Nomic-nomics?

Perhaps the coolest thing I’ve found on the Small Internet so far is the game Nomic. From where I found it:

Nomic was invented in 1982 by philosopher Peter Suber. It’s a game that starts with a given set of rules, but the players can change the rules over the course of the game, usually using some form of democratic voting. Some online variants exist, like Agora, which has been running since 1993.

It’s a game that’s about changing the game. Besides offering a tempting recreational opportunity, I think this could be formalized in such a way to make it rival the Prisoners’ Dilemma (PD) in shedding light on the big social scientific questions.

The PD is a simple game with simple assumptions and a variable-sum outcome that lets it work for understanding coordination, competition, and cooperation. One of my favorite bits of social science is Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation project. It’s basically a contest between different strategies to an iterated PD (you can play a variation of it here). That the “tit for tat” strategy is so successful sheds a lot of light on what makes civilization possible–initial friendliness, willingness to punish transgressions, and willingness to return to friendliness after punishing these transgressions.

A fantastic extension is to create a co-evolutionary simulation of a repeated PD game. Rather than building strategies and pitting them against each other, we can be totally agnostic about strategies (i.e. how people behave) and simply see what strategies can survive each others’ presence.

The evolutionary iterated PD is about as parsimonious a model of conflict/cooperation as we could make. But there is still a lot of structure baked in; what few assumptions remain do a lot of heavy lifting.

But if the structure of the game is up for grabs, then maybe we’ve found a way to generalize the prisoners’ dilemma without assuming on extra layers of complexity.

Of course, the parsimony of the model adds complexity to the implementation. Formalizing Nomic presents a formidable challenge, and getting it to work would surely create a new

But even if it doesn’t lend itself to simulation, it strikes me as the sort of exercise that ought to be happening in classrooms–at least in places where people care about building capacity for self governance (I’ve heard such places exist!).

Let’s play!

A bit of stage setting, then let’s start a game in the comments section. I get the impression that this game is nerdier than Risk, so you’ve been warned (or tempted, as the case may be).

The basic premise is that are mutable rules and immutable rules (like Buchanan’s view of constitutions). Players take turns to propose rule changes (including transmuting rules from a mutable to an immutable state). As part of the process, we will almost surely redefine how the game is won, so the initial rule set starts with a pretty boring definition of winning.

We’ll use Peter Suber’s initial rules with some variations to suit our needs. The rules below will be (initially) immutable.

117. Each round will happen in a new comment thread. A new round cannot start until the rule change proposed in the previous round has been voted on. If technical problems result in having to start a new comment thread, that thread should include the appropriate reference number and it will be understood to be part of the same comment thread.

I will take the first move to demonstrate the format in the comments section.

118. The final vote count will be determined after 24 hours of silence. Players may discuss and cast votes, and change their votes. But after 24 hours of no new comments, the yeas and nays will be tallied and the outcome determined accordingly. In cases requiring unanimity, a single nay vote is enough to allow a player to start a new round without waiting the full 24 hours. The final vote will still occur (for purpose of calculating points) after 24 hours of silence.

Despite being numbered 118, this rule will take priority over rule 105.

119. Anyone who is eligible to comment is eligible to play. If it is possible to start a new round, anyone may start that round. In the event that two people attempt to start a round at the same time (e.g. Brandon and I post a comment within a couple minutes of each other) priority will be given to whichever was posted first and the second comment will be voided.

120. The game will continue until someone wins, or everyone forgets the game, in which case the winner will be the last person to have had their comment replied to.

My Back to the Land Movement

Of course there’s no such thing as a Golden Age–some forgotten time in the medium-past where things were unambiguously better. The past is full of backwards savages and hard living. And even so, you can’t go home.

But I’ve got this suspicion that back in my day the Internet was better. It didn’t take itself too seriously, and so was actually worth while. But at some point in the last decade (maybe earlier) things changed for the worse. The Internet, like all the rest of the world, just isn’t what it could be–what it should be!

I’m being at least a little hipstery here–it was cool before it was cool, but now it’s uncool because it’s popular. But the truth is, the crappiness that is Facebook is just a reflection of a large swath of consumers. And I’m allowed to opt out.

