Pebble Form Ideologies

(Epistemic Status: Riffing on an interesting thought in a Facebook comments thread, mostly just speculation without any citations to actual research)

My friend Jeffrey Biles — who is an indefatigable fountainhead of interesting stuff to think about — recently posited that the modern world’s aversion to traditional religion has exerted a selection pressure on meme vectors which has led to the proliferation of religions masquerading as science, philosophy, and the like. For any given worldview — even ostensibly scientific ones like racial realism or climate change — we can all think of someone whose fervor for or against it can only be described in religious terms.

Doubtless there is something to this, but personally I’m inclined to think it’s attributable to the fact that there are religion-shaped grooves worn deep in mammalian brains, probably piggybacking on ingroup-biasing and kin-selection circuitry.

No matter how heroic an attempt is made to get people to accept an ideology on the basis of carefully-reasoned arguments and facts, over time a significant fraction of adherents end up treating it as a litmus test separating the fools from those who ‘get it’. As an ideology matures it becomes a psychological gravity well around which very powerful positive and negative emotions accrete, amplifying the religious valence it has in the hearts and minds of True Believers.

Eventually you end up with something that’s clearly substituted ‘God’ for social justice, the free market, the proletariat revolution, etc.

An important corollary of this idea is that the truth of a worldview is often orthogonal to the justifications supplied by its adherents. I’m an atheist, for example, but I don’t think I’ve ever met another atheist who has a firm grasp on the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA). Widely believed to be among the most compelling arguments for theism, it goes like this:

  1. Everything which *began* to exist has a cause;
  2. the universe began to exist;
  3. therefore, the universe has a cause;

(After this point further arguments are marshalled to try and prove that a personal creator God is the most parsimonious causal mechanism)

Despite being clearly articulated in innumerable places, atheists like Michael Shermer are still saying “but if everything has a cause then what caused God?”

If you understand the KCA then the theistic reply is straightforward: “The universe began to exist, so it has a cause, but God is outside time and thus had no beginning.” The standard atheist line, in other words, is a complete non-sequitur. Atheistic rebuttals to other religious arguments don’t fare much better, which means a majority of atheists don’t have particularly good reasons for being atheists.

This has little bearing on whether or not atheism is true, of course. But it does suggest that atheism is growing because many perceive it to be what the sensible, cool people believe, not because they’ve spent multiple evenings grappling with William Lane Craig’s Time and Eternity.

Perhaps then we should keep this in mind as we go about building and spreading ideas. Let us define the ‘pebble form’ of a worldview as being like the small, smooth stone which is left after a boulder spends eons submerged in a river — it’s whatever remains once time and compression have worn away its edges and nuances. Let us further define a “Maximally Durable Worldview” as one with certain desirable properties:

  1. the central epistemic mechanisms has the slowest decay into faith-based acceptance;
  2. the worldview is the least damaging once it becomes a pebble form (i.e. doesn’t have strong injunctions to slaughter non-believers);
  3.  …?

There’s probably an interesting connection between:

  1. how quickly a worldview spreads;
  2. how quickly it collapses into a pebble form;
  3. the kinds of pebble forms likely to result from a given memeplex rotating through a given population;

Perhaps there are people doing research on these topics? If so I’d be interested in hearing about it.

Black Lives *Do* Matter

In the wake of the recent Dallas shootings Facebook is ablaze with memes to this effect:

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The rhetoric of the BLM movement and the overall tone of their outrage leads me to believe that they consider white people, and especially white law enforcement, to be one of the single biggest threats to black people.

I don’t buy this, and I want to explain why by bracketing the data on police shootings with more general data on inter- and intra-racial homicide. Unfortunately the most recent (mostly) complete data I could find is from 2013, but I don’t think that’s a serious challenge to my thesis.

