Voting as a collective action problem

A common criticism of libertarian philosophy is that it can’t handle collective action problems: That a totally voluntary society lacks the tools to build lighthouses, prevent over-fishing, or ensure we all get our vaccines.

In response, libertarians developed a branch economics dedicated to showing how collective action problems can be solved with voluntary cooperative arrangements. Elinor Ostrom’s work was particularly important for arguing that, under the right conditions, norms and civil society can evolve to govern the commons from the bottom up.

There are obviously limits to informal norms, however. For one, they are easy to undermine through appeals to rationalistic arguments. After all, norms exist to enforce cooperative arrangements that would otherwise be unstable. That suggests it is always possible for a sophist to jeopardize collective action by appealing to their peer’s individually rational, myopic reasons for action (“Just catch one more fish, no one will notice.”), and with each person who defects it becomes more tempting for everyone else to defect.

Voting represents an interesting test case for the robustness of voluntary solutions to collective action problems. After all, any single individual’s vote is mathematically insignificant, and yet they add up to be significant.

Yet many of the same libertarians who insist that norms and civil society can solve large scale collective action problems also insist that voting is individually irrational, and therefore abstain. This merely affirms the worries of many that the libertarian emphasis on individual rationalism contains the seeds of its own unravelling with respect to collective action.

Of course, that we vote in large numbers at all is in some sense a vindication of Ostrom and her school of economics. We cement the norm of voting with the help of overlapping institutions like political parties, religious congregations, unions, non-profits, membership clubs, and not to mention friends and family. We communicate voting intention to other individuals within these groups, which are small enough to reinforce a mutual expectation of follow through. Groups in turn coordinate with other groups, like when a local union coordinates with its other chapters. Pretty quickly a meagre individual vote becomes amplified into the hugely consequential endorsement of a union federation or influential political action committee.

I therefore don’t believe libertarians are totally sincere when they make the “voting is irrational” argument. Or, more to the point, I suspect it is a case of motivated reasoning. For one, it is cognitively dissonant with their optimism about voluntary collective action in other spheres (“collective action for me but not for thee”). And second, it seems to spring from their mood-aversion to electoral politics more generally, which suggests it is a kind of “technique of neutralization“—that is, a proactive way of rationalizing defection from societal norms that one finds inconvenient.

Other libertarians double down on their mood-aversion and argue that voting is inherently immoral or distasteful, possibly because it involves participating in a coercive enterprise. This view confuses me the most, especially when paired with the “voting is ineffectual” view. Which is it? An inherent vice or an astronomically insignificant form of self-expression? There is no pressing need for a new norm against voting anyway, just like there is no need for a norm for littering, overfishing or free-riding off of herd immunity. Those behaviors all fall out of individually rational human action. They are what is left in the absence of coordination.

Motivated reasoning is just the generous interpretation. The less generous one is that the average libertarian is tragically bereft of the social capital needed to leverage idiosyncratic beliefs and motivations into collective action. There may be some truth to that. If you thought it was hard to herd cats, try herding philosophical anarchists.

The even less generous view is that libertarianism represents a self-defeating memeplex, a mind virus that handicaps its host so badly that it ceases to spread. Indeed, if you wanted to actively hobble the labor movement, say, wouldn’t you want to plant agent provocateurs within their ranks to charismatically defend the game theoretic logic of being a scab? Or better yet, that being a scab is just and noble?

As a matter of fact, that is more or less what happened in the 1960s. It was called the New Left, and their congenital aversion to norm-conformity hobbled the progressive movement’s ability to influence institution change for a generation. Now the right is having it’s own countercultural moment with the alt-right, which, with some libertarian fellow travelers, is trying in vain to affect social change through various forms of culture jamming and norm subversion.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

With activists like this, maybe muh roads won’t be built after all.

