Proto-emo Has a Mid-Life Crisis

Adam Gurri and I were chatting over a recent post of his, and I found myself saying things that sounded like something an adult might say. Open in my tabs were the complete works of Tool, a Dead Milkmen song, and one from the very arcane My Dad Is Dead. Until very recently, in my mind’s eye, I was still wearing Ocean Pacific short pants and my Vans skateboarding shoes, riding the boardwalk down by one of the white beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, banging on the door of a cop’s car to see if he’d harass us (those were the days), then taking off down the culvert with my friends.

This same ideology I took to college in Chicago, where it is very cold, and I learned to be very disappointed, riding the Green Line through the Cabrini Green development, thanking God for my luck in not being born there, cursing with the same mind my luck that I was only lower-middle class and not destined for the Gold Coast. Fortunately, records were being churned out at an incredible pace, reinforcing these childish notions. Tons of records. Great records. One lashes out in futility against downtown Chicago, and one is rewarded with another great Pale Saints record.

You’ll notice in the comments section a note by Virginia Postrel that this has been done before, citing 1936. Adam Gurri will reflexively cite the Gutenberg Press, and so forth. I imagine there was a similar crisis when someone invented a faster way to bake a cuneiform text. The children have children and are forced to think about childhood. The trick, of course, is to avoid repristination, that is, creating for someone else a present that is the hoped-for past. Auto-recursion, you see, will trap your children, and they will lash out in futility against the cold downtown in disappointment until they learn to lash out against you.

The occasion for this meandering post is an offhand remark made by the admirable Spivonomist about our shared worldview. He coined a lovely phrase, in application also to me, “sarcasm across the chasm.” See, in my mind’s eye, though I have been a professional for twenty years now, I have only just recently dressed myself in grown-up clothing, putting off my Vans and putting on brown or black oxfords, as the case requires, learning to listen a tad more while speaking a lot less. I said “learning.” The enraged futility can only produce so many endorphins, and I no longer associate them with happiness, just a feigned world-weariness. It’s not even real. Banging on the cop’s car door wasn’t anything in the way of genuine indignation: the records told me to do that.

Like the HAL-9000, I can tell you exactly when I became self-aware, almost to the day: it was summertime, 1986; I was 13 years old. Madonna was on the radio, and I eschewed her music (but not her body) for an obscure, angry, little frontman from Athens, GA, the great Michael Stipe of R.E.M., well before he started trying to write lyrics to be understood or even deciphered by the public. My sister took the cassette tape out and put Rainbow Brite in, and I struck her, and therein realized the freedom afforded by anger.

Alas, the wheels will grind anger out, slowly and finely, to make a flour for a delicious cosmic cake. Many who have stooped to drink from the sweet Pierian do not have the time or the money to drink deeply “enough,” whatever enough may be, considering the impossibility of being an expert at anything these days. Narrow expertises can be mastered in short order, through much tribulation, but are quickly discovered as insufficient for a career. That’s where crass politics steps in, the jostling of shoulders for a place at the trough to change the world forever, and occasionally talent prevails (does it? Everything tastes like ash nowadays), but more likely failure and disappointment will rule, and another great record will reward.

Wisdom fits in here, somewhere, not the “good judgment” wisdom, but the “I’ve suffered through this once or twice before” wisdom, the one that begins to tolerate imperfection and recalcitrance. I’ve heard that there is a wisdom that learns to distinguish between those who are imperfect and the imperfection they foist on us, in order to be able to fully love an imperfect person, but I’m nowhere near achieving that kind of zen.

YouTube has made it easier to revisit my childhood, even so far as to re-watch the television commercials which delayed the gratification of Saturday morning cartoons. Nevertheless, there remains a measure of nostalgia, and I like it. Endorphins do, indeed, flow, but they now create a lens for observation of things I might have been through a few times, at once making my sarcasm more delightful and also less-used. The wistfulness of nostalgia is gone for me, and I’m glad of it. Now nostalgia buffers that enraged futility which is so much a driver of idealism and ideology into something more useful. In my circles we say, “approaching an anxious world with a non-anxious presence,” as impossible an ideal as any, but far more self-aware of its limitations than anything that seeks to actively affect the world.

