Deep Learning and Abstract Orders

It is well known that Friedrich Hayek once rejoiced at Noam Chomsky’s evolutionary theory of language, which stated that the faculty of speaking depends upon a biological device which human beings are enabled with. There is no blank slate and our experience of the world relies on structures that come from the experience in itself.

Hayek would be now delighted if he were told about the recent discoveries on the importance of background knowledge in the arms race between human beings and Artificial Intelligence. When decisions are to be taken by trial and error at the inside of a feedback system, humans are still ahead because they apply a framework of abstract patterns to interpret the connections among the different elements of the system. These patterns are acquired from previous experiences in other closed systems and provide with a semantic meaning to the new one. Thus, humans outperform machines, which work as blank slates, since they take information only from the closed system.

The report of the cited study finishes with the common place of asking what would happen if some day machines learn to handle with abstract patterns of a higher degree of complexity and, then, keep up with that human relative advantage.

As we stated in another place, those abstract machines already exist and they are the legal codes and law systems that enable their users with a set of patterns to interpret controversies concerning human behaviour.

What is worth being asked is not whether Artificial Intelligence eventually will surpass human beings, but what group of individuals will overcome the other: the one which uses technology or the one which refuses to do so.

The answer seems quite obvious when the term “technology” is related to concrete machines, but it is not so clear when we apply it to abstract devices. I tried to ponder the latter problem when I outlined an imaginary arms race between policy wonks and lawyers.

Now, we can extend these concepts to whole populations. Which of these nations will prevail over the other ones: the countries whose citizens are enabled with a set of abstract rules to based their decisions on (the rule of law) or the despotic countries, ruled by the whim of men?

The conclusion to be drawn is quite obvious when we are confronted with a so polarised question. Nevertheless, the problem becomes more subtle when the disjunction concerns on rule of law vs deliberate central planning.

The rule of law is the supplementary set of abstract patterns of conduct that gives sense to the events of the social reality in order to interpret human social action, including the political authority.

In the case of central planning, those abstract patterns are replaced by a concrete model of society whose elements are defined by the authority (after all, that is the main function of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan).

Superficially considered, the former – the rule of law as an abstract machine – is irrational while the latter – the Leviathan’s central planning – seems to respond to a rational construction of the society. Our approach states that, paradoxically, the more abstract is the order of a society, the more rational are the decisions and plans that the individuals undertake, since they are based on the supplementary and general patterns provided by the law, whereas central planning offers to the individuals a poorer set of concrete information, which limits the scope of the decisions to those to be based on expediency.

That is why we like to state that law is spontaneous. Not because nobody had created it -in fact, someone did – but because law stands by itself the test of time as the result of an evolutionary process in which populations following the rule of law outperform the rival ones.



  1. The NLRB-Damore Memo Ken White, Popehat
  2. Justice Sotomayor on legislative history Jonathan H Adler, Volokh Conspiracy
  3. Bad legal news from China Scott Sumner, EconLog
  4. Hobbesians vs. Rechtsstaaters Federico Sosa Valle, NOL

Law and Liberty: Hobbesians vs Rechtsstaaters

Individual freedoms are tethered to law, but in what sense? We could call Hobbesian the insight into law and liberty which states that norms are addressed by the sovereign power to the individuals. The Sovereign is the only one who prescribes the law, being the individuals subject to the legal obligation. Even the limitations to the power of the government in the face of fundamental rights – such as the Due Process – are not expressed in terms of limits to the sovereign power but of commands to the public servants: for example, the imprisonment of an individual without accomplishing the legal standards of Due Process allows the government’s agents to punish their unlawful colleagues. The law is always addressed, in the last resort, to an individual by the State.

Proponents of individual liberty thus advocate equality before the law, which means simply “only one state for everyone,” or “individual rights before the state.” Examples include the said guarantee of Due Process, or a system of check and balances among the branches of the government as safeguards against arbitrary coercion by the State. However, they all have a severe difficulty in defending individual liberties without recourse to an extra-system concept, such as natural law, moral duties, or political statements. The emphasis in formal legal procedures would be the utmost in coherence between liberalism and Hobbesianism, but it is easy to slide from procedures that protect individual legal rights to devices assuring the enforcement of the law – which has the individual as its last subject. It seems it is hard to restrain oneself from invoking metaphysical rights when it comes time to advocate individual liberty.