Sitting on the Internet at the start of 2020, I feel like I’m sure I would have in 1970. Everything is bullshit and I don’t want anything to do with it. I want to buy a school bus and drive to some part of the country nobody cares about and start a farm. Of course the truth is, I really have no business going back to the land. I’ve taken up gardening as a hobby and learned that it’s hard.

But I do have this imagined past on the Internet I can attempt to go back to. I’m going to make an effort to return to the Internet of the early 2000’s. The Internet that Craigslist (for example) still protects–simple, excellent, and not trying to eat the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to use the Big Corporate Internet. I’m only imagining my packets being sent via artisinal servers lovingly tended to by ye olde sysadmin.

What made the Small Internet great was the artisinal content. Weird stuff made and shared by weird people. That stuff is still out there. The Big Internet filters still capture it sometimes. But the marketers have gotten to the filters that used to serve us so well. Reddit just isn’t the same as a Conde Nast property.

One move I’ve made is to join MetaFilter, a social media site that goes back to 1999! So far it’s been a delightful place (without sucking me in the way Reddit used to). Hitting the random button brought me Where’s Wallace–an homage to The Wire, which is still worth re-watching. A more recent post introduced me to an excellent advent calendar that brought more new and weird things across my radar.

Why should this experiment matter?

Partly this is an act of civil society. It’s not all markets and government out there. We’ve got this space to share and improve our public spaces. The Internet is one of those spaces and my Small Internet project is sort of like making an effort to walk through my neighborhood instead of just going back and forth from the freeway.

It’s also an exercise in questioning implicit assumptions in how I engage with this part of the world.

I like Stephen Wolfram‘s notion of exploring the computational universe for useful programs. You don’t even need to take a metaphorical leap in applying the idea to media consumption habits. There’s a lot more “content” (facts, opinions, entertainment, editorial judgement, comments sections, provocations, etc.) out there than I can (or want to) deal with. So I have to choose some sort of filter. Once upon a time, Facebook was a great filter, then Reddit, but now I want to try something different.

I don’t exactly know what I’m looking for yet. But I’m going to wander off into the computational universe in search of a better Internet, less encumbered with the interests of behemoths and more closely tied with serendipity, good humor, and those weird human things that made the back-in-my-day-Internet so much better.

Generic Thanksgiving Post

Addendum: I wrote this post this morning, hit post, and returned to my oven. The apple pie was pretty good, the pecan was better. The stuffing and gravy were great.

While my oven pre-heats, let me give my top(ish) three things I’m thankful for:

  1. My dog Lola. This sweet little pooch entered my life this January and she’s absolutely melted my heart. Here we are on her first camping trip:

2. Capitalism. Yeah, you knew what you were signing up for when you came to this URL. For all the problems with giving any humans any authority at all, even our half-assed American capitalism does a pretty decent job of allowing me the opportunity to have a literal feast every Thanksgiving.

3. The little Internet. Not all that’s online is Google, Facebook, or Amazon. There are still cool little pockets of the Internet where a few dozen weirdos get together and make something beautiful.

I recently learned about the tildeverse a community of communities of people sharing a common web-connected computer like in ye olden days of pre-Google internet. Back before it was the Information Super Highway. Back before it ruined democracy by allowing humans to act like humans at scale. Playing around on an under-powered server is a pretty niche hobby, but there are tons of these long tail groups out there.

The friendly communities that create forums, the weird projects, the sync-tubes; the beautiful bubbles: these are the places that keep that old spirit of the Internet alive. The Internet giants are scary, but they’re not the only game in town; I’m deeply thankful for that.

Also stuffing. And gravy.

Happy Thanksgiving! Be excellent to each other!

Some more borderline fraud from the higher education industry.

From the Wall Street Journal: For Sale: SAT-Takers’ Names. Colleges Buy Student Data and Boost Exclusivity

The title pretty much says it all: the College Board is selling data about test-takers (i.e. high school students) to colleges who use that to market to a wider pool of applicants. That wider pool often includes students who don’t stand a chance of getting in to the schools that are now marketing to them, but the marketing gives the false impression that the school wants them.

