Experimentation and Taboo

We live in a golden age of experimentation. Experimentation in technology, in business models, in ideas, in lifestyles; the long tail of each has grown very long indeed and continues to grow. If Deirdre McCloskey is right, it was the very fact that we were inspired to tinker, that old taboos were beaten back for a time, which is responsible for our present enrichment.

There is no denying, however, that experimentation has risks. Marie Curie ended up giving her life for the knowledge she was willing to acquire first-hand. The sexual revolution forced many to learn hard lessons about sexually transmitted diseases. The 20th century experiments in vast social engineering projects gave us the greatest mass murderers and mass famines in history.

Nassim Taleb is among those who believes that public morality, especially the very old and institutionalized sort, developed as a kind of risk management mechanism. In a nonlinear system, very small changes can make the difference between stability and catastrophe, just as the one last step over the edge of a cliff results in a sudden and drastic change in velocity. By Taleb’s reckoning, taboos develop to warn people away from the proverbial cliffs—cliffs which, in social and biological areas, are not visible to the naked eye the way actual cliffs are.

Some taboos categorically should not be crossed because there really are cliffs on the other side. Others can be approached, and even crossed somewhat, in exchange for a bit of knowledge—a peek into what makes them wise. Still others deserve the progressive’s scorn as mere superstition, perhaps relevant in some earlier era when the topography was different, but either way best done away with.

Here’s the trillion-dollar question: how do you tell which is which?

Take David’s latest musings for example:

On the one hand, on the free market of exchange, we learn very quickly what is prudent and what is not prudent. On the other hand, the expense for learning prudence can be very high for the individuals who become teaching moments for the rest of us, that is, contracting diseases, dying accidentally, unwanted pregnancy, etc., to speak nothing of the vast emotional world opened up in sexual activity.

I see this post as being about the middle scenario—taboos that have to be wrestled with to a certain extent before you can internalize their wisdom.

Virtue itself is like this. All of us have to find it for ourselves, to a greater or lesser extent. This unavoidably involves trial and error in the choices we make and the moral frames we operate within. Trial and error within certain parameters is almost guaranteed to be fruitful. Taboo places bounds on that process, or is supposed to. The middle-type taboos are softer bounds than the more categorical ones.

Softer because breaching them involves risk, but not certain catastrophe. Most people do not travel very far into these boundaries. As David says, some fraction of our fellow travelers into the forests of taboo are damaged by it, taking the scars with them for the rest of their lives, their bad luck serving as “teaching moments” for the rest of us.

Some venture too deep into the forest and are much less likely to come back again.

And yet others become prophets for us, blazing a trail towards real moral or material progress.

But since taboo is what provides the boundaries, it is very hard—perhaps impossible—to tell beforehand who is the prophet and who the fool or madman, who is in the funhouse and who is confronting “the historically given moral ideals of your community” in order to “wrestle with them honestly, without selfishness, in the context” of a life and the lives of those around them. Where should we seek to find wisdom and where are we likely to encounter nothing but trash?

Answering those questions, and making the answers your own, is the responsibility that comes with moral adulthood. The great virtue of an open society is that it allows more people to seek moral adulthood in their own way, a discovery process from which all of us can benefit. The great pitfall is that it leaves us vulnerable to far more cliffs.

Which side of that risk-reward equation you focus on, and whether you see both sides at all, goes a long way towards determining your political and moral predilections.

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Some Seeds Planted Never Bear Fruit

It is the 25th anniversary of the release of Reading, Writing And Arithmetic by The Sundays, one of my favorite records (absence of the Oxford Comma notwithstanding). I will not make the case that it is one of the greatest records ever produced because I am well-aware that I was a tender lad of seventeen years when the record was released, and I had just met a very fair lass who was very tall and lithe and had very straight brown hair. She was also the premier DJ at the local teen dance club, where I was not allowed to go because the roads were too icy but she liked me anyway and we started dating and working together at the YWCA, and oh!