When I riffle through my record collection, I am more inclined to turn each one over individually, looking over it, and I can feel myself yield up a kind-of smile, recalling the context of acquiring that particular record, whom I was dating, the measure of fear I had toward the world–more inclined to do that than to listen to the music lest I discover that it is not as great as I believed it to be.

Happily putting on oxfords for the young people: this is the reward in being ground out slowly and finely. It goes on even after abject failure, poor lass.

An Unfinished and Imagined Conversation

Yesterday I had the good fortune of meeting a very wise and distinguished scholar and sitting with her for a spell. The following is how one conversation ended and how it might have continued.

Me: There is a young writer I had been following whose career has recently taken off, but it seems to me to have been for the worse. She was an excellent and careful writer within her area of expertise, but now all she does is churn out hit piece after hit piece, and it is clear from the content of those pieces that she has not bothered to read much of anything by the people she attacks.

Her: Her employer has taken a drastic turn for the worse. I don’t see how it can survive.

Me: It will be worse if it does survive. A writer like her needs mentors. Experienced people with principles who will not let her print a word without doing her due diligence. Instead they’re bringing out the worst in her, nurturing a mediocre partisan crowd-pleaser.

Her: You’re right that a good environment is needed. I only ever had one article published by her employer, years ago, and the editing was fantastic. They made me work for it, let me tell you. The fact-checker, who was excellent, went on to get a PhD.

Me: She definitely does not have that. As far as I can tell most of the other people there aren’t much older than she is, and what they want is exactly what she delivers: pieces that partisans love, and opponents love to hate.

Her: That is a shame.

Me: And the Internet, which can be such a wonder, and is how I even know of her in the first place, has made things much, much worse for her. These pieces she writes, they invite the worst from the groups she targets. And so, as is all too common, the very worst, scum-sucking juveniles from those groups go after her and say the vilest stuff, not just insults, but death and rape threats, that sort of thing. Truly disgusting. And in doing so, they make her feel that she has been righteous from the beginning. It’s a mutually reinforcing cycle and I think it’s very unlikely she’ll get out of it any time soon.

Her: It used to be that a young writer started at a paper and they were kept under the watchful eye of an old, experienced editor. This editor held them to a high standard, even if they had the most boring beat—which the new ones always did. But they learned!

Me: On the other hand I think there’s a tension here, and it gets to the heart of the story of the Great Enrichment. There’s two ways to look at that old news room. From one perspective, it is a place where apprentices are introduced to a craft by experienced practitioners. From another perspective, it is a place where the old are gatekeepers to the young and impose their way on them, as well as on the industry.

Her: Like the old craft and merchant guilds in Europe.

Me: Exactly.

Her: We’re definitely being too indulgent in golden age thinking. Yellow journalism has a history as long as journalism itself; from a certain point of view, longer.

Me: That’s always been my belief. I’ve never thought that journalism or news or what have you was in decline, because I honestly never thought the old system had much to recommend it.

Her: I think that’s a little too harsh to the old system. It produced a lot of writers and thinkers of quality.

Me: But it also seems hard to believe that we’re worse off now because of lowered barriers to entry.

Her: Well, think like an economist for a moment. Lowered barriers to entry make it possible for cheap, low quality competition to come in.

Me: It also makes high quality competition able to enter the market that might have been excluded because of the higher barriers. When Sam Hammond and I had a similar conversation, he pointed out that William F. Buckley was only 30 years old when he started National Review. Though Josiah Neeley quickly pointed out that Buckley also hired a lot of seasoned veterans, unlike the case with the young journalist we discussed.

Her: There’s something to Sam’s example though. The media industry has never stood still; it was changing in Buckley’s time. It doesn’t seem as dramatic now, compared to the Internet. But it was a big part of what was going on.

Me: All this aside, I still wonder about the narrative of apprenticeship as opposed to the narrative of liberation. Doesn’t the young journalist I mentioned show how the latter erodes the quality achieved by the former?

Her: The name of the game is experimentation. And the old quality rarely goes away. The last crowd at her employer were thrown out, but I’m sure they’ll turn up and some young writers will benefit from their experience somewhere. Meanwhile, maybe that institution has been gutted, but a thousand experiments crop up every day. The blog you and your friends created is a part of that.

