Tech’s Ethical Dark Side

An article at the NY Times opens:

The medical profession has an ethic: First, do no harm.

Silicon Valley has an ethos: Build it first and ask for forgiveness later.

Now, in the wake of fake news and other troubles at tech companies, universities that helped produce some of Silicon Valley’s top technologists are hustling to bring a more medicine-like morality to computer science.

Far be it from me to tell people to avoid spending time considering ethics. But something seems a bit silly to me about all this. The “experts” are trying to teach students the consequences of the complex interactions between the services they haven’t yet created and the world as it doesn’t yet exist.

My inner cynic sees this “ethics of tech” movement as a push to have software engineers become nanny-state-like social engineers. “First do no harm” is not the right standard for tech (which isn’t to say “do harm” is). Before 2016 Facebook and Twitter were praised for their positive contribution to the Arab Spring. After our dumb election the educated western elite threw up our hands and said, “it’s an ethical breach to reduce our power!” Freedom is messy, and “do no harm” privileges the status quo.

The root problem is that computer services interact with the public in complex ways. Recognizing this is important and an ethics class ought to grapple with that complexity and the resulting uncertainty in how our decisions (including design decisions) can affect the well being of others. My worry is that a sensible call to think about these issues will be co-opted by power-hungry bureaucrats. (There really ought to be ethics classes on the “Dark Side of Ethical Judgments of Others and Education Policy”.)

I don’t doubt that the motivations of the people involved are basically good, but I’m deeply skeptical of their ability to do much more than offer retrospective analysis as particular events become less relevant. History is important, but let’s not trick ourselves into thinking the lessons of 2016 Facebook will apply neatly to whatever network we’re on in 2026.

It hardly seems reasonable to insist that Facebook be put in charge of what we get to see. Some argue that’s already the world we live in, and they aren’t completely wrong. But that authority is still determined by the voluntary individual decision of users with access to plenty of alternatives. People aren’t always as thoughtful and deliberate as I’d like, but that doesn’t mean I should step in and be a thoughtful and deliberate Orwellian figure on their behalf.


RIP John Perry Barlow – On the right to free information

Sadly, John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has died today. He was – to me – a huge inspiration for the internet anarchy and the cyberlibertarian movement I support.

His vision of the internet was to create “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.”

As a tribute to Barlow, I would like to provide a summary of his speech on The Right To Know at TEDx Marin.

  1. The first time Barlow got online, he thought the internet would create the collective organism of mind.
  2. He believed that one day everyone on the planet would be endowed with the right to say whatever they want to say within their hearts, and nobody would be in the position to shut them up. In addition, everybody would have the right to not listen to what was said or written on the internet.
  3. The internet was going to be the great challenger of dogmatism.
  4. Having founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation in July 1990, he spent many years thinking about the intersection between Cyberspace and the physical world.
  5. All the existing power relations in the physical are being renegotiated in Cyberspace.
  6. We are now at the point where the physical world is starting to become terrified of Cyberspace. This is obviously shown by how governments deal with Wikileaks and the Arab awakening.
  7. Cyberspace has provided the bloggers, and journalists of Wikileaks and the Arab awakening with the opportunity to question the political structure. They knew that their real power was the ability to speak, and to be heard.
  8. They also understood that they had the right to know.
  9. If we play our cards right, the internet will make it possible for everybody on the internet to satisfy his curiosity to the fullest extent that is presently known by our species. Everyone interested, can know what is presently known.
  10. Nothing like this has had ever happened before.
  11. To achieve that, we have to realize that we cannot own free speech.
  12. Copyright is the wrong model for monetizing the expression of the mind. Thought is not a thing, … it is an action. The more a thought is heard and understood, the more powerful it becomes. It’s not like physical goods.
  13. Because of the old model of thinking of expression as a thing that must be regulated towards scarcity, there are many things going on right now that are militating against Freedom of expression.
  14. Comcast, yesterday, stopped all of our access to PirateBay. PirateBay is a notorious copyright infringement site, but is also an important cause with different members from European parliaments.
  15. The other thing is that the Freedom of expression necessarily includes tolerance to the other person’s right to speak up his mind. No matter how abominable his ideas may be.
  16. The answer to hate speech is love speech, and the answer of the speech you can’t stand is the speech of your own heart. Go out there and stop those who will try to own Freedom of expression.
  17. Take a look at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

2018 Hayek Essay Contest

The 2018 General Meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society will take place from September 30 – October 6, 2018 at ExpoMeloneras and Lopesan Hotels in Meloneras, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. As with past general meetings, the Mont Pelerin Society is currently soliciting submissions for Friedrich A. Hayek Fellowships. The fellowships will be awarded through the Hayek Essay Contest.

