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.

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