(from my inbox) Why is the Republic of India a Civilization-State?

[Note: this is an email from Vishnu Modur, and I reproduce it here with his permission – BC]

Why is the Republic of India a Civilization-State?

On 26 January 1950, India’s Constitution came into effect amidst severe apprehensions about India’s balkanization. So, seventy-one years later, the Indian democratic republic may still appear to be a historical accident, but it is not. Here is why:

India has always been a fertile territory for experiments in governance, but surprisingly, there is no more than a casual reference to the ideas underlying non-western civilizations in Political Science courses or History of Political Thought. The neglect of Indian polity is particularly striking, for apart from Western political thought, Indic political ideas comprise the most extensive and most crucial body of political philosophy. Moreover, these political ideas are integral to Indic civilization—one of the only surviving non-western civilizations. Today, we know that Western ideas have clearly impacted Indian political thought. Still, what is generally not realized is that India has also contributed to Western political thinking in all probability. 

The problem of scant attention given to Indic political thought compared to Indic religion and philosophy was partly remedied with the re-discovery of Kautilya’s Arthashastra —the Indic equivalent of the Machiavellian, The Prince. However, other great works like Kamandaki’s Nitisara— Elements of Polity, the Raj Dharma (administrative ethics) section of the epic, Mahabharata, the epic Ramayana, Digha Nikaya (Collection of Long Discourses), and to some extent antiquated Hitopadesha (Beneficial Advice) also deal with an Indian way of thinking about the state-society relationship. 

Drawing from these essential texts and Indic political thinkers, the king’s role is viewed mainly as an administrator—the ruler is not an agent of social change. This view is radically different from its counterparts in the West. In Western political theory—Rousseau, Locke, and Hegel—political order means the subjugation of society to the state. In Indian tradition, the society and culture are always supreme, and the ruler is accountable to dharma (Indic ethics—a common internal bond) and society. Therefore, the conception of the “state of nature” in Hobbes and Rousseau is irrelevant to Indic tradition because ethics and civilization preceded the state’s development in India. In the Ramayana and Mahabharata’s grand narratives, an esoteric reading accounts for personal ethics and the path to profound spiritual freedom. But an exoteric view informs us of political power, administrative ethics, and the limits of provisional freedom. According to these epics, the state is created to protect against the disintegration of social order, and the state is given only those powers required to do so. Thus, a ruler’s powers are not like those of the Leviathan conceptualized in Hobbes.

Despite these radical Indic political concepts, the popular view on ancient and early medieval India is that it was merely a region invested in despotism with no knowledge of Freedom or Liberty. Hegel assumed that only one tribe of men were free in Asia, and others were their slaves. It is worth noting that for almost thousand eight hundred years after the Greek republics collapsed, the Western world also lived through monarchical despotism and tyranny. Likewise, apart from ancient Greece and Rome, in India too, there existed republics and proto democracies. A fair study of Indic history informs you that ancient Indian republics were not only in existence from the 8th century B.C. to 4th century A.D., but they were doing some fascinating experiments in state-society relations. With time, at least four different forms of constitutions emerged. 

  1. Arajya: A political community without a king. These communities self-governed using Dharma texts (Indic ethics).
  2. Ganarajya: A state or a political community ruled by a ‘gana’ or an assembly of people.
  3. Youvarajya: A political community ruled by a crown prince.
  4. Dvairajya: A political community ruled by two kings.

For various reasons, Ganarajya and Youvarajya systems thrived much more than the other two. 

The ‘Gana‘ seems to be the earliest Indic political forum of the entire community (Jana). The Jana’s formulation of political policies rested with the Samiti (Sanskrit for Committee) and the Sabha (an assembly of elders). Over time, these Ganarajya states developed into Janapada—a self-sufficing political and cultural unit. Every Janapada had its peculiar dialect and customs developed from regional interpretations of Indic Dharma (ethics). Several of these Janapada states even joined hands to form a federation of Mahajanapada (mega-Janapada). Over time, however, powerful Indic monarchies who performed the state’s integrative functions better than the assemblies of Gana overwhelmed them. Fortunately, imperial states incorporated these republics into their fold; republics were not entirely stamped out, even after repeated invasions by the Turks, Mongols, Portuguese, French, and the British. 