How many black people were killed by police in 2013? From killedbypolice.net [1] I count 181 black males and 7 black females killed between the months of May and December. That’s 23.5 per month, so let’s round that up to 24 and add this many deaths for the months of January, February, March, and April. That yields a total of 284 (188 + (4 x 24)).

To be safe let’s round that up to 300. And, for the sole purpose of disadvantaging my argument, I’m going to arbitrarily double that number to 600.

Bear in mind, this assumes each and every black person killed by the police in 2013 was innocent and includes those cases when the officer responsible for killing a black person was also black.

From the Expanded Homicide Data Table 6 from the FBI [2] I count 2,245 intra-racial black homicides and 189 white-on-black homicides. Let’s round the latter figure up to 200 and round the former figure down to 2,200. Again, just to disadvantage my argument.

That makes (600 blacks killed by cops) + (200 blacks killed by whites) / (2,200 blacks killed by blacks) = (800)/(2,200) = 36%.

Even when I have stacked the statistical deck against my argument in every conceivable way the total number of cop-on-black and white-on-black homicides is only a little over a third of the number of black-on-black homicides. If you remove my rounding and doubling, it’s more like 21%.

The conclusion seems inescapable: by far the single biggest threat to black people is black people. Not cops, not whites, not privilege, but other black people.

So far I haven’t found anyone who takes issue with my statistical analysis, but one objection that keeps cropping up is that none of the above is relevant because what BLM supporters are angry with is a pervasive and systemic bias against black people in modern society. When making this claim there is usually the implication, sometimes stated explicitly, that this bias is what is driving higher rates of criminality and even intra-racial homicide.

Now, my degree is in psychology. I took classes on evolutionary psychology, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, and social cognition, and have read very widely in these fields in the years since I’ve graduated because I have a deep-seated interest in improving my ability to reason. I am aware of the fact that people have a natural tendency to trust those who look like them, that biases can be unconscious and nearly impossible to perceive, and that when summed across an entire majority population can exert major pressure on a minority population.

But I have two problems with this reply. The first is that so far every Leftist with whom I’ve discussed this issue seems comfortable treating ‘systemic bias’ as though it’s a universal and totally unambiguous explanation for every interracial disparity we might observe. Not long ago a Leftist made the claim that despite similar rates in drug usage blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for drug possession. I noted that patterns of drug use could be different even while rates of drug use could be the same. That is, if black people are more likely to sell and use drugs on a street corner with their friends while whites are more likely to do so in their basement, it isn’t surprising that they’d be arrested more often.

I want to be clear here: I have no idea if this hypothesis is true or not. While I have presented this hypothetical a number of different times I have always made it clear that it is conjecture and nothing more. What disturbs me is simply that I haven’t yet encountered a Leftist who has even momentarily considered this possibility. If they observe an inter-racial difference in arrests for drug possession, white-on-black racism must be the explanation, QED.

My second problem with ‘systemic bias’ as sole explanation for intra-racial violence is that it doesn’t account for why other historically oppressed groups seem to have assimilated into modern society without astonishing amounts of violence in their communities.

The Irish and the Chinese were both exploited and reviled in the early years of their immigration to the United States. The former group had it so bad that even many ex-slaves noted that their lives were much better than those of the Irish, who were used to do work considered too dangerous or difficult for valuable slaves [4]. And Wikipedia notes that [5]:

Chinese immigrants in the 19th century worked as laborers, particularly on the transcontinental railroad, such as the Central Pacific Railroad. They also worked as laborers in the mining industry, and suffered racial discrimination at every level of society. While industrial employers were eager to get this new and cheap labor, the ordinary white public was stirred to anger by the presence of this “yellow peril“. Despite the provisions for equal treatment of Chinese immigrants in the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, political and labor organizations rallied against the immigration of what they regarded as a degraded race and “cheap Chinese labor”. Newspapers condemned the policies of employers, and even church leaders denounced the entrance of these aliens into what was regarded as a land for whites only. So hostile was the opposition that in 1882 the United States Congress eventually passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigration from China for the next ten years. This law was then extended by the Geary Act in 1892. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the only U.S. law ever to prevent immigration and naturalization on the basis of race.[1] These laws not only prevented new immigration but also brought additional suffering as they prevented the reunion of the families of thousands of Chinese men already living in the United States (that is, men who had left China without their wives and children); anti-miscegenation laws in many states prohibited Chinese men from marrying white women.[2]

And yet both groups have more or less successfully become a part of modern America.

