Elegance and Sophistication, Moderates and Radicals

“When in doubt, favor elegance over sophistication” is a mantra I picked up some years ago, but I have to say that the last year of research has moved me away from this position.

The application seemed pretty straightforward to me at the time. I was taking a class on econometrics and it seemed to me that most of the sophisticated tools econometricians used added a sense of precision at the cost of increased fragility to the model. That is, they required more and more complex assumptions about the world to be baked in, untested and possibly untestable, into the model.

It seemed to me at the time that elegance was a better goal than sophistication. Get as much bang for your buck for as little uncertainty as you can, and then ditch the rest. Be comfortable with the limits of what you’re left with. This wasn’t exactly an original idea—Charles Manski basically preaches something like this, advocating that people use the least demanding (in the sense of controversial and hard to justify) assumptions they can. And there’s definitely something to that.

But as I have just finished saying, you can’t even begin work of this sort until you’ve acquired a degree of sophistication about the conversation that’s been going on around it. Elegance itself can only be defined in a relative sense; of a solution that requires fewer trade-offs to get more than alternatives. Often, elegance cannot exist without sophistication, but the opposite is not true. Google’s PageRank was an elegant idea that required sophistication in order to actually implement; and now PageRank accounts for a very small percentage of their very sophisticated algorithm.

In contrast to Plato, Aristotle leaned more towards sophistication. He strongly criticized philosophers who stood by a set of conclusions just because they were the logical result of their theories. Theories that are at odds with phainomena—roughly, “appearances”—are not worth their salt. He didn’t mean that we should only stick to theories that are in line with how things look on the surface; quantum theory wouldn’t be at odds with phainomena given its empirical strength and predictive power. But if you have a very elegant theory that demands the conclusion that a human being is able to fly, unassisted, then it must obviously be discarded. This is the basis of his rejection of Plato’s theory of forms. (In terms of the place of phainomena in Aristotle’s methodology I am relying entirely on Nussbaum’s take in The Fragility of Goodness).

There is a certain irony to this, in tracing the history of Hellenistic ethics after Aristotle. As Julia Annas explains, Aristotle’s ethics had a certain tension built into it. On the one hand, he seemed to say that you could be completely happy if you were virtuous, regardless of your external circumstances. And his framework supported this conclusion completely. On the other hand, it seems absurd on its face that one could be happy after being impoverished, losing all of one’s loved ones, or while being tortured. And Aristotle acknowledged this, and attempted to arrive at a compromise position. Only the compromise isn’t very elegant; the notion that external circumstances do matter is sort of tacked-on to the theoretical edifice of his ethics.

His ethics were enormously influential, and set the terms of the debate for hundreds of years afterwards. However, the school that would ultimately triumph in this debate—the Stoics—succeeded by favoring theoretical consistency. Granted, they never went so far as Plato in ignoring phainomena; and in fact they justified their position using a similar style of argumentation as Aristotle. Nevertheless, it’s clear that a large part of the victory was owed to the fact that they provided a more elegant and consistent framework.

The direct successor to Aristotle as head of his school was Theophrastus, whose work On Happiness we know of only through reference to it in other sources. What’s interesting is that even though it seems Theophrastus was primarily asserting the same conclusion as Aristotle—that happiness depends on both virtue and luck—the response was much more negative. Critics and especially the Stoics saw it as a cowardly, “womanly” position. And yet those same critics deeply admired Aristotle, and his direct influence was clear in their work.

I see this happen in a lot of conversational communities, especially where a shared ideology is the basis of the community. In libertarianism, one need only compare how Milton Friedman is spoken of with how Matt Zwolinski is treated. Friedman is the face of 20th century libertarianism, more than anyone else. Internet libertarians love to share short videos and images with quotes talking about how bad government is at anything.

On the other hand, Matt tends to draw a ton of hate. He’s one of the bloggers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, where they are explicitly left-libertarian and largely believe that a little government redistribution is a good thing. He gets the most hate (in my observation) when he writes on behalf of basic income schemes; policies that would guarantee every citizen in a country a specific amount of government-distributed income every year.

The amusing thing about this is that Milton Friedman was, basically, the original proponent of this, in the form of a negative income tax. And sure, some of your more extreme libertarians will direct their hatred at him. But most of them will not. He lived during a different time in the development of the libertarian conversation, and is treated by a different standard as a result.

But the pull of elegance is strong. Many who spend a lot of time in the libertariansphere feel the pull of anarcho-capitalism, as absurd (if I may be permitted to say it) as this perspective is. I believe that this is because it is very hard to have an ideology in which the emphasis is placed so strongly on the incompetence and the evil of government but still accept that it plays some good and important functions. It is much easier psychologically and logically to accept a theory that consistently calls government evil and incompetent, and incapable of serving a useful or important function.

Networks of these communities form on the Internet, with radicals tightly clustered together in network space. However, radicalness admits of degrees, and some people may be very radical in one respect but more moderate in others. As a result, there are entry points for more moderate positions within the larger community. For instance, someone in the anarcho-capitalist community may read EconLog and encounter a post on there which links to a post by Matt Zwolinski. They may check it out, get pissed off, and then write a screed against it. Or, sometimes, they may quote one specific section of Matt’s post that makes him seem as un-libertarian as possible, and then write a glib reaction after the quote.

