The Process and Politics of Systemic Change

The Deluge
The Deluge

Scott Alexander is worried about the siren song of systemic change. His concerns combine the limits of knowledge with the nature of politics. This is something I’ve taken a few stabs at myself, and Alexander’s post seems like as good an opportunity as any to revisit the subject.

The Being and Becoming of Groups

Political philosophy, political science, and economics very often deal in models and comparative statics. Change is therefore thought of as getting from point A—the current social system—to point B—some proposed alternative. Sam provided a good take on the ontology of this:

In the case of economics, the core ontological preoccupation is with the nature and existence of market equilibria and their constituent parts: supply and demand, institutions, representative agents, social planners, and so on. Some focus on ontologies of being, like a static equilibrium, while Hayek and Buchanan famously had ontologies of becoming that emphasized the importance of analyzing economic processes.

This is a novel way to think about economic analysis, but implies a symmetry about the practice of economics that I’m fairly certain does not exist. The ontologies of becoming and the analysis of processes are largely considered a marginal concern among most economists, if they are considered at all. Most economists focus all of their energy on the analysis of being.

Systemic change looks very differently when approached from a comparative statics as opposed to a process perspective.

Consider the following example: the American federal system. You have a judiciary, the presidency, and a bicameral legislature. If we’re thinking about systematic change, in a framework of comparative beings, we may talk about wanting to switch to a parliamentary system of some sort. You can debate the details about what sort of parliamentary system you would want—there are plenty to choose from and you can of course come up with one that is somewhat unique—but whatever the specific alternative, most of us would agree that switching to a parliamentary system would be a pretty radical change.

Democracy is democracy, right? If the parliamentary system does it better than ours, we should start pushing to switch to that—right? Isn’t it just that simple?

Scott Alexander does not think so. Implicitly invoking Nassim Taleb, one of the characters in his dialogue worries about very rare but highly consequential risks:

There are many more ways to break systems than to improve them. One Engels more than erases all of the good karma created by hundreds of people modestly plodding along and making incremental improvements to things. Given an awareness of long-tail risks and the difficulty of navigating these waters, I’m not sure our expected value for systemic change activism should even be positive, let alone the most good we can do.

The reference to Engels being a case where one person’s altruism—in continuing to work for a living in order to altruistically fund the scholarship of Marx—can actually have huge and horrible systemic implications. To the extent that Marx’s ideas are responsible for the communist bloodbaths of the 20th century, Engels’ altruism helped to create a catastrophe of historic proportions.

The example has problems—but let’s put that to the side for now. Instead, let’s consider the person who is probably responsible for Alexander framing this problem in terms of “long-tail risks;” Nassim Taleb.

Taleb’s entire worldview boils down to a few very simple ideas:

  • There are events that are highly consequential but happen so rarely that no one may even be aware of their existence—pick your magnitude of “consequential” and your frequency of “rarely”, as well as whether you think people aren’t aware of them or merely think they won’t happen again.
  • We should strive to bound our downside risk as much as possible and leave as much upside potential as possible.
  • On a long enough timescale, all downside risks will play out.
  • The longer something has been around, the more likely it is to have encountered at least some of these rare, high magnitude events and thus to have proved itself resilient against (or better, antifragile; able to improve as a result of) those events that it has survived.

Taleb talks the talk when it comes to being against consequentialism and for virtue, stoicism, and duty, for instance, but at his core he’s just a consequentialist in a Stoic’s toga. I would argue that both his notion of the sacred, and his ontology, have not been very well thought out.

In terms of the sacred:

This is not just how he talks about duty; it’s also how he talks about religion, something that an actual believer, would, I think, find very strange. Take for instance our own Drew Summit, a devoted Catholic. When an online neoreactionary posited a consequentialist framework in which the only way to preserve our prosperity and order into the future was to mass-sterilize the poor (no, I’m not making this up) his answer was—even if all of that was true, we should not do it. In his words:

Duty, faith, and the sacred are not about consequences. Indeed, their very importance is to emphasize the things that matter beyond mere consequences. But more on that further down.