A further instructive example comes from the relationship between the Koreans and the Japanese. Throughout the history of the Pacific Rim the Japanese have repeatedly invaded the Korean peninsula and abused the Korean people. The most recent such episode occurred in the early years of the Twentieth Century, during which Japan occupied Korea, seized control of its government, and committed the usual slew of atrocities that tends to accompany such behavior [3].

This has lead to a significant and understandable distrust of the Japanese by the Koreans. But I can attest from personal experience that Korea is an exceptionally nice place to live, filled with courteous and good-natured people who seem not to have taken to killing each other as frequently as American blacks.

Doubtless racism does still exist and is a factor in rates of inter- and intra-racial homicide. But I think the above makes a compelling case that these simply can’t be the only major factors at work. I truly believe that black lives matter. That’s why I hope BLM will take an honest look at their own communities and search for ways that they make grassroots improvements there.

***

[1] http://www.killedbypolice.net/kbp2013.html

[2] https://www.fbi.gov/…/expanded_homicide_data_table_6_murder…

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korea_under_Japanese_rule

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Chinese_Americans

Leviathan 2.0

(note: as of today [4/5/16] this essay is incomplete. I’m publishing it early so that I can get feedback in advance of my talk. I plan to flesh out many of these sections, possibly add a discussion of space colonies if I can hunt down any reasonably proposals, and write a conclusion.)

I’m preparing to give a talk to the Transhumanism Club of the University of Colorado in Boulder. Entitled “Leviathan 2.0”, it’s a quick treatment of some interesting attempts being made to bring much needed freshness into governance and statecraft.

I discuss a number of different vehicles for achieving this goal, all of which are in varying stages of planning and completeness. Because some of my information is out of date I have tried to indicate how recent my facts are and provide plenty of links for anyone wanting to explore further.

Background

For the purposes of this essay the terms “State”, “government”, and “sovereign” can be used more or less interchangeably. Nailing down what one means by these terms, however, is a somewhat more complicated matter.

To the early theoretical architects of communism the State was a centralizing mechanism meant to combat ‘anarchy in the means of production’ and ensure a more equitable distribution of goods and services in a society. The intellectual precursors to the Fascist movement of 19th and 20th century Europe trafficked in the concept of an “organic state” which viewed the individuals comprising a society as analogous to the limbs and tissues of a greater animal, without which they couldn’t survive. And then of course you have the sociologist Max Weber’s concise view of a government as a monopoly on force over a geographic area.

As we will be exploring one system that completely does away with the link between geography and government we’ll need a definition that is less restrictive. For us, a state is a recognized authority that claims for itself rights which it may or may not give to its citizens.

Charter Cities

Popularized by economist Paul Romer, charter cities are meant to be a kind of “special economic zone” (SEZ), but scaled up to at least 1,000 square kilometers, or about the size of a small city. Proponents argue that this is something of a sweet spot; it’s big enough to facilitate meaningful economic, social, and political change while still being small enough to be practicable.

A charter city would be established inside of an already-existing state, on undeveloped lands, and with a formal charter in place that specifies in advance what kinds of rules citizens will be expected to abide by.

But this charter’s rules can be quite different from the rules of the host state, and therein lies the magic. By creating a mechanism for entrepreneurs and interested parties to found new states, charter cities could do a lot to encourage experimentation with different kinds of institutions and policies. Various sovereigns would then have to compete with each other for a ‘customer base’ of citizens willing to live in, work in, and be taxed in their country. Few would contend that the world’s public sectors are hotbeds of innovation, and having to work to maintain willing customers like standard businesses do would incentivize these public sectors to respond better to what people want.

