I have recently shifted my “person I am obsessed with listening to”: my new guy is George Hotz, who is an eccentric innovator who built a cell phone that can drive your car. His best conversations come from Lex Fridman’s podcasts (in 2019 and 2020).
Hotz’s ideas bring into question the efficacy of any ethical strategy to address ‘scary’ innovations. For instance, based on his experience playing “Capture the Flag” in hacking challenges, he noted that he never plays defense: a defender must cover all vulnerabilities, and loses if he fails once. An attacker only needs to find one vulnerability to win. Basically, in CTF, attacking is anti-fragile, and defense is fragile.
Hotz’s work centers around reinforcement learning systems, which learn from AI errors in automated driving to iterate toward a model that mimics ‘good’ drivers. Along the way, he has been bombarded with questions about ethics and safety, and I was startled by the frankness of his answer: there is no way to guarantee safety, and Comma.ai still depends on human drivers to intervene to protect themselves. Hotz basically dismisses any system that claims to take an approach to “Level 5 automation” that is not learning-based and iterative, as driving in any condition, on any road, is an ‘infinite’ problem. Infinite problems have natural vulnerabilities to errors and are usually closer to impossible where finite problems often have effective and world-changing solutions. Here are some of his ideas, and some of mine that spawned from his:
The Seldon fallacy: In short, 1) It is possible to model complex, chaotic systems with simplified, non-chaotic models; 2) Combining chaotic elements makes the whole more predictable. See my other post for more details!
Finite solutions to infinite problems: In Hotz’s words regarding how autonomous vehicles take in their environments, “If your perception system can be written as a spec, you have a problem”. When faced with any potential obstacle in the world, a set of plans–no matter how extensive–will never be exhaustive.
Trolling the trolley problem: Every ethicist looks at autonomous vehicles and almost immediately sees a rarity–a chance for an actual direct application of a philosophical riddle! What if a car has to choose between running into several people or alter path to hit only one? I love Hotz’s answer: we give the driver the choice. It is hard to solve the trolley problem, but not hard to notice it, so the software alerts the driver whenever one may occur–just like any other disengagement. To me, this takes the hot air out of the question, since it shows that, as with many ethical worries about robots, the problem is not unique to autonomous AIs, but inherent in driving–and if you really are concerned, you can choose yourself which people to run over.
Vehicle-to-vehicle insanity: While some autonomous vehicle innovators promise “V2V” connections, through which all cars ‘tell’ each other where they are and where they are going and thus gain tremendously from shared information. Hotz cautions (OK, he straight up said ‘this is insane’) that any V2V system depends, for the safety of each vehicle and rider, on 1) no communication errors and 2) no liars. V2V is just a gigantic target waiting for a black hat, and by connecting the vehicles, the potential damage inflicted is magnified thousands-fold. That is not to say the cars should not connect to the internet (e.g. having Google Maps to inform on static obstacles is useful), just that safety of passengers should never depend on a single system evading any errors or malfeasance.
Permissioned innovation is a contradiction in terms: As Hotz says, the only way forward in autonomous driving is incremental innovation. Trial and error. Now, there are less ethically worrisome ways to err–such as requiring a human driver who can correct the system. However, there is no future for innovations that must emerge fully formed before they are tried out. And, unfortunately, ethicists–whose only skin in the game is getting their voice heard over the other loud protesters–have an incentive to promote the precautionary principle, loudly chastise any innovator who causes any harm (like Uber’s first-pedestrian-killed), and demand that ethical frameworks precede new ideas. I would argue back that ‘permissionless innovation‘ leads to more inventions and long-term benefits, but others have done so quite persuasively. So I will just say, even the idea of ethics-before-inventions contradicts itself. If the ethicist could make such a framework effectively, the framework would include the invention itself–making the ethicist the inventor! Since instead, what we get is ethicists hypothesizing as to what the invention will be, and then restricting those hypotheses, we end up with two potential outcomes: one, the ethicist hypothesizes correctly, bringing the invention within the realm of regulatory control, and thus kills it. Two, the ethicist has a blind spot, and someone invents something in it.
“The Attention”: I shamelessly stole this one from video games. Gamers are very focused on optimal strategies, and rather than just focusing on cost-benefit analysis, gamers have another axis of consideration: “the attention.” Whoever forces their opponent to focus on responding to their own actions ‘has the attention,’ which is the gamer equivalent of the weather gauge. The lesson? Advantage is not just about outscoring your opponent, it is about occupying his mind. While he is occupied with lower-level micromanaging, you can build winning macro-strategies. How does this apply to innovation? See “permissioned innovation” above–and imagine if all ethicists were busy fighting internally, or reacting to a topic that was not related to your invention…
The Maginot ideology: All military historians shake their heads in disappointment at the Maginot Line, which Hitler easily circumvented. To me, the Maginot planners suffered from two fallacies: one, they prepared for the war of the past, solving a problem that was no longer extant. Second, they defended all known paths, and thus forgot that, on defense, you fail if you fail once, and that attackers tend to exploit vulnerabilities, not prepared positions. As Hotz puts it, it is far easier to invent a new weapon–say, a new ICBM that splits into 100 tiny AI-controlled warheads–than to defend against it, such as by inventing a tracking-and-elimination “Star Wars” defense system that can shoot down all 100 warheads. If you are the defender, don’t even try to shoot down nukes.