The Gana-Sabha system emerged from the shadow as soon as these imperial powers became weak. The Sabha system was active in the village setting as Panchayat (village associations) that included both notable big men and peasants, in contestation with each other and in opposition to the state. Here, different qualities of people and opinions were tested, rather than the scene of a pronunciamento by elders. Even the British acknowledged this system. Henry Maine, who was influenced by J. S. Mill, was sent to India in the 1860s to advise the British government on legal matters. He came across several accounts of thriving indigenous systems of autonomous village governments, whose structure and practice shared many characteristics of participatory democracy. Later, Maine articulated a theory of the village community as an alternative to the centralized state. In the Panchayat system, De Tocqueville saw an ideal model of a society with a limited state. He planned to study it, comparable to Democracy in America but overwhelmed by his political duties, he never managed a trip. So, while Indian electoral democracy was only instituted in the first half of the twentieth century, the practice of public reasoning, deliberation, and toleration of a plurality of ideas is a much older phenomenon, dating back to ancient Indic traditions. 

During the 1947 Constituent Assembly Debates of post-colonial India, there was a Alexander Hamilton vs. Thomas Jefferson sort of debate between Gandhi’s idea of Indic village-style, decentralized administration vs. B. R. Ambedkar’s —the principal architect of the Indian constitution—healthy centralized state. Although Ambedkar’s view prevailed, the village democracy did not entirely disappear from the Indian constitution. India officially called itself Bhārat Gaṇarājya, and the first two words of the Indian national anthem honor Jana and Gana. Hence, the constitutional democracy of the Indian republic was not an accident; it is a sui generis phenomenon reflecting the plural character and age-old but essential values of Indic civilization. Therefore, modern-day India is a Civilization-State. The West can only describe it from the outside, but it is for India to interpret herself from within—an ongoing process.  

Finally, it merits mentioning that Professor of international history Arnold J. Toynbee reminded the world, “India is a whole world in herself; she is a society of the same magnitude as our Western society.”

To know more about India’s constitutional debates, check this excellent ten-episode series. Subtitles are available in English.

Pandemics and Hyperinflations

I wrote an article a few years ago about hyperinflation in ancient Rome (and blogged about it here), arguing that the social trust in issuing bodies has been a foundation for monetary value long before modern institutions.

I got a random notification that someone had actually read and cited my work in a recent article “The US Money Explosion of 2020, Monetarism and Inflation: Plagued by History?” I really liked the author’s concept: inflation during pandemic periods is staved off for years because of saving rates, but then the post-crisis period is actually when the most inflation occurs.

This passed my ‘gut check’: during a crisis, who blows their entire budget? It also passed my historical-precedent check, and not only because he researched the Spanish flu and medieval precedent; in the Roman hyperinflation, the inflation lagged decades behind the expanded monetary volume, and in fact came right as the civil wars that nearly brought the Empire to its knees came to an end.

So, in short, inflation-hawks, you are probably right to fear the dramatic expansion of the money supply; however, you won’t feel vindicated for potentially years to come. In an age where people look for causes today to become results tomorrow (EVERY DAY, the WSJ tells me “stocks moved up/down because MAJOR EVENT TODAY”), we need to lengthen our time horizons of analysis and recognize that, just maybe, the ramifications of today’s policies will not really be felt for years. Or, put in a more dire light, by the time we realize who is right, it will be too late to reassert social trust in monetary value, and the dollar will follow the denarius into histories of hyperinflations.

A touch of optimism

I remember when Obamacare was first being debated. The political right had so many strong arguments to make and they abjectly refused. Instead, Obama was declared a secret Muslim whose secret plan is to turn the frogs gay.

Here we are with that political tribe having ascended to the White House and now the political Left has so many strong arguments to make. And they’re refusing. Instead, the federal government needs to be made more powerful for the next time a Trump gets elected.

2020 has not been kind to my view of humanity. So I’m listening to The Rational Optimist (finally). And I’ve got to say, it’s just what the doctor ordered. Life is pretty good on balance, even with the bad stuff.

You vote is your voice–but actions speak louder than words

On voting day, with everyone tweeting and yelling and spam-calling you to vote, I want to offer some perspective. Sure, ‘your vote is your voice,’ and those who skip the election will remain unheard by political leaders. Sure, these leaders probably determine much more of your life than we probably would like them to. And if you don’t vote, or ‘waste’ your vote on a third party or write in Kim Jong Un, you are excluded from the discussion of how these leaders control you.

But damn, if that is such a limited perspective. It’s like the voting booth has blinders that conceal what is truly meaningful. I’m not going to throw the traditional counter-arguments to ‘vote or die’ at you, though my favorites are Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and South Park’s Douche and Turd episode. Instead, I just want to say, compared to how you conduct your life, shouting into the political winds is simply not that important.