A favored example of a successful SEZ is Hong Kong. Beginning around 1950 its more attractive economic policy made it a popular target for people and firms willing to relocate from mainland China. Over the course of the past sixty years what began as a hot spot for button and trinket manufacturers became a world-renowned financial hub which scores well across a plethora of economic metrics like GDP, life expectancy, and wages.

Nor is it the only such example. Deng Xiaoping established a special economic zone around the Chinese city of Shenzen in 1980, and like Hong Kong it transformed into an economic powerhouse focused on logistics, manufacturing, and financial services.

The important thing about both of these examples is that they were designated places where citizens abided by a set of rules different from those enforced in the host country. For this reason charter cities, and the SEZS upon which they are based, amplify a dynamic that has long been in play: the world’s poor are not ignorant to the fact that there are better alternatives elsewhere, and many of those able to move somewhere else, do. Charter cities would simply speed up the proliferation of choices.

This is especially true for smaller countries. I live in Colorado, and moving to a charter city in Maine would still be a major undertaking because America is geographically large. But in a fairly small country a charter city would likely be in reach of anyone, regardless of where it was located in the country.

All of this will be increasingly relevant to the world our grandchildren will live in, which is projected to have as many as 7 billion people living in urban centers by centuries end. How confident should we be that today’s governments will adequately meet the challenge of building the infrastructure required to support this influx? Must we accept that the sun will rise on the first day of the year 2100 over billions and billions of people accreting in slums around cities that simply cannot accommodate them?

Perhaps not. Charter cities could be a way of beginning to address this problem. So could their cousins, private cities.

Private Cities

A private city is distinguished from a charter city by the fact that it simply has no public sector. A private entity like Google owns the city outright, and either performs all the traditional functions that a state performs or lets other private firms handle it.

But like a charter city, with its intact public sector, a private city would have to compete to keep a tax base and would thus have incentive to respond to the demands of its citizens efficiently and effectively.

To elaborate further on this theoretical justification, private cities offer a way of “internalizing externalities“. Economists define externalities as being consequences, either positive or negative, which affect otherwise uninvolved third parties. If I produce great computers I can capture a huge amount of the value I create in the form of profits because anyone who wants one of my computer’s has to pay me for it. But if I spend a billion dollars on an air purifier capable of cleaning up the smog over LA, how am I suppose to get that value back? It’s not as though I can make people rent air from me.

For this reason ‘public goods‘ like clean air tend to be underproduced by private firms and produced inefficiently by the public sector. Both private cities and charter cities offer a potential means of efficiently producing greater quantities of such goods because they create an opportunity for firms to make a profit providing them.

But beyond this private cities might also help sole the even harder problem of incentivizing institutional change. In order to be competitive a private city will need to secure as much autonomy as possible from the government of its host country. With greater freedom comes a greater ability to experiment with novel institutions and forms of governance, allowing private cities to more quickly discover the configuration its citizens consider optimal.

While promising in the abstract, so far private cities have failed to rise to their potential. Lavasa, for example, is an Indian city being planned by Lavasa Corp, a private company. As of 2014, however, it looks as though its regulatory system will do little to encourage new businesses to set up shop there, which will likely prove disadvantageous in the long run.

Another private city in the works is nestled in Lagos, Nigeria. Eko Atlantic would have traditionally public sector services like security and energy provided by South Energyx Nigeria Ltd., the company building the city on land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean. But like Lavasa, it appears as though Eko Atlantic won’t make the process of starting a business more streamlined than it is in the rest of Nigeria. The developers of both Lavasa and Eko Atlantic fail to understand what made Hong Kong such a success story.