The quote may then spread beyond the radical community into the more moderate one, becoming, for some, their only exposure to Matt. As a result, Matt’s image within the libertarian community may be shaped by the radicals, even if the community as a whole is much more moderate than they are. This is a mechanism by which radicals are able to punish moderates who get big enough to be noticed.

This dynamic plays out in many communities, some of which have been discussed at length in recent essays and thought pieces floating around the web. They look at it from a slightly different perspective.

Is Philosophy Information Efficient?

In Adam’s last post he proposed an Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) for philosophical debate. As a rule of thumb, it states that if you have heard a good argument for X, someone from camp Y has probably already thought of a good response. In turn, X has probably thought of an equally compelling rejoinder to the rejoinder, and so on down the line.

A “Strong EMH” of debate might say that, in a world with a lot of smart people with diverse views, the “spread” between a good reply and “the best possible reply” narrows considerably. Bad arguments get pushed to the side and the debates that remain are, on the margin, genuine stalemates. In contrast, a “Weak EMH” of debate might resemble Tyler Cowen’s “First Law” which simply asserts that there is a literature on everything. More pithily, there are no million dollar dissertations left lying on the ground.

Under either reality, we should expect intellectual controversies to be really challenging to budge in any direction, at least in aggregate. Philosophy know-it-alls in their freshmen year are thus a lot like hot-head Finance graduates who think their 4-year degree is all it takes to beat the market. The moral of the story is to be humble. If you’re really confident in your philosophy (or portfolio) you probably haven’t read enough.

It’s a compelling analogy, but there is an important and immediately apparent difference between the two: binding feedback. For the most part, finance grads lose their conceit once they get into the real world and see how hard the search for alpha truly is. The Philosophy (or Journalism, Economics, Poli-sci, etc) student doesn’t have the same opportunity (or obligation) to bet their beliefs. Indeed, I can hold completely ignorant — if not downright medieval — theories of modality and not be a penny poorer.

The currency that drives dialectic within professional philosophy is academic prestige, so making an overtly fallacious argument can be quite costly. But not only is academia a highly segmented market (especially if we include English or Sociology as philosophy), it is a hell of a lot easier to get a securities license than a faculty position.

The Efficient Market Hypothesis means different things to different people. But a point that is often lost is the fine distinction between claiming “there are no arbitrage opportunities left” and “the market price converges to fundamental value.”

I am happy to endorse a version of EMH in finance and otherwise that says, “You will go bankrupt betting against the market long before you’re proven right” (a no arbitrage condition), but I would not endorse the corollary that the “efficient market” price is thus necessarily “correct”. Many bubbles can be both impossible to effectively short sell and still far from “fundamental value” in the medium term, in terms of discounted cash flow or any other metric.

Even within the more “liquid” markets for ideas, how you think about the information efficiency of intellectual debate depends on which structural process you think underlies the dialectic. In practice I see two broad possibilities. Philosophical debate could follow either:

1. a Piercean kind of convergence, where lots of back and forth experimentation eats up profit opportunities (the pragmatic notion of “success” ) and settles on a fundamental value — truth; or,

2. Hegelian dialectic, where back and forth yields concepts that always portend a greater potential through synthesis, and the unmeasurable possibility to take random walks far away from “truth” into an ideological bubble.

I tend to think of the scientific literature as closer to 1. Over time literatures do eventually solidify, and the remaining arbitrage opportunities exist only over meagre, specialized debates, or are really, really expensive (CERN). Paradigm shifts occur but they are rare, and at any rate are more akin to a jump between multiple equilibria than a bursting bubble.


Historically, the philosophical literature has been closer to 2. with instances of drifting far off into a bubble that suddenly collapses in on itself (Cartesianism, theology, logical positivism, post-structuralism). Is it any surprise that so many literary theorists endorse sociological theories of knowledge given that their own discipline is a perfect example of self-referential social construction? In short, there is a greater danger in assuming a type 1 EMH onto philosophy because the mere lack of apparent arbitrage opportunities is not sufficient to deem the “literature” as a whole as healthy.

Ideology, like the atmosphere we breathe, is hard to appreciate from within. Bull markets are no different. Even if there was a Case-Shiller Index for philosophical circle-jerks, by the time the ponzi scheme becomes obvious one is already [ intellectually ] bankrupt. So between a scientist and a philosopher, the latter always stands a better chance at being the greater fool.

This is my tentative case for philosophy as a discipline to reallocate its portfolio even more toward experiments. Under any version of an EMH, one is able to “beat the market” given a level of insider information. So if all the low hanging fruit has been plucked from the a prioristic discourse, experiments have the chance at discovering new frontiers. Some of the most interesting work in recent years has been stimulated by discoveries in neuroscience, decision theory and experimental psychology, for example. But even the margins in these new-ish fields are beginning to look thin.

So what will be the next frontier? If I could tell you that, someone would have already written a paper on it.

Efficient Markets and Communities of Rhetoric

There are few things more obnoxious than the know-it-all first year philosophy student.

You know the one. He (and yes it’s usually a “he”) thinks he can understand everything with the barest of efforts. Mostly, he thinks he can find the Achilles heel of all the great and venerated thinkers. Nozick can be dismissed because all real-world processes involve some injustice at the beginning and throughout. The entire social contract tradition can be dismissed because in the real world there are no literal social contracts. Moral philosophy can be banished entirely by simply invoking a paragraph from Hume (found on the Internet rather than by reading a whole book no doubt) about the perils of deriving an “ought” from an “is”.