Joe Six-pack Jr. takes the SAT, fills out a survey, and that survey goes into a database. Some school that normally ranks near the middle of the pack buys a piece of that database, including Joe’s data. They send him a brochure and a letter that looks like it was written specifically for him (and he doesn’t know any better) so Joe, figures he’s being recruited. Instead of just applying to his local state schools, now he shells out an extra $50 to apply to Middling University. They summarily reject his application because his SAT scores were 1100 and they’re only accepting students who scored above 1300. MU now looks a little bit more prestigious in the rankings (which means their current administration can take credit before jumping ship to take a higher paying job at a school looking to also increase in the rankings). The College Board gets paid. The administrators get paid. The U.S. News rankings get a little less useful for incoming students, but they don’t know that. On the other hand the rankings get a little more important for decision makers at schools. And Joe Jr. is funding this whole mess despite being a) the least informed, and b) the least well funded player in this whole mess.

Thoughts on ‘For Method’

Our project hasn’t seen much public-facing action, but it’s still happening. For my part, I have (so far) read Lakatos’s lectures that were meant to form the basis for his joint project with Feyerabend.

Before I jump into it, let me start with my favorite quote:

The social sciences are on a par with astrology, it is no use beating about the bush. (Funny that I should be teaching at the London School of Economics!)

Imre Lakatos, p. 107 For and Against Method

These lectures were an entertaining evisceration of some old (and still prevalent) superstitions about the functioning of science, plus Lakatos’s own view on how science actually works. I think his picture (which I’ll describe below) is a pretty good one, but doesn’t actually solve the demarcation problem.

The Big Question (TBQ) is this: how do we separate good science from bad? Lakatos presents three main schools of thought (besides his own):

  1. Demarcationism — a set of schools of thought that share a belief in something like an objective answer to TBQ.
  2. Authoritarianism — the belief that there are some people who can identify good science, but can’t necessarily enunciate their positions.
  3. Anarchism — which argues (according to Lakatos) that there is no good or bad science.

He quickly rejects the various flavors of Demarcationism. These schools of thought are either logically impossible (e.g. inductivism), inconsistent with the history of science, and/or too subjective. They’re popular caricatures of science–cartoons with heroic scientists battling ignorance, limited only by funding. But they aren’t true.

For example, Falsificationism (which is alive and well, half a century later, in the minds of many practicing scientists) tells us that scientists are only swayed by disconfirmatory evidence. But in practice scientists tend to ignore anamolies (i.e. disconfirmatory evidence) with the hope that they’ll be explained away later–and they tend to be swayed by confirmatory evidence in spite of Falsificationist priors.

All told, Demarcationists run into the problem of not being able to come up with a theory that doesn’t make significant errors such as classifying Newton as bad science.

On the far side of the spectrum are anarchists. Far from believing in any formula, criteria, or line in the sand, they say TBQ misses the point entirely. There isn’t such thing as “good” science or “bad” except from the perspective of whatever the current orthodoxy says. For the objective-truth-seeking philosopher, science ultimately boils down to “anything goes!”

For Lakatos, the anarchists have basically surrendered in the face of the demarcation problem. But it’s not clear to me that Lakatos hasn’t joined them. He’s got his progression criterion (more on that later), but can we really pin that down in any objective way? Motterlini seems to think Feyerabend thought Lakatos was really an anarchist after all, and I’m inclined to agree based on what (little) I’ve seen. Lakatos offers heuristics, but makes no guarantees that any formula will work reliably.

Let me come back to Authoritarianism after describing Lakatos’s theory of research programs.

A research program is (if I’m understanding this correctly) basically a mix of scientific framework and community. Austrian Economics is a research program comprised of a common theoretical view (with some disagreements), a network of citations, and a social network across space and backwards through time. Austrian Econ contains smaller programs within it: entrepreneurship, political economy, history of thought, capital theory, etc.

Any given research program (RP) may look relatively “good”(ish) or “bad” at any given time, but the future is always uncertain. I wouldn’t bet money on it, but how am I to prove that astrology won’t turn out to be true at some point? It’s the Grue problem writ large.

What we can evaluate is whether an RP is “progressing” or “degenerating.” In the former case it’s gaining predictive power. In the latter case it’s turning into an ad hoc mess in the face of evidence.

It’s up to individual scientists to make the entrepreneurial [my word, not his] decision to invest some effort in whichever program they think is promising. The natural move would be to join a progressing RP. But there might be an opportunity to save a degenerating RP.