This is less the case for “the world’s first publicly traded city“, located in Saudi Arabia. Its CEO Fahd Al-Rasheed makes it clear that the King Abdullah Economic City is meant to increase economic diversity by building a huge manufacturing and industrial center in the ‘Red Sea Region’ between Africa and The Middle East. The KAEC, as well as the other ‘economic cities’ being planned in Saudi Arabia will be built with regulatory structures meant to foster investment and competition.

Seasteading

Both charter cities and private cities are promising ways of playing with the rules of social organization, but neither attempt to utilize the vast territorial resource which blankets almost 3/4s of the Earth’s surface: the oceans.

In terms of their theoretical justifications and end goals seasteads aren’t any different from private cities or charter cities, but unlike the latter, seasteads have more historical precedent. Cruise ships, house boats, and oil rigs demonstrate the feasibility of maintaining small populations on a semi-permanent basis in relative safety and comfort.

Patri Friedman, The leading proponent of seasteads, favors an incremental approach to testing the seastead concept. Rather than trying to get a few thousand people to relocate to the open ocean, start by tackling the engineering and legal problems of building a tiny floating village in calmer coastal waters. With this proof of concept in hand, it should be possible to attract more participants and investors. Larger seasteads will be able to specialize in providing services like water purification and aquatic research, to say nothing of the potentials for medical and traditional tourism.

As of April 2014 The Seasteading Institute has a design in place and is in talks with an undisclosed host nation to build in their waters.

When contemplating seasteads a number of potential dangers suggest themselves: piracy; tsunamis and rogue waves; high winds; the corrosive properties of salt water; and also piracy. While some of the members of this list are indeed formidable barriers, seasteading advocates maintain that the biggest obstacle to overcome is actually the labyrinthine state of maritime law, together with the possibility of a powerful sovereign like The United States intervening if it doesn’t like what the occupants of a seastead are doing.

Piracy, as it turns out, is a little like airplane crashes. When it happens gets a lot of media coverage, but the reality is that attempts to hijack cargoes and crew are usually unsuccessful, and piracy in general simply isn’t that big of a problem.

Polystate

By exploring the concept of a polystate we move from the merely theoretical to the wildly speculative; even Zack Wienersmith, the author of the book from which the concept’s name is taken, calls it “political science fiction”.

The distinguishing feature of a Polystate is that it completely severs the connection between geography and sovereignty, hence why my definition of a State contains no mention of geographic areas.

Properly grappling with this idea requires making the following distinctions: let a ‘geostate’ be a traditional government bound to a certain span of territory, an ‘anthrostate’ be a state with a distributed citizenry and no geographic ties, and a polystate be the tapestry of interwoven anthrostates.

To make this clearer, imagine that each country in Western Europe consists of some land with its state floating above it like a Zeppelin tethered to the Earth. If these countries decide to become part of a polystate their borders cease to be meaningful and the floating states smear out to cover all of Europe simultaneously.

People located in former Germany can subscribe to the German government if they choose, or to the French, Italian, or British governments. People located in the former Portugal or the former Great Britain have these same options as well. This means that neighbors living feet apart might be governed by different states with competing — and possibly conflicting — sets of rules.

Mimicking Wienersmith’s own example, let’s assume this new polystate has the following macro-rules: 1) no anthrostate may become a geostate, 2) each individual selects their government on their birthday, 3) if an anthrostate violates rule 1) it’s sovereign status is revoked and its citizens give a full day to choose a new state.

By now your head must surely be swimming with objections and questions. I will only relay a handful of Wienersmith’s answers; anything more substantive wouldn’t be worth writing, as Wienersmith’s own book is short, well-written, and available in an inexpensive Kindle format.

What happens when a member of one anthrostate commits a crime against a member of another anthrostate? This sometimes happens with geostates, as in cases where citizens of one country commit crimes while abroad.

There are a handful of potential solutions. Anthrostates could work together to have compatible legal systems in order to streamline interstate judiciary proceedings, or they could defer to an agreed upon third party arbiter.