What makes it hubris is the notion that he is the first one who has made these criticisms, and that thinkers who have continued to be read for centuries can be banished by uttering a few statements like incantations. If a work has been around and widely read for a sufficient length of time, you can safely assume:

  • All obvious criticisms have been made.
  • All obvious criticisms have been responded to.
  • A back-and-forth has occurred and the conversation has moved forward.

The fact that great works continue to be considered such even after the conversation has advanced usually means that there is something to the work, beyond its apparent flaws. It should not be surprising to us that great works have flaws—their authors are only human. But the fact that so many intelligent, well read, discerning people continue to read such works should give us pause before resorting to the know-it-all’s dismissal.

Efficient Markets, Efficient Literatures

The above is my attempt to gently coax people to stop worrying and learn to love efficient markets.

OK, maybe not the actual Efficient Markets Hypothesis, though I think most of the animosity aimed at EMH is misplaced. But EMH uses what Dan Klein calls the flattened model of human knowledge, something I do not subscribe to. In this model, knowledge is mere information processing. Information is a good like any other that has subjectively-valued benefits and costs to acquire. It’s a useful model, but woefully incomplete. As McCloskey and Klamer put it, it completely removes judgment and social context.

The computer uses a program and depends on a human purpose served. Without social programming you do not know what to pay attention to in reading the phone book (for example, in what order to take the numbers, or what the numbers mean, or to what uses the number 911 can be put, or what Aunt Hattie’s number means to you personally). Information is not simply a natural property. Humans must judge the information relevant or accurate or interesting for it to be “information,” selected from the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world. Information, to put it another way, is only part of knowledge.

Even though it does go about it in a very reductionist and mechanistic way, I do think that EMH gets at something important. What it gets at was hinted at with the example from philosophy at the beginning of the post.

It would be foolish to deny that investors have biases, or that as a group they often go systematically astray. But as with the great thinkers in philosophy, the relevant question is not “are they flawed?” It is “can you, individually, really expect to do better?” Or better still, “is there something I could learn from them?”

More to the point, the real question is whether you really think that some knowledge of cognitive biases and historical trends is enough to put you on equal footing with the aggregate knowledge of a huge number of people who all have a lot of money riding on their decisions?

Taking this seriously does not mean treating such aggregate knowledge as infallible. But failure to take this seriously turns people who could be intelligent critics of conventional wisdom into little better than our conceited philosophy student.

Just as market skeptics go astray when they do not take the knowledge embedded in the culture of investing seriously, methodological skeptics often go similarly astray by not taking scholarship seriously. I know this, because I lived it. Methodological skepticism is rampant among heterodox economics, and the sort sympathetic to (if not outright a part of) the Austrian school tends to be dismissive of mainstream economic scholarship.

I indulged in this for a long time. The grounds for my dismissals were the inherent compromises taken in the construction of aggregate metrics and econometric models. Funny thing, though—this dismissal didn’t do much to change my conclusions about what the right sort of economics was. In the end, I realized my own hubris in this. As I put it elsewhere:

I used to be skeptical of Alex Tabarrok’s rule of thumb to trust literatures, not studies, because I wondered whether the literatures in social science were really all that good even in aggregate. Tabarrok himself, as well as Deirdre McCloskey, convinced me to take literatures seriously in the end. Whatever problems you can think of that would limit the effectiveness of systematic study or measurement in a given area, odds are that the big community of specialists have argued about such limits to death and proposed and implemented endless approaches to get around or compensate for them. That does not mean that literatures are without problems or that outsider critiques aren’t valuable; to the contrary. But outsider critiques are usually only valuable if they’ve bothered to actually get familiar with what they’re criticizing, though the foundation of their criticism may come from a different community of rhetoric than the object of their criticism. Let’s call it the efficient literature theorem—most of the time, most literatures have captured most of the methodological problems any one individual could think of, and formulated and implemented more thoughtful and careful responses to those problems than any one individual would be capable of designing and making use of in isolation.

To repeat, this does not make conventional wisdom or consensus within communities above criticism or even in the right ballpark. It simply means that meaningful criticism is hard, and getting in the right ballpark much harder. I used to be attracted to the general skepticism of people like Russ Roberts, but increasingly it seems like a bit of a cop-out. I would advise him to go back and re-read The Rhetoric of Economics. McCloskey is no methodological optimist, but she believes that scientific communities, as communities of rhetoric, are able to work together to advance our knowledge. The truths discovered by these communities are always small-t truths rather than Truth; always contextually determined, always given their meaning by the hermeneutic circle (or less pretentiously, but no less obnoxiously, the paradigm) in which they are interpreted.

This is not anti-realist, it is simply one understanding of how communities of people work together to try to find truths.

The Long Tail of Conversation

To get less abstract about it, let’s return to the guidance we gave the first year philosophy student.

  • All obvious criticisms have been made.
  • All obvious criticisms have been responded to.
  • A back-and-forth has occurred and the conversation has moved forward.

Let’s apply this to finance. “But confirmation bias!” for example, is not a very compelling criticism of investment markets. Do you really think that no one in finance has heard of confirmation bias? Big, well-known, and obsessively listened to figures like Warren Buffet, for example, have spoken at length and for decades about the many varieties of self-deception.