In other words, Lakatos wants to describe what science is doing, but he wants to avoid making value judgements about unknown futures. Rather than draw a demarcation line he instead offers a way to ask if a RP is going in the right direction (right now or retrospectively).

Let’s digress a minute and consider objective reality. Putting aside Cartesian skepticism, it seems reasonable to take the existence of an objective universe as a basic axiom. But just as surely, that objective universe has far more complications than humanity will ever be able to fully account for. The universe has more dimensions than us; what did you expect? In considering science’s ability to grasp objective reality, we have to understand that there’s always going to be some degree of (radical) uncertainty, even at the best of times.

“Good” science is that science that gets us closer to capital-T Truth. But we’ll never be in the omniscient position necessary to conclusively judge a bit of science as actually being good or not.

I think Lakatos and I share a sense that there is this objective reality that we can move towards. I think we also share an understanding that this objective reality is fundamentally inaccessible. I also share his position that the demarcationists are wrong. But I’m not ready to give up on the anarchists or the authoritarians.

Authoritarians basically argue that although there is good and bad science and that they can identify them even if they can’t explain how. Lakatos deals mostly with the uglier side of this school of thought, but misses a nicer side. That nicer version, ironically, includes him telling us things like astronomy is more valid than astronomy. To be fair, he hedges by acknowledging that the future is always uncertain… maybe in 1000 years astrology switches from a degenerating body of knowledge to a progressive one.

Hayek’s notion of tacit knowledge applies to scientific knowledge. The tacit knowledge of scientists allows them to tell future scientists things like “don’t even bother with alchemy.”

Still, just because you know something, doesn’t mean it’s right. We all “know” that Roman soldiers spoke with English accents because that’s how they’ve always been portrayed in movies. Try imagining Gladiator with Italian accents; it doesn’t work!

Sometimes authorities give us useful advice like distinguishing between astronomy and astrology. But sometimes they turn out to be wrong (after encouraging us to pursue eugenics in the meantime).

Authority is a useful guidepost, and represents the (current) structure of knowledge. I am not willing to give up my own authority because when it comes to economics, I know it’s not a matter of “anything goes!”

Reading Lakatos, I can’t quite settle on a camp between the anarchists and authoritarians. The anarchists are literally correct, but the authoritarians are able to actually make bets on a reality I think exists.

We’re all in the position of the blind men and the elephant. When someone tells me an elephant is like a tree, I think it behooves me to a) accept that as evidence about what the world is like, and b) take it with a grain of salt. The bumper sticker version of my stance might be “the Truth is out there… and its bigger than you think.”

So what about Lakatos? It’s all a bit rusty at this point so please push back in the comments. But here’s my tl;dr:

  • Don’t trust anyone who tells you they’ve got the formula for “good science.”
  • The way science actually works (as opposed to the mythology we’re taught in high school science) is that RP’s build up complex bodies of knowledge around a few core postulates. Normal science is concerned with attacking the knowledge that isn’t in that core.
  • Scientific progress (e.g. the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics) isn’t an Occam process… we’re not eliminating anomalies, but changing the set of anomalies we deal with.
  • The mark of bad science is adding ad hoc theory that hand-waves away anomalies but doesn’t generalize to describing novel facts (if Nasim Taleb were in the audience, he’d be shouting via negativa! right now)

Link: The Most Controversial Tree in the World

https://psmag.com/ideas/most-controversial-tree-in-the-world-gmo-genetic-engineering

Tending an ecosystem is hard. With all the interconnections it’s impossible to do just one thing. We should absolutely be skeptical of calls to engineer the environment from the top down, but we should also recognize that we’ve already been unintentionally doing so.

To me, the linked article raises interesting questions about the sort of common law restrictions on GMO that seem reasonable. Default infertility seems like an efficient Coasian compromise for industrial GMO. But the case of the American chestnut seems like an exciting opportunity to reverse an ecological tragedy.

This case seems like a good polar opposite to Jurassic Park on the spectrum of GMO threat/promise.

Against Ideology

Since first dipping my feet (brain?) into philosophical waters I’ve realized that the world has more dimensions than my mind. Many more. Which means insisting on a consistent philosophy is, in all likelihood, a recipe for disaster.