The Hayek Essay Contest is open to all individuals 36 years old or younger. Entrants should write a 5,000 word (maximum) essay that addresses the quotation(s) and question(s) detailed on the contest announcement (available at the above link). The deadline for submissions is May 31, 2018. The winners will be announced on July 31, 2018. Essays must be submitted in English only. Electronic submissions should be sent in PDF format to this email address ( Authors of winning essays must present their papers at the General Meeting to receive their award. The essays will be judged by an international panel of three members of the Society.

Please feel free to share this announcement with any individuals who may have an interest in submitting an essay for consideration of a fellowship award. All questions may be directed to the MPS Young Scholars Program Committee by email at or phone at +1.806.742.7138.

MPS Young Scholars Program Committee

What should universities do?

The new semester is here so it’s time for me to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to be doing in the weird world of modern American university life. Roughly speaking, the answer is going to be “do the stuff that professors do to help universities do what universities do.” So what do universities do? What are they supposed to do?

Universities occupy a few different niches in society. I’m usually tempted to think of universities like a business. And in that framework, I justify my salary by providing something of value to those students. At my school, something like 90% of the operating budget comes out of students’ pockets.

But that’s an overly narrow view. Students pay to go to school because they expect they’ll get value from it, but they also go to school because them’s the rules–if you want to enter adult society, university is the front gate. In this framework, I justify my salary by serving as a gatekeeper. Even though it’s students paying, the (nebulous) principal I’m obliged to is the collection of people already inside the walls.

But wait! There’s more! Universities are (in no particular order):

  • A repository of knowledge,
  • A generator of new knowledge,
  • A place people go to learn,
  • A place people go to prove themselves,
  • A place people make friends and have fun (in a way that may be hard to replicate),
  • A business (engaging in mutually beneficial exchange),
  • A special interest group,
  • An institution that holds a particular (privileged) position in a wider cultural landscape.

Any one of these functions is a can of worms in its own right. When we start to consider tradeoffs between each function (and the many less visible functions I’ve surely missed), it gets downright intractable. I’m going to focus on the student-focused aspects of university life.

The mainstream view:

University is a place students get educated. This education helps them get jobs because employers value it. Students might also learn things that help them be better citizens.

The mainstream view doesn’t seem far off from what I’ve got in mind until you get your hands dirty and start disentangling what that view says. Here are three big problems inherent in that mainstream view:

  1. The education-for-job myth.
  2. The definition problem.
  3. The one-size-fits-all problem.

The Job-training myth

We’re told that students go to school to learn valuable skills. I think that’s true, but not in the usual way. Any specific skills students learn in school are a) incredibly general, or b) out of date. My students might learn some interesting ways of looking at the world (general knowledge), but a lot of what I teach is completely useless in the workforce (“Johnson, draw me a demand curve, stat!”). But students do learn valuable skills incidentally. They learn to manage their time (ideally), how to be conscientious, and in general they’re socialized so that they can fit in with adult society.

Lately I’ve been thinking of college as a form of upfront consulting. Instead of going to school when you’ve got a specific problem to solve, go when you’re young and have nothing better to do. Since you’re getting the consulting before you know what sort of problems you’ll face in the future, we couldn’t possibly give you exactly the right bundle of knowledge.

College exposes students to lots of different ideas that might combine in unexpected ways. Your class in underwater basket weaving might seem like a waste of time until some day 30 years later you are trying to solve some problem that turns out to make a lot more sense if you think of it like wet wicker (I’m looking at you civil engineers!).

Some of what I (and my colleagues) do helps prepare students for their careers, but mostly I’m trying to help them be better–better thinkers, better able to understand and appreciate, better able to enjoy life.

The definition problem

The word “Education” means a lot of things to a lot of people. More often than not, people use the word without being clear about what they mean. Often it means “job training.” Sometimes it means “enlightening.” Other times it means “making you agree with me.” In practice, it means surviving enough classes that you get a piece of paper indicating as much.

It should be recognized as a vague and nebulous word instead of being pigeonholed. It isn’t a binary state (I was ignorant, now I’m educated). It’s helpful to think of people as being more or less educated, but the state of your education isn’t something we can really objectively compare to my state of education.

There are lots of important but nebulous things in our lives: health, happiness, moral worth. Their vagueness makes them difficult, but it isn’t going away.

It isn’t hard to convince people that education is nebulous, but it is hard to get people to behave as though they really understand that.

Homogenization and commodification

Once people start thinking of education as some objective thing we can pull off a shelf and give to someone, we run into the real problems. This unexamined view leads to bureaucracies that attempt to standardize and commodify education.

Don’t get me wrong, I get why people would try to do this. We want everyone to get education (and moral training, and good health, and…). And as long as we’re worried about that, we’re going to worry about making sure everyone gets the best education possible. But “the best” gives the false impression that there’s one right answer.