Records were still awesome in 1990, just before digital storage swallowed analog whole, with music still designed and produced for two sides, five songs a side, maybe a sixth on side 2 (I preferred side 2 to side B because B-sides were for singles, and I had consciously rejected pop music for the haute couture of LPs). When I spied the curious black and white cover featuring what looked to be fossils, with the simple print “The Sundays” on it, I bought it, put it on my turntable, and began to participate in the baring of a young woman’s soul for the very first time.

David Gavurin’s austere arpeggio-style guitar accompaniment is reminiscent of early R.E.M. records, but the tones he chooses are a mellow medium for Harriet Wheeler’s pen and ink vocal stylings, which wander up and down, in and out, lighting and darkening things of the female spirit beforehand unknown to me, and it was just in time for help in understanding this fragile little girl whom everyone loved and bounced around and wanted to play their favorite dance song. She’d oblige if it was Throwing Muses or Pet Shop Boys, or, later, Cocteau Twins. You know, all the greats. Yes, I bought all those records, and they are beautiful to me because of her.

I was raised steeped in the ideology that men and women were, except for obvious biological characteristics, indistinguishable in attributes. It was taught to me in school (I swear this is true and not a metaphor) that the differences in the times of the 100-meter dash between men and women were a correlating measurement to the oppression of women. For example, a nation’s women who ran the 100-meter dash one second slower than their men were living in a nation less oppressive than a nation’s women who ran the 100-meter dash two seconds slower than their men. Soon, and very soon, all oppression would be overcome, and women and men would run the 100-meter dash together (cf. G.I. Jane).

To hear Harriet Wheeler plaintively ask me if I know that desire is a terrible thing, the worst she can find, but she relies on hers, framing it as a particularly female experience with “I kicked a boy till he cried,” was liberating. To hear it supported by a man accompanying so attentively was inspiring. This thing men and women have is mostly inexpressible, passionate, wild, and unbridled, which means that we create pain in our midst, and the pain wants expression, adding another layer to the inexpressible fires, till she climaxes.

The thing about vinyl records on a turntable is the ending. “Joy,” right after “My Finest Hour,” is followed by a moment of that wonderful vinyl sound, which is almost indescribable, then a bump, the mechanical wizardry engaging the gears of the turntable, lifting the needle from the turntable to return whence it came, heard aurally through the same speakers as were, moments ago, the rhythms of her joy, surrounding us in warm, vibrant tones. It is a much more satisfying denouement following our climaxing with her in joy than the clanking of a CD changer within a metal box over there on the shelf or the strict digital silence of file storage devices.

Reading, Writing And Arithmetic achieves climax. Unfortunately, the following productions, although good, do not bear the fruit hoped for by the planting of this first record. Who knows why? Sometimes seeds planted do not bear fruit, no matter how magical they are.

Sundays-Reading-Writing--10865

Where Two Or Three Are Gathered

Where two or three are gathered together, there is public morality. It was an interesting assertion, which I will hereby declare to be a tacit fact, when, over at Euvoluntary Exchange, Samuel Wilson wrote concerning the amateur practice of BDSM (with relation to 50 Shades of Grey, of course), “…expert spanking advice for consenting adults” [emphasis added].

Our laws have not caught up to our public morality, such as it is. There are still swaths of our society fighting to maintain certain moral institutions, especially those governing human sexuality, but the writing is on the wall. We get it: morality is a social construct, and you can’t impose your morality on me. Never truer words, etc.

Let’s draw some lines, shall we, just to stretch a little bit. Let’s say the age of consent is 25 years old; artificially high, I know, but even so, with respect to sex, are we willing to give over public morality entirely to them who are merely old enough to consent with each other that the exchange which is about to occur between the two or three of them is approaching euvoluntary? In practice, yes, we most certainly are; is it wise to do so? Those who are a little older, and a little worse for the wear, might chafe a little, rubbing some callused sores which might be useful toward the instruction of the young. That is, one might be exchanging enduring personal happiness in the long run for a brief, hot blast of happiness in the moment. Risks, rewards.

On the one hand, on the free market of exchange, we learn very quickly what is prudent and what is not prudent. On the other hand, the expense for learning prudence can be very high for the individuals who become teaching moments for the rest of us, that is, contracting diseases, dying accidentally, unwanted pregnancy, etc., to speak nothing of the vast emotional world opened up in sexual activity.