Me: A very small and very obscure part.

Her: The old knowledge and skills are largely preserved, while new knowledge and new skills—and entirely new practices—are generated all the time. This is the strength of the liberated, dignified system of market-tested betterment.

Me: You know I agree with you. It’s just a shame to see someone so promising fall through the cracks.

Her: Of course. But you can only expect so much. We’re fallen creatures, and even the most virtuous of us are liable to stumble along the path.

Me: I’ll hold out hope that this is just a stumble, then.

At this point—long before it in fact—I had been monopolizing her time for too long, and we stood up to mingle with the group.

The Discovery of A Market

Adam Gurri, who kidnaps beloved pets and children in an effort to encourage us to post, has his Amish. Spivonomist has torched the earth. As for me, I see the world through the lens of children’s hockey programs.

Each little fiefdom has its rink or two, whereupon each Fall they charge, say, $700 per child to participate in their hockey program. Forever and ever, amen, $700 bought about 25 hours of ice time and a plastic participation trophy at the end of the season.

At the end of last season, my older son’s team finished second in our nearest fiefdom’s program, losing in the championship game 7-4, or something like that. Against a field of five or six teams, we were above average in our ability to score goals; that’s why we were in the championship game. Well, after the regular fiefdom season, some of the coaches enroll their teams, independently, in private tournaments, which are limited to other such teams.

It is important to note here, for the uninitiated, that these fiefdoms are called “house” leagues, as opposed to traveling all-star teams, which are called “select” teams, and not at all related to the torture of a “travel” team, which is for the insane.

Thus twenty or so house teams are competing against each other in a privately produced tournament. My son’s team met a team in the first game in the first round and were skunked 5-0. The score, had it not been for some miraculous goaltending on our part, could have been 12-0. We protested. “Surely this team is a select team!” we exclaimed, and demanded an investigation. Surely not: this team was a house team from a league in Wheatfield. “But Wheatfield doesn’t have a rink!”

Ah, but it does, a privately owned and operated rink.

We did double-takes amongst each other, each muttering to his neighbor, “There are private house leagues?”

At Wheatfield, for $800 per child, you buy about 50 hours of ice time, plus the enthusiasm of other free peoples who are interested in their children’s competitive and physical development, including competent and responsible coaching, minus the cheap plastic participation trophy, all of which made the decision to risk climbing the wall out of the fiefdom more than sensible. No wonder they skunked us! Compared to $700 for 25 hours of ice, along with the dour attitudes exhibited by us who were squeezed by the iron fist of the cabal of old men who were running the program “the way it was when we were kids,” well, need I say further?

News of this spread like wildfire. Fiefdoms emptied out; other private organizations were discovered. These private organizations began to compete with each other in mid-season for this flood of dollars. In addition to that, the region has seen the construction of, I think, six new pads of ice (a big number) within the last two years.

Instead of the usual “See ya next year” valediction, we now are putting our resources together, measuring each of the programs against each other, deciphering who might be coaching at what level and whether he is better for my child than this other coach, who is also very good. “Are you thinking about returning to the fiefdom?” is met with howls of derision.

I don’t know quite what this phenomenon is: the sudden discovery of a market by many buyers and the subsequent flooding of it, with the responding development of that market for the benefit of those paying to be in it. I’m sure it has a name and has been examined inside and out.

I’m looking forward to seeing my kid again, and I hope Adam Gurri has kept him healthy enough to play hockey next year.

Land of Sunshine

The missiles spared Sacramento. This confused a lot of folks. On its own, California was a nuclear superpower. Most of the Naval shipyards all the way from Mare Island clear down to 32nd Street in San Diego were either already outfitted for handling nuclear material or could be rapidly converted in wartime. Granted, California’s power and communications grids were, well, let’s go ahead and be generous and say that they weren’t particularly robust against enemy disruption. If you topple Sacramento, you gut the CA ARNG end strength. If you gut the ARNG end strength, the wide, beautiful beaches described by Walter Sobchak at Donny’s funeral are almost entirely free of pillboxes. Invading forces can waltz right in. But if Sacramento stands, every single armory will stand ready under titles 10 and 32 to repel enemy invaders. With the discipline the Guard forces have gained since their Iraq mobilizations, gone are the slapstick Mayberry days. The US Army National Guard is nearly indistinguishable from regular Army in terms of combat readiness. Sparing Sacramento was more than a mere tactical blunder, it was utter stupidity writ large. “What gives?” was the most common question I heard from the landlubber nomads I took up with from time to time, at least once they discovered that I was former military. It was one of the first questions Anika asked after she caught up with me two days outside the Louisiana plantation where her beloved pet rat was taken from her and fed to the merciless steel teeth of the mulcher. Continue reading “Land of Sunshine”