The Pharsalus counter: What, then, can a defender do? Hotz says he never plays defense in CTF–but what if that is your job? The answer is never easy, but should include some level of shifting the vulnerability to uncertainty onto the attacker (as with “the Attention”). As I outlined in my previous overview of Paradoxical genius, one way to do so is to intentionally limit your own options, but double down on the one strategy that remains. Thomas Schelling won the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel” for outlining this idea in The Strategy of Conflict, but more importantly, Julius Caesar himself pioneered it by deliberately backing his troops into a corner. As remembered in HBO’s Rome, at the seminal engagement of Pharsalus, Caesar said: “Our men must fight or die. Pompey’s men have other options.” However, he also made another underappreciated innovation, the idea of ‘floating’ reserves. He held back several cohorts of his best men to be deployed wherever vulnerabilities cropped up–thus enabling him to be reactive, and forcing his opponent to react to his counter. Lastly, Caesar knew that Pompey’s ace-in-the-hole, his cavalry, was made up of vain higher-class nobles, so he told his troops, instead of inflicting maximum damage indiscriminately, to focus on stabbing their faces and thus disfigure them. Indeed, Pompey’s cavalry did not flee from death, but did from facial scars. To summarize, the Pharsalus counter is: 1) create a commitment asymmetry, 2) keep reserves to fill vulnerabilities, and 3) deface your opponents.
Offensive privacy and the leprechaun flag: Another way to shift the vulnerability is to give false signals meant to deceive black hats. In Hotz’s parable, imagine that you capture a leprechaun. You know his gold is buried in a field, and you force the leprechaun to plant a flag where he buried it. However, when you show up to the field, you find it planted with thousands of flags over its whole surface. The leprechaun gave you a nugget of information–but it became meaningless in the storm of falsehood. This is a way that privacy may need to evolve in the realm of security; we will never stop all quests for information, but planting false (leprechaun) flags could deter black hats regardless of their information retrieval abilities.
The best ethics is innovation: When asked what his goal in life is, Hotz says ‘winning.’ What does winning mean? It means constantly improving one’s skills and information, while also seeking to find a purpose that changes the world in a way you are willing to dedicate yourself to. I think the important part of this that Hotz does not say “create a good ethical framework, then innovate.” Instead, he is effectively saying do the opposite–learn and innovate to build abilities, and figure out how to apply them later. The insight underlying this is that the ethics are irrelevant until the innovation is there, and once the innovation is there, the ethics are actually easier to nail down. Rather than discussing ‘will AIs drive cars morally,’ he is building the AIs and anticipating that new tech will mean new solutions to the ethical questions, not just the practical considerations. So, in summary, if you care about innovation, focus on building skills and knowledge bases. If you care about ethics, innovate.
I haven’t written for a while – other duties get in the way – but I’d like to suggest this reading list in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics for the present time of crisis and perplexity. The main reason is that everyone seems to be an expert in Economics, Epidemiology, and Political Philosophy these days, assuming that from “facts” we can easily derive “values” and answer the question, “what is to be done?” I think this is at best a naïve attitude and at worst the same rationalistic hubris we experience everytime a political issue is simplified and reduced to a matter of “science”. Yes, there are facts and they shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not easy to decide what is to be done, morally and politically, in light of those facts.
The first item on the list is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. A classic, and a reminder that people choose all the time to sacrifice some degree of liberty in the altar of survival (or a chance to survive), but also a reminder that Leviathan may turn from friend to foe, from protector to persecutor – and there is very little we can do about it. The second item is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which then explores this topic in light of the fact that civil government shouldn’t have absolute power. It makes an attempt to show us how that power can, or should, be limited within a certain sphere of responsibility. Though it’s still there to protect us.
In this time of pandemic, people feel tempted to panic. People and politicians are calling for dramatic measures, and one reason is that the use of government coercion – which, according to Locke, ought to be limited – might be necessary to force people to cooperate, for example, by staying home. This is a proposed solution to the dilemmas of collective action posed by the problem that some may “free-ride” on the rest, and, as a result, the disease will keep spreading, frustrating any attempt to slow it down. Against dramatic, desperate and, perhaps, arrogant, use of political power, and in favor of prudence and wisdom, Edmund Burke’s collection of writings from the period of the French Revolution can be a beacon of light. On the other hand, explaining the dilemmas of collective action and suggesting ways of solving them, Mancur Olson offers an insightful look at incentives and group behavior in The Logic of Collective Action.
However, the idea that government coercion is the only solution to dilemmas of collective action (such as imposing a quarantine, for example) doesn’t hold water. In fact, other economists follow Olson in saying the problem is real and challenges a strict individualist way of thinking, but, adding to Olson’s point, they also acknowledge the role of private action and sanctions in fostering cooperation. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is a wonderful study that opens up a number of possibilities for private enforcing of collective action to preserve and promote the frugal allocation of common goods. This can be complemented by The Quest for Community, an overlooked work by sociologist Robert Nisbet, where it becomes clear that, between individuals, the state, and the market, there’s room for other associations and communities that strengthen civil society – particularly in this challenging time. Nisbet’s lesson invites liberty-loving people to reflect on whether a hyper-individualistic view of the world ends up pitting helpess individuals against Leviathan instead of offering the buffer zone of community in between. This is something Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in the 19th century.
And just for the sake of dealing with the issue that “is” doesn’t easily lead to “ought”, and that science might have facts and an explanation for them, but does not easily conduce to a proper discussion on values policy, I must finish this PPE pandemic reading list with F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. On Chapter 4, for example, Hayek introduces a constrast between “rationalist liberalism” and “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Rationalist liberals assume too easily that knowledge of the facts on the ground will give them what they need to re-design a society governed by reason. Hayek warns us against this technocratic assumption and offers a defence of “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Anti-rationalist liberals understand the importance of spontaneous order and of constraining power (even at a time of crisis) while prudently balancing the values of liberty and safety in light of past experience and tradition.
Three Additional readings:
Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997). In a liberal democracy, the state steps in suspending some civil liberties only if it can persuade citizens that there’s a threat that justifies it. This book offers a framework to interpret how such threats are constructed in official and non-official discourse, and to what extent this construction of a threat can be effective.
Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (2013). 25th anniversary edition. Looks at US history and how government employed crises to its advantage and the advantage of the ruling elites. In particular, security and economy related issues are dealt with.
Sanford Ikeda, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy (2002). Shows that a time of crisis might be a time for further interventionism in the economy, as Higgs (see above) suggests, but might also be a time for disintervention, as seems to be the case with part of the agenda today (FDA deregulation, etc.) This is based on Ludwig von Mises’ view that interventionist economies are not very stable and are always swinging as a pendulum between socialism and capitalism.
