The Ravings of Pareto’s Mad Prophet

One day not long ago, I took my canoe and entered The Stream to be with my fellow travelers. I had a number of conversations that day, many fruitful, others less so. But what stands out in my mind is one specific encounter.

I was in the middle of a discussion when I saw someone pull up within shouting distance of us. I have encountered this individual a number of times on my journeys, and knew well that shouting distance would be more than close enough for his purposes.

“Your infernal claptrap about virtue and moral foundations is an intellectual cancer which makes us all look soft to our enemies,” he snarled, “Pareto is life. Humans are but preferences, and we the technologists make our preferences manifest through our creations. Pareto is the eye of god. Pareto is gravity. Pareto precludes your morality, for morality is merely poetry optimized to the demands of situational efficiency. If the poetry of gay marriage and drug legalization please you, thank the grand network of networks for seeing fit to confer it upon you. Those of us who understand Pareto’s divine will, who see that morality is merely a veil for efficiency, have been given the tools of the god-eye Himself with which we are made able to bend morality itself to our desires.”

He paused for an intake of breath, which was a rare occurrence in our encounters. It seemed he had trained for the life of the prophet by learning to go without air for astonishingly long periods. For my part, I could never quite tell if these verbal ejaculations came from a place of genuine madness or simple drunkenness. As he launched into the next part of his rant, accusing me of believing that power law distributions could be done away with, I began to lean towards drunkenness—for I have regularly argued that power law distributions are pervasive and ineradicable facts of social organization, for many years. They are central to my understanding of how human social systems operate.

I turned to my fellow travelers and said, “I think this fellow must be off his gourd.”

To which the wise Sam Hammond reply, “On the contrary, his only problem is a physical inability to reduce the volume of his voice when he speaks. He’s spot on that efficiency and the logic of Pareto are necessarily prior to any morality on the ground. The forces shaping emergent practices, norms, and institutions follow this logic very clearly.”

“It seems to me that you have that rather backwards,” was my response, “we must have the ethic on the ground first, we must become reliable and trusthworthy before we can have something like efficiency. Moreover, we must have a striving desire—we must have bourgeois hope, courage, discipline, prudence, and faith—to pursue the sorts of gains-through-tinkering that the mad prophet has elevated to the level of the transcendental.”

I knew it wasn’t going to be that easy, however. Unlike the drunken ranter who we had toned out by this point, I admit I am always a little nervous to engage in dialectic with Sam. He has imbibed much more deeply from the well of knowledge than I have, and he is not hesitant to deploy this in a precise and bruising manner.

Sure enough, he had a ready response. “But where do our notions of reliability and trustworthiness, as well as all of the virtues, come from? Why do the judgments of the man of practical wisdom shift so much and so visibly across history? The answer is that they are part of an ongoing process, which hones our ethical notions here, sloughs off some parts of them there, and the current result is bourgeois virtue. Robert Wright has shown that this process follows a Paretean logic, and indeed went so far as to say that the Pareto framework provides us with the closest possible approximation of the mind of God.”

This gave me pause, for the idea that our institutions, norms, beliefs, practices, and physical existence itself are all generated by processes is quite central to my way of thinking. But it seemed to me that Pareto’s model is far too pristine and elegant to properly describe the chaotic, messy processes that we are all in the midst of.

“Pareto can give us a flavor of such processes, a glimpse; it is one perspective and a legitimate one,” I granted, “but on its own it is quite impoverished. For instance, this insistence on a taxonomy of human motivation which includes only ranked preferences. You and I both know that the only reason for this is to make the math easier. If certain motivating desires call for specific sorts of responses; if there is a high degree of variability and incommensurability between both types of motivating desires and the sorts of responses that will spring from them, then a more complex taxonomy may prove more appropriate.”

I gestured to David Duke, who was watching the exchange with interest, “Take David’s notion that rituals reduce the boundary between individual and community. This alone adds a number of complexities to our understanding of the shape of human action and human relations. One way of addressing it is to speak of outgroups and ingroups, and that fact that an individual will behave very differently towards someone depending on which of these he perceives you to be in. This dynamic plays an enormous part in commerce as it produces networks of trust which merchants and producers may rely upon. But to describe this in pure preference terms—‘outgroup’ simply being someone that an individual has a lower preference for dealing with in certain capacities—is not untenable, but not very useful, it seems to me.”

“As I said in my contribution to Sam Wilson’s discussion of the economics of the sacred, I think that notions such as identity, embodied relationships, and networks of uncalculated giving are quite useful in expanding our understanding of the human enterprise. To say that Pareto’s perspective is all-seeing eye of God is to say that there is a great deal less for such a being to see that it appears to me, from my limited, mortal point of view.”

“Nevertheless,” Sam Hammond says after listening politely to my ramblings, “it seems clear that there is a logic underlying the specific orders that emerge which Pareto logic describes quite well, in a manner that is weakly transcendental. I’m not arguing for some crude maximizer  model of the human being, but drawing on the logic of Habermas’ communicative action to show the implicit role that Paretean logic plays across human institutions and history. The American frontier, for example, flourished only when people were able to come to a set of norms by which win-win options were pursued to the exclusion of win-lose ones.”

“I see this story and think it is valid, yet at the same time I also feel it misses something. What David calls capital-W Wisdom; the view of the vast forces of destruction and renewal, of formation and recombination, which does not fit neatly into ‘win-win options’ and commensurable preferences. But I’m afraid I see a waterfall approaching, and I must make my way back towards land before we tip over it.”

We parted amiably, as always, but as I turned I saw that the mad prophet had crossed the distance between us. He had spoken continuously throughout our discussion, but now seemed to be saying nothing but “GICYB” repeatedly. I slowly navigated away from him, knowing that it would not be long before I encountered him again.

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