Investors make up conversation communities. At a given moment in the history of such a community, the topics under discussion will form a power law distribution. A few topics get an enormous amount of attention because they are perceived as novel or important, but there is a very long tail of topics that are discussed in smaller and smaller subsets of the community. The irony of “but confirmation bias!” style critiques is that these days I think psychological biases are in the head of the tail in terms of what gets discussed; though I’ll admit this is my perception as a relative outsider.

Topics are in the long tail for a variety of reasons. A lot of it is because there are some topics that simply aren’t relevant, or are discussed primarily by crackpots; think of your garden variety conspiracy theory. However, there is an important set of topics that are in the tail because they have already be discussed to death, a consensus has been formed around them, and for most people in the community the consensus simply fade into background assumptions. A small set of dedicated specialists within the community continue to contribute to these topics in order to continue to advance them. These topics had a heyday where they were a central focus of the community, and it’s likely that they will return as a focus some day again; these things come in cycles.

Becoming familiar with some of these topics is what it means to “drink deep from the well of knowledge” when it comes to becoming part of a particular conversational community. The amateur and the newcomer are recognizable by their inability to see beyond the topic of the moment; the true expert can draw on much more of the intellectual capital invested by previous participants in the conversation.

Criticism From the Inside and Out

That said, the frameworks the develop within these communities create blindspots by their very nature. This is both their advantage and disadvantage. There’s an analogy here with property rights and its alternatives. Pete Boettke likes to say that all forms of resource allocation are really just different ways of saying “no“. Resources are scarce, so even if you are against property, all the other viable alternatives boil down to some method of keeping people from using everything up and dying from starvation.

Similarly, a conceptual scheme filters out nearly all possible information, interpretations, and ideas. McCloskey likes to say that we should not use the word “data” since it means “things given”; instead we should speak of “capta” or “things seized”. A conceptual scheme informs our judgments as to what directions of inquiry are the most promising, the most likely to yield interesting insights for us to seize.

This is inherently biasing. To systematically favor certain types of information, interpretations, and ideas over others just IS what is mean by “bias”. Bias is not something that needs to be overcome; it is necessary. Structured thought is not possible without bias.

However, not all biases are created equal. Moreover, there is a plurality of conceptual schemes and conversational communities with overlapping objects of interest. Sometimes these frameworks come from the outside—Kahneman’s description of how he first encountered economics is instructive:

One day in the early 1970s, Amos handed me a mimeographed essay by a Swiss economist named Bruno Frey, which discussed the psychological assumptions of economic theory. I vividly remember the color of the cover: dark red. Bruno Frey barely recalls writing the piece, but I can still recite its first sentence: “The agent of economic theory is rational, selfish, and his tastes do not change.”

I was astonished. My economist colleagues worked in the building next door, but I had not appreciated the profound difference between our intellectual worlds. To a psychologist, it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish, and that their tastes are anything but stable. Our two disciplines seemed to be studying different species, which the behavioral economist Richard Thaler later dubbed Econs and Humans.

And so began the conversation between psychologists like Kahneman and Tversky as well as heterodox economists like Thaler on the one side, and more mainstream economists as well as other classes of heterodox economists such as the Austrian school on the other.

One thing to notice is that when two conceptual schemes encounter each other, the proponents of each often level criticism that amounts largely to talking beyond one another. Each framework has justifications that are internal to it, so it is natural that the proponent of framework A would rely on that framework’s internal logic to call framework B unjustified. But it is precisely because the proponents of framework B have accepted a different internal logic that a disagreement is occurring.

What’s interesting is that it doesn’t take outsiders per se for this dynamic to develop. Alasdair MacIntyre’s favorite example is the 12th century clash between the scholastics working within the medieval Aristotelian tradition on the one hand, and the partisans of the Augustinian tradition on the other. The thing about this is example is that many of the partisans of each had been at least exposed to some of the other in their education, though few “drank deep from the well of knowledge” of the other’s tradition.

In any event, I think MacIntyre (with some small modifications) provides the best answer for adjudicating among the claims of rival and incommensurable traditions of thought.

The most fruitful path is for those who have already developed a deep expertise of their own tradition. So we aren’t talking about first year philosophy or economics students here, but those who have spent a lot of time in the long tail of topics in their conversational community.

Then one must go deep into the rival tradition—Aquinas, MacIntyre’s icon of this, was equally an expert in both traditions. One need not necessarily go that far, but one should be able to defend the strength of the rival tradition in a way that a partisan for that tradition would recognize as knowledgeable. In gaining this knowledge,  you can identify the areas that proponents of the tradition consider to be problems with the framework; problems defined in the framework’s own terms.

Progress is possible, according to MacIntyre, when you show that a different framework—either the one you started with or some new synthesis—has more resources to resolve the problems internal to the rival framework than it does.

To be clear:

  • You start with framework A, which takes time to become an expert in.
  • You encounter rival framework B and work to understand it as well as one of its proponents.
  • You are now in a position to say how framework A, or some new synthesis C, has more resources to address the problems that framework B’s own proponents have struggled with and been unable to resolve.
  • Presumably framework A or new synthesis C is also better at making progress on its own terms than framework B.

And that is MacIntyre’s theory of inquiry in a nutshell.

Notice that even where criticism is concerned, you have to go deep into an existing community of rhetoric and learn their ways.