I have recently given a 7-minute smart talk on “the Philosophy and Ethics behind Blockchain” at the Saxion Smart Solutions Festival. The talk is intended for laymen who are interested in the intersection of Philosophy and Blockchain.
What follows is a video and transcript of the talk.
Purpose of my Smart Talk
The purpose of this smart talk is four-fold:
- Firstly, I contend that philosophy matters if we would like to understand the practical and social implications of Blockchain;
- I then give a brief description of Crypto-Anarchism, a philosophy that together with the Cypherpunk movement have deeply influenced the Blockchain space from its early beginnings;
- This is then followed by a description of the essence of the Bitcoin Blockchain. I also make a comparative analysis between the Bitcoin Blockchain and Crypto-Anarchism;
- Finally, I will conclude that the Blockchain space is moving towards the development of products that are very well in line with its initial philosophy. These products are Distributed Autonomous Organizations or DAOs in short.
Why Philosophy Matters
I believe that in order to understand something, and to understand where it’s going to we have to understand where it’s coming from. In other words, if we want to understand the practical and social implications of Blockchain, we cannot dismiss the philosophy that has given birth to it.
What is the Crypto-Anarchist and Cypherpunk philosophy?
The invention of Blockchain has a long and very intriguing history. Blockchain was invented in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto, a mysterious person or group of people whose real identity until this day has always been concealed. Although Blockchain was invented in 2008, we also know that Satoshi was heavily influenced by crypto-anarchists and cypherpunks.
In 1992, a crypto-anarchist called Timothy May invited a group of cryptographers, mathematicians, engineers, and others concerned with our liberties for a meeting. Their goal was to think of ways to protect
- their privacy,
- their political freedom,
- and their economic freedom through the use of cryptography.
Cryptography is the science or practice of making information unintelligible. It is a means to protect your communication. For example, if you make a purchase on a webshop you actually don’t send a message to the payment service provider that includes your name, your product Y, the amount X and the time Z. What you send is a message that is scrambled into something unintelligible so that whenever a person intercepts the message – for example a malicious hacker – will not be able to understand it.
Crypto-anarchists and cypherpunks are practical idealists so they developed real-life applications that supported their ideals. They developed such things as untraceable e-mail, untraceable payments. They discussed ideas of anonymous markets, self-enforcing smart contracts, secure messaging etc. Most of the technical elements that form the foundation of Bitcoin and the Bitcoin Blockchain were already developed by this group of people.
This group of people that came together in 1992 are known as Cypherpunks. I am sure that most people know at least one person from that group. The Dutchman Robert Gonggrijp (founder of XS4ALL) was part of this group as well as Julian Assange (founder of Wikileaks).
An important question we have to raise here is:
“What are Crypto-anarchists and Cypherpunks and what do they want?”
In the words of Timothy May (1994),
“Crypto-anarchy is the cyberspatial realization of anarcho-capitalism (libertarian anarchism)… Digital cash, untraceable and anonymous (like real cash), is also coming, though various technical and practical hurdles remain… For libertarians, strong crypto provides the means by which government will be avoided.”
Working in the same philosophical tradition as John Locke. The crypto-anarchists are also strict contractarians. They believe that two parties should be allowed to engage in any social and economic activity as long as both parties agree on the said activity. In other words, they believe that every social interaction should be legitimate as long as it happens voluntarily and without coercion. They are very skeptical of centralized institutions, such as governments as – according to them – governments are monopolistic coercive institutions. They want governments to be limited, and preferably non-existent. Crypto-anarchists don’t equate anarchism with disorder. They believe that within an anarchist society – thus one without a government – rules and regulations will emerge naturally from the ground up.
“And what are cypherpunks?”
Cypherpunks are activists who are also very skeptical of centralized institutions like governments. They use cryptography as the means to preserve the freedoms they deem important.
Let’s sum up what they want.
|Transparency: Transparency of governments|
|Voluntaryism: Voluntaryist social and economic interactions|
|Privacy: Privacy for everyone|
|Propertarian: Strict property rights|
|Free markets: No institutional monopoly of money production|
|Decentralization: Decentralization of power. Social order happens from the bottom-up|
Overview of the workings of the Bitcoin Blockchain
Now, let’s take a look at what a Blockchain is and see how it’s related to Crypto-anarchism and Cypherpunk. The most basic explanation of Blockchain is that it is a database, distributed among a network of computers so that every computer has an exact copy of this database. Every computer on the network – also called a node – verifies every mutation of the database. When someone tries to insert malicious data into the Blockchain, the network will easily discover it. In order to hijack the database, you need to be able to hijack a majority of the nodes on the network.
This is in stark contrast with traditional, centralized networks that contain a central server. The relationship between the central server and the connected devices is called a client-server relationship. However, one could also refer to it as a master-slave relationship. The central server has an administrator. This administrator can determine who Is adding what content to the database, he stores your password, your username etc. In such a network, you have to trust the administrator that he acts properly. These type of networks are very prone for corruption, censorship and attacks. In order to attack this centralized network, all you have to do is attack this central server. Therefore, we also say that it has a single point of failure (SPOF).
This is the most basic explanation of what Blockchain is and how its contrasts with centralized networks – but it’s also a boring explanation. A question I’d like us to explore is:
“What is the essence of Blockchain?”
The essence of Blockchain, I beleive, is that it creates trust in a network of unknown participants. It is an elegant solution to the possible corruption of digital networks. In its essence, it is a technology against censorship and corruption of digital networks. There is no need to appeal to authority, because rules are set by consensus, reached through active discussions and persuasion instead of coercion.
In this sense, the Bitcoin Blockchain perfectly matches the philosophy of Crypto-anarchism and Cypherpunk.