The wisdom of the stoics resonates greatly with me on this. Seneca, a Roman philosopher, tutor, and businessman, had the following to say on actions, on knowledge, on trust, on fear, and on self-improvement:

  • Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing is ours, except time. On Time
  • Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day. This is my own custom; from the many things which I have read, I claim some one part for myself. On Reading
  • If you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means. On Friendship
  • Reflect that any criminal or stranger may cut your throat; and, though he is not your master, every lowlife wields the power of life and death over you… What matter, therefore, how powerful he be whom you fear, when every one possesses the power which inspires your fear? On Death
  • I commend you and rejoice in the fact that you are persistent in your studies, and that, putting all else aside, you make it each day your endeavour to become a better man. I do not merely exhort you to keep at it; I actually beg you to do so. On the Philosopher’s Lifestyle

Seneca goes on, in this fifth letter, to repeat the stoic refrain of ‘change what you can, accept what you cannot.’ But he expands, reflecting that your mind is “disturbed by looking forward to the future. But the chief cause of [this disease] is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessing of the human race, becomes perverted.”

Good leadership requires good foresight, but panic over futures out of our control pervert this foresight into madness. So, whether you think that Biden’s green promises will destroy the economy or Trump’s tweets will incite racial violence, your actions should be defined by what you can do to improve the world–and this is the only scale against which you should be judged.

So, set aside voting as a concern. Your voice will be drowned out, and then forgotten. But your actions could push humanity forward, in your own way, and if you fail in that endeavor, then no vote will save you from the self-knowledge of a wasted life. If you succeed, then you did the only thing that matters.

The Seldon Fallacy

Like some of my role models, I am inspired by Isaac Asimov’s vision. However, for years, the central ability at the heart of the Foundation series–‘psychohistory,’ which enables Hari Seldon, the protagonist, to predict broad social trends across thousands of galaxies over thousands of years–has bothered me. Not so much because of its impact in the fictional universe of Foundation, but for how closely it matches the real-life ideas of predictive modeling. I truly fear that the Seldon Fallacy is spreading, building up society’s exposure to negative, unpredictable shocks.

The Seldon Fallacy: 1) It is possible to model complex, chaotic systems with simplified, non-chaotic models; 2) Combining chaotic elements makes the whole more predictable.

The first part of the Seldon Fallacy is the mistake of assuming reducibility, or more poetically, of NNT’s Procustean Bed. As F.A. Hayek asserted, no predictive model can be less complex than the model it predicts, because of second-order effects and accumulation of errors of approximation. Isaac Asimov’s central character, Hari Seldon, fictionally ‘proves’ the ludicrous fallacy that chaotic systems can be reduced to ‘psychohistorical’ mathematics. I hope you, reader, don’t believe that…so you don’t blow up the economy by betting a fortune on an economic prediction. Two famous thought experiments disprove this: the three-body problem and the damped, driven oscillator. If we can’t even model a system with three ‘movers’, because of second-order effects, how can we model interactions between millions of people? Basically, with no way to know which reductions in complexity are meaningful, Seldon cannot know whether, in laying his living system into a Procustean bed, he has accidentally decapitated it. Using this special ability, while unable to predict individuals’ actions precisely, Seldon can map out social forces with such clarity that he correctly predicts the fall of a 10,000-year empire. Now, to turn to the ‘we can predict social, though not individual futures’ portion of the fallacy: that big things are predictable even if their consituent elements are not.

The second part of the Seldon Fallacy is the mistake of ‘the marble jar.’ Not all randomnesses are equal: drawing white and black marbles from a jar (with replacement) is fundamentally predictable, and the more marbles drawn, the more predictable the mix of marbles in the jar. Many models depend on this assumption or similar ones–that random events distribute normally (in the Gaussian sense) in a way that increases the certainty of the model as the number of samples increases. But what if we are not observing independent events? What if they are not Gaussian? What if someone tricked you, and tied some marbles together so you can’t take out only one? What if one of them is attached to the jar, and by picking it up, you inadvertently break the jar, spilling the marbles? Effectively, what if you are not working with a finite, reducible, Gaussian random system, but an infinite, Mandelbrotian, real-world random system? What if the jar contains not marbles, but living things?

I apologize if I lean too heavily on fiction to make my points, but another amazing author answers this question much more poetically than I could. Just in the ‘quotes’ from wise leaders in the introductions to his historical-fantasy series, Jim Butcher tells stories of the rise and fall of civilizations. First, on cumulative meaning:

“If the beginning of wisdom is in realizing that one knows nothing, then the beginning of understanding is in realizing that all things exist in accord with a single truth: Large things are made of smaller things.

Drops of ink are shaped into letters, letters form words, words form sentences, and sentences combine to express thought. So it is with the growth of plants that spring from seeds, as well as with walls built from many stones. So it is with mankind, as the customs and traditions of our progenitors blend together to form the foundation for our own cities, history, and way of life.