This is really the key point I wanted to make in this post: the individual is fundamentally ignorant. To the extent that we’re able to rise above mere ignorance at all, it is by spending a lot of time retracing the paths tread on by previous generations and present experts. These paths are numerous, even for considering a single question; you could not walk them all even if you spent your whole life trying to.

Epistemic humility is crucial, and one important step to that goal is taking the knowledge of conversational communities seriously—including the knowledge in markets, and in academic literatures.

Posts Later in This Thread:

Looking For the Ground

I wanted to learn how to play Beethoven on the piano, so I hired a music teacher to teach me how to play Beethoven’s piano music. I already had rudimentary piano-playing skills, so, to me, it was all a matter of bringing my piano-playing up to snuff, as they say, developing my chops to really lay the hammer down on those sweet, sweet, piano strings.

“In order to play Beethoven,” she said at our first meeting, “You have to learn how to play Mozart. And in order to play Mozart, you have to play Bach.”

I indicated that I didn’t understand.

“The music of Beethoven is a way-stop in the natural flow of the progression of music theory and practice.”

I shrugged my shoulders, hoping that I could master Bach and Mozart in a hurry so that I could get on with the real exploration of Beethoven. But then it struck me to ask, “Did Bach invent music? Or what?”

“Well,” she said, “he didn’t so much invent music as compile everything Medieval, giving it its recognizable shape, which came forward into Beethoven, which then produced Wagner (but we don’t like to talk about that).”

She handed me a lute. “What the hell is this?!?” I exclaimed.

“Look,” she said. “If you want to learn how to play Beethoven on the piano, you’ve got to start with Bach on the lute. From there you have to learn to play the harp, then the harpsichord, and after that, you can finally take a seat at my luxurious Steinway concert grand piano.”

“Now look here,” I started to say, but she handed me a history book, so I said, “What’s this?”

“A history of the Napoleonic Wars,” she said. “This is the context in which Beethoven wrote his music.” And then she exclaimed, “Oh!”

“What?” I said.

“Do you have a prior knowledge of the effect of secular humanism on the works of J.S. Bach?”

“Well, I’m pretty well-versed in that history, yes.”

“Oh, good,” she said. “You won’t have to read all those books while you’re learning to play the lute. On the other hand, the histories are not entirely in agreement with each other, and I don’t know if you’ve subscribed to the correct reading of the effects of 13th Century Italian Humanism on the arts and culture of 17th Century Leipsig.”

“I spell it Leipzig.”

“Oh, dear.”

It was clear to me that I wasn’t going to learn to play Beethoven’s piano music with this teacher, not anytime in my lifetime, so I fired her, which made me feel bad because it was my mom, and she needed the money, which was the immediate cause of her homelessness, along with all those of hers.

I hired another teacher, describing to her my intentions. She set about her work immediately, devising exercises so that my fingers would strengthen in the manner needed in order to play Beethoven’s music. Indeed, I even read a book about the production of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, “The Heroic,” and its dedication to Napoleon, which deepened my appreciation for the piece, but didn’t do much more than season the emotive value that piece of music has on me and my family.

Speaking of which, I was so impressed with the exercises my piano teacher devised that I was struck with love. I asked her to marry me, and we have made lots of babies together. I play Für Elise for her whenever the mood strikes me, even though her name isn’t Elise, and no one knows who the original Elise is, if such a person ever existed.

Trading representation for equality

I would be unsurprised within my lifetime to see Facebook, Google, and other such organizations formalize their positions as pseudo-states, replete with diplomats and domestic and foreign policies. As I was meditating on this, the question of representation arose, or rather, it’s complete absence except to the extent that the organizations deign to give it lip service.

This is a structural feature (bug?) of social media that results from optimizing for equality of experience: Mark Zuckerberg does not see a radically different Facebook than I. Cloud services are technologies that are least amenable to having alternatives for the very rich that are both bespoke and best-of-class. The economies of scale are too large, and so even the billionaires submit to a user experience near-identical, in principle, to the hoi polloi.

Two questions come out of this. First, to what extent is the absence of real representation necessary? Is the uniformity of experience due to the centralization of control in the service of scalability inherently incompatible with the desires of groups and individuals to craft social mediations in line with own desires and values? And if this is a zero-sum game, what would a social media project that emphasized representation at the expense of equality produce?

I won’t attempt to answer either question yet. I will, however say, that the movement towards protocols over products is an improvement, in that, while the lingua franca protocols will prove to be more commonly utilized, they do not negate alternatives that supplement or supplant them. The world of semi-overlapping social currencies explored in Eclipse Phase gives expression to one vision of this dynamic.

The Miracle of Comparative Advantage

My co-blogger Boatfloating makes the point that excellence in one field does not necessarily mean that excellence in other fields, and this is a good thing! Who among us is world-class at everything? Certainly not I. I don’t have an NFL physique or Pavarotti’s pipes.

This reminds me of the miracle of comparative advantage and trade. It makes me profoundly grateful to be alive in this era when I think about how we are really no better, in terms of raw human potential, than the ancient men and women that first planted fields in the Fertile Crescent, or crossed the land bridge from Siberia into the North America, and yet we are so much wealthier and live lives of such greater ease than they. Isn’t it amazing that from such crooked timber a society as ours has been fashioned? It’s a miracle is what it is, and we should all be thankful that there are opportunities for us to live better than the Kings of old even with the limits we all have.