A top-down approach isn’t the right way to achieve the goal of widespread education. Attempting to systematically scale up education provision kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. We should fight against attempts to commodify university (which currently happens via accreditation-as-gateway-to-subsidy and the general expansion of bureaucracy through administration).

So what should universities do?

There are different margins on which we can justify our existence, but it’s not obvious how to balance our tasks: teaching, researching, advocating, etc.. Given the high degree of uncertainty, I’d argue for pluralism… different schools (and professors) should be trying different things. As universities adapt to the future, it’s important that they don’t all try to adapt in the same way at the same time.

I think a big part of the problem is that we’ve been too successful at rent seeking. All money/privilege/goodies comes with strings attached, and more money comes with more strings. We’re always going to get a little tangled up in those strings, but in the last couple generations we’ve hamstrung ourselves. Accreditation and assessment have become the most important things a modern university does, which distracts from our more fundamental goals.

A bottom up approach doesn’t mean less education, just different education. A more modest education system would change the mix of costs and benefits faced by stakeholders. Employers might rely less on degree signalling, which means hiring managers and potential employees exercising more judgement in sending and evaluating quality signals. I don’t know exactly what would happen, but flexibility is valuable for the nebulous goals universities are supposed to be pursuing.

But at the moment we seem to be in an equilibrium. Students are expected to go to school, schools are expected to deliver on promises they can’t really fulfill, and we go through the motions of keeping schools accountable in a way that basically misses the point.

So what will I do this semester? I’m going to keep talking about interesting stuff to students. I’m going to keep working towards getting tenure. But I’m also going to quietly subvert attempts to commodify university.


In memory of Christie Davies: defender of the right to joke


As we approach the end of 2017, I remember this year’s sad passing of Christie Davies. Davies was a rare academic beast: a classical liberal sociologist. Despite representing a minority perspective in his discipline, he was able to thrive and leave a mark that will continue to influence scholars for generations.

Continue reading

Ayn Rand and International Politics

In a previous post I promised to write about Ayn Rand and her views on international politics, based on a recently published article.

I find Ayn Rand a fascinating figure in libertarian history, for a number of reasons. Her life style and ways she went about it in her life are so far distanced from me, that made me curious. Some of her philosophical ideas are great, others do not appeal to me at all. I plainly admire her for making the moral case for capitalism and individualism, which stands out in the economist-dominated libertarian tradition.

I am on the one hand annoyed by the way she fostered such cult-like circle of followers, in her own day and after her death in 1982, that led to dogmatism and intellectual isolationism, which goes against all basic academic standards I think are crucial.

On the other hand, I think the people at the Ayn Rand Institute do a great job preserving her legacy and attempting to widen her appeal. Overall, I am convinced that no matter what your take on this fascinating figure or her work is, Rand deserves to be studied in academia, because she remains influential to this day, especially in the US, and left a serious collection of writings that warrant intellectual analysis, even by people who do not consider themselves Randian.

Against this background I made a comparison between mainstream liberal theories of International Relations (IR) and the ideas on world affairs of Ayn Rand. The brief summary of the first is as follows:

  • World peace is attainable, in the belief that humans are rational enough to overcome war and conflict.
  • The nation is seen as a problematic actor in world affairs. Its room for maneuvering needs to be curtailed, including the importance of the balance of power between states, and the alleged influence of ‘war mongering’ diplomats and the so-called military-industrial complex.
  • Peace oriented foreign policies can be fostered by domestic institutional arrangements, most notably democracy (democratic peace theory).
  • In the international realm, there is an important role for intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, regimes and international law (liberal institutionalism), which aim to overcome or neutralize the effects of the logic of power politics.
  • International trade is also expected to foster peace, often in combination with the alleged pacifying influence of interest groups and public opinion of foreign policy decision-making.
  • A recent addition is the broad support for humanitarian intervention.

To keep this blog at readable length I will not go into the details of Rand’s writings, but limit myself to her main views on these ideas, which should be seen in the context of her fierce opposition to the Soviet Union and its allies in the Cold War, and her concern for America losing its super power position through internal causes, not least the loss of the individual liberty-enhancing spirit among the American people.