Looking the wrong way down the telescope

Via William A. Clark (Flickr)
Via William A. Clark (Flickr)

This is my first post here, so let me begin in the manner in which I hope to continue: with some backhanded praise. Adam Gurri’s concept and critique of “telescopic morality” is a fantastic rhetorical flourish. It evokes the idea of a moral trompe l’oeil, a trick in which we erroneously transmute distant moral concerns into near ones. It’s also a great entry point into some excellent analysis of our relationship to information, and our general irascibility on social media. If you haven’t read the article that lays out the idea, you should. So far, so good.

It is also what a certain kind of academic might describe, archly, as “problematic”. It rests on twin foundations: first, that there are relevant moral distinctions based on proximity (literal or metaphorical); and, second, that telescopic morality tends towards the Sisyphean, since it encourages ineffectual or irrelevant moral actions. I disagree with both of those propositions.

But there’s more to this discussion than those two propositions alone. The rip tide is a suspicion about consequentialist ethical systems (or perhaps just utilitarianism). That’s a much larger battle, but I would like to try to set down what I regard as a limiting principle, no matter what your ethical proclivities – numbers cannot be ignored in in any ethical construct, particularly as applied to charity.

Near, far, wherever you are…

Though it’s not explicit, Adam’s critique of “telescopic morality” is really a critique of Peter Singer’s “expanding circle”. For the unfamiliar, Singer is a utilitarian in the bullet-biting mold. He is famous for many things, but the most relevant for current purposes is his admonition to give generously to charity, particularly in the developing world. “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle” is a quick and easy introduction.[1]

The “expanding circle” refers to the expanding scope of ethical concern – beginning traditionally with the individual, then the family, class, nation, and so on to humanity at large.[2] Interestingly, one of Singer’s first arguments in favor of expanding the circle is made on a pragmatic basis: that it is now possible to effect change on a global basis in a way that was impossible in the past.[3] This is the inverse of Adam’s view—that it’s essentially impossible to make a difference—so I’ll revisit it in a moment.

The second argument is that the interconnection of human interests (think global trade; think global warming) leads ineluctably to the development of a global ethic. There is something to this idea. Though we may not meet the Bangladeshi that has sewn our t-shirt in the way we could once have known a village tailor, do we owe them any less an obligation of community? This is the kernel of the much maligned, over-used, but not entirely inaccurate metaphor of the “global village”.

From these precepts one could build a fairly strong set of claims about the ethical value of distant persons. One could also make strong claims about the importance of distant persons based on fundamental rights, or working off some Kantian imperative of universalizability, or perhaps even through the virtue of compassion. Yet I don’t think we need to go all the way to the fundamental equality of man to embrace “telescopic morality.”

No, all we need to do is demonstrate that distant persons have some non-trivial value and then let math do the rest of the work. Getting over this hurdle is fairly easy. Whatever you think about the methodological foundation of ethics, our collective ethical instincts have some pulling power.[4] And you will be hard pressed to find allies if your starting position is that distant persons have zero value. If you accept that distant persons have some ethical value then, as the old joke goes, you’re just haggling over the price.

Sisyphus pushes the rock downhill

And when you’re haggling about the price, you’ll want to think about the exchange rate. There’s a reason I say “prices” and “exchange rates.” The language of finance is a neat little heuristic in the debate about charitable interventions. It’s probably the easiest entry point to effective altruism because it provides a ready-made language in which to talk about the relative merits of two charitable options.

Try this comparison about the relative merits of Make a Wish and VillageReach, for example, stolen shamelessly from a brilliant post by Jason Kuznicki:

“One wish [from Make a Wish] for one relatively privileged (albeit distinctly unlucky) first-world kid. Or fifteen hundred years of life [from VillageReach] — for children who will otherwise die.”