Comparison between Crypto-Anarchism and the Bitcoin Blockchain
|Transparency: Transparency of governments||Transparency: Blockchain is open source and transparent. Everyone can look into the source code and follow every transaction.|
|Voluntaryism: Voluntaryist social and economic interactions||Voluntaryism: Everyone is free to join and leave the network. Everyone is allowed to use Bitcoin, and not coerced into using it.|
|Privacy: Privacy for everyone||Privacy: Anyone, anywhere can create a Bitcoin wallet without having to provide private information. Bitcoin addresses are pseudonymous and its encouraged to use a different Bitcoin address for every transaction.|
|Propertarian: Strict property rights||Propertarian: When you own your private key of your wallet, no one can take it away from you.|
|Free markets: No institutional monopoly of money production||Free markets: Introduces competition in money production.|
|Decentralization: Decentralization of power. Social order happens from the bottom-up||Decentralization: Blockchain is copied and distributed over a large network of computers. There’s no need to appeal to authority to participate or to make transactions. In that sense, it is radically neutral. Everyone on the network, no matter whether you are a king or humble civil servant, is treated the same and according to pre-specified consensus rules.|
What types of applications can we look forward to
Knowing where Blockchain came from. What can we say about the types of applications they would like to build? What types of applications can we look forward to in the future that hold true to this anti-censorship/anti-corruption philosophy of the Crypto-anarchists and Cypherpunks?
The ultimate types of application for them are Distributed Autonomous Organizations or DAOs for short. These are organizations, that don’t have a single point of decision-making. They have no board of directors, no select group of owners that have exclusive ownership rights, no one executive that directs the organization. These organizations, instead, are open and inclusive for anyone. They are ruled by machine consensus and not by the whims of a small group of people.
There are already DAOs. Bitcoin was the first DAO. There is no Bitcoin company, no Bitcoin executive. If you think about DAOs, imagine a Facebook without a Facebook CEO, a YouTube without a YouTube company, and an investment fund without a fund manager.
It is a characteristic feature of Modernity to separate between private morality and public ethics. The first concerns the ethics of principles by virtue of which each individual governs his own sphere of autonomy. Each individual, while not interfering in the interests of third parties, is a legislator, judge, and part of their own moral issues. The law regulates conflicts of interest between individuals, giving legal protection to a certain range of interests and systematically denying it to others (Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume I, “Norms and Order”, 1973). For example, in almost all modern legal systems the interest to move and, fundamentally, to leave a territory is protected through the freedom of locomotion. In the meantime, a producer may feel prejudiced by the mere existence of competition and nevertheless he may be denied the right to protection of his monopoly (since a “right” is a legally protected interest). In both cases, questions of principle and questions of social utility are combined.
In most modern systems, the interest to circulate freely is solved more by addressing questions of principles than of social utility – the right to freedom of locomotion is enshrined without addressing arguments about the utility of denying legal protection with respect to another interest. While the problems of protectionism and competition are considered mainly in terms of their social utility, the arguments about whether a certain individual or group of individuals have, as a matter of principle, the right to monopolize an economic activity by the mere fact of belonging to a certain ethnic group, estate, or guild today sounds ridiculous, but not in the past.
The widespread distinction practiced by Max Weber between ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility continues in force. Individuals, in their private lives, have the right to make decisions following the ethics of conviction, although their principles may be debatable, obsolete, incongruous, and arbitrary. In any case, the consequences will have to weigh on the agents of the decision themselves. On the other hand, the consequences of the decisions of politicians extend to the whole society. The ethics of responsibility becomes relevant here, which, although it may come into conflict with the ethical principles most widely spread among members of society – that is, the current morality – it must address issues related to social utility. This is to say that a substitution of the current morality for welfare economics would be operated.
However, the Weberian notion of ethics responsibility brings with it all the problems of instrumental reason: the means-that is, the resources to be sacrificed-must be proportional to the ends-in this case, the social utility-but remains open to definition what are the values that will define social utility. This is how the question of principles is reintroduced, the discussions about what is right and what is wrong, i.e. morality, in the political sphere. Correlatively, the critiques around the notion of subjective or instrumental reason once formulated by Max Weber are also applicable to the aforementioned welfare economy, so that they retain special validity.
- A closer look at US hostage recovery policy Danielle Gilbert, War on the Rocks
- How to restore democracy in Venezuela Ryan Berg, RealClearWorld
- How markets and the State leave the community behind Oren Kass, New York Times
- I won’t drive the roundabout Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
Surely, in addition to those structural tendencies for immigrants’ propensity to tend left, there is a seemingly built-in electoral incompetence of conservative and other market-oriented parties. I, for example, have been waiting for years for Spanish language Republican ads on local radio (mostly cheap radio). Even modest ones, place-holding ads, would do some good because silence confirms the Democrat calumny that the GOP is anti-immigrant. And one wonders endlessly why the GOP seldom builds on the religious ethics of immigrants which are often conservative on a personal level even as they, the immigrants, are otherwise collectively on the left. Work hard, take care of your family, keep your nose clean, save, don’t bother others, are not messages that sound alien to the Mexican immigrants I know, to Latin Americans in general, nor even to some Indians who come over.
Incidentally I make the same disparaging comments about the one French political party that is unambiguously market oriented and its inactivity toward the Muslim immigrants who are numerous in France. Several years ago, Pres. Sarkozy had two nominally Muslim women in his first cabinet but this did not set an example, unfortunately. One was Attorney General. (Note: France being France, both women were very attractive, of course!) In the US, it’s as if the Republican Party and the several libertarian groups, had in advance abandoned the immigrant grounds to the Democratic Party. It’s perplexing to me personally because every time I take the trouble to describe Republican positions in Spanish to the main immigrant group in my area, I am met with considerable interest. Explaining the attractiveness of small government to Mexican immigrants fleeing the results of one hundred years of big government that is also deeply corrupt shouldn’t be a colossal endeavor, after all. Indians have had a similar experience though they would have to be approached differently. I don’t know about the increasing number of Chinese immigrants. It would be a good question to explore.