Nevertheless, it should not be surprising that every limit to political power of the State over the individual depends on metaphysical notions, since it is a tenet of the Hobbesian insight that the power of the State is absolute. Moreover, the Minimal State – a true effort to advocate individual liberty without resting on metaphysical notions – owes to Thomas Hobbes its main inspiration.

Historical evidence suggests, however, that in the relation among power, law and liberty is the other way round. The development of common law in England and the phenomenon of the reception of the Roman law in Continental Europe show that law is not necessarily created ex nihilo by the State. The State could provide enforcement to a given system of law, as it is shown in the book System of the Modern Roman Law (System des heutigen Römischen Rechts), by F. K. v. Savigny. Moreover, the States could adapt legal notions originating in private law to elaborate procedures to follow in the public sphere. The principle “venire contra factum proprium non valet” was born in private law and today is a guarantee to the individual against the arbitrary action of the State.

This is the process of rationalization of power described by Max Weber, the German concept of Rechtsstaat or the widely known concept of “Rule of Law.” In that process of rationalization, lawyers outshone the sages, the mandarins, and the humanists in the administration of public affairs by incorporating legal procedures and principles taken from private law. There might be differences among these concepts and historical events, but their common invariances allows us to get the gist.

There is, also, an evolutionary case for the relative advantages of a Rechtsstaat over the notion of sovereignty. In the former the decisions are principle-based while in the latter they are mostly taken by expediency. Since the said principle of venire contra factum proprium non valet and other legal procedures constrain rulers’ whims, government actions are more rational, in the sense of transitivity of preferences.

Thus, in the long run, the performance of the Rule of Law is higher than the Rule of Men. Lawyers outshine mandarins in government posts and, in turn, governments run by lawyers outperform governments run by mandarins. One device to switch from a given form of State to another one is, for example, immigration: people flock to countries where the Rule of Law prevails.

What we have called the Hobbesian insight into Law and Liberty is tied up with the definition of liberty as power. Thus, the equation of law and liberty becomes a zero-sum game: the more state, the less individual liberty, and the less state, the more individual liberty. On the other hand, the definition of individual liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion engages with the concept of Rule of Law: to substitute principles for expediency reduces arbitrary coercion and, thus, enlarges individual liberty.

Does this Rechtsstaat insight into Law and Liberty dissolve the question about the dimensions of the State? Not at all. But it provides a more strategic view: a big State will demand more decisions to be taken on expediency. A small state will provide two advantages to the enjoyment of individual liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion: more decisions based on principles and a larger space for the law to evolve by its own and discover new legal principles in response to the constant changes in the society.

But even if the conclusions might be the same (a smaller State), the two insights carry within them a set of premises that ineluctably will unravel by themselves when it comes the time of a deeper controversy. Then, the Hobbesian Insight will present the disjunction between Minimal State and metaphysical boundaries to the absolute power of the State. The Rechtsstaat strain, instead, will provide a humbler but subtler position.

What if we have already been ruled by an Intelligent Machine – and we are better off being so?

Common people and even reputed scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, have been worrying about the very menace of machines provided with Artificial Intelligence that could rule the whole human genre in detriment of our liberty and welfare. This fear has two inner components: the first one, that the Artificial Intelligence will outshine human intellectual capabilities; and the second one, that the Intelligent Machines will be endowed with their own volition.

Obviously, it would be an evil volition or, at least, a very egotistic one. Or maybe the Intelligent Machines will not necessarily be evil or egotistic, but only as fearful of humans as they are of machines – although more powerful. Moreover, depending on their morality on a multiplicity of reasonings we cannot grasp, we could not ascertain whether their superior intelligence (as we suppose the feared machines would be enabled with) is good or evil, or just more complex than ours.