Or, two examples from Giving What We Can:

“[T]he UK’s National Health Service considers it cost-effective to spend up to £20,000 (over $30,000) for a single year of healthy life saved. […] Against Malaria Foundation distributes mosquito nets at a cost of only $2,300 per life saved.”

“For the same amount of money as training one guide dog, we could instead completely cure over 2,000 people of blindness.”

These kinds of results should be obvious in the developed world. The low-hanging fruit has already been picked in first world countries, and you can leverage the enormous purchasing power differential when spending dollars (or euros, or pounds) in the third world.

So, the question to ask yourself is how much more do you care about your neighbors than those in foreign countries? This is what I like to call your “personal ethical exchange rate”. Take a moment, if you’re willing, to set an exchange rate between the interests of hypothetical neighbor A and hypothetical distant person B.

Do you care thousands of times more about A than B? Tens of thousands of times more? Because when it comes to the relative efficiency of local versus foreign interventions, that’s the order of magnitude we’re talking about. There are few, if any, who are prepared to discount distant lives quite so heavily. There may be such people, but I think they are forced to defend a far more difficult proposition than merely “one should favor one’s neighbors.”

We can’t be heroes

When Adam argues that telescopic morality is ineffectual, he is (on my reading at least) arguing that the scale of certain problems is so great that individual interventions are immaterial. A key quote:

“The crusader on behalf of the greater good who fights their hardest on behalf of policies whose outcomes they cannot hope to actually measure is nothing compared to the everyday citizen who does not hesitate to help pick up the pieces after a disaster. Hell, the activist-crusader is nothing compared to the neighbor who helps clear up the snow after a blizzard.”

Adam is tallying efforts like those of VillageReach and Against Malaria against the totality of problems such as child health and malaria infection in the developing world. Those problems seem to be insurmountable or, at least, of a scale much larger than, say, building local community networks.

However, there seems to me to be no clear reason why one would measure each intervention only in terms of progress (with respect to some arbitrarily defined “problem”), rather than on a standalone basis. I regard each choice as a kind of ethical unit—an object of discrete analysis—and one which may have its own merits or demerits.[5] That choice should not be thought of as just another block on a progress bar, its value determined by how many percentage points it has brought you closer to 100. (By analogy, if asked whether you would rather have paid down 1% of your mortgage or 5% of your credit card, looking only at the percentages would be silly.)

But even so, there’s plenty of evidence that seemingly insurmountable problems can be overcome. Smallpox has been eradicated, and nearly 1 billion people have risen out of extreme poverty.[6] Our actions in distant places have a distinct, measurable outcome. Those results are no less distinct or measurable because they are not directly observed by us. None of this is to say that there aren’t important debates around the effectiveness of aid. But those debates are founded on a shared assumption that helping distant persons is a worthwhile goal if it can, in fact, be achieved.

The consequences of virtue

All that I have said above is intensely focused on outcomes. It’s the tallying of results. If that sticks in your craw, as I imagine it might in Adam’s, it may be because your system of ethics is based on who people are rather than what they do. You might be more interested in virtue than in results. And you might think a person’s place in their community is a better measure of their ethics than some arid accounting of global benefits.

I am not a virtue ethicist in any traditional sense, so I can’t honestly say I find that point of view persuasive. But I am not hostile to it. It falls, for me, into the “reasonable minds may disagree” mental category. However, I am not prepared to extend that generosity to a critique of “telescopic morality.” And that is because, at its most basic, I do not think that virtue ethics is a license to be innumerate. As Joseph Raz rather neatly puts it “numbers matter.” And once you begin to look at the numbers, the case for helping the distant over your local community is, in my view, overwhelming. Indeed, I think the virtues of wisdom and compassion demand it.

[1] In my more whimsical moments, I like to think of Singer as the Ghost of Cognitive Dissonance, haunting undergraduate ethicists in well-to-do universities worldwide. “Don’t you agree you are morally obliged to give to the very poor?” “Then why don’t you?”

[2] I’m going to leave to one side for a moment the animal world, notwithstanding that it is mentioned by Singer and seems to me to be obviously in-scope. This is mainly because the case for vegetarianism tends to be so obvious, so right, and so utterly inconsistent with most people’s choices, that it produces violent objections. Accordingly, it has a tendency to derail conversations.

