties without recourse to an extra-system concept, such as natural law, moral duties, or political statements. The emphasis in formal legal procedures would be the utmost in coherence between liberalism and Hobbesianism, but it is easy to slide from procedures that protect individual legal rights to devices assuring the enforcement of the law – which has the individual as its last subject. It seems it is hard to restrain oneself from invoking metaphysical rights when it comes time to advocate individual liberty.

Nevertheless, it should not be surprising that every limit to political power of the State over the individual depends on metaphysical notions, since it is a tenet of the Hobbesian insight that the power of the State is absolute. Moreover, the Minimal State – a true effort to advocate individual liberty without resting on metaphysical notions – owes to Thomas Hobbes its main inspiration.

Historical evidence suggests, however, that in the relation among power, law and liberty is the other way round. The development of common law in England and the phenomenon of the reception of the Roman law in Continental Europe show that law is not necessarily created ex nihilo by the State. The State could provide enforcement to a given system of law, as it is shown in the book System of the Modern Roman Law (System des heutigen Römischen Rechts), by F. K. v. Savigny. Moreover, the States could adapt legal notions originating in private law to elaborate procedures to follow in the public sphere. The principle “venire contra factum proprium non valet” was born in private law and today is a guarantee to the individual against the arbitrary action of the State.

This is the process of rationalization of power described by Max Weber, the German concept of Rechtsstaat or the widely known concept of “Rule of Law.” In that process of rationalization, lawyers outshone the sages, the mandarins, and the humanists in the administration of public affairs by incorporating legal procedures and principles taken from private law. There might be differences among these concepts and historical events, but their common invariances allows us to get the gist.

There is, also, an evolutionary case for the relative advantages of a Rechtsstaat over the notion of sovereignty. In the former the decisions are principle-based while in the latter they are mostly taken by expediency. Since the said principle of venire contra factum proprium non valet and other legal procedures constrain rulers’ whims, government actions are more rational, in the sense of transitivity of preferences.

Thus, in the long run, the performance of the Rule of Law is higher than the Rule of Men. Lawyers outshine mandarins in government posts and, in turn, governments run by lawyers outperform governments run by mandarins. One device to switch from a given form of State to another one is, for example, immigration: people flock to countries where the Rule of Law prevails.

What we have called the Hobbesian insight into Law and Liberty is tied up with the definition of liberty as power. Thus, the equation of law and liberty becomes a zero-sum game: the more state, the less individual liberty, and the less state, the more individual liberty. On the other hand, the definition of individual liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion engages with the concept of Rule of Law: to substitute principles for expediency reduces arbitrary coercion and, thus, enlarges individual liberty.

Does this Rechtsstaat insight into Law and Liberty dissolve the question about the dimensions of the State? Not at all. But it provides a more strategic view: a big State will demand more decisions to be taken on expediency. A small state will provide two advantages to the enjoyment of individual liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion: more decisions based on principles and a larger space for the law to evolve by its own and discover new legal principles in response to the constant changes in the society.

But even if the conclusions might be the same (a smaller State), the two insights carry within them a set of premises that ineluctably will unravel by themselves when it comes the time of a deeper controversy. Then, the Hobbesian Insight will present the disjunction between Minimal State and metaphysical boundaries to the absolute power of the State. The Rechtsstaat strain, instead, will provide a humbler but subtler position.

What if we have already been ruled by an Intelligent Machine – and we are better off being so?

Common people and even reputed scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, have been worrying about the very menace of machines provided with Artificial Intelligence that could rule the whole human genre in detriment of our liberty and welfare. This fear has two inner components: the first one, that the Artificial Intelligence will outshine human intellectual capabilities; and the second one, that the Intelligent Machines will be endowed with their own volition.

Obviously, it would be an evil volition or, at least, a very egotistic one. Or maybe the Intelligent Machines will not necessarily be evil or egotistic, but only as fearful of humans as they are of machines – although more powerful. Moreover, depending on their morality on a multiplicity of reasonings we cannot grasp, we could not ascertain whether their superior intelligence (as we suppose the feared machines would be enabled with) is good or evil, or just more complex than ours.

Nevertheless, there is still a additional third assumption which accompanies all the warnings about the perils of thinking machines: that they are a physical shell inhabited by an Artificial Intelligence. Inspired by Gilbert Ryle’s critique of Cartesian Dualism, we can state that the belief of Intelligent Machines provided with an autonomous volition rests upon the said assumption of an intelligence independent from its physical body: a self-conscious being whose thoughts are fully independent from the sensory apparatus of its body and whose sensations are fully independent from the abstract classification which its mind operates by.