This isn’t to say I’ve got an inconsistent philosophy, or that I’m ready to throw up my hands and say “anything goes!“. But like a good bridge, my philosophy is full of tensions.

I can’t derive everything back to the Harm Principle (a principle I like), recognition of subjective values (which I’m on board with), or some notion of a social utility function (which I do like as a rhetorical crutch or skyhook, but am unwilling to take with me more than arm’s length from the whiteboard).

Instead, I’ve got a smorgasbord of mental tools–ethical notions (“don’t kill people!”), social science models (prisoners’ dilemma, comparative advantage)–that I try to match appropriately to the situation.

This puts me in the unfortunate position of requiring a great deal of humility. But as it will say on my tombstone: worse things have happened to better people…

I approach the world with libertarian priors. At the end of the day, I’m a left-libertarian anarchist. But Jonathan Haidt’s work has convinced me that my priors say more about me than the world. To be sure, libertarianism brings something important to the table, but so do other views.

Recognizing the importance of ideological pluralism lets me use my ideology like a lever instead of a bat–a tool instead of a weapon. And hey, what’s more libertarian than pluralism?!

As a centuries-long-run prospect for a meta-utopia I’m still staunchly libertarian. Go back in time 500 years and you’ll be told democracy is a pipe dream. I think we’re in a similar moment for the ideas of radical freedom, self-determination, and decentralization of power I’d really like to see put into practice. But imagine going back in 500 years, convincing everyone you’re a powerful wizard, then implementing democracy all at once. I don’t think it’d work out very well. Hell, I’m not even sure about going back in time 3 years to run that experiment! Similarly, flipping the An-Cap switch tomorrow would probably be 100 steps forward, 1000 steps back. Without the appropriate culture in place, good ideas are likely to backfire.

Still, I’m a libertarian anarchist by default and want to see the world move in that direction. But in the short-medium run I refuse to be dogmatic.

I get a lot out of my ideological priors, but I get more by refusing to slavishly follow them at all costs. Yes, the greatest good will be served in an anarcho-capitalist world (I think). But it’s a long trip from here to there. Sustaining that equilibrium will require a cultural shift that hasn’t happened yet–and ignoring those informal institutions is likely to lead to something more like feudalism than utopia. In the mean time, I say move towards greater freedom and avoid getting bogged down in partisanship.


So I’ve got a long-run goal: radical federalism and maximal freedom. But how do we get there? What are the short- and medium-run goals?

Simply to make things better while encouraging people to engage in voluntary interactions that create value, especially by building up social capital networks.

My Austrian-subjectivist priors are in tension with my rationalist-utilitarian instinct. But I think we find a way out by considering policy effects on future generations. Tyler Cowen suggests pursuing policy that promotes long run economic growth.

The big caveat is that although GDP is the best available metric to pursue, GDP is an imperfect measure. Figuring out “GDP, properly understood” adds a layer of complexity that makes policy evaluation all the more difficult. Which is part of the controversy with my recent posts on pollution taxes.

For example, after the end of slavery, total leisure time increased which would decrease measured GDP. But clearly a proper accounting of productivity would discount the initially higher GDP by the cost of forced labor. Similarly, we have to refine our notion of measured* economic well-being to account for things left out of the old methods–like household consumption, leisure, black markets (side note: the war on drugs is a waste!), human capital**, and ecological assets that fall outside the private property system.

Addendum for the left: what’s best for the world’s poorest people is a worthy addition to Cowen’s policy. And it’s an addition that also tends to push us towards libertarian arguments (like liberalization of immigration policy).


Unfortunately, I’m a rationalist by default which means I have to work at my epistemic humility. I’m constantly tempted to see the world as more legible than it really is. I have to keep reminding myself that I don’t know could fill a library. But the world is much more complex than any functional team of smart people could handle, let alone a lone economist–even if he happens to be one of few who really do get it.

One of my favorite arguments is the Austrian-libertarian point that “if we knew what people would do with their freedom, we wouldn’t need it.” For example, the reason to allow someone to start new businesses isn’t because we know that it’s going to make things better. Instead, it’s because market innovation depends on decentralized, crowd-sourced experimentation. We don’t say “oh, this Steve Jobs guy is about to improve our lives,” because if we could do that (we can’t) then we could instead find a less costly way to get the same outcome (we can’t do that either). 