In the past ten years or so, the GOP has fallen into a crude trap. It has allowed the Democratic Party to treat its insistence on the rule of law with respect to illegal immigrants, and on the respect of sovereign boundaries, as proof of the GOP being anti-immigrants in general. The GOP, as well as libertarian groups, have failed even to point out the obvious in connection to immigration: New immigrants compete most directly with older immigrants for jobs, housing, and government services. The facts around sovereignty add to immigrants’ generic left-tropism to ensure that the bulk of new immigrants will come and replenish a Democratic Party otherwise devoid of program, of ideas, and of new blood. (The young Dominican-American woman who won a primary in New York in June 2018 is quickly turning into an embarrassment for the mainstream of the Democratic Party.) Immigrants have the power to snatch victory out of the mouth of the Demos’ defeat.
The various libertarian groups don’t speak clearly on immigration aside from emitting the occasional open borders noise that, fortunately, they seem afraid to pursue or to repeat. Who remembers anything the Libertarian presidential candidate said on the subject during the 2016 presidential campaign? I know of one dangerous exception to the observation that libertarians seldom finish their thoughts on open borders. Alex Tabarrok argued forcefully the case in his October 10th 2015 article in The Atlantic: “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders Completely.” In spite of its leftism, the Atlantic retains its high prestige and its influence, I think. What it publishes cannot easily be ignored. The article is enlightening and tightly argued but almost entirely from an ethical standpoint. Unless I missed something important, the author seems to sidestep the fact that no Western system of ethics requires that anyone commit collective suicide, or even, risk it. Thus he by-passes the lifeboat argument completely. This single article leaves pure libertarians in an intellectual lurch because it poses squarely the central issue of the moral validity of the tacit pact of mutual defense that is the nation- state: The nation-state violates your values through its very existence. Without the nation-state, it’s unlikely your values will survive at all.
[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 14]
“Ideology is a menace” Paul Collier says in his forthcoming book The Future of Capitalism and I couldn’t agree more: ideology (and by extension morality) “binds and blinds”, as psychology professor Jonathan Haidt describes i. And ideology, especially utopian dreams by dedicated rulers, is what allows – indeed accounts for – the darkest episodes of humanity. There is a strange dissonance among people for whom political positions, ideology and politics are supremely important:
- They portray their position as if supported by facts and empirical claims about the world (or at least spit out such claims as if they did believe that)
- At the same time, believing that their “core values” and “ideological convictions” are immune to factual objections (“these are my values; this is my opinion”)
My purpose here is to illustrate that all political positions, at least in part, have their basis in empirically verifiable claims about the world. What political pundits fail to understand is not only that facts rule the world, but that facts also limits the range of positions one can plausible take. You may read the following as an extension of “everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, but not to his or her own facts”. Let me show you:
- “I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.
- “Ice-cream is the best thing in the world”, again unobjectionable, but perhaps not so innocent. Intelligent people may very well disagree over value scales, and it’s possible that for this particular person, ice-cream ranks higher than other potential candidates (pleasure, food, world peace, social harmony, resurrection of dinosaurs etc).
- “I like ice-cream because it cures cancer”. This statement, however, is neither unobjectionable nor innocent. First, you’re making a causal claim about curing cancer, for which we have facts and a fair amount of evidence weighing on the matter. Secondly, you’re making a value judgment on the kinds of things you like (namely those that cure cancer). Consequently, that would imply that you like other things that cure cancer.
Without being skilled in medicine, I’m pretty sure the evidence is overwhelmingly against this wonderful cancer-treating property of ice-cream, meaning that your causal claim is simply wrong. That also means that you have to update your position through a) finding a new reason to like ice-cream, thus either invoking some other empirical or causal statement we can verify or revert back to the subjective statements of preferences above, b) renege on your ice-cream position. There are no other alternatives.
Now, replace “ice-cream” above with *minimum wages* and “cancer” with “poverty” or any other politically contested issue of your choice, and the fundamental point here should be obvious: your “opinions” are not simply innocent statements of your unverifiable subjective preferences, but rely on some factual basis. If political opinions, then, consists of subjective value preferences and statements about the world and/or causal connections between things, you are no longer “entitled to your own opinions”. You may form your preferences any way you like – subject to them being internally consistent – but you cannot hold opinions that are based on incorrect observations or causal derivations about the world.
Let me invoke my national heritage, illustrating the point more clearly from a recent discussion on Swedish television. The “inflammatory” Jordan Peterson, as part of his world tour, visited Norway and Sweden over the past weekend. On Friday he was a guest at Skavlan, one of the most-viewed shows in either country (boasting occasionally of more viewers than the largest sport events) and – naturally– discussed feminism and gender differences. After explaining the scientific evidence for biological gender differences*, and the observed tendency for maximally (gender) egalitarian societies to have the largest rather than smallest gender-related outcomes, Peterson concludes:
“there are only two reasons men and women differ. One is cultural, and the other is biological. And if you minimize the cultural differences, you maximize the biological differences… I know – everyone’s shocked when they hear this – this isn’t shocking news, people have known this in the scientific community for at least 25 years.”
After giving the example of diverging gender rates among engineers and nurses he elaborates on equality of opportunity, to which one of the other talk show guests, Annie Lööf (MP and leader of the fourth largest party with 9% of the parliamentary seats) responds with feelings and personal anecdotes. Here’s the relevant segment transcribed (for context and clarity, I slightly amended their statements):
Peterson: “One of the answers is that you maximize people’s free choice. […] If you maximize free choice, then you also maximize differences in choice between people – and so you can’t have both of those [maximal equality of opportunity and minimal differences along gender lines]”
Lööf: “because we are human beings [there will always be differences in choice]; I can’t see why it differs between me and Skavlan for instance; of course it differs in biological things, but not in choices. I think more about how we raise them [children], how we live and that education, culture and attitudes form a human being whether or not they are a girl or a boy.”
Peterson: “Yes, yes. That is what people who think that the differences between people are primarily culturally constructed believe, but it is not what the evidence suggests.”
Lööf: “Ok, we don’t agree on that”.