For now I want to look at the ontology underlying Taleb’s argument about how traditions and other time-tested things serve to hedge our bets against rare catastrophes.

From the perspective of being this makes a certain logical sense. The American federal system has has been in place for almost two and a half centuries. By Taleb’s logic, it has shown itself to be resilient against once-a-decade catastrophes, or ones that come every twenty, thirty, or fifty years. Maybe we can say that it’s resilient against once-a-century events, or even once every two century events, but that happened so few times at this point that it could have just been lucky.

Nevertheless, a brand new system wouldn’t have been tested against such centennial events ever, and in Taleb’s ontology I’m fairly certain that imposing a parliamentary system would count as a new system. This is because, even though parliaments have been around elsewhere for longer than the American federal system has been here, it’s not clear how that system would graft to the norms, practices, and other existing institutions here. So the change could make us more vulnerable to rare catastrophes.

Here is the problem: in what sense is there a continuity between the system as it existed during the presidency of George Washington, and the system as it exists under the presidency of Barack Obama? We can analyze the being of the system that existed under George Washington and the being of the system that exists now. We can remark upon the differences. But the main story here is one of becoming—the colonies becoming independent and loosely uniting under the Articles of Confederation, then throwing that out in favor of the Constitution and becoming the United States under the federal system. And then becoming the system we have today after having been the system that George Washington was a part of.

But there is more—the system under George Washington was not a static being. It was in the process of becoming from the very first day, and it did not suddenly hit a static equilibrium at some point along the path through his two terms in office. Unexpected structures appeared in this process right away, such as the creation of the cabinet.

Now, we also have the federal agency system. My question to Talebians, and Alexander specifically, is: wasn’t the birth of the agency system a systemic change? Was it so big a break from the past that any “resilience” or “antifragility” the system had throughout the 19th century has been lost? How much continuity is enough? What exactly counts as continuity when tradition is constantly in motion?

Alexander begins his piece with a look at a few people on the left who clearly think effective altruism is just another way to preserve global capitalism, which they wish to abolish.

In this context, let me list a few other systemic changes that come to mind:

  • The “globalization” of trade and commerce in the 19th century.
  • The European conquest of most of the world in the 19th century that they hadn’t already colonized in the 18th.
  • The 1930s: the end of 19th century globalization, the turn to fascism and communism in many countries, the birth of the modern social-democratic welfare state in the rest.
  • The spread of communism after World War II.
  • Decolonization during the same period.
  • Modern globalization: quite young still, long-term effects quite uncertain!

Would turning back the state of globalization to where it was in the 1970s count as systemic change, or would allowing the process of globalization to continue as it is currently proceeding be one? Was the end of the 19th century globalization a systemic change or was its onset? If its onset, was the end of it merely a return to something older, and therefore more resilient?

I’m inclined to think that systemic change is an unavoidable fact of life—indeed, of existence. We are constantly in the process of becoming, and one way or another we hit discontinuities big and small along the way.

As for the limits of our knowledge—well, I’ve written quite a lot about that as well, lately. Suffice it to say that I think we can know a great deal, but I stand with Aristotle in thinking that each subject matter has a level of precision appropriate to it. When it comes to complex systems, I’m with Taleb and Alexander—the level of precision is quite low. Though Taleb seems to go between saying that and claiming that his arguments are backed by unquestionable mathematical certainty….so there’s that. Alexander strikes me as being rather more intellectually humble on this score.

But Alexander’s point is not really about systemic change as such. It’s about politics.

The Unity of Politics, Ethics, and Rhetoric

Luisa chuckled. “I hear you, sugar. I’m not gonna say you’re wrong. But I have to warn you that this is the word—‘ politics’— that nerds use whenever they feel impatient about the human realities of an organization.”

-Neal Stephenson, Seveneves

I actually think that Alexander’s post focuses much more on the nature of politics than on the specific risks around systemic change.

One thing I like about the post is that it seems clear that he is sympathetic to the “if we got politics out of the way and just let smart people roll up their sleeves and get it done, everything would be fixed” perspective, but also is highly aware of its flaws.

Alice: Now you’re just being silly. There’s no efficient market hypothesis for politics!