Be they dead stone, living flesh, or rolling sea; be they idle times or events of world-shattering proportion, market days or desperate battles, to this law, all things hold: Large things are made from small things. Significance is cumulative–but not always obvious.”

–Gaius Secundus, Academ’s Fury

Second, on the importance of individuals as causes:

“The course of history is determined not by battles, by sieges, or usurpations, but by the actions of the individual. The strongest city, the largest army is, at its most basic level, a collection of individuals. Their decisions, their passions, their foolishness, and their dreams shape the years to come. If there is any lesson to be learned from history, it is that all too often the fate of armies, of cities, of entire realms rests upon the actions of one person. In that dire moment of uncertainty, that person’s decision, good or bad, right or wrong, big or small, can unwittingly change the world.

But history can be quite the slattern. One never knows who that person is, where he might be, or what decision he might make.

It is almost enough to make me believe in Destiny.”

–Gaius Primus, Furies of Calderon

If you are not convinced by the wisdom of fiction, put down your marble jar, and do a real-world experiment. Take 100 people from your community, and measure their heights. Then, predict the mean and distribution of height. While doing so, ask each of the 100 people for their net worth. Predict a mean and distribution from that as well. Then, take a gun, and shoot the tallest person and the richest person. Run your model again. Before you look at the results, tell me: which one do you expect shifted more?

I seriously hope you bet on the wealth model. Height, like marble-jar samples, is normally distributed. Wealth follows a power law, meaning that individual datapoints at the extremes have outsized impact. If you happen to live in Seattle and shot a tech CEO, you may have lowered the mean income in the group by more than the average income of the other 99 people!

So, unlike the Procustean Bed (part 1 of the Seldon Fallacy), the Marble Jar (part 2 of the Seldon Fallacy) is not always a fallacy. There are systems that follow the Gaussian distribution, and thus the Marble Jar is not a fallacy. However, many consequential systems–including earnings, wars, governmental spending, economic crashes, bacterial resistance, inventions’ impacts, species survival, and climate shocks–are non-Gaussian, and thus the impact of a single individual action could blow up the model.

The crazy thing is, Asimov himself contradicts his own protagonist in his magnum opus (in my opinion). While the Foundation Series keeps alive the myth of the predictive simulation, my favorite of his books–The End of Eternity (spoilers)–is a magnificent destruction of the concept of a ‘controlled’ world. For large systems, this book is also a death knell even of predictability itself. The Seldon Fallacy–that a simplified, non-chaotic model can predict a complex, chaotic reality, and that size enhances predictability–is shown, through the adventures of Andrew Harlan, to be riddled with hubris and catastrophic risk. I cannot reduce his complex ideas into a simple summary, for I may decapitate his central model. Please read the book yourself. I will say, I hope that as part of your reading, I hope you take to heart the larger lesson of Asimov on predictability: it is not only impossible, but undesirable. And please, let’s avoid staking any of our futures on today’s false prophets of predictable randomness.

Triple-blinded trials in political economy

In medicine, randomized controlled trials are the most highly regarded type of primary study, as they separately track treatment and control groups to determine whether an observed effect is actually caused by the intervention.

Bias, the constant bane of statisticians, can be minimized further by completing a blinded trial. In a single-blinded trial, the patient population is not informed which group they are in, to prevent knowledge of therapy from impacting results. Placebos are powerful, so blinding has helped identify dozens of therapies that are no better than sugar pills!

However, knowledge can contaminate studies in another way–through the physicians administering the therapies. Bias can be further reduced by double blinding, in which the physicians are also kept in the dark about which therapy was administered, so that their knowledge does not contaminate their reporting of results. In a double-blind trial, only the study administrators know which therapy is applied to each patient, and sometimes an independent lab is tasked with analysis to further limit bias.

Overall, these blinding mechanisms are meant to make us more certain that the results of a study are reflective of an intervention’s actual efficacy. However, medicine is not the only field where the efficacy of many interventions is impactful, highly debated, and worthy of study. Why, then, do we not have blinded studies in political economy?

We all know that randomized controlled trials are pretty much impossible in political economy. North/South Korea and West/East Germany were amazing accidental trials, but we can still hope that politicians and economists make policies that can at least be tracked to determine their ‘change from baseline’ even if we have no control group. Because of how easy it is to harm socioeconomic systems and sweep the ruinous results under the rug, I personally consider it unethical to intervene in a complex system without careful prior consideration, and straight up evil to do so without plans to track the impact of that intervention. So, how can politicians take an ‘evidence-based approach’ to their interventions?