Nevertheless, there is still a additional third assumption which accompanies all the warnings about the perils of thinking machines: that they are a physical shell inhabited by an Artificial Intelligence. Inspired by Gilbert Ryle’s critique of Cartesian Dualism, we can state that the belief of Intelligent Machines provided with an autonomous volition rests upon the said assumption of an intelligence independent from its physical body: a self-conscious being whose thoughts are fully independent from the sensory apparatus of its body and whose sensations are fully independent from the abstract classification which its mind operates by.

The word “machine” evokes a physical device. However, a machine might as well be an abstract one. Abstract Machines are thought experiments compounded by algorithms which delivers an output from an input of information which, in turn, could be used as an input for another circuit. Theses algorithms can emulate a decision making process, providing a set of consequences for a given set of antecedents.

In fact, all recent cybernetic innovations are the result of the merging of abstract machines with physical ones: machines that play chess, drive cars, recognize faces, etc.. Since they do not have an autonomous will and the sensory data they produce are determined by their algorithms, whose output, in turn, depends on the limitation of their hardware, people are reluctant to call their capabilities “real intelligence.” Perhaps the reason of that reluctance is that people are expecting automata which accomplish the Cartesian Dualism paradigm of a thinking being.

But what if an automaton enabled with an intelligence superior to ours has already existed and is ruling at least part of our lives? We do not know of any being of that kind, if for a ruling intelligent machine we regard a self-conscious and will-driven one. But the ones who are acquainted with the notion of law as a spontaneous and abstract order will not find any major difficulty to grasp the analogy between the algorithms that form an abstract machine and general and abstract laws that compound a legal system.

The first volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty by Friedrich A. Hayek, subtitled “Norms [Rules] and Order” (1973), is until today the most complete account of the law seen as an autonomous system, which adapts itself to the changes in its environment through a process of negative feedback that brings about marginal changes in its structure. Abstract and general notions of rights and duties are well-known by the agents of the system and that allows to everyone to form expectations about the behaviour of each other. When a conflict between two agents arises, a judge establishes the correct content of the law to be applied to the given case.

Notwithstanding our human intelligence -using its knowledge about the law- is capable of determining the right decision to each concrete controversy between two given agents, the system of the law as whole achieves a higher degree of complexity than any human mind might reach. Whereas our knowledge of a given case depends on acquiring more and more concrete data, our knowledge of the law as a whole is related to more and more abstract degrees of classifications. Thus, we cannot fully predict the complete chain of consequences of a singular decision upon the legal system as a whole. This last characteristic of the law does not mean its power of coercion is arbitrary. As individuals, we are enabled with enough information about the legal system to design our own plans and to form correct expectations about other people’s behaviour. Thus, legal constraints do not interfere with individual liberty.

On the other hand, the absolute boundary to the knowledge of the legal system as a whole works as a limitation to the political power over the law and, thence, over individuals. But, after all, that is what the concept of rule of law is about: we are much better off being ruled by an abstract and impersonal entity, more complex than the human mind, than by the self-conscious -but discretional- rule of man. Perhaps, law is not at all an automaton which rules our lives, but we can ascertain that law -as a spontaneous order- prevents other men from doing so.

Lunchtime Links

  1. oil and Kurdistan
  2. after Raqqa, Iraq’s army turns on Kurdistan
  3. “There has been a common and unfortunate tendency among many analysts and policy makers to underestimate the strength of Iraqi nationalism”
  4. separatist movements in Europe don’t actually want independence
  5. GREAT topic, but poor methodology, poor theory, poor use of data, and bad faith
  6. meh (try this book review instead)
  7. Law without the State [pdf]

Freedom of Conscience and the Rule of Law

Of course the concept of “freedom of conscience” was forged in Europe by Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, and many other philosophers. But the freedom of conscience as an individual right that belongs to set of characteristics which defines the rule of law is an American innovation, which later spread to Latin America and to the Old Continent.