Bob: But why shouldn’t there be? A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer”. You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.

Further down:

Alice: I…think you’re being deliberately annoying? It seems like exactly the same kind of sophisticated devil’s-advocate style argument we could use for anything. Sure, nothing is real and everything is permissible, now stop playing the Steel Man Philosophy Game and tell me what you really think! It really should be beyond debate that some policies – and some voters- are just stupid. Global warming denialism? Mass incarceration? Banning GMOs? Opposing nuclear power? Not everything is a hard problem!

Bob: I really do sympathize with you here, of course. It’s hard not to. But I also look back at history and am deeply troubled by what I see. In the 1920s, nearly all the educated, intelligent, evidence-based, pro-science, future-oriented people agreed: the USSR was amazing. Shaw, Wells, Webb. They all thought Stalin was great and we needed a global communist revolution so we could be more like him. If you and I had been alive back then, we’d be having this same conversation, but it would end with both of us agreeing to donate everything we had to the Bolsheviks.

Alice: Okay, so the smart people were wrong once. That doesn’t mean…

Bob: And eugenics.

Alice: Actually…

Bob: ಠ_ಠ

It’s ironic to me that the Alice character accuses Bob of taking an outsider’s view of politics, but the approach she proposes seems entirely like the sort of rationalism that acts as though politics is an object of study rather than something we live with every day. They seek explanation rather than understanding.

What does politics actually looks like, from the inside?

I think understanding the whole picture where politics is concerned requires us to speak of the unity of politics, ethics, and rhetoric.

In another post on politics, I discussed what I referred to as the American democratic religion.

From a very young age, I was taught stories about the founders, and the proper moral framework in which the Revolutionary War ought to be understood. The history that I learned in school was steeped in democratic values; it was all too easy to see American history in particular as a straight line of progress of increasing enfranchisement, abolition, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. was elevated into the same pantheon as Jefferson and Lincoln.

Unlike most of my libertarian and economist friends, I believe that groups can have a distinct ontological status from individuals. To put it more pragmatically, groups are often the best level of abstraction for explaining certain causal relationships.

(as an aside—the paper in the previous link is highly recommended for anyone interested in the methodological individualism vs holism debate).

However, there are many sorts of groups. The macro-economy and the nation are obviously related and influence one another, but may be usefully considered separately. In order to exist as a group, a macro-economy simply requires trade and financial markets on a certain scale. Where we draw the lines on one macro-economy vs the other is, in some ways, as arbitrary as committed methodological individualists believe all borders to be. In other ways, not so—particular regulatory and cultural environments certainly have an impact on the overall character of a given macro-economy.

But with nations, or at least with the sense of being “a people,” things are a little different. The existence of a people requires a narrative—or more precisely, a body of narratives—which define who they are, do the difficult work of bridging is and ought, provide us with our sacred reasons for action. A people also always has important rituals, in which “the boundaries between individual and community become less-defined.”

A healthy club has subsumed your self to it without actually reducing your value as an individual; you are not necessarily subverted to the club, but you cannot assert individuality without pressing against the boundaries created by the ritual. If you do not partake of a haggis, you really aren’t a member; you’re an observer, and you cannot receive the benefits of the club, which are mostly transcendental.

My belief is that the American democratic religion has done a remarkably effective job at taking some 320 million people spread across a large land mass and turning them into a people, rather than just a smattering of different tribes. If it seems to get harder and harder to get some consensus on a growing list of issues, as the popular narrative of political polarization implies, it could be that our national narratives are feeling the strain of just how big our population has become. Or it could be that such polarization is overstated, relative to how it has always been.

In any case, this body of stories and rituals also form the environment in which our understanding of ethics is nurtured. Reports of the is-ought divide have been greatly exaggerated—we construe each situation as part of a whole which has the character of a narrative; the ought flows naturally from the is, when we are looking at the is from the inside.

That said, in a cosmopolitan nation with a rich literary, philosophical, and scientific tradition, we are able to learn a great deal about ethics outside the narrow scope of the narratives that currently sustain the people of which we are a part. As we learn, we may come to feel that there are some things that are unethical about our group—something that we believe needs to be changed. How fundamental (or systemic) these changes are will vary, of course. In America and in the west in general, we are, for better or worse, educated to consider big systemic change to be a good idea, a necessary part of progress. I think Alexander is right to try and counterbalance that.