But this probably wouldn’t work in cases of radical incompatibility, such as if a dictatorship overlapped with an extremely liberal democracy. For the sake of argument let’s stipulate that the dictator has decreed that his citizens will face no retribution for attacking citizens of the liberal democracy, and he will defend them in court if need be.

Here, there may simply be no alternative to anthrostates going to war, which seems to be essentially the same dynamic at play between modern geostates. But war in a polystate would be a very different affair, in part because it is never clear who holds what territory and who belongs to what faction.

Wienersmith speculates that anthrostates might make war by fight in a predetermined area, by fighting on a house-by-house basis while taking care not to harm non-combatants, by fighting on a house-by-house basis while taking no care not to harm non-combatants, or by first evacuating non-combatants and then fighting in a conventional style.

What if one anthrostate consists of nudists and another of staunch Catholics? It’s possible in such a scenario that technology will provide solutions. The futuristic version of Google Glass, distributed to all citizens in the Catholic anthrostate, could be used to pixelate the unmentionables of any disrobed nudists.

To his credit Wienersmith admits that a lot of these replies are very speculative and hand-wavy. He knows he isn’t an economist, and his goal with the book is to explore an interesting take on the problem of governance, not to win any arguments.

Still, there are a few reasons why I don’t think polystates would be meta-stable. The first is simply that any sufficiently powerful geostate could decide that a disunified polystate is ripe for invasion and takeover. Even leaving this possibility aside Adam Gurri notes that even a slight preference for being around like-minded people could result in enough geographic clustering for anthrostates to wind down into geostates. And while traditional geostates don’t seem to have developed a good solution to the problem of externalities, I can’t see any reason polystates would fare better.

 

 

 

No Vast Conspiracies

Hanlon’s Razor is a well-known aphorism that goes something like “never assume bad intentions when assuming stupidity is enough”. In a recent Facebook post Eliezer Yudkowsky, true to form, expanded the definition thusly:

“Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to an enormous complicated System full of conflicting incentives getting stuck in a weird equilibrium. When that weird equilibrium is crushing people in its gears, don’t attribute that harm to a conspiracy of evil powerful people who planned it all and profit from it. There is no master plan behind the US medical system, it’s just an enormous complicated thing that got stuck. Even if there’s a billionaire or politician benefiting from the current setup, they didn’t cunningly plan for the US medical system to be dysfunctional, and they couldn’t make anything be different by choosing otherwise. Conspiracies of evil people plan how to profit from the System’s current stuck state. They don’t decide where it gets stuck”

Another way of grokking Yudkowsky’s modified version is to ask yourself how cohesive a group of people would have to be, and how intelligent it’s members would have to be, in order to be capable of orchestrating the sorts of conspiracies that keep so many otherwise sane individuals up at night.

If your closest friends and family were secretly given a trillion dollars and told to plan and execute a Vast Conspiracy of your choosing, how high would you judge the odds of success to be? How long do you think it’d be before your group began to fight internally, or before someone slipped up and let the secret out, or you ran into unforeseen and unforeseeable complications?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure plenty of people try to be evil masterminds, and maybe they even succeed in a limited way.

But the idea that a black-robed cabal (or a boardroom equivalent) is maneuvering the world into this exact configuration with surgical precision for some sinister end is just ridiculous.

Just to be safe, though, I want any Illuminati who happen to be reading this to know that they can pull off their masks and reveal their true identities, because I will vote for them so hard.

If someone is that much smarter than me, that much more organized than me, and that much more competent than me, then perhaps they should be in charge.

What this implies, for both actual policymakers and those pondering the best ways of changing the world, is that whatever broken System you want to fix likely doesn’t have a brain you can discover and destroy. More than likely the solution will involve something like changing Schelling points, large-scale cultural shifts, technological breakthroughs, etc.

Which…isn’t exactly great news, I know. But at least you won’t be wasting your energy aiming at the wrong targets.