The word “machine” evokes a physical device. However, a machine might as well be an abstract one. Abstract Machines are thought experiments compounded by algorithms which delivers an output from an input of information which, in turn, could be used as an input for another circuit. Theses algorithms can emulate a decision making process, providing a set of consequences for a given set of antecedents.

In fact, all recent cybernetic innovations are the result of the merging of abstract machines with physical ones: machines that play chess, drive cars, recognize faces, etc.. Since they do not have an autonomous will and the sensory data they produce are determined by their algorithms, whose output, in turn, depends on the limitation of their hardware, people are reluctant to call their capabilities “real intelligence.” Perhaps the reason of that reluctance is that people are expecting automata which accomplish the Cartesian Dualism paradigm of a thinking being.

But what if an automaton enabled with an intelligence superior to ours has already existed and is ruling at least part of our lives? We do not know of any being of that kind, if for a ruling intelligent machine we regard a self-conscious and will-driven one. But the ones who are acquainted with the notion of law as a spontaneous and abstract order will not find any major difficulty to grasp the analogy between the algorithms that form an abstract machine and general and abstract laws that compound a legal system.

The first volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty by Friedrich A. Hayek, subtitled “Norms [Rules] and Order” (1973), is until today the most complete account of the law seen as an autonomous system, which adapts itself to the changes in its environment through a process of negative feedback that brings about marginal changes in its structure. Abstract and general notions of rights and duties are well-known by the agents of the system and that allows to everyone to form expectations about the behaviour of each other. When a conflict between two agents arises, a judge establishes the correct content of the law to be applied to the given case.

Notwithstanding our human intelligence -using its knowledge about the law- is capable of determining the right decision to each concrete controversy between two given agents, the system of the law as whole achieves a higher degree of complexity than any human mind might reach. Whereas our knowledge of a given case depends on acquiring more and more concrete data, our knowledge of the law as a whole is related to more and more abstract degrees of classifications. Thus, we cannot fully predict the complete chain of consequences of a singular decision upon the legal system as a whole. This last characteristic of the law does not mean its power of coercion is arbitrary. As individuals, we are enabled with enough information about the legal system to design our own plans and to form correct expectations about other people’s behaviour. Thus, legal constraints do not interfere with individual liberty.

On the other hand, the absolute boundary to the knowledge of the legal system as a whole works as a limitation to the political power over the law and, thence, over individuals. But, after all, that is what the concept of rule of law is about: we are much better off being ruled by an abstract and impersonal entity, more complex than the human mind, than by the self-conscious -but discretional- rule of man. Perhaps, law is not at all an automaton which rules our lives, but we can ascertain that law -as a spontaneous order- prevents other men from doing so.

On the Difference between Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Increasing Central Planning

Once, in another place, I had pointed out the misunderstandings of the common interpretation of Hayek’s road to serfdom thesis. This was not an unintended process by which government intervention on markets inevitably leads to further and increasing interventions. That might be Ludwig v. Mises’ thesis, but not Hayek’s.

What Hayek stated in The Road to Serfdom was that the checks- and-balances system of modern constitutionalism appears as an obstacle to the quick achievement of the concrete ends that an interventionist policy aims for. Thus, the road to serfdom is an unintended process by which legal constitutional processes are eroded by decisions based on expediency.

On that occasion it was left pending to solve the question of where the confusion on the central thesis of “The Road to Serfdom” came from.

The source of the answer to this question is yet Ludwig v. Mises. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944, but, previously, in essays published in 1935, we find Hayek, still heavily influenced by L. v. Mises, stating opinions that are very similar to the common confusion about the meaning of the road to serfdom: “In fact, however, if by planning is meant the actual direction of productive activity by authoritative prescription to be used, or the prices to be fixed, it can be easily shown, not that such a thing is impossible, but that any isolated measure of this sort will cause reactions which will defeat its own end, and that any attempt to act consistently will necessitate further and further measures of control until all economic activity is brought under one central authority” (“Socialist Calculation I: The Nature and History of the Problem”, first published in Collectivist Economic Planning, London,  1935, and reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, 1948).

F. A. Hayek did not change his opinions of 1935 in The Road to Serfdom (1944), he just shifted the realm of his inquiry from economics to political philosophy. Nevertheless, it would be a crass error to judge Hayek’s political and legal theory -for good or for bad- using his former opinions as an economist.