The ethical problems that we see may be, per MacIntyre, problems that can be identified purely within the perspective of the reigning traditions of thought of your people. Or, per Gadamer, it may be that they are problems that are obvious only when you have expanded your horizons by looking elsewhere, something anyone is capable of doing by reading the many texts from different points in history as well as from different cultures.

Ethics here is taken in an Aristotelian sense—it’s not limited to what we moderns would consider the moral domain. “Good” in this sense is inclusive of the moral but goes beyond it; think of a good teacher or a good carpenter. Phronesis, practical wisdom, unites what we consider the narrowly practical with what we consider the narrowly moral.

I like that Alexander flirts with “an efficient market hypothesis for politics,” and it’s unfortunate to me that in an update to the post he notes that he takes this comment very seriously. That comment boils down to “consequentialism is true, few people realize it, so there are trillions of dollars lying on the proverbial table in politics.” (EDIT: seems I’ve misread it)

Except that the status of consequentialism, against the alternatives which are currently in play as well as those which are not, is just as contestable as the positions this commenter is seeking to subvert to it. Giving the commenter the benefit of the doubt, I assume they are aware that consequentialism has problems, just as all frameworks do, but that they simply believe it the best framework we have.

But the impulse which drove Alexander to grasp for something like an efficient markets hypothesis for politics should also extend to philosophy; all obvious assertions drawn from consequentialism have been made, all obvious responses have also been made, and the conversation has moved on from there. The primacy of consequentialism is not at all obvious, even to extremely smart and heavily researched people who have spent years thinking and debating about the matter. In short (too late), there is definitely not any money on the table here.

The central concern of Alexander’s post is what would happen to the effective altruism movement if it made systemic change a central part of its platitude.

And I also think effective altruism has an important moral message. I think that moral message cuts through a lot of issues with signaling and tribal affiliation, that all of these human foibles rise up and ask “But can’t I just spend my money on – ” and effective altruism shouts “NO! BED NETS!” and thus a lot of terrible failure modes get avoided. I think this moral lesson is really important – if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, it would be more than enough to end world poverty, cure several major diseases, and start a cultural and scientific renaissance. If everyone became very interested in systemic change, we would probably have a civil war. Systemic change is sexy and risks taking over effective altruism, but this would eliminate a unique and precious movement in favor of the same thing that everybody else is doing.

Here is where we see the way in which rhetoric enters into the unity with politics and ethics.

Effective altruism is a young movement attempting to assert itself as worthy of our attention and loyalty. Its proponents are attempting to tell us stories (rhetoric) about the world and the duty of its most privileged inhabitants (ethics) in order to create a group of people who consider membership in the movement to be an important part of who they are (politics).

Consider, once again, the American democratic religion. How did it come to be? The answer: through persuasion, accomplished through both word and deed. The art of rhetoric begins by understanding, as best as we can, the perspective in which our audience is situated. It aims to translate ideas which are perfectly comprehensible within our own horizon of understanding into a form that can be understood within the audience’s horizons. It also aims to make it clear why those ideas ought to be evaluated a certain way; the way in which we understand them. As Gadamer emphasized, such translation necessarily entails transformation, both of the ideas and of the audience. In cases like the creation of the American democratic religion, not only was a new group born out of what had arguably been several smaller ones, but an entire nation with institutions of governance was created. A dramatic transformation indeed.

Effective altruists attempt to speak to our charity, but also to our prudence (in the narrow, modern sense of the word). They speak to our fellow feeling, our sympathy for the plight of the less fortunate, but also to our hard-nosed calculating side, which favors efficiency. “Just give up 10%—you get to keep 90% to do whatever you like!—and you can be part of a movement that ends extreme poverty around the world, forever.”

It’s a powerful message. It certainly seems to be on the path to establishing itself as a proper group with a distinct ontological status apart from simply “American” or “rationalist” or what have you. Alexander is worried that, at this stage, trying to be all things to all people—especially where big, divisive questions about systemic change are concerned—will stop this process before it has really begun.