  • In contrast to classical liberals from Smith to Hayek, Rand did indeed think that world peace would be attainable, but only in an Objectivist world. Among rational men living according the Objectivist principles there would be a harmony of rational interests. Yet in the current world there was also abundant irrational behaviour, bad morality, and other grounds for dispute.
  • The main causes of war were not material issues, domestic interests, institutional arrangements, or the structure of the international system. Rather, war was rooted in human nature. It went back to the tribal era, when brute force was the prime rule of conduct. The (socialist) dictatorships were contemporary examples in her mind, with their lack of respect for the rights of their own citizens, and those of foreigners alike. ‘Statism needs war, a free country does not’.
  • Rand was inconsistent in her valuation of the power of public opinion. She noted that most people often do not want war. Yet the origins of war still lay with those civilians, also in non-democratic regimes, because they failed to reject the doctrine that it was right and justified to achieve goals by physical force. If people put up with a dictatorship like the Soviet Union, or decided not to flee, they were co-responsible for the deeds, and deserved the same fate as their government.
  • Rand recognized that individuals live in groups or communities, but she regarded respect for tribal roots, ethnicity, and regional languages as uncivil and, above all, irrational and a limit on individual liberty. Ethnicity was also an important cause of war. Nationalism was perhaps less abstract than Marxism, but it was at least as vicious in stirring emotions such as hatred, fear, and suspicion. Therefore rational people would altogether disregard their roots as guides in (political) life.
  • Rand had two positions on the issues of sovereignty and intervention, depending on the moral character of the nation in question. Sovereignty was a right that had to be earned, but could also be forfeited. If a nation fully respected the principle of individual rights, it’s right to sovereignty was morally secured and should be respected by other nations. However, if a state violated the rights of its citizens it would lose its sovereign rights. ‘A nation ruled by brute force is not a nation, but a horde, whether led by Atilla, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Khrushchev, or Castro.’
  • Dictatorships were outlaws and could therefore be invaded as a matter of choice for the free nations, although there was no duty to do so. The right to self-determination and sovereignty only existed for free nations, and for societies seeking to establish freedom.
  • Yet this way, anarchy loomed. Rand divided the world into three groups of countries. First, countries complying to the Objectivist principles, with full sovereign rights. Second, countries on their way to freedom, often referred to as ‘mixed economies’, or half-way houses between freedom and dictatorship. Third, countries not worth existing, such as dictatorships and tyrannies. Unfortunately, the world lacked fully free countries. The mixed economies did not have unlimited right of intervention, they could only interfere when another country seriously breached Objectivist principles, for example by establishing one party rule, enacting censorship laws, executing people for political offences without trial, or nationalizing or expropriating private property.
  • Rand acknowledged the perpetual influence of power in world politics. The character of international politics was, and always had been among states, a balance of power game.
  • The US army was under domestic, non-patriotic attack for its virtues, for being a competent and strong force. It was unwise to cut the defence budget, while -in another contrast to liberal IR thought- ‘the military-industrial complex’ was ‘a myth or worse’.
  • Statism at the international level, in the form of ‘a planetary community’ and other cosmopolitan ideas had to be rejected. The collaboration of semi-free countries with communist dictatorships in the UN was evil and stood in contrast to reason, ethics, and civilization. The UN provided the Russian camp with prestige and moral sanction, suggesting that ‘the difference between human rights and mass slaughter is just a matter of opinion’.
  • Another point of contention with the social liberals was development cooperation. Foreign aid was nothing but ‘altruism extended to the international realm’.
  • While, in contrast to social liberals, she lacked faith in international law as such, Rand did regard international treaties as firm obligations.
  • Also, Rand saw peaceful effects of laissez-faire capitalism, because it was based on the recognition of self-interest by free individuals and the non-initiation of force. Capitalism fostered a society of traders. Therefore the essence of Objectivist foreign policy had to be free trade.

To briefly sum up: Rand’s writing show that not all liberals are peace-seeking cosmopolitans, attempting to minimise the role of the nation, the balance of power, the military, and warfare in international relations. She rejected most forms of international governmental organization and other expressions of liberal institutionalism. Often her ideas lack sufficient (legal) detail, while they are also centred on America, and hence limited to the perspective of an influential super power with large military capacity. Yet her writings show that fostering liberty in international relations can be done in several ways, and that different liberals have different ideas about the route towards that goal.

SMP: On the Delusions of Price Level Stability

One of the lessons that should have been learned after the 2008 crisis is that price level stability does not guarantee economic and financial stability. Rather, central bankers and policy makers understand that the lesson is there should be even more regulation.

In a recent column, William White explains how “major central banks’ vigilant pursuit of positive but low inflation has become a dangerous delusion.” The idea that price level stability is both, necessary and sufficient to achieve macroeconomic stability and growth should have been put to rest by the 2008 financial crisis. But conflicting narratives have enabled it to live on.

Since the crisis, the focus of many central bankers has turned to macroprudential policy. The objective is to manage financial risk. Regulatory efforts have increased as a result. On the monetary policy front, price level stability still reigns supreme. New tools have been developed to execute monetary policy, to be sure. But the overall objective has been more-or-less left intact.

Keep reading at Sound Money Project.