I think that, in recent years, politicians–especially in the US and especially liberals and COVID-reactionaries–have come up with an amazing new experimental method: the triple blinded study. Examples include the ACA, the ARRA, and the recent $3 trillion stimulus package. In a triple blinded study, politicians carefully draft bills so that they are (1) too long for anyone, especially the politicians themselves, to read; (2) filled with a mish-mash of dozens of strategies implemented simultaneously or that are delegated vaguely to administrative agencies; and (3) have no pre-specified metrics by which the policy will be judged, thus blinding everyone to any useful study of signal and response.

I am reminded of one of the most painful West Wing episodes ever made, in which “President Bartlett” is addressing an economic crisis, and is fielding dozens of suggestions from experts–without being able to choose among the candidate interventions. Donna, assistant to his Deputy Chief of Staff, tells a parable about how her grandmother would use ‘a little bit of this, a little bit of that’ to cure minor illnesses. Inspired, Bartlett adopts a policy of ALL suggested economic interventions, thus ensuring that we try everything–and learn nothing. I shudder to think that this strategy was ever broached publicly…and copied from fiction into reality.

In this way, politicians have cleverly enabled us to reduce the bias caused by any knowledge of the intervention or its impact. The patients (citizens), physicians (politicians), and study administrators (economists?) are all kept carefully in the dark so that none of them can know how a policy impacted the economy. Thus, anyone debating any of these topics is given the full freedom to invent whatever argument they want, cherry-pick any data they want, and continue peddling their politics without ever being called to task by the data.

Even more insanely, doctors are held not only to the standard of evidence-based medicine, but also to that of of the precautionary principle–where passivity is preferred to action and novel methods are treated with special scrutiny. “Evidence-based policy”, on the other hand, is a buzzword and not an actual practice to align with RCTs, and any politician who actually followed the precautionary principle would be considered ‘do-nothing’. Thus, we carefully keep both evidence and principles of ‘do no harm’ far from the realm of political action, and continue a general practice across politics of the blind making sure that they lead the blind.

In sum, political leaders, please ignore Donna. Stop intentionally blinding us to policy impacts. Stop doing triple-blinded studies with the future of our country. Sincerely, all data-hounds, ever.

The Westphalian myth

Was the Peace of Westphalia and its implications for state sovereignty one big myth?

The apparently ineradicable notion (repeated even by many recent historians of the war) that the Peace of Westphalia sanctioned the “sovereignty” of Switzerland and the Netherlands and their independence from the empire demonstrates this. In the case of the Swiss it is based on a willful (and sometimes uninformed) interpretation of the relevant clause in the treaties, giving it a meaning that its drafters did not intend. And as to the Dutch the treaties do not even deal with them.

The complete autonomy of Switzerland vis-a-vis the empire was uncontroversial in practice, and the Swiss were reluctant to have anything to do with the peace congress. If they eventually allowed themselves to be represented there by the burgomaster of Basel, it was because this city had only joined the Swiss confederation after the other cantons had had their autonomy recognized in a treaty of 1499. The supreme courts of the empire (more particularly, the Imperial Cameral Tribunal) did not consider Basel to be exempt from their jurisdiction and allowed lawsuits against Basel and its citizens, a situation that had caused continual irritation. For this reason Basel insisted on having the immunity of the entire confederation reconfirmed in such a way that it would cover Basel, too. The request was granted, and a clause to that effect included in the treaties. This clause, which explicitly names Basel as its initiator and beneficiary, restates the immunity (exemptio) of the Swiss cantons from the jurisdiction of the empire and their complete autonomy (plena libertas).

Read the rest (pdf). All you Holy Roman Empire fans will enjoy it, too.

The collapse of socialism and the sovereignty gap

When socialism collapsed in the late 1980s-early 1990s, many debates and contentions were settled, but the issue of sovereignty has only grown in importance thanks in large part to more economic integration. The European attempt at federation, undertaken after the fall of socialism, has not gone well precisely because it cannot close the Westphalian sovereignty gap. The bloodshed in the non-liberal world has largely been a product of the inability of states to fragment, an inability which is encouraged by notions of Westphalian sovereignty and institutionalized by IGOs such as the United Nations or World Bank.

If states wish to break away, but are prohibited from doing so by enormous costs (such as violent aggression from the state it wishes to break away from, or hostility from illiberal states that can use IGOs as mediums to act on those hostilities), then a federation which welcomes states into its union, and which is strong enough to deter aggression, would be a welcome, liberal development.

This is from my forthcoming article in the Independent Review. Here’s a sneak peak (pdf) at the whole thing. I’m guest editing a symposium on the subject at Cosmos + Taxis, in case any of you want to write a response, or add to the conversation…

Forthcoming: Reviving the libertarian interstate federalist tradition

One of my papers was accepted for publication in the libertarian journal The Independent Review. Here’s an excerpt:

This essay aims to fill that gap by making four arguments:

1. Prominent classical liberals and libertarians have long recognized the importance of interstate federalism for not only individual liberty but security for liberal polities in the international arena as well.

