The Blind Invisible Hand

Kevin recently wrote a post that really tickled my brain. It touches on the computational aspect of entrepreneurship. There are a couple points I’d like to follow up on.

First I’d argue that the uncertain entrepreneur is not the analog of the blind watchmaker. This is a minor quibble, but I think it’s good to keep our language tidy and that includes clarifying our metaphors. The Blind Watchmaker is a perfect metaphor for the emergent order in markets. But the watch is the market as a whole. Any one entrepreneur is just a tiny component of the system–potentially an ingenious component, but always dwarfed by the genius of the system as a whole. The watch maker in biology is the process of evolution. In markets, the closest idea we have is the invisible hand–also an evolutionary process.

Second and more importantly, I’d like to poke at the genetic component of the metaphor to show how much harder social evolution is than biological evolution.

Evolution is a process that acts on the substrate of “replicators”. DNA replicates (in genes) and so do ideas/jokes/norms/etc. (in memes). I guess we could just say “a business model is a type of meme!” and be done with it. But even thinking about what Internet jokes spread means stepping away from the abstract genetic alphabet of strings of A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s.

The replicators of entrepreneurial evolution occur at more than one level (as I understand it, the idea of multi-level selection is controversial in biology, but inevitable here): little patterns of behavior make up larger patterns. A burger restaurant is sort of like a buffalo. And the business model (e.g. McDonald’s franchise) is sort of like the species as a whole or perhaps something even broader. All the various ways to market burgers compete across a range of niches, but we don’t have a literal genetic code to analyze. We might, hypothetically, be able to isolate the appropriate atomic unit of economic life, but I’m skeptical it would be terribly useful (at least for human understanding).

Still, what entrepreneurial and biological evolution have in common is that they are, fundamentally, complex sets of computations (in out-of-equilbrium systems) on a non-silicon medium. Entrepreneurs indeed face a different situation than genes, but that’s only because they’re dealing with multiple (tangled) layers of evolution spanning large scale things like:

  • human culture,
  • legal systems,
  • economic patterns and business models,

through medium-scale things like the particular landscape of a particular market at a given time and place, down to micro things like the particular ISO specifications of some particular size of bolt.

It’s true that “unlike evolution, you…are trying to achieve something beyond replication…” as an entrepreneur. But at the end of the day a) your apparently high minded goals are really just their own evolving and replicating memes, and b) your apparently high minded goals are really just setting the stage for the atomic unit of evolution that really matters: the proper size and shape of a paperclip. It’s like Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene: It’s not really the organism (entrepreneur) that matters, it’s the gene (atomic unit of whatever sort of evolution).

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.

Nightcap

  1. A great primer on Derrida’s “deconstruction” David Gunkel, MIT Press Review
  2. Is feudalism going to make a comeback? Adam Wakeling, Quillette
  3. Yet another reason why libertarians should embrace federation as a foreign policy War on the Rocks
  4. Hunter-gatherers in outer space Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon

Nightcap

  1. Soviet science fiction magazines Winnie Lee, Atlas Obscura
  2. The truth about Area 51 Matt Blitz, Popular Mechanics
  3. If aliens contact us, we won’t understand William Herkewitz, Astronomy
  4. Adapted aliens Robin Hanson, Cato Unbound

Nightcap

  1. China looks like the big winner in new trade negotiations Scott Sumner, MoneyIllusion
  2. Where does the Asian obsession with white skin come from? Ana Salvá, the Diplomat
  3. On Steven Pinker and The Blank Slate Arnold Kling, askblog
  4. In American higher education, hierarchy begets hierarchy Ethan Ris, JHIBlog

Nightcap

  1. David Graeber’s poor grasp of economics Scott Sumner, EconLog
  2. Is capitalism a threat to democracy? Caleb Crain, New Yorker
  3. When did we start talking about life from elsewhere? Caleb Scharf, Scientific American
  4. Russia or California? Conservatives in 2020 John Quiggin, Crooked Timber

Nightcap

  1. The conservative revolutionary and the archaic progressive Arnold Kling, Medium
  2. Epistemological anarchism to anarchism Bill Rein, NOL
  3. Against adaptation Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. Evolutionary drift Federico Sosa Valle, NOL