This reflection comes from the dispute which has been aroused in Notes On Liberty about the Protestant Reformation and freedom of conscience. Now, my intention is not to mediate between Mark and Bruno, but to bring to the Consortium a new line of debate. What I would like to polemize is what defines which rights to be protected by the rule of law. In this sense, might we regard a political regime that bans freedom of conscience as based on the rule of law? I am sure that no one would dare to do so. But, instead, would anyone dare to state that unification of language in a given country hurts the rule of law? I am afraid that almost nobody would.

Nevertheless, this is a polemical question. For example, the current Catalan independence movement has the language of Catalan as one of its main claims, so tracing the genealogy of the rights that constitutes the concept of rule of law is a meaningful task —and this is why the controversy over the Protestant Reformation and the origin of Freedom of Conscience at NOL is so interesting.

Before the Protestant Reformation, the theological, philosophical, scientific, and political language of Europe was unified in Latin. On the other hand, the languages used by the common people were utterly fragmented. A multiplicity of dialects were spoken all over Europe. The Catholic Kings of Spain, for example, unified their kingdom under the same religion, but they did not touch the local dialects. A very similar situation might be found in the rest of Europe: kingdoms with one religion and several dialects.

There was a strong reason for this to be so. Before the Medieval Ages Bibles in vernacular had existed, but the literacy rate was so low that the speed of evolution and fragmentation of the dialects left those translations obsolete and incomprehensible. Since printing books was extremely costly (this was before the invention of  the printing press), the best language to write and print books and constitutional documents was Latin.

The Evangelical movement, emerged out of the Protestant Reformation, meant that final authority of religion was not the Papacy any more but the biblical text. What changed was the coordination problem. Formerly, the reference was the local bishop, who was linked to the Bishop of Rome. (Although with the Counter-Reformation, in some cases, like Spain, the bishops were appointed by the king, a privilege obtained in exchange for remaining loyal to the Pope). On the other hand, in the Reformation countries, the text of the Bible as final authority on theological matters demanded the full command of an ability not so extended until that moment: literacy.

It is well-known that the Protestant Reformation and the invention of printing expanded the translations of the Bible into the vernacular. But always goes completely unnoticed that by that time the concept of a national language hardly existed. In the Reformist countries the consolidation of a national language was determined by the particular vernacular which was chosen to translate the Bible into.

Evidently, the extension of a common language among the subjects of a given kingdom had reported great benefits to its governance, since the tendency was followed by the monarchies of France and Spain. The former extended the Parisian French over the local patois and, in Spain of the XVIII Century, the Bourbon Reforms imposed Castilian as the national Spanish language. The absolute kings, who each of them had inherited a territory unified by a single religion, sowed the seeds of national states aggregated by a common language. Moreover, Catholicism became more dependent on absolute kings than on Rome —and that is why Bruno finds some Catholics arguing for the separation of Church from the state.

Meanwhile, in the New World, the Thirteen Colonies were receiving the European immigration mostly motivated on the lack of religious tolerance in their respected countries of origin. The immigrants arrived carrying with them all kind of variances of Christian confessions and developed new and unexpected ones. All those religions and sects had a common reference: the King James Bible.

My thesis is that it was the substitution of religion for language as the factor of cohesion and mechanism of social control that made possible the development of the freedom of conscience. The political power left what was inside of the mind of their subjects a more economical device: language. Think what you wish, believe what you wish, read what you wish, write what you wish, say what you wish, as long as I understand what you do and you can understand what I mean.

Moreover, an official language became a tool of accountability and a means of knowing the rights and duties of an individual before the state. The Magna Carta (1215) was written in Medieval Latin while the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), in English. Both documents were written in the language that was regarded as proper in their respective time. Nevertheless, the language which is more convenient to the individual for the defense of his liberties is quite obvious.

Often, the disputes over the genealogy of rights and institutions go around two poles: ideas and matter. I think it is high time to go along the common edge of both of them: the unintended consequences, the “rural nomos,” the complex phenomena. In this sense, but only in this sense, tracing the genealogy – or, better, the “nomology” – of the freedom of conscience as an intended trait of the concept of “rule of law” is worth our efforts.

On the trade off between the rule of law and lower taxes

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.