I’ll make an assertion, then quickly back away from it: public morality, though discriminatory, is intended to be for the public good. I suppose that the overseers of public morality have a habit of not only discriminating against classes of human beings, but also robbing them of dignity in the process of doing so.

Perhaps public morality is best left to private institutions, as long as they are allowed to participate in the agora, calling out wisdom in the marketplace with sweet talk, beckoning market-goers in an invitation to find rest and comfort in age-old wisdom behind their doors, coddled by discipline, instructed by canon toward the goal of long-lasting happiness and bliss.

Otherwise, let freedom spank.

A Farewell to Conspiracies

At common law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime. I would add in many secretive government activities too, such as spying, which are crimes as far as the victims are concerned. We won’t be seeing them very often in the near future. In fact, that future is already here – just not evenly distributed.

Last month a new software program was uploaded to Github called Darkleaks. It’s billed as a decentralized auction for information. What that means in practice is that someone with access to information (such as the Pentagon Papers, a movie script, or the NOC List) can sell that information without meeting the buyer or revealing their identity. The sale is handled entirely online in a trustless manner. And the auction is distributed – it cannot be shut down any more than Bittorrent or Tor can be.

And the first auction is now underway, as I first learned from Andrea Castillo at Mercatus. The Silk Road 2.0 website was shut down by law enforcement, but now one of the administrators of the website (or so they claim to be) has popped up offering server data for sale. Transaction histories, user names, passwords, and source code are for sale. To the extent any of this information can be traced back to real world identities, it offers the possibility of exposing the buyers and sellers that participated in that dark market.

The technical details of how the auction works are interesting, but Andrea explains them well enough. I suggest reading her piece for details on how trust is established between buyer and seller under such unusual circumstances. What’s more interesting to me is how this technical innovation will affect society.

Lets examine the characteristics of this seller, and think about what it means going forward. This person is not authorized by any entity (certainly not the bosses of the Silk Road 2.0 website, or its users) to divulge this information. They simply have access to it, and are willing to trade that access (in the form of an upload) for money. And they are doing it in such a way they can deny they’re the ones providing the access. This auction could be initiated by anyone with the appropriate server access (including unauthorized hackers).

Think of all the organizations in the world that depend on secrecy to function, and use fear and force (whether legal or illegal) to make non-ideological members keep the secrets. Mafia families have accountants and secretaries (and also unreliable family members). Spy agencies and large corporations have many thousands of employees. Even ideological organizations like ISIS or Al Qaeda will have to deal with alienated members looking to get out and make a couple bucks doing it.

Further, the software used to list an auction runs on regular personal computers. Anyone with the technical skill to collect useful information in the first place will have the skill necessary to list an auction. The primary barrier to entry is that only those with decent operational security (using one-time email addresses and such) will be able to use this system with a low risk of getting caught. But with the financial incentive the auction provides, many can acquire these skills.

In essence, there’s no real barrier to auctions such as this from becoming a widespread practice. And there are a number of uses I can foresee immediately. Governments around the world are known to hoard zero-day vulnerabilities in major software (that is, methods of hacking in software systems that aren’t generally known to the security profession). These same governments also create hacking tools. Knowledge of both of these is very commercially valuable and would likely produce “good” auction results. So would lists of spies in foreign jurisdictions.

Criminal organizations depend heavily on their activities remaining secret, or at least keeping law enforcement divided and disorganized. If interested and wealthy members of a society made a practice of buying this information and releasing it to public news agencies (so that political organization could rally to defeat the criminals), this could make it very hard to organize crime. It would also be hard on the politicians and members of the judiciary who may have abetted the criminal organization’s activities.

Corporate whistleblowers will also now have a means of releasing information, making some money, and not losing their jobs. (Unless the whistle-blow causes their corporate employers to be shut down entirely I suppose) This will prove very tempting to many people who might feel their employers are up to no good, and for whom the money is just the kick in the pants they need to ‘do something’.

The list goes on, and readers should feel welcome to add more ideas in the comments.