So here’s the point: this is not a dispute over preferences. Whether or not biology influences (even constitute, to follow Pinker) the choices we make is not an “I like ice-cream” kind of dispute, where you can unobjectionably pick whatever flavor you like and the rest of us simply have to agree or disagree. This is a dispute of facts. Lööf’s position on gender differences and her desire to politically alter outcomes of people’s choices is explicitly based on her belief that the behaviour of human beings is culturally predicated and thus malleable. If that causal and empirical proposition is incorrect (which Peterson suggests it is), she can no longer readily hold that position. Instead, what does she do? She says: “Ok, we don’t agree”, as if the dispute was over ice-cream!
Political strategizing or virtue signalling aside, this perfectly illustrates the problem of political “opinions”: they espouse ideological positions as the outcome of enlightened or informed fact-based positions, but when those empirical statements are disproved, they revert to being expressions of subjective preference without a consequent diminution of their worth! Conservatives still gladly hum along to Trump’s protectionism, despite overwhelmingly being contradicted in the factual part of their opinion; progressives heedlessly champion rent control, believing that it helps the poor when it overwhelmingly hurts the poor. And both camps act as if the rest of us should pay attention or go out of our way to support them over what, at best, amounts to “I like ice-cream” proposals.
Ideology is a menace, and political “opinions” are the forefront of that ideological menace.
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.
For a while now I’ve advocated not an absence of morality, but an absence of moral blameworthiness. Here’s a first, brief attempt to jot down the basic idea.
There’s two arguments. First let’s consider the epistemic conditions that must hold to make a moral judgment. For any enunciator of a moral judgment, e.g. “this murder, being unprovoked, was wrong,” the speaker must have knowledge of specific details of the case — who committed the crime? was there malice aforethought? — and also moral knowledge, knowledge with normative validity. To judge something as moral or immoral, then, requires information of one kind which is open to forensic methods and of another kind which is … highly contested as to its epistemic foundations. Obvious thus far. Now, this is the situation of the bystander judging retroactively. The perpetrator of the immoral act is in an even worse predicament. Most people would agree, as a basic axiom of juvenile jurisprudence, that a person must have “knowledge of right and wrong” in order to be morally blameworthy. This allows us to discriminate between mentally competent adults, on the one hand, and children or mentally challenged individuals on the other. However, like we have said, this domain of right and wrong is highly contested by highly intelligent people, enough to cast skepticism into all but the most stubborn, and so most people, acting according to their ethics, understand themselves to be acting uncertainly. And, unlike the bystander judging retroactively, the perpetrator is on a time crunch, and must make snap decisions without the luxury of an analysis of the objective conditions — who, what, how, why — or a literature review of the subjective conditions, the theories.
So, to sum up, moral blameworthiness requires knowledge of right and wrong. This knowledge is highly contested (and widely considered to be emotional rather than rational); thus, people must act, but must act under highly uncertain information. Without an agreed-upon rubric moral action is more or less guessed. The doer is in a more uncertain situation than the judger so his judgment is likely to be less justified, more forgivably wrong.
Okay, but now as a friend has pointed out, where morality is highly contested is on the margins, and not the fundamentals. There is a lot of agreement that unprovoked murder is wrong, this does not seem highly contested (though certainly there is disagreement provided the forensic circumstances). So, can we not hold a murderer morally accountable?
Here, in response to that, is the second argument, which is much more fundamental and probably exposes me to some logical consequences I don’t want to accept. With action, there is something we could call a “regression to non-autonomy.” Traditional perspectives on morality and punishment emphasized the individual making a choice to commit an offense. This choice reflected bad moral character. More recently, the social sciences have impacted the way we think about choices: people are shaped by their environments, and often they do not choose these environments. Get the picture? But, it is even worse than that. We could say that the murderer chose to pull the trigger; but, he did not choose to be the sort of person who in that situation would pull the trigger. That person was a product of their environment and their genes. Aren’t they also a product of “themselves”? Yes, but they did not choose to be themselves; they simply are. And, even when someone “chooses to be a better person,” this choice logically presupposes the ability to choose to become a better person, which, again, is an ability bestowed upon some and not upon others and is never of our own choosing. Thus if we go back far enough we find autonomy, or a self-creative element, is not at root in our behavior and choices. And non-autonomous action cannot be considered morally blameworthy.
This is my argument (I do not claim originality; many people have said similar things). The murderer is doing something immoral, but finding them worthy of blame seems, to me, almost if not always out of the question. This ends up being hard to accept psychologically: I want to find history’s greatest villains morally culpable. I cannot, though. Instead of any sort of retributivist punishment — found, now, to be psychologically satisfying but morally confused — we are left only with punishment policy that seeks to deter or isolate offenders, the category of “moral blameworthiness” found to be lacking.
I invite criticisms of the arguments as sketched out here — preferrably, ones that don’t require us to get into what actually is moral or the status of free will.
Last school year I had to deal with a pair of students (Tweedledee and Tweedledum) I caught cheating on a takehome final. When confronted with the evidence, each insisted that it was the other’s fault, and that only that other student should face any consequences.
Bear in mind that if they complete their degrees, they would be in the top 30% of the population in terms of educational attainment. In today’s world, that basically means they’re among the best and brightest, they’re high status, and they’re “the future”. If we could meaure status on a linear scale, getting a college degree still pushes you high up on that scale.
At the time I figured that they were at least towards the bottom of that top 30%. Certainly, I still hope they’ll grow out of it. Unfortunately,
Draco Malfoy’s Junior’s latest scandal shows that being bad at cheating isn’t the social hinderance we might have hoped for.
I believe folly serves liberals better than it serves conservatives. Our way is the rational way while liberals tend to rely on their gut-feelings and on their sensitive hearts which make them comparatively indifferent to hard facts. That’s why they voted for Pres. Obama. That’s why they voted for Mrs Bill Clinton against all strong evidence (known evidence, verifiable, not just suppositions) of her moral and intellectual unsuitability. That’s why many of them still can’t face emotionally the possibility of buyer’s remorse with respect to Mr Obama. That’s why they can’t collectively face the results of the 2016 election. So, conservatives have a special duty to wash out their brains of fallacy often.