[3] Singer also makes an evolutionary argument for the expanding circle, which I fully intend to ignore right now.

[4] At this point I will mention Experimental Philosophy (aka “x-phi”), a line of inquiry in which empirical results from, for example, surveys, can be used for various philosophical purposes. It’s particularly interesting when applied to classic ethical problems, like the Trolley Problem. I only mention it, though, rather than really weigh in, because I live in suppressed fear of being assassinated by trolley in some sleepy university town.

[5] I admit this is a more controversial, and complex, question than I have really indicated here. One set of people who don’t much like thinking in pieces in this way are rule consequentialists (although, in my defense, there’s just as many problems with thinking in recursive act-rule loops). There’s also just the more prosaic point that thinking about ethics in tiny little pieces is some version of mental transaction costs hell. That said, I think my point about arbitrary “progress” measures stands.

[6] My personal favorite example of unnoticed progress is that usage of the word “moist” is at historical lows.

Who Do I Say That I Am?

I don’t agree with Adam that individual responsibility emerged within a tradition, or only ever existed within a space framed by groups. Individual responsibility may be a relic of the state of nature, if one ever existed.

The Durkheim and Foucault schools seem to rightly identify that the individual is shaped by structures and institutions, wherever the individual does not practice volition. But the individual retains volition over the shaping of self in every respect. The individual can only exercise that volition selectively. And the individual should be careful about rejecting the formative structures without extensive deliberation, per Hayek.

The teleological consequence that Durkheim and Foucault aim at (and here I must beg the reader to contradict me if they understand better, because my familiarity with these writers is strictly third-hand) is that certain structures shape the individual badly, in particular “capitalism,” which I put into scare quotes because theirs is a stylized capitalism, but so is mine.

Adam’s thesis fizzled in the examples. But what I understand is that he would warn libertarians not to presume volitional action on the part of those agents that seldom act volitionally. I think a more robust model would first compare the marginal benefit to marginal cost to the individual of thinking volitionally about a particular habit.

How much instruction in virtue is needed? Most pedagogies of virtue guide the individual through a program of deliberation over habits. But we are short on instruction in virtue.

Perhaps the best lesson to learn about virtues is concentrated in the problem of faction, as rightly identified by Adam Smith and Richard Whately. Where deliberation over a habit is discouraged, or completely blocked, we should suspect that the habit is supportive of faction, rather than sympathy. Mill thus placed a great emphasis on liberty of conversation. Precisely those habits that structures discourage individuals from deliberating on are those habits that are most suspect of forming vice in the individual to the benefit of some in-group sympathy.

Finally, virtue is best exemplified and then caught, rather than taught. But who will take the initiative to demonstrate? Particularly when the students might be few, and might not absorb the lesson apart from repeated demonstrations? Those who subjectively value the increase in virtue should expect to have to shoulder that burden personally. The only true route to reform, whether of society or the individual, is through personal expense.

From Game Theory to Group Action

In a recent thought experiment, I argued that institutions—including government institutions—are just the cost we pay for better outcomes. Specifically:

We want things—food, shelter, entertainment, whatever it may be—and in order to get those things, we need specialization and trade. In order to get specialization, we need the institutions that make it possible. These institutions, in theory, minimize certain costs—transaction costs, as well as the risk of violence or arson which tend to limit the extent of trade.


Put more plainly, our institutions are the cost we’re willing to pay in order to offset other costs; they’re a net gain in the sense of providing more benefits for less than we would have in their absence (though there may be better alternatives).

This simplifies matters rather drastically. It is basically a social contract model, which means that it implies we have chosen these institutions so that we can pursue certain specified ends. The ends in the model are basically utility maximization, something I have trouble with but that certainly has its uses in terms of simplification.

Moreover, it’s not quite clear who we’re talking about here. Who pays the costs in this model? Who benefits?

In what follows I’m going to start from a bit of game theory and attempt to walk my way to a richer model of group action.


Adding Options to the Prisoner’s Dilemma

In “Governance as a strategy in state-of-nature games,” Jason Briggeman suggests an alternative to the most popular method of modeling Hobbesian state of nature scenarios in game theory.