Even MLK Cheated On His Wife

In the beginning of the 20th century, it was relatively easy to be a professional football player. If you were there, you were able to run at someone and hit them, and you were able to take those same hits, you had a pretty good shot at making whatever local pro team. Sure, the bigger, faster, and stronger you were, the better your chances, but the minimum athletic bar to become a professional athlete was not that high.

As the years go on and as the stakes climbed higher, the level of athleticism climbed along with them. No longer were Super Bowl quarterbacks working nails during halftime. Not only did the actual conditioning of athletes get better, but so did the pure athletic talent of said athletes. Compare the “athlete” of yesteryear with the walking (running, jumping) Greek gods that currently ply their trade in The National Football League.

Within the current framework and rules of American professional football, certain traits are selected for. Just having the desire to hit, the tolerance to be hit, and the willingness to drop your factory job for a couple of weeks a year was no longer enough. You had to win the genetic lottery and be a physical and mental specimen of such rarity that one might scarcely believe you share the same genus as some your lesser fellow humans.

This also means that other, non-essential-to-football traits are disregarded. Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent is also a supertaster? Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent enjoys foreign films? Does it really matter if an NFL-level talent is a conscientious father or husband? Fuck no. But, of course, they are still of such rare quality, their relative weaknesses in other non-essential-to-football traits are hardly detriments to their career prospects.

Those who can truly affect the world of pro football are of such rarity, that these weaknesses don’t, in the end, matter. Now, that is not saying that these failings don’t mean anything, just that they don’t mean anything in the highly-specialized, highly-competitive realm of football. You can have a terrible palette and still be a pro football player, you can be cultural philistine and still be a pro football player, and you can be a mediocre human being and still be a pro football player.

Uber, but for Virtue

During the discussion with Sam, I thought of what psychologists call the “what-the-hell effect” observed among those attempting to maintain a diet. Here’s Roy Baumeister’s description of it:

The researchers gave it a formal scientific term, counterregulatory eating, but in their lab and among colleagues it was known simply as the what-the-hell effect. Dieters have a fixed target in mind for their maximum daily calories, and when they exceed it for some unexpected reason, such as being given a pair of large milkshakes in an experiment, they regard their diet as blown for the day. That day is therefore mentally classified as a failure, regardless of what else happens. Virtue cannot resume until tomorrow. So they think, What the hell, I might as well enjoy myself today—and the resulting binge often puts on far more weight than the original lapse.

What’s more, such dieters also show a marked decline in their ability to even estimate how much they have eaten during this period, relative to control samples of non-dieters.

This is why I resist Sam’s argument that we ought to treat good deeds or good acts as something to be budgeted “the same way” as “household wealth”. Psychologically, we’re always looking for a reason to be let off the hook. Whether it’s dieting or simply holding ourselves to a minimal standard of decency in how we treat the people around us, we look for excuses and will even construct caricatures to neutralize our culpability or the blameworthiness of our actions. And thinking of moral budgets strikes me as providing just such a recourse. I’ve done X good thing, therefore it’s OK for me to indulge in Y. Only the what-the-hell effect implies that once you’ve indulged in Y once that day, odds are you’ll indulge it in a fair bit more, if given the chance. Especially if Y is something (like cutting people off in traffic) that it takes a degree of restraint to avoid doing.

Now, willpower—Baumeister’s area of study—definitely needs to be budgeted. Actively making decisions, resisting a tempting choice, and similar actions burn glucose in the body. The result is ego depletion, where self-control is harder, and sloppy mental shortcuts are more likely than careful deliberation. There are many reasons why it is important to economize on willpower, not the least of which is so that you can deliberate carefully about the most significant choices when they come up. Baumeister has several suggestions for how to go about this, including making a lot of decisions (like what you’re going to wear each day of the week) up front rather than on the day of. And forming good habits—if you get in the habit of driving a certain way every single day, it won’t feel like you have to resist the urge to cut someone off. It will no longer feel as natural to do so, so avoiding it won’t deplete your willpower, and you won’t be looking for excuses to do it. Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson also talk about how external and social environments can help or hinder people trying to economize on willpower.


A lot of this turns on the difference between self-control and the virtue of temperance.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about enkrateia, which is self-control as we understand it today, and akrasia, which is its opposite. This is very much in line with modern discussions of willpower and impulse control; there’s a desire that we wish to resist acting upon. For Aristotle, enkrateia is the ability to successfully resist this desire; that is self-control in the modern sense. On the other hand, akrasia is giving in to that desire even if we judge it to be the wrong thing to do. This fits into modern discussions of lacking impulse control or being weak-willed.

But being encratic is not the sample thing as being temperate.  In Aristotle’s ethics, virtue involves a unity of emotion and reason. So with regard to, say, food, the temperate man is not the one who desire to eat more than he should, but resists. That is merely the encratic man. The temperate man feels most comfortable eating the right amount of food; eating in moderation is not only judged to be the right choice, but it feels right.

This is probably the most controversial aspect of virtue ethics. In our post-Hume world we are much more used to think of emotion and the passions as being these wild, uncontrollable things. They are “givens” which must be compensated for in some way or simply given in to. Reason is, at best, the meek adviser, at worst, the slave, providing the “how” for achieving a goal in which passions provide the “why”. To the extent that we prefer some passions over others, an exercise of will is necessary to restrain the unruly ones.