2. The American federalists of the late 18th century faced the same problems we face, and the distinct interstate order that they patched together to solve those problems is not an outmoded Leviathan; it is the missing piece of the puzzle to the libertarian and classical liberal tradition of interstate federalism.

3. The piecemeal federation of political units under the U.S. constitution would achieve more freedom for more people, and this interstate federalism should be enthusiastically embraced as the foreign policy principle for libertarians and classical liberals.

4. The American Proposal would solve the security (and cost-sharing) dilemma for liberal polities, but it would also contribute to a decline in the worrisome trend of presidential government in the United States.

I gotta give props to the editors and the referees of the journal. I know they didn’t like my argument, but they were fair, helpful, and a whole lotta fun. I’ll have more on this soon. In the mean time, here’s a sneak peak (pdf).

The Blind Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs usually make decisions with incomplete information, in disciplines where we lack expertise, and where time is vital. How, then, can we be expected to make decisions that lead to our success, and how can other people judge our startups on our potential value? And even if there are heuristics for startup value, how can they cross fields?

The answer, to me, comes from a generalizable system for improvement and growth that has proven itself– the blind watchmaker of evolution. In this, the crucial method by which genes promulgate themselves is not by predicting their environments, but by promiscuity and opportunism in a random, dog-eat-dog-world. By this, I mean that successful genes free-ride on or resonate with other genes that promote reproductive success (promiscuity) and select winning strategies by experimenting in the environment and letting reality be the determinant of what gene-pairings to try more often (opportunism). Strategies that are either robust or anti-fragile usually outperform fragile and deleterious strategies, and strategies that exist within an evolutionary framework that enables rapid testing, learning, mixing, and sharing (such as sexual reproduction or lateral gene transfer paired with fast generations) outperform those that do not (such as cloning), as shown by the Red Queen hypothesis.

OK, so startups are survival/reproductive vehicles and startup traits/methods are genes (or memes, in the Selfish Gene paradigm). With analogies, we should throw out what is different and keep what is useful, so what do we need from evolution?

First, one quick note: we can’t borrow the payout calculator exactly. Reproductive success is where a gene makes more of itself, but startups dont make more of themselves. For startups the best metric is probably money. Other than that, what adaptations are best to adopt? Or, in the evolutionary frame, what memes should we imbue in our survival vehicles?

Traits to borrow:

  • Short lives: long generations mean the time between trial and error is too long. Short projects, short-term goals, and concrete exits.
  • Laziness: energy efficiency is far more important than #5 on your priority list.
  • Optionality: when all things are equal, more choices = more chances at success.
  • Evolutionarily Stable Strategies: also called “don’t be a sucker.”
  • React, don’t plan: prediction is difficult or even impossible, but being quick to jump into the breach has the same outcome. Could also be called “prepare, but don’t predict.”
  • Small and many: big investments take a lot of energy and effectively become walking targets. Make small and many bets on try-outs and then feed those that get traction. Note– this is also how to run a military!
  • Auftragstaktik: should be obvious, central planning never works. Entrepreneurs should probably not make any more decisions than they have to.
  • Resonance: I used to call this “endogenous positive feedback loops,” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue. In short, pick traits that make your other traits more powerful–and even better if all of your central traits magnify your other actions.
  • Taking is better than inventing: Its not a better startup if its all yours. Its a better startup if you ruthlessly pick the best idea.
  • Pareto distributions (or really, power laws): Most things don’t really matter. Things that matter, matter a lot.
  • Finite downside, infinite upside: Taleb calls this “convexity”. Whenever presented with a choice that has one finite and one infinite potential, forget about predicting what will happen– focus on the impact’s upper bound in both directions. It goes without saying– avoid infinite downsides!
  • Don’t fall behind (debt): The economy is a Red Queen, anyone carrying anything heavy will continually fall behind. Debt is also the most likely way companies die.
  • Pay it forward to your future self: squirrels bury nuts; you should build generic resources as well.
  • Don’t change things: Intervening takes energy and hurts diversity.
  • Survive: You can’t win if you’re not in the game. More important than being successful is being not-dead.

When following these guidelines, there are two other differences between entrepreneurs and genes: One, genes largely exist in an amoral state, whereas your business is vital to your own life, and if you picked a worthwhile idea, society. Two, unlike evolution, you actually have goals and are trying to achieve something beyond replication, beyond even money. Therefore, you do not need to take your values from evolution. However, if you ignore its lessons, you close your eyes to reality and are truly blind.