Nightcap

  1. Can Ottoman nostalgia be a good thing? Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books
  2. Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism Barry Stocker, NOL
  3. What is global history? One good answer (and one not so good answer) Krishan Kumar, Times Literary Supplement
  4. The world without the moon Caleb Scharf, Life, Unbounded

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 4); Malthus and Darwin: population analysis and evolution

The institutional evolutionism has a history before Darwin, parallel to it and even later divergent. In parallel, Darwin for the elaboration of his concept of natural selection took from the political economy the notion of population analysis by Robert Malthus, the one that also comes from the analysis of the institutions as a framework of incentives. At the time Malthus sought to refute the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, who proposed abolishing marriage as a social institution. Mindful that the extra-marital children lacked at that time fewer rights than those born in marriage, Malthus replied that such a measure would lead to an exponential growth of the population and, therefore, marriage as an institution fulfilled the containment function of population growth. A similar analysis makes Malthus of the laws of poor: aid to the poor increases the cost of food, which generates more poor, assuming the dynamics of a vicious circle. The judgments of Malthus have an empirical character that makes them susceptible of refutation, it can be verified if Malthus was right or wrong. However, what has an abstract, methodological, propaedeutic character is its population analysis. That is what Darwin took to conceive natural selection processes and that today can be used in the analysis of institutional evolution.

When one speaks of a political, economic, or social institution displacing another, such movement becomes effective at the level of the populations. For example, literacy and accounting applied to business administration generates a leap in efficiency in the administration and auditing of businesses. It is not surprising that literate traders who carry inventory and accounting processes displace illiterate traders. This is how literacy and accounting can be extended without any central political decision, nor any disruptive phenomenon. (Of course, the modern state, in its process of rationalization, can impose the obligatory nature of certain principles of accounting or schooling, but not necessarily depend on it.)

To a large extent, the arrival of European immigration to South America in the second half of the 19th century consisted in the importation of habits, practices and techniques that immigrants already incorporated. It is widely known the arrival of new techniques of field work and breeding and care of livestock. Also many immigrants who arrived implemented inventory practices and cash management that were leaking into the rest of the population.

William Easterly characterizes this phenomenon as a leaking of knowledge. Following the example of the previous paragraph: those immigrants were more competitive because they brought with them new techniques of rationalization of time, they took inventories and accounted for income and expenditure of funds methodically. This advantage translated into prosperity and expansion of their businesses. However, in order to implement this type of “technology” they must necessarily share it with their collaborators. There is in these collaborators an incorporation of human capital through what Gary Becker called “on-the-job training”: a learning of how to work at a general level (to arrive at schedule, to concentrate on the task, to meet deadlines) and also at a particular level (particular techniques of sowing, raising livestock, managing a certain inventory system). Human capital is a set of habits and practices that “travels” incorporated in each “apprentice”. In this way, the entrepreneur can finance himself by paying part of the compensation to the dependent in kind: the training. On the other hand, there is the phenomenon characterized by Easterly as “leakage of knowledge”. This knowledge is transmitted, migrated, from person to person. To the extent that it reports a greater utility to its “bearer” it is expanding, extending, throughout the social fabric, often not as a deliberate education, but as an unintended consequence of the use of such knowledge, which, for can be put into practice, needs the help of more than one person.

It is in this sense that what evolve are the practices and habits, in this case of work and business. It is extended by its incorporation by individuals who adopt them, often involuntarily, either through the incorporation of guidelines from their place of work, or through imitation or emulation. Following the terminology of evolutionism, practices and habits are the unit of evolution and the people who incorporate their replicators. A practice or habit is more successful to the extent that it extends into the population. In turn, the populations carrying practices and habits more adapted to the environment will extend them to others.

[Editor’s note: You can find Part 3 of this essay here, and you find the full essay here.]

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 3): Evolutionary drift

The affirmation that one should not judge the historical past with current values ​​forms a topic as widespread as the disobedience to it. However, a conscious exercise of the evaluative critique of the past allows us to identify continuities and disruptions in institutional patterns, i.e., in systems of incentives that are considered legitimate, whether by virtue of a question of social utility or principles.