Straddling both visions, my father once wrote of the virtue of self-rule:

Self-rule means an intelligent organization, not a renunciation, of desire. The self-ruled man knows that desires can be noble or base, and turns one kind of desire, lever-like, against the other. Self-knowledge — knowledge of our weaknesses rather than narcissism — is, therefore, a requirement of self-rule.

This description is in line with Aristotelian virtue but, interestingly, not necessarily at odds with the modern Humean vision of the passions. For Aristotle, a chain of reasoning leads us to realize that what we want most is happiness in our life as a whole; that is, eudaimonia. He speaks not of desire but of having “reasons” for seeking this, but it’s clear that these reasons are motivating.

Aristotle’s taxonomy is much more nuanced than Hume’s simple dichotomy of passions and reason, and we need not get bogged down in it here. If you’re interested, Martha Nussbaum has a thorough review of Aristotle’s understanding of emotions, as well as that of rival Hellenistic schools, in The Therapy of Desire.

In any case, there are signs that we can strive towards temperance rather than mere enkrateia. What we know about neuroplasticity, for example, suggests that we are capable of going from reading long texts through an act of will to doing so because it feels natural to. This is precisely the distinction between enkrateia and a true virtue; you need to have the former in order to set yourself on the road to the latter.

For our part we can say that this is another reason it is important to economize on willpower; doing so allows us to apply it in strategic ways the help us to cultivate new skills and character traits.



In Give and Take, Adam Grant discusses a highly generous type of person which he labels simply “givers”. What excited me about the empirical work that Grant summarizes in the book is that it seems to provide a detailed look at what Alasdair MacIntyre presents as a theoretical concept; the “network of uncalculated giving.” Grant talks about how givers (unsurprisingly) give more than they ask for, and how their behavior actually encourages the people around them to act more generously.

Moreover, the networks they create are not networks of reciprocal giving (those are for what Grant calls “matchers”, tit-for-tat types, and to an extent for “takers” as well, who just try and get what they can for themselves in all exchanges). Instead, they create networks of people who will help one another; when the giver isn’t the one providing help directly they are acting as a node between people who need help and people who can provide it. Some people end up giving more than they get out of the network but as a whole more good ends up being done.

One big risk that givers face, unsurprisingly, is burnout. They’re more likely to give their time to anyone who asks for it, no questions asked. He used the example of what the teachers at Teach for America often have to endure—students from very different backgrounds from their own, with no respect for them and no desire to participate in the class. The TFA teachers’ ideals collide with reality very quickly, and just coming in and trying to manage their students in a minimal way every day requires a great deal of willpower.

What’s interesting, however, is that the teachers who avoided burnout weren’t the ones that had low expectations from the start or put in minimal effort. Instead, they—to use a now abused phrase—leaned in. But in a very particular way. One case, Conrey Callahan, added to her weekly workload rather than reducing it. Only she didn’t add to her TFA load; she volunteered in other programs tutoring promising but poor students individually. According the Grant, the more favorable circumstances and the more direct feedback, coupled with the fact that it was directly related to her TFA work, helped her maintain her motivation at her main job.

I do not know how far this logic can be extended. I’m not expert and I’m not familiar with the literature the way Grant is. But to me, the Callahan example (the generalizability of which Grant defends with further citations) suggests that we should be very careful with what we apply budget metaphors to. Willpower definitely needs to be budgeted. I’m skeptical, however, that goodness does.

Propertarian Hokey Pokey

Since I’ve come to know the Sweet Talk Kids, the property rights thing has been brought forward regularly as an entree of interest, like hotdogs, chips and kool-aid for Saturday night TV. I’m not terribly good at all the vocabulary nor some of the philosophical underpinnings, but the posts winging about have been quite educational, and I’m grateful for it.

As far as I can tell, there are two main lines of argumentation: 1) private property is theft, inherently [insert appeal to avaricious human nature. Problem of avarice resolved by benevolent redistribution imposed by state]; 2) public property is theft [insert appeal to mitigating features of nature. Problem of avarice resolved by not-so-benevolent redistributive forces of nature].

I know on which side of the divide I fall, to wit: side 2. And I have a few reasons I fall that way, the main ones as follow: the benevolence of the state is inherently violent. It must seize property by force, which requires either the threat of death and/or a complacent populace. Having a populace complacent to the state is problematical because it submits to the will of a state which allows no larger organizing principle than itself, which is (if I may anthropomorphize) what the state desires and will seek to attain and perpetuate. The state, in other words, is messianic, and will crush all other suitors.

What larger organizing principle is there?

Here, I think, is the rub. Arguing for an organizing principle larger than the state is a matter of metaphysics, i.e., whether there is such a thing as nature, an invisible hand, or a providential will of some sort. Perhaps even a personal God–but that’s too much, seeing as how even the most fervent believer in God believes that he is hidden amidst the elemental things, revealing himself very particularly, if at all.

Now side 2 is essentially reduced to an appeal to cold, hard, experience, both for itself and against the state. Each argument is in this way weakened, being basically founded upon witness, which can be contorted and perverted according to will. Thus, sweet talk. Are the not-so-benevolent forces of nature to mitigate the inherent avarice of private property owners convincing to you? Let me count the ways…

No matter how I count, however, I must appeal to a moral authority for the right to private property, not a theoretical one, not as a foundation, not until after I lay a foundation based on an unrevealed moral authority reconstructed by feeble minds. The will of a state is not, essentially, as messy as all that. What the state wills shall be so. By nature, then, to argue for private property is the weaker of the two sides.