It starts with a simple prisoner’s dilemma.  Each player can either defect or cooperate. If one defects and the other cooperates, the cooperator gets the worst possible payoff (possibly a negative one) while the defector gets the most. If they both cooperate, neither gets as much as the defector would in the previous scenario but the overall “pie” of payoffs is maximized. If they both defect, they each receive a punishment lower than the cooperator in the first scenario, but the overall “pie” is minimized. The payoff structure is such that defect/defect is the equilibrium outcome.



The specific versions that Jason looked at were couched in Hobbesian terms; in place of cooperation is “lay aside natural right” and in place of defection is “retain natural right”. The typical addition to this in the literature was apparently to include an “install a sovereign” option, which is basically a stand-in for Leviathan.



This is some serious hand-waving. I mean, it’s game theory, so you can set it up however you like with whatever payoffs you like, if that’s how you get your kicks. But it doesn’t seem very useful to speak of an “install a sovereign” option. Rather…rex ex machina.

Jason certainly thinks so, and he offers an excellent alternative. These are the choices on his matrix:

1. Cooperate (and do not coerce other player)
2. Cooperate/Impose (i.e., cooperate while coercing other player to cooperate)
3. Defect/Impose (i.e., defect while coercing other player to cooperate)
4. Defect (and do not coerce other player)

Resulting in:



You should check out the paper to get the full take on the math. The bottom line is that changes in the relative costs of coercion will change the outcome of the game.

I think this is a great, useful model with a wide range of applications. I’m going to add on top of it here for my purposes (and as a result it’ll get too unwieldy to put into a matrix).

First, being as we are at Sweet Talk, it seems to me that it would make sense to add a persuasion element. Following Jason, this would add two options for each players: Cooperate/Persuade and Defect/Persuade. Assuming persuasion isn’t a free lunch, there would be some cost to figuring out how to persuade someone, and probably some disutility to the one being persuaded, since there must be some reason they didn’t want to do it in the first place.

Given the commensurability of values in game theory models, it normally wouldn’t make much sense to add this in addition to the impose element. The reason is that even if we understand, conceptually, that one involves coercion and the other doesn’t, the big addition is really the inclusion of any option for a player to control the choice of the other player. You could say that the persuasion option has a lower relative disutility for the one being persuaded, or differentiate it in some other way. But you’re just going to be sacrificing elegance without really adding anything useful. But I’m going somewhere with this.

On top of adding persuasion, we can add some risk into the model, beyond the risk of choosing the wrong strategy relative to the other player’s strategy. Perhaps no amount of cost will guarantee that impose or persuade work every time; they just have some underlying probability that they will work.

Again, this mostly complicates the model rather than makes it more useful; expected utility is a pretty straightforward calculation that doesn’t really change the character of the model other than overcomplicating it further.

But I want to introduce the idea that some things are not guaranteed.

I introduce it in order to take my first step away from game theory: let’s now say that we’re not talking about risk, which is quantifiable, but uncertainty, which is not. All we know for sure is that our attempt to impose or persuade may not be successful, we cannot quantify the probability of failure.

We know how this sort of uncertainty is dealt with in practice, of course; a lot of heuristics learned from others and from experience.

Now say that we do not have commensurable utility. Say there’s a great deal of uncertainty about what other players will do, so that we need heuristics and experience there as well. Say knowledge is not flat, but requires interpretative frameworks—such that we can be persuaded, or persuade others, to change their interpretative framework in order to influence their choices. And there are obvious scenarios that would change relative costs of coercion—if one player had a gun and the other did not.


Social, Organizational, and Coercion Capital

We’ve now basically stepped outside of game theory and utility-based models. However, I hope we have done so in a way that has shown how they can serve as useful simplifying analogies.

I would now like to step away from the vacuum that individuals appear to be in within these models to the background of groups and group action which forms the basis of nearly all human decisionmaking.

Let us imagine that the biggest sources of variance in the relative costs of persuading, coercing, and coordinating are differences in capital stocks. Organizational capital provides the resources for efficiently accomplishing a task as a group. Social capital provides the resources for persuading certain people to a particular point of view. And coercion capital provides the resources for Jason’s “impose” option.