Caste systems are obvious examples in which a differentiated attribution of rights, that is to say the legal protection of the interests of individuals assigned to a certain ethnic group, was interpreted as legitimate because it was a matter of principle.

While a caste is defined by an ethnic component, or at least with respect to its physiognomic marker, in the status system the ethnic differences lose preponderance, to transfer it to the different private orders or privileges that determine a function within the society. In both cases, both in the system of castes and status, it should be noted that they not only define privileges for its members but mainly establish obligations: war, worship or field work, for example. While the cult is reserved for a certain caste, in the status societies the cult is an institutionalized function, an order, whose members fulfilled certain procedures of admission and permanence.

In any case, beyond the similarities and differences in the systems of castes and status, what matters in this case is to emphasize that such attributions of rights and obligations, that is, of legal protection of interests, collective or particular, do not respond to a question of social utility but of principles. In the first place, because in such societies the power is fragmented and therefore there is no central power that can perform a critical judgment on the social utility of a given system of incentives; at the most, if there is a king, he assumes a role of primus inter pares, an arbitrator between castes or statuses or protector of order.

The emergence of central governments demanded the emergence of stable bureaucracies supported by a tax system to be systematized in a public accounting, that is, a calculation of utility. On the other hand, the incorporation of abstract procedures from private law to the administration of the government, displacing the systems of sages, mandarins, humanists, etc., allowed a better centralization and control and rational administrative decisions. However, what is important to note here is that such institutional innovations did not necessarily depend on a disruptive change, such as a revolution, but that many cases occurred through an evolutionary process, in which more efficient institutions displaced obsolete ones.

The emergence of central governments replaced fragmented political and social systems, because centralization allows a calculation of utility in decision making, which yields better results -not always but most of the time- than a decision system based mainly on honour. Most of the time but not always, since there is the possibility that, in a situation of extreme complexity, the calculation of utility has a wide margin of error and, in contrast, in such situations, a pattern of decisions based on emotions, traditions, or moral principles work as a kind of heuristic better adapted to the circumstances. After all, for the calculation of utility to be viable, it must have tools such as an accounting system, a literate bureaucracy, an abstract procedural system, among others. If you do not have such means, hardly a decision based on utilitarian issues is far from whimsical and arbitrary. Faced with such cases, traditional structures could be more efficient.

Another issue to consider is not to be confused between the rationalization of political power in a central administration – public budgets and control of their execution, a neutral and efficient tax system, administrative decisions of a particular nature adopted according to abstract and general procedures – with the rationalization of each subsystem of society and even of the individual in particular.

It is true that, as indicated by Max Weber, the bureaucratization of political power leads to the gradual bureaucratization of the rest of society: the generalization of the same accounting system for all companies, in order to verify compliance with tax obligations, the public instruction of the whole population, to name a few examples. These processes of rationalization are extremely beneficial and generate a jump in productivity. This is what William Easterly, in his work The Quest for Economic Growth, highlights as a phenomenon in which knowledge leaks and spreads throughout society. In this way the relations of complementarity generated by the knowledge shared with the rest of the individuals that make up a given community are much more important than the substitution effect could give an advantage to a single possessor of such knowledge. For example, having knowledge of accounting represents an advantage over the competition, but that all companies are organized according to reasonable and homogeneous accounting principles allows a jump in productivity throughout the system that yields even greater individual profits. Likewise, not only the leaking of knowledge is beneficial for all members of society, but reached a point is inevitable.

However, this does not mean that a rationalization of the society as a whole and of the individuals that compose it is necessarily possible or desirable; much less that such process is directed from a central political power. A process of compulsive and totalizing rationalization is not always modernizing. Both in biological and cultural terms, the evolution occurs in the margins, it is the mutations of small isolated populations that allow them to adapt to changes in the environment.