This line of reasoning also applies to policy. There are some easy cases–there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit in occupational licensing. But society is a complex system, so you can’t do just one thing. Any one policy change ripples through the system and creates unintended consequences. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should do nothing. But my conservative friends are right that we shouldn’t go too fast. In any case, we’ve got more tensions that require me to listen to a wider range of ideological voices due to my cognitive limits.


A particularly interesting policy question is to what extent we should (not) take account of the impacts of American (Canadian, European, Chinese, etc., etc.) policy on non-Americans.

Here we find another tension. On the one hand, surely being accidentally born into a particular geography doesn’t give you greater moral weight than others. On the other, even if we want American policy to help Haitians, there’s a knowledge problem exacerbated by distance.

I think the appropriate response is a friendly and open federalism. Local issues should be handled locally. We should be neighborly. We should resist the temptation to centralize power. 

But we should also take advantage of large-scale governance structures (private or public) to deal with large-scale issues. Match the scale of governance to the scale of the relevant externalities.

The downside of this approach is that some locales will do terrible things. “States’ rights” is a bad argument for slavery (or for anything else). But stepping in to make things better isn’t an unambiguous improvement. If there’s one thing to learn from America’s adventures in statecraft*** it’s that you can’t just force a country to be free.

Given that, we should be more open to accept the world’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Historically, our record is far from spotless. But there have also been humanitarian successes in moving people away from tyranny

We have a moral obligation to at least consider the well-being of everyone around the globe. And the lowest hanging fruit for actually making a positive difference is opening up our borders. Not to say there’s a simple answer, but the answer lies in the direction of freedom of movement.


How should we (according to me) go about deciding questions of public policy? We should opt to encourage the creation of value and reduction of costs (i.e. economic growth). But we should do so carefully and with open minds.

GDP growth is a worthy goal, but not for it’s own sake. John Stuart Mill wrote

“How many of the so-called luxuries, conveniences, refinements, and ornaments of life, are worth the labour which must be undergone as the condition of producing them?… In opposition to the ‘gospel of work,’ I would assert the gospel of leisure, and maintain that human beings cannot rise to the finer attributes of their nature compatibly with a life filled with labour.”

Mindless insistence on measurable output overlooks important things like going to your kid’s little league game, grabbing a beer with friends, or quiet contemplation. And even if the people arguing for protecting the environment seem a bit silly, we’re wrong to ignore the importance of environmental externalities in affecting our standard of living. All of which is to say, Cowen is right that we need to carefully consider the shortfalls of how we measure economic growth, all while encouraging it.

Perhaps most importantly, we should relish a tension between consequentialism and principles. There are plenty of low-hanging fruits for libertarianism, but if we want to get the most out of this metaphorical tree we need to let a fear of bad outcomes encourage us to invest in civil society, informal institutions, and rich social networks so that freedom can expand without costing us inhumanity. I want to see the welfare state ended, but I’m willing to wait while we start by reducing barriers to entrepreneurship. I want to see taxes go away, but I’m willing to see a less-bad tax replace an egregious one.

We should reject the dogmatism that too often leads us to over-prioritize ideological purity. First, such purity can trap us in local optima (metaphor: a self-driving car programmed to never go east sounds like a good way to get from NYC to LA… till it gets stuck in a cul de sac somewhere). Second, that purity is an illusion. God’s true ethical system simply isn’t available to us–it’s more complex than our brains are–so why worry?


Post script: don’t take this to be an argument against libertarianism. Or a call to prioritize “pragmatism” over ideology or any other political values. I’m not trying to make a definitive argument abolishing ideology, I’m just gently pushing back. The key word here is tension. We can’t have tension between A and B if we get rid of A.


*Here’s another tension: I don’t believe we can actually measure economic well-being. I think we can make educated guesses based on well-thought out studies of observable proxy variables, but I believe in the impossibility of interpersonal utility comparison.

**A major pet peeve of mine is the conflation of education and schooling. Education, properly understood, is simply not measurable. We might find some clever proxy variables (for example, the Economic Complexity Index is my current favorite metric for productive capability–which overlaps capital and human capital accumulation).

***That’d be a good title for a comic book! If you know the right historian and/or international relations scholar, put them in touch with Zach Weinersmith!