Andrea makes the argument in her post that “defensive purchasing” of the information might be something that some governments or criminal organizations might engage in, but she misses the point that defensive purchasing will be totally ineffective. There’s nothing that prevents the information from being sold a second time. After all, information can be copied an infinite number of times. The seller doesn’t “lose” his copy when he makes a copy for the buyer. If Monsanto buys an auction that claims to divulge some ugly corporate practice, they’ll make the seller some money and then the seller can just re-auction the same information next week. Defensive purchasing just makes the seller richer while buying the target of the leak no additional security. If a seller is determined to maximize their own income, they’ll keep selling the same information over and over until someone makes it public (making future auctions pointless). And so every auction game ends eventually in total transparency.

The long term effects of this new reality are not certain. On the one hand, criminal and abusive conspiracies will never get very large or old. Each additional person who knows the secret is an increased risk of betrayal, and the knowledge end-game will drive rational actors to betray first and at least make a buck off it. This will reduce crime and also (hopefully) corruption in government.

The “downside” of this change is that all enforceable contracts will have to rely on the public courts, which means that the government will suddenly have a really big advantage in stomping out any sort of activity it doesn’t like. You may think that sounds generally like a good thing, but imagine a government that decided to outlaw things we today consider legal and safe activities (and ones you enjoy). If criminal organizations are so beset by internal betrayals that they cannot function, then even black markets won’t be an option for you. The government, as long as it retains the support of the voters and maintains the monopoly of legitimate police and Courts, will have a lot more power to regulate our lives.

Somehow I don’t think that’s the end result the anarchists that programmed Darkleaks were planning on, but then, they’re good coders, not good political scientists. And this is how I see it playing out.

Actually It’s About Ethics in Arbitrage Opportunities

One of the more fun classic economics papers is Radford’s “The Economic Organization of a P.O.W. Camp“.

The key paragraph:

We reached a transit camp in Italy about a fortnight after capture and received ¼ of a Red Cross food parcel each a week later. At once exchanges, already established, multiplied in volume. Starting with simple direct barter, such as a nonsmoker giving a smoker friend his cigarette issue in exchange for a chocolate ration, more complex exchanges soon became an accepted custom. Stories circulated of a padre who started off round the camp with a tin of cheese and five cigarettes and returned to his bed with a complete parcel in addition to his original cheese and cigarettes; the market was not yet perfect. Within a week or two, as the volume of trade grew, rough scales of exchange values came into existence. Sikhs, who had at first exchanged tinned beef for practically any other foodstuff, began to insist on jam and margarine. It was realized that a tin of jam was worth l/2 lb. of margarine plus something else; that a cigarette issue was worth several chocolate issues, and a tin of diced carrots was worth practically nothing.

Let’s think about that padre for a moment.

Russ Roberts always insisted to those of us who took his class that we assume the padre had been a fair dealer; he hadn’t lied and he hadn’t strong-armed anyone. The exchanges were voluntary. If so, Roberts, asked us: did he make his trading partners better off? If so, how?

The quote already makes it clear. It’s about information. If you know that someone doesn’t smoke, but likes jam, you have an opportunity. You can go to them and say–I will give you a few spoonfulls of jam if you will give me all of your cigarettes. Since they don’t care about the cigarettes (perhaps they are even disgusted by them, and would have just thrown them in the garbage) they are perfectly happy to make the trade.

You still have most of the jam, and now you have a lot more cigarettes. If you then go and find someone who feels the equal and opposite way about cigarettes and jam as the first trading partner, you can double up on your jam, too.

The key thing here is information. You have it, they don’t. You are not making them worse off with your trade—on the contrary, they have something they want, and got rid of something they either didn’t want, or didn’t want as much as what you gave them. In the narrow world of the exchange, it was mutually beneficial—that was Roberts’ main point.

The reason that middlemen are so hated, and commerce in general treated as morally suspect, is because from the outside or in retrospect we can see that the padre’s trading partners weren’t made as better off as they could have been—if they’d known all of the information that the padre did.