It’s the task of every conservative to correct important errors that have found their way into fellow conservatives’ mind. Here is one I hear several times a week, especially from Rush Limbaugh (whom I otherwise like and admire). What’s below is a paraphrase, a distillation of many different but similar statements, from Limbaugh and from others I listen to and read, and from Internet comments, including many on my own Facebook:
“Government does not create jobs,”
“Government does not create wealth (it just seizes the wealth created by business and transfers it to others).”
Both statements are important and both statements are just false. It’s not difficult to show why.
First, some government actions make jobs possible that would not exist, absent those actions. Bear with me.
Suppose I have a large field of good bottom land. From this land I can easily grow a crop of corn sufficient to feed my family, and our poultry, and our pig, Gaspard. I grow a little more to make pretty good whiskey. I have no reason to grow more corn than this. I forgot to tell you: This is 1820 in eastern Ohio. Now, the government uses taxes (money taken from me and from others under threat of violence, to be sure) to dig and build a canal that links me and others to the growing urban centers of New York and Pennsylvania. I decide to plant more corn, for sale back East. This growth in my total production works so well that I expand again. Soon, I have to hire a field hand to help me out. After a while, I have two employees.
In the historically realistic situation I describe, would it not be absurd to declare that the government gets no credit, zero credit for the two new jobs? Sure, absent government tax-supported initiative, canals may have been built as private endeavors and with private funds. In the meantime, denying that the government contributed to the creation of two new jobs in the story above is not true to fact.
Second, it should be obvious that government provides many services, beginning with mail delivery. Also, some of the services private companies supply in this country are provided elsewhere by a branch of government. They are comparable. This fact allows for an estimation of the economic value of the relevant government services. Emergency services, ambulance service, is a case in point. Most ambulances are privately owned and operated in the US while most ambulances are government-owned and operated in France. If you have a serious car accident in the US, you or someone calls a certain number and an ambulance arrives to administer first aid and to carry you to a hospital if needed. Exactly the same thing happens in France under similar circumstances. (The only difference is that, in France, the EM guy immediately hands you a shot of good cognac. OK, it’s not true; I am kidding.)
In both countries, the value of the service so rendered is entered into the national accounting and it does in fact appear in the American Gross Domestic Product for the year (GDP) and in the French GDP, respectively. The GDP of each country thus increases by something like $500 each time an ambulance is used. Incidentally, the much decried GDP is important because it’s the most common measure of the value of our collective production. One version of GDP (“PPP”) is roughly comparable between countries. When the GDP is up by 3,5 % for a year, it makes every American who knows it, happy; also some who don’t know it. When the GDP shrinks by 1%, we all worry and we all feel poorer. If the GDP change shrinks below zero for two consecutive quarters, you have the conventional definition of a recession and all hell breaks lose, including usually a rise in unemployment.
Exactly the same is true in France. The government-provided French ambulance service has exactly the same effect on the French GDP.
Now think of this: Is there anyone who believes that the equivalent service supplied in France by a government agency does not have more or less the same value as the American service provided by a private company? Would anyone argue that the ambulance service supplied in France, in most ways identical to the service in America, should not be counted in the French GDP? Clearly, both propositions are absurd.
Same thing for job creation. When the French government agency in charge of ambulances hires an additional ambulance driver, it creates a new job, same as when an American company hires an ambulance driver.
By the way, don’t think my story trivial. “Services” is a poorly defined category. It’s even sometimes too heterogeneous to be useful (not “erogenous,” please pay attention). It includes such disparate things as waitressing, fortune-telling, university teaching, and doing whatever Social Security employees do. Yet it’s good enough for gross purposes. Depending on what you include, last year “services” accounted for something between 45% and 70% of US GDP. So, if you think services, such as ambulance service, should not be counted, you should know that it means that we are earning collectively about half to three quarters less than we think we do. If memory serves, that means that our standard of living today is about the same as it was in 1950 or even in 1930.
Does this all imply that we should rejoice every time the government expands? The answer is “No,” for three reasons. These three reasons however should only show up after we have resolved the issue described above, after we have convinced ourselves that government does provide service and that it and does create real jobs, directly and indirectly. Below are the three questions that correspond to the three reasons why conservatives should still not rejoice when government enlarges its scope. Conservatives should ask these three questions over and over again:
1 Is this service a real service to regular people or is it created only, or largely, to serve the needs of those who provide it, or for frivolous reasons? Some government services fall into this area, not many, I think. Look in the direction of government control, inspection, verification functions. Don’t forget your local government.
Often, the answer to this question is not clear or it is changing. Public primary and secondary education looks more and more like a service provided largely or even primarily to give careers to teachers and administrators protected by powerful unions. It does not mean that the real, or the expected service, “education,” is not delivered, just that it’s often done badly by people who are not the best they could be to provide that particular service; also people who are difficult or impossible to replace.
2 Is this particular service better provided by government or by the private sector? Is it better provided by government although the provision of the service requires collecting taxes and then paying out the proceeds to the actual civil servants through a government bureaucracy? That’s a very indirect way to go about anything, it would seem. That’s enough reason to be skeptical. The indirectness of the route between collecting the necessary funds and their being paid out to providers should often be enough to make government service more expensive than private, market-driven equivalent services. Note that the statement is credible even if every government employee involved is a model of efficiency.
The US Post Office remains the best example of a situation where one would say the private sector can do it better.
Only conservatives dare pose this question with respect to services one level of government or other has been supplying for a long time or forever. The Post Office is inefficient; if it were abolished, the paper mail would be delivered, faster or cheaper, or both. Some paper mail would not be delivered anymore. Many more of us would count it a blessing than the reverse. While there is a broad consensus across the political spectrum that children should be educated at collective expense, there is growing certitude that governments should not be in the business of education. In many parts of the country, the public schools are both expensive and bad. Last time I looked, Washington DC was spending over $20,000 per pupil per year. Give me half that amount and half the students or better will come out knowing how to read, I say. (It’s not the case now.)