Our “blind” entrepreneur, then, can still pick goals and construct what she sees as her utility. But to achieve the highest utility, once defined, she will create unknowable and unpredictable risk of her idea’s demise if she does not learn to grow the way that the blind watchmaker does.

“Polycentric Sovereignty: The Medieval Constitution, Governance Quality, and the Wealth of Nations”

It is widely accepted that good institutions caused the massive increase in living standards enjoyed by ordinary people over the past two hundred years. But what caused good institutions? Scholars once pointed to the polycentric governance structures of medieval Europe, but this explanation has been replaced by arguments favoring state capacity. Here we revitalize the ‘polycentric Europe’ hypothesis and argue it is a complement to state capacity explanations. We develop a new institutional theory, based on political property rights and what we call polycentric sovereignty, which explains how the medieval patrimony resulted in the requisite background conditions for good governance, and hence widespread social wealth creation.

By Alexander Salter & Andrew Young. Read the whole excellent thing here. I wonder how much the author’s conception of “polycentric sovereignty” has in common with Madison’s compound republic?

Salter & Young do a great job bringing decentralization back into the overall “economic growth and political freedom” picture. Over the past two decades, political centralization as a good thing has been making a comeback under the guise of “state capacity.” This isn’t a bad trend, but it has left several large gaps in understanding how economic development and political freedom works. (For example, how to prevent centralized states from pursuing illiberal ends, or using illiberal means to pursue supposedly liberal ends.)

This article brings decentralization back into the picture, using Elinor and Vincent Ostrom’s conception of polycentricity as a model. However, I don’t think they spend enough time on Vincent Ostrom’s understanding of the American compound republic. The American federalists were concerned with exactly the same thing that we are concerned about now: how to maintain a proper balance of centralized power and decentralized power so that liberty may flourish. I’ve emphasized the important part with italics. The liberty aspect gets de-emphasized to make room for the sexier “economic growth” aspect, but political freedom is still paramount when it comes to thinking through matters of politics.

The American federalists, and especially Madison, came up with the compound republic to address the centralized/decentralized debate. Scholars continue to underrate its genius and usefulness for capturing humans as they are. Ostrom’s book on the Madisonian compound republic is worth your time and money. Read it in tandem with this book on the Federalist Papers and this book on the formation of the American republic and this short paper on the continued viability of the compound republic to today’s world. Once you’ve done the readings, start writing (or better yet: blogging!).

What I learned at the doctorate

The 19th century Brazilian political system was dominated by two parties: Conservatives and Liberals. Although these parties were formally established only in the late 1830s or early 1840s, part of my thesis involves understanding that these parties existed, albeit in an embryonic form, since independence in 1822.

What I noticed is that since independence, conservatives have had a more realistic view of international relations. For them, securing the territory (and the government’s dominance over it) was crucial. Liberals had a more, well, liberal view of international relations. Although they did not deny the traditional formulation of the state (territory, population, government, recognition by other nations), they were more optimistic about the possibility of cooperation with other countries.

The view of conservatives and liberals about international relations matched their ideas about domestic politics very well: conservatives advocated a more centralized and stronger government, with greater control over the territory. One of their great fears was the possibility of Brazil’s fragmentation into several small countries, as happened with Spanish America. Their defense of the monarchy was linked to this: a monarch with greater powers would guarantee the maintenance of the territory. Liberals advocated a more decentralized government, with greater freedom for individuals, and also greater freedom for provinces, which would not be controlled so directly by the central government. The fear of fragmentation of the territory was lesser, and some liberals understood that if individual provinces decided to leave the union, well, that was their right.

These views on international and domestic politics also matched the way liberals and conservatives viewed the United States. Early in the country’s history, conservatives tended to see the United States as a young, unimportant republic. The proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine changed this attitude a little, but it remained a fact that conservatives preferred to direct Brazilian foreign policy towards Europe. Liberals, for their part, saw an example to be followed in the USA, with their conscious departure from the European way of doing politics, especially their federalism. Throughout the 19th century, as the United States grew in power, these attitudes changed, but not by betraying the basic understanding that the two parties had about international relations: conservatives feared possible US imperialism, especially in relation to the Amazon. Liberals were less jealous about the national territory, and in any case, they did not see the United States as a threat.