There are two scenarios that come to mind that would have allowed the padre to get such a windfall:

  1. He was simply a shrewd bargainer. He was careful to tease out what people cared about before even introducing the idea of a trade, and then made his first offer on the terms most favorable for himself. He got what he wanted because people aren’t very careful about such things by default.
  2. He had most of the information he needed about everyone up front, from conversations he had had with them before the parcels even arrived. Based on that, for every trade he already had another trading partner in mind for what he was getting.

A combination of, or middle position between, the two is of course possible. Probable, even.

But I think people have different moral intuitions about 1 than 2. 1 feels like basic prudence; maybe it’s a bit aggressive but both people are on relatively equal footing. The padre’s trading partner could demand better terms, if they’d just thought about the possibility of using what they had for future trades. In short, the failure is largely of their imagination; the padre could have helped the guy out by pointing this out, but few people think that’s his duty.

But the second scenario feels a bit like dishonesty. The padre knows with some certainty that his trading partner could get better deals elsewhere, but says nothing. His taking advantage of this knowledge and being sure to get in with the first offer feels like taking advantage. If only everyone had the information that the padre had, the whole group could be made much better off than they end up being. But the padre chooses to keep it to himself so that he can maximize his windfall.

There’s some truth to this intuition, especially in small group settings and among family members. If we all horded information to try and maximize our individual private benefit in every context, group action would be all but impossible to any meaningful degree. Even the conduct of business depends to no small degree to those willing to give in an open and uncalculated way.

But negotiation, hard sells, and prudent bargaining have their place. In a time where commerce has connected businesses and billions of strangers the world over, that place is quite large.

Moreover, the information that the padre obtained is hard to get. Especially on a global scale. Providing the incentive to uncover it is part of what leads to long run betterment for everyone.

Radford’s article gets to this point. In the quoted paragraph, you can already see that people have learned to be more prudent after the initial rounds of trading.

Later in the article, the prisoners converge on cigarettes as the common currency. They list what they have in terms of cigarettes, so the information that was precious when the padre had it is now trivially easy to come by.

In such a situation, how is arbitrage even possible?

Let’s say that someone figured out—or just speculated—that there might be a week that the parcels failed to come, and stored their parcels in order to sell at a premium on such a week. They certainly make a profit if they are right in their guess or their information is reliable.

And look at how much better this is than the padre: we have someone who takes all the up-front risk on themselves; it may turn out that they delayed consumption for no gain at all. But they’re performing a valuable service for the community: hedging against the possibility that there will be a shortage in the future. And they only get compensated for their efforts if they are right.

“The profit motive” is extremely socially valuable in very specific contexts. This is such a simple point, but so many opponents and would-be friends of commerce ignore one or both parts of it. Some refuse to see is that it is valuable, and others refuse to see that it is valuable in very specific contexts.

If you ever find yourself talking past an ideological opponent on this matter, I implore you to look at what has been said on both sides and ask whether either or both of you have ignored some part of this point.