3 This is the most serious question and the most difficult to answer concretely: Does the fact that this service is provided by government (any level) have any negative effect on our liberties? This is a separate question altogether. It may be that the government’s supply of a particular service is both inefficient and dangerous to freedom. It may be however that government supply is the most efficient solution possible and yet, I don’t want it because it threatens my freedom. As a conservative, I believe that my money is my money. I am free to use it to buy inefficiently, in order to preserve liberty, for example. I am not intellectually obligated to be “pragmatic” and short sighted.
To take an example at random, if someone showed me, demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt, that Obamacare would reduce the cost of health care without impairing its quality, if that happened, I would still be against it because of the answer I would give to the third and last question above.
I don’t want a any government bureaucracy to make decisions that are ultimately decisions of life and death on my behalf. The possibility of blackmail is too real. Even thinking about it is likely to make some citizens more docile than they otherwise would be. So much power about such real issues must have a chilling effect on the many.
The rule of thumb is this: Every expansion of government reduces individual freedom. That’s true even if this expansion creates and efficient and effective government agency, say, a real good Post Office we don’t even know how to dream of. And this is not an abstract view. The well-intentioned and in other ways laudable recognition of homosexual marriage was followed in short order by threats and fines against a hapless baker who declined to bake a cake for a gay wedding. We must keep in mind at all times that, of course, the power to fine, like the power to tax, is the power to destroy.
An efficient but ethically objectionable government service is not something I worry much about, in the case of Obamacare specifically, by the way. It is inefficient, ineffective and dangerous to individual liberty all at once.
Conservatives don’t do enough to proclaim that their opposition to big government has an ethical basis, that it’s a moral position independent of the quality of big government. This silence makes if easy for liberals to caricature conservatives as just selfish grouches who don’t want to pay taxes.
Most of the time, I don’t want to pay taxes because I don’t want to be forced. I would gladly give away twice the amount of my taxes if there were a way to do it voluntarily instead of paying taxes.
I am so opposed to this kind of force that I think even the undeserving and obscenely rich should not be despoiled by the government. It’s an ethical position, not a pragmatic one. And, it sure cannot be called “selfish.” (WTF!)
The recent Carrier deal has caused some controversies in liberty-oriented circles. For example, The Mises Institute published a defense of the deal, arguing (along other lines, please read the article yourself):
there is nothing inherently wrong with an administration focused on keeping jobs in America — especially if this is accomplished by relieving tax and regulatory burdens.
The point I wish to make here is a general point, so I won’t go into the specifics of the Carrier deal. Among other reasons: I don’t know the specifics of the deal (I don’t know the content and I don’t know how the deal came to pass.) What I wish to do here is to argue the general case on how to view these kinds of tax exceptions.
The point we ought to remember, I think, is that there are a trade offs between two important liberal values, although they are important in different ways. On the one hand, we have the idea of rule of law, the idea that the law is general, not specific, applies to everyone rather than some, and that it’s not designed to favor some because it should serve an open-ended order. Things that contribute to such a legal order are ipso facto prima facie good, things that take away from such a legal order are ipso facto prima facie bad.
On the other hand we have the idea that taxes are bad. Things that lower taxes are prima facie good, things that increase taxes are prima facie bad.
But neither of these things trump all other considerations. Let me give you two examples.
- Suppose there was a law that said that the taxes on, for example, business started by family members of politicians are automatically exempted from taxes. Would this be a good law?
- Suppose there was a law that said that everyone has to be drafted and has to serve mandatory military service overseas, except the family members of politicians. Again: would this be a good law?
In both of these questions, the answer depends on the liberty-inspired framework you use to answer the question. If you think the value of the rule of law outweighs the value of individual liberty of those family members (who are, after all, not responsible for the actions of their political family members) than you think these are bad laws. If you think the increase in individual liberty for those family members is more important than the violation of a rule of law principle, than you think these are good laws. My point is not to say how one should determine this, my point is that there are two liberty-inspired frameworks that can justify an outcome, and both of these frameworks are relevant in determining what kind of laws we ought to support.
To make the issue slightly more applicable: is the increased damage on the rule of law (created by allowing a specific exception on the general laws on taxes) larger or smaller than the benefits that allow a company to have less taxes?
Some people have tried to argue by analogy – for example, comparing it to the draft. The problem is that analogies quickly run into the problem of changing the relative values of the two important concepts. For example: is it a good thing that women are exempted from the draft? Yes, this seems like obviously a good thing. Would it be a good thing that male children of politicians would be automatically exempted from the draft? This seems like less obviously a good thing.
Would it be a good thing if white people were automatically exempted from the draconian drug laws? Maybe it would, but maybe that also lowers the chance of getting rid of the drug laws altogether. Different margins matter in these kinds of evaluations.
The wrong thing to think is that all policies are pro tanto good just because they increase liberty on some margin for some people, especially if this allows for the prolonging of bad policies by the current ruling class. Some policies can be bad on some margins and good on others and reasonable people can disagree whether the complete net effect of this is good for all.
Maybe it’s a good thing that some people are exempted from evil laws (such as taxes), but it’s not good that the political class gets to choose who does so. Because those who will be exempted will be those who are connected to the political class. So one can absolutely like lower taxes, oppose politicians’ power to choose who is exempted and oppose that, and still be happy for a company that they got a tax cut. (Unless, of course, the company itself is evil. This is certainly possible if they are partners in, for example, the wars that the USA commits.)
So tl;dr. As I posted somewhere on facebook:
Rule of law and lower taxes are two good things. A president (or important person connected to the ruling class such as the president elect) getting to pick and choose winners isn’t desirable, but a tax break is. A higher tax isn’t desirable, but a rule of law is.
Trying to argue the case based on principle seems wrong. It depends on the margins. In the case of the draft, the margin *against* rule of law seems important enough to say it’s a clear victory for liberty to not have women included.
In the case of tax breaks, this is less obvious and reasonable people can come out on different sides of this, I think.