Moreover, the totalizing political systems, which not only seek to define from a central power each one of the functions of the social subsystems in function of a supposed calculation of utility, also seek to build a notion of “citizenship” that stifles the sphere of autonomy that defines each individual with civic obligations. Such conceptions are the first to see the processes of innovation and creative destruction and any individual initiative as dangerous. Thus, by cutting off all possible adaptation to changes in circumstances, by mutilating all possible discoveries, it is not uncommon for such political systems to experience stagnation and be displaced by other systems more open to innovation – or at least be invaded by results of said competition, discovery and innovation processes.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 2; Here is the full essay.]

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 1): Introduction

Countries can change their course, they can turn from stagnation towards growth, as it is the case of South Korea in the last fifty years. They can also decline after a boom period. Together with other examples of successes and failures, these are indications that economic performance does not depend on geography, culture, or the education of ruling elites. Following the line expressed by other authors such as Douglass C. North (Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, 1990), William Easterly (The Elusive Quest for Growth, 2001) and Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (Why Nations Fail, 2012), it is appropriate to maintain that the economic performance of nations, expressed in their growth, depends on the incentives provided to individuals by institutional frameworks. The incentive systems -that is, the institutions- evolve, and with them the fate of the countries. But to achieve such evolution, there must first be a change in the level of commonly accepted notions about what is right and what is wrong for governments to put into practice. That is, what are the principles that should inform the legislative policy that puts into effect such institutional frameworks to order the expectations of society.

[Editor’s note: This is the first part of a new series. You can find the full essay here.]

Nightcap

  1. The strange relationship between virtue and violence Barbara King, Times Literary Supplement
  2. Nixon’s path to peace included bombing Cambodia Rick Brownell, Medium
  3. The suboptimality of the nation-state Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. The threshold of land invasion Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

Nightcap

  1. The intellectual distrust of democracy Jacob Levy, Niskanen
  2. Leave John Locke in the dustbin of history John Quiggin, Jacobin
  3. In defense of neoliberalism William Easterly, Boston Review
  4. The predated mind (our animal origins) Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

Nightcap

  1. From the pussy hat to the liberty cap Marion Coutts, 1843
  2. Sweet waters grown salty Nathan Stone, Not Even Past
  3. A case for learning to read 17th century Dutch Julie van den Hout, JHIblog
  4. A danse macabre in Kermaria (Brittany) Kenan Malik, Pandaemonium

We have seen the algorithm and it is us.

The core assumption of economics is that people tend to do the thing that makes sense from their own perspective. Whatever utility function people are maximizing, it’s reasonable to assume (absent compelling arguments to the contrary) that a) they’re trying to get what they want, and b) they’re trying their best given what they know.

Which is to say: what people do is a function of their preferences and priors.

Politicians (and other marketers) know this; the political battle for hearts and minds is older than history. Where it gets timely is the role algorithms play in the Facebookification of politics.

The engineering decisions made by Facebook, Google, et al. shape the digital bubbles we form for ourselves. We’ve got access to infinite content online and it has to be sorted somehow. What we’ve been learning is that these decisions aren’t neutral because they implicitly decide how our priors will be updated.

This is a problem, but it’s not the root problem. Even worse, there’s no solution.

Consider one option: put you and me in charge of regulating social media algorithms. What will be the result? First we’ll have to find a way to avoid being corrupted by this power. Then we’ll have to figure out just what it is we’re doing. Then we’ll have to stay on top of all the people trying to game the system.

If we could perfectly regulate these algorithms we might do some genuine good. But we still won’t have eliminated the fundamental issue: free will.

Let’s think of this through an evolutionary lens. The algorithms that survive are those that are most consistent with users’ preferences (out of acceptable alternatives). Clickbait will (by definition) always have an edge. Confirmation bias isn’t going away any time soon. Thinking is hard and people don’t like it.

People will continue to chose news options they find compelling and trustworthy. Their preferences and priors are not the same as ours and they never will be. Highly educated people have been trying to make everyone else highly educated for generations and they haven’t succeeded yet.

A better approach is to quit this “Rock the Vote” nonsense and encourage more people to opt for benign neglect. Our problem isn’t that the algorithms make people into political hooligans, it’s that we keep trying to get them involved under the faulty assumption that people are unnaturally Vulcan-like. Yes, regular people ought to be sensible and civically engaged, but ought does not imply can.