Building Communities of Values, Part I

We left off our story in early May 2007, (and that essay was mostly written that fall), when, in the aftermath of the French presidential election I first became fully convinced that people existed whose genuinely held ends I did not consider ends.  Shortly thereafter Michael Ignatieff delivered the Isaiah Berlin Lecture at Wolfson College Oxford.  (It is a measure of the significance of that speech that a reasonably extensive Google search has so far failed to find a transcript, or even a definite date, in part no doubt, because subsequent events would make a Michael Ignatieff lecture on political judgement vaguely embarrassing.)  This was my first introduction to Isaiah Berlin, in whose tradition I mostly place myself, though I think the major theme of his work, the justification of a liberal pluralist order, is basically a failure.  In any case I would like to start with one of Berlin’s definition of Politics:
Since men are beings made by nature to live in communities, their communal purposes are the ultimate values from which the rest are derived, or with which their ends as individuals are identified. Politics – the art of living in a polis – is not an activity which can be dispensed with by those who prefer private life : it is not like seafaring or sculpture which those who do not wish to do so need not undertake. Political conduct is intrinsic to being a human being at a certain stage of civilization, and what it demands is intrinsic to living a successful human life – Isaiah Berlin, The Originality of Machiavelli, [1953]
So what does the art of living in a polis entail?  To my understanding, it is the attempt to make the norms and institutions which structure our lives compatible with our ends, that is, reflective of our values.  These kind of structures surround us with powerful incentives, such that generally it is only possible for a person to live contrary to prevailing norms, standards and institutions with effort and attention, both of which are limited quantities.  Our understanding of willpower is nascent, however a key early finding is that people, by and large, work unconsciously, and conscious decisions deplete a limited reservoir of ability to override our unconscious desires.  The key to living a life compatible with your values is to minimize the number of decisions that you need to make consciously.  Since you will, as a practical manner, only physically be able to dissent from the prevailing Welterschauung of your community on a limited number of issues, tragedy may only be avoided where it is possible to surround yourself with structures that make living your values effortless.  The full realization of your values may only be lived in community with people who share them.
Now you were born into a society with existing structures and norms, which embody within them certain trade-offs: between positive and negative liberties, between work and leisure, between individual and corporate ends and so on.  What you cannot know a priori, and almost certainly cannot ever know with any degree of completeness, is which trade-offs are actually being embodied in any given structure.  Structures, even considered in isolation, are often multivalent, and when interacting with other structures and norms it can quickly become practically impossible to fully specify everything that a given structure does.  Thus even if you know what kind of life you would like to live, there is no way, on your own, to determine what kind of structures and norms would best provide a stable equilibrium that allows that kind of life, or even if such an equilibrium exists, much less to find a way to that life from where you are.
  However, while it is impossible for an individual to know all of that, it is often possible for a single person to determine, with reasonable accuracy, the way that a certain interaction makes certain trade-offs.  It is therefore possible for a group of people, none of whom know the entirety of any particular institution, to determine collectively what kind of trade-offs and values that it embodies.  And a large group of people, none of whom know any constituent institution in detail, may be able to determine a basically coherent vision of what a good society looks like.  It is therefore necessary, for a person to live their values, to find a group of people who share them, and to a great extent to defer to that group.  However this leaves us with a problem.  It is often difficult to determine exactly what you yourself value, and the extent to which you will be willing to make certain trade-offs can look very different depending on how those trade-offs are framed.  It is not uncommon to find that a trade-off you though would make ahead of time suddenly seem unappealing when the time comes to actually make that decision.  If you are opaque, even to yourself, can you, with substantially less knowledge, determine what someone else values?  What a group values?

Who Pays for the Costs of the System?

This is part I of II of my response to Adam here.

It doesn’t seem to me that opportunism is particular to either system. Though systematic cynicism may yield insights, serving as a kind of critical theory for identifying fault lines, I don’t think that’s why we have the systems in the first place. We trust and make laws and enforce them because that’s the cost we have to pay to get what we actually want; which is peace and prosperity in which to flourish.

Part of the cost are the specific fault lines for opportunism that a given institution creates. But that is only part of the story.

An important part, of course. But I don’t think the radicals are right in their belief that it is the most important part.

(emphasis mine)

Well, that’s a matter of perspective. The costs are certainly the system, there is no cleaving the benefits from the costs, there is no unalloyed good, there is payment to be made, pigs must be killed so I can enjoy my meal. The question, of course, is who bears the brunt? Who has to pay for the peace and prosperity wanted by all? Whose head is getting twisted off?

Sureshbhai Patel had to pay the price for someone else’s safety.

The caller early Friday morning reports an individual walking on the street near his home. “He was doing it yesterday and today…He’s just on foot. He’s just kind of walking around close to the garage.”

The operator asks what the man looks like. “He’s a skinny black guy, he’s got a toboggan on, he’s really skinny.”

He adds: “I’ve lived here four years and I’ve never seen him before.”

Sureshbhai Patel had only arrived in the United States about a week earlier to help care for his grandson. Patel took a walk each morning, according to his son, Chirag Patel, an engineer who recently bought a home in Madison.

The caller says: “I’m just kind of following from a distance now.” He says he is about to go to work and is nervous to leave his wife with the man walking around outside.

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