The great irony I found in my thesis is that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, liberal and conservative ideas about the United States converged. The monarchy was overthrown and the republic proclaimed in Brazil in 1889. The liberal and conservative parties were formally extinct. Part of my thesis involves saying, however, that despite this formal extinction, liberal and conservative attitudes continued to exist in both domestic and international politics. In domestic politics, Republicans represented, at least in part, a radicalization of liberal ideas. Foreign policy was initially marked by this radicalization, but that soon changed. After a very troubled 1890s, the Baron of Rio Branco took the reins of Brazilian foreign policy in 1902.
Rio Branco was a frankly conservative individual. Early in life he chose not to get involved in domestic politics, partly because he did not want to be in the shadow of his father, Viscount of Rio Branco. He followed the diplomatic career. However, as I have already explained, the views of conservatives in domestic politics found a clear counterpart in foreign policy, marked above all by the defense of the territory. And this was the foreign policy of the Baron of Rio Branco.

The thing is that Rio Branco chose a liberal, Joaquim Nabuco, to be Brazil’s ambassador to Washington. Both Rio Branco and Nabuco understood that Brazilian foreign policy should focus on the USA, but for different reasons. On the international stage of the 1900s, Rio Branco believed that an alliance with the USA, albeit informal, was the best way to guarantee Brazil’s security against European imperialism. Nabuco did not ignore this aspect of international relations, but he also believed in a higher ideal: that the approach to the USA could represent a counterpoint to the bellicose European international relations, leading to the progress of civilization. So the irony was this: both Rio Branco, the conservative, and Nabuco, the liberal, wanted to get closer to the USA, but for very different reasons.

Studying to write my thesis was a very pleasant process. I liked the characters I met, I liked the stories and I liked the theme I chose. During the doctorate I was intellectually more mature, and I managed to have a high degree of independence in the way I conducted my research. In other words, I did not allow myself to be led by theoretical perspectives with which I did not agree. And I also think that what I learned has real practical implications. I am glad that it was not my responsibility to decide on Brazilian foreign policy in the 19th century, but I understand that conservatives were often being fearful. I know that they were often being hypocrites. Of course, hindsight is always beneficial, but I believe that liberals were generally right.

There is a catch to this story: Brazil was the last country in the West to abolish slavery, in 1888. Until then, an unimaginable number of slaves crossed the Atlantic to work mainly on coffee and sugar cane fields. This is a dimension of the history of Brazil to which I regrettably gave little importance at the time I was writing. Today I see things differently: the country of slavery yesterday, not for nothing, is the country of socialism today. And I think it’s important to think about how such a strong dependence on slavery probably affected the way domestic and international politics were made.


Be Our Guest: “Providing healthcare isn’t practicing medicine”

Jack Curtis has a new Guest Post up. An excerpt:

It was expected that doctors would have some charity patients from those less well off. You also expected that he would do everything possible for your care because that reputation was the reason you wouldn’t call someone else next time. That was reinforced by the priceless value set on human life by the prevailing Judeo-Christian ethos. No, this is not fiction; such was medical practice in Los Angeles in my youth. A simplification certainly, but it conveys the essential: Human ills and injuries were serviced by medical doctors whose state licensing and professional organizations approximated medieval guilds.

Please, read the rest.

On a different note, Jack’s excellent thoughts will be the last installment of NOL‘s experimental “Be Our Guest” feature. I just couldn’t find the time to get a decent turnaround. If you still want to have your say, and nowhere to say it, jump on in the ‘comments’ threads.

Cyclical History

An interesting result from behavioral/experimental economics is that bubbles can happen even with smart people who should know better. But once those people go through a bubble, they do a better job of avoiding bubbles in the future.

I think this result has major implications for society more broadly and I think we’re seeing it play out in the news. In the ’70s people learned a lot of hard lessons about things like stagflation (and racism–but ask a sociologist about that) that made the following decades easier. But those people gradually retired and were replaced with people who weren’t inoculated to certain ideas (like the idea of inflating your way out of a supply-side recession).

We’re now living in a world where the median voter and her elected representatives have unlearned those hard lessons. And so we’re going to live through the 1970’s again. Hopefully. If we’re not so lucky we might live through the 1930’s again.

On Abraham Kuyper’s Political Liberalism

My article “Abraham Kuyper and Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer as Anti-Rationalist Liberals” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Church & State and will hopefully be in print in 2021.

In this article, I explore F. A. Hayek’s division of pre-1848 liberalism into two contrasting worldviews — rationalist and anti-rationalist. I argue that both Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper, two important Dutch Anti-Revolutionary writers, were anti-rationalist liberals.

Both of them are on the record denouncing “liberalism”, but both refer mostly to French liberalism of the rationalist kind. And both admired Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, cited by Hayek as great exponents of anti-rationalist liberalism.

I hope this article will lead to an interesting conversation as to why the contemporary Kuyperian movement seems to be much more left-wing than the original anti-revolutionaries.

A pre-print version of the article can be viewed on the Oxford Academic website.