What is it about the appeal to witness, however, that has such persuasive power?

The implications reveal, I think, that the argument is not set on a pole, as it seems at first glance: private vs. public property, or what-have-you. The arguments are appeals to a set of beliefs, the one founded on witness, the other founded on will, neither founded on objective reality, despite any appeal one or the other might make to such a not-a-thing.

On the one side are the institutions of the state, and on the other are the institutions of civilization with ancient precepts which strive to reach the unreachable heavens. Both coexist in an uneasy truce, some epochs more uneasy than others. When one finds favor in your eyes, you put your whole self in and you do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around, with lots of friends and fellow travelers participating in the dance with you, and there will be an inside and an outside. Where the frontiers meet is where the music is played. Whose hokey-pokey radiates the most warmth and happiness?

Questions of justice are hereby eschewed, for those are fundamental to each dance.

Raving Bully Model of Property

Property is theft, some say. And this could be true. Suppose there were an idyllic community sharing all things in common, peacefully. In a model akin to Olson’s roving bandit, a raving bully


within the community begins appropriating things unto himself, and property is born, through theft. Most often this is the story told about enclosure laws. Whoever had the ability to manipulate the institutions of law and power could capture rents. Once in place, a raving bully would be hard to displace, thanks to transitional gains traps.

All property is understood to have emerged from this process.

But suppose property emerged not from appropriation, but through allocation. Suppose a community has only one bow-and-arrow (or whatever specialized asset) among them. The community then allocates that bow-and-arrow to the person most talented in its use.


The archer no longer is understood to have taken the property unto herself, rather, she is understood to have been allocated the tools of her trade for the benefit of the community. She is a steward of the assets, not a tyrant or a miser. Should the archer abuse the use of the bow-and-arrow they would be taken from her and given to someone else. Should someone more talented in the use of the tool be discovered, then the tools would be re-allocated to that individual.

Now suppose that the comparative advantages of each individual in the community were discovered and that each individual were allocated the capital best suited to them to steward for the sake of the community. Each person would be a steward over some set of assets, and would be accountable to the whole community for the appropriate use of those assets. Suppose also that one individual were discovered to have an uncanny ability to correctly identify the comparative advantage of all other individuals. To this wise and (let us assume) benevolent one is allocated the responsibility of allocating all other community assets. The community prospers through the wisdom of the Allocator, who appoints stewardship over assets.

Students of economics will recognize Hayek’s Use of Knowledge in Society within this parable. It turns out that the invisible-hand mechanism of the market is the benevolent and wise Allocator. Property is only held, in the long run, by the person who stewards it best, that is, who operates as the least-cost producer of goods desired by others because the property holder has a comparative advantage in employing that asset.

Of course there are all sorts of qualifiers that involve the theory of the firm and whatnot, and economics has been working out these details off and on for quite some time now, though not much was done between the early political economists and the 1950s when Alchian, Buchanan, Coase, and Demsetz (ABCD, with a nod to Epstein and Fama, please feel free to add to the list, new Twitter game) began to work out the economics of property rights.

Bruenig argues that all income could be reallocated according to any from among an infinite set of possible institutionally based distributions, without unjustly taking from some a claim to future income. He is theoretically correct in this I believe. But he has started from the wrong premise, that property is theft, and that the current distribution of property is therefore the consequence of injustice. I’m trying to be charitable, but Bruenig it seems may be perilously close to assuming himself the wisdom and benevolence of the Allocator.

Step back, surely the present allocation of property does reflect some injustices. Agreed. There are a great many appropriators, raving bullies, that fleece the community and enjoy luxury at the cost of others’ poverty. Many of those bullies are in Congress, or in Town Hall, or on the School Board, or on the local HOA, I would argue. Why would Bruenig entrust these institutions with the responsibility of enacting his preferred policies?

I think he is too romantic about those institutions. I think he sees top-down as an efficient approach to changing the world for the good. I think he means quite well.

But I think there is a pattern of thought that at once assumes that property is the consequence of top-down appropriation by a raving bully and that finds the solution to problems through top-down channels. It is the worldview that takes anarchic cooperation as its starting point, that then can understand the invisible-hand mechanism’s function in allocating resources efficiently (and peacefully!), that also is very suspicious of the top-down approach.

It is the combination of the Virginia School’s robust political economy that combines Hayek’s insights of the Knowledge Problem, The Coasian insights about property, the Public Choice understanding of politics and rent seeking, and now also the Bloomington Workshop’s insights about concentric orders, all seen from the perspective of a positive research program in anarchy that leads me to most of my ethical conclusions. That and a hefty dose of pacifism, with a shot of grace.

Bruenig is wrong about property. Workers are not atomistically interchangeable. We have specific talents. The only way to get rich, apart from political abuse, is by making other people better off. The right way to deal with injustices is not by overturning the whole system. Rather, the right approach is to work under the system, to subvert it, to be an agent of grace and mercy. Be the exogenous shock you want to see in the world. Stop blaming other people. Yeah, they are wicked, but so am I, if I’m honest with myself.