It is a sharp, politic concern, for which I applaud him. These days, all or nothing rhetoric has become a corrosive tool, resulting in nothing but negation without creation. It’s good to see someone out there pushing for a healthy, prudent politics.


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6 thoughts on “The Process and Politics of Systemic Change

  1. Frog Do

    “Consider, once again, the American democratic religion. How did it come to be? The answer: through persuasion, accomplished through both word and deed.”

    Persuasion, defined as organized violence against anyone who disagreed?

    But that’s just a minor nitpick. The biggest one that I haven’t seen addressed is how optimizing for a population explosion in poor countries with highly unstable political situation is somehow not a systemic change. Maybe it’s addressed in his comments.

  2. slatestarcodex

    Thanks for this. I’m going to have to think about it more before any broader response, but I do want to respond to this:

    “It’s unfortunate to me that in an update to the post he notes that he takes this comment very seriously. That comment boils down to ‘consequentialism is true, few people realize it, so there are trillions of dollars lying on the proverbial table in politics.’ Except that the status of consequentialism, against the alternatives which are currently in play as well as those which are not, is just as contestable as the positions this commenter is seeking to subvert to it.”

    I think you’re right if we interpret this in a context of total moral realism and consider it a debate among philosophers about the fact of which moral system is true, you’re clearly and importantly wrong if we interpret it in a context of moral non-realism and consider it a question of whether the best way to achieve our (arbitrary) values is to maximize those values themselves or to maximize someone else’s arbitrary values instead, and insofar as the truth is a complicated combination of those things I’m not sure.

    To give an example, suppose I love my family much more than I love random people, but other people care about my family only as much as they care about people on average. Here there would be lots of “money lying on the table” in changing things to benefit my family rather than anyone else. Nor are my moral differences the sort of thing that are susceptible to efficient-marketing; I don’t expect to be able to convince the average philosopher that my family is more important, but I don’t care.

    When I hear some people say things like “@#!$ prisoners, they’re just criminals anyway, it doesn’t matter if they have good conditions or not,” I feel like there might be a fundamental moral difference between us, in terms of where we choose to place our concern. I’m not sure this difference reduces to simple facts that can be debated and have efficient market like things go on about them. If this is true, then it might be really easy for me to do better than the market *at achieving my own values*.

    1. Hey Scott,

      Thank you for stopping by, and for the thoughtful comment.

      If I understand what you’re saying here, it seems I misunderstood both the comment and a crucial sense of what you meant by “money on the table” in your post; you were speaking in terms of a perspective rather than something more like actual money (which is basically valued by everyone due to its ability to be swapped for all the different things they individually, from their own perspective, value).

      Instead it’s “money on the table” in terms of being able to impose your values on the world in some sense, whether in a small way by getting your family to prosper more than the average family, or in a big way by ending abortion, factory farming, or global capitalism, or something like that.

      If that is the case, I could see a case being made for there being money on the table. Looked at through this lens, a sort of weak, less ambitious version of efficient altruism would be one of those ways—if you assume people want to spend $X on charity just to feel good about themselves, but then come up with ways to efficiently help poor people with that X dollar amount, that’s money left on the table by the inefficiencies of charity as it operates today.

      Does that sound right, in terms of what you’re talking about?

      In which case I think there’s definitely arbitrage opportunities in politics, though as with markets they’re hard to come by. I’m reminded of Daniel Okrent’s characterization of Wayne B. Wheeler during prohibition, how he relentlessly and ruthlessly pursued his goal by focusing on anything that could accomplish this single policy objective.

      Of course, I think this brings us back to the example of Stalin. Stalin did not make the revolution. In many ways he arbitraged the situation created by Lenin and Trotsky, and the mindset of loyal members of the party, as well as his knowledge of its bureaucracy.

      In any case, that does clarify that comment and your take on it. I’ll update the post to link to your comment at that part.

      1. tl;dr on that response; I was thinking of “money left on the table” in terms of wealth creation rather than personal preference satisfaction, and I now see that was an error.

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