In the flat and commensurate world of game theory and utility economics, capital is numerical; more capital is better than less capital. On the other hand, the Austrian School has long emphasized the heterogeneous nature of real-world capital and the resulting illiquidity. A bread-slicer cannot be used to manufacture cars; stockpiling bread-slicers will not help you to compete with Toyota even if you’ve technically increased your capital stock. Details matter.

Consider the following: a police state that is heavily armed but widely distrusted and considered illegitimate by its citizens. Moreover, there is a high degree of trust—or social capital—among the civilian population. So black markets flourish; even though the state built up a great deal of coercion outcome it still has a hard time imposing specific behaviors on its citizenry.

What has been called “the authorizing magic of legitimacy” may be thought of as a regime that has an enormous amount of social capital, which allows it to more effectively economize on its coercion capital.

OK, we know what a bread-slicer looks like, and an assembly line robot arm. What do these more abstract forms of capital look like? How do they work?

I believe that all three categories can only be drawn upon by people who are members of particular groups. More than that, membership of the group is a crucial and embodied part of who they are, of their identity. I think the Catholics are correct that there are groups that can usefully be thought of as having their own existence.

Barack Obama is able to draw on some of the coercion capital of our nation because he has immersed himself in the machinery of modern politics, and committed himself to a role within a group (the federal government) that draws certain boundaries. Those boundaries are more indeterminate that people like to think (though not as toothless as others imagine). One of the hard constraints is that the shape of the coercion capital is, itself, the social capital that the role of President has built up in persuading everyone below him in the hierarchy to follow his lead in those areas where his lead is considered appropriate. As John Searle put it, most people think power comes from the barrel of a gun, but actually the one with the gun is the most at risk, while the one with power often sits behind a desk away from harm. But that is only possible because the bureaucrat’s power is “an institutional fact” created by “collective intentionality”. For our purposes here, it is because his role has considerable social capital.

Organizational capital is largely about developing skills and practical knowledge, and effectively transmitting them to new members as well as to those with a pressing need for them. Norms, ethics, and culture cut across this and social capital; in as much as they promote cooperation they act as the latter, in as much as they promote effectiveness they act as organizational capital. A culture of trust is largely a matter of social capital, a culture that promotes commitment to achieving the group’s goals is more a matter of organizational capital.

Practices that address uncertainty also fall into organizational capital. In the section above I spoke of heuristics and learning from experience, but often the best approaches are simply time-tested practices we don’t necessarily know the reasons for. In a famous case, what appeared to be completely superstitious agricultural practices based on priestly mandates turned out to be an extraordinarily effective system for coping with the challenges of a specific ecosystem.


Out Groups

It’s my belief that accessing these forms of capital means, in practice, that decisions are made at the level of the group rather than the individual more often than not. The very nature of the capital requires this, as I hope I made clear with the example of the President above. On the whole, I don’t think this is either good or bad; it’s human nature. Most arguments that it’s better to decide at the level of the individual simply miss out on how deeply individual context is set by groups. Individualism is a very important tradition of thought, but it is only possible when given shape by an enormous background established by groups, as caretakers of living traditions. Of the various forms of capital.

But there are definite fault lines created by this. The nature of human group membership unfortunately biases against those perceived to be outside of that group. And one of the classic ways we distinguish one another is by physical features; skin color but also other traits that signal difference in ethnicity. When the coercion capital especially is concentrated in the hands of a particular subset of the population, they may find they have freer hand to err on the side of tyranny for those groups who they do not much rely on for social or organizational capital. In short, minorities are inevitably harmed disproportionately by political systems.

When I say that good government is an ideal worth thinking seriously about, I don’t mean to deny this point, so emphasized by Sam and boatfloating. When I say that governance and coercion are necessary, I don’t mean to sweep injustice under the rug. And I certainly agree with both of them that we have invested far too much in our coercion capital, and drawn on it far too often, with reckless disregard for the people out of view who will be disproportionately harmed.

I do think that people who see harm these days are far too inclined towards outright negation; that their rhetoric and their actions recklessly drag us towards a future where we kill the goose who laid the golden egg. Such critiques, like game theory and mainstream economics, should instead serve as a kind of critical theory. It should serve to identify fault lines in what is a constructive, rather than destructive, project on the whole.

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