 

trust

Two kinds of trust

In pre-modern, small scale societies, trust was multi-lateral: Everyone knew everyone. This was robust to any one individual being untrustworthy, but had real trouble scaling. If someone new came to town she would have to earn the trust of every node in the network—a problem that grew in proportion to the population.

So in the modern era (and long before it as well—the modern era is just when we mastered it) we replaced multi-lateral networks of trust with bi-lateral trusted intermediaries. This was an incredible innovation from the perspective of scaling cooperation. Persons A and B could trade and borrow from one and other while being total strangers, given their mutual, bi-lateral trust of C.

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Who or what is C? C has represented many different things throughout history. The state. Markets. Banks. MasterCard. Uber. With the help of lots and lots of Cs we were able to scale from simple gift economies to the complex and deeply integrated society we have today.

This change occurred must faster than our brains could adapt. As apes evolved for smaller scale society we have therefore not extricated our craving for microcosms of multi-lateral trust: family, friends, community, and so forth. This seems to be what social scientists are measuring when they report some countries as “higher trust” than others. These are societies that have, to varying degrees, decentralized the bilateral institutions in order to promote greater multilateralism. In doing so, these societies trade-off some scale efficiency and assimilative capacity in exchange for greater robustness and, presumably, reduced feelings of social-alienation.

Yet if this is right it is incredibly misleading to call such societies “high trust” as if the others are not. Rather, they are high in a particular kind of trust. It’s only the bilateral model that lets two complete strangers engage in a multi-phase, high stakes project without having to trust each another one bit. Instead, each trusts the underwriting of the intermediary institutions. There is the same amount of effective trust, as manifest in productive cooperation, but it comes with much less cognitive burden. You don’t have to keep mental track of your colleague’s reputation, or whether their ideological and cultural preferences match yours. Nor do you have to worry about collecting debts or punishing bad behavior. That’s all been offloaded and outsourced. The trust, in other words, still exists, but is embodied in the environment and institutions, rather than in our heads.

Even in so-called high trust societies, this latter sort of trust is still doing most of the work in the background. We just don’t notice it by design. Conversely, many societies measured as low trust may in fact be quite high in multilateral trust, but in a way that is localized to pockets without the bilateral institutions needed for effective interfacing.

Thus when a country is described as low trust I stop and ask myself “what sort of trust?” There may be a lot of virtue in an, as measured, low trust society if it better facilitates the rapid integration of newcomers, a greater diversity of lifestyles, and larger scale cooperation. After all, impersonal interactions are not a bad thing. They’re the stuff of civilization.

Scott Adams and the Anti-If-By-Whiskey

If-By-Whiskey is a beloved rhetorical device dating from the decline of the prohibition era in 1950s Mississippi. It was a strange, transitional time when whiskey was still officially banned, and yet widely consumed, sold and even taxed. As the saying went at the time, people staggered to the polls to vote dry.

Thus when Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. delivered his famous speech in the state legislature he could not simply come out and call for an end to prohibition. That would have been political suicide. Instead, he recited what has come to represents a quintessential example of the double doctrine; of saying two seemingly contradictory things at once to appease multiple audiences.

“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty …” he began, pausing for applause from the temperate in the audience, “then certainly I am against it. But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes … then certainly I am for it. This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

As a blog in large part about persuasion and rhetoric, Sweet Talk has published versions of If-By-Whiskey on contemporary subjects of controversy, including If-By-Feminism, If-By-Child-Labor, and If-By-Open-Borders.

Overtime, I have come to think of it less as an act of deception, and, on the contrary, more of an exercise in good faith discourse. A well constructed If-By-Whiskey ought to pass the Ideological Turing Test by demonstrating that one can articulate his or her opponent’s view as forcefully and convincingly as they could. That encapsulates the persuasive method, and reveals persuasion’s direct connection to empathy, sympathy, and perspective taking.

If-By-Whiskey is therefore in a sense an anti-troll. Trolls are good at perspective taking, too, but use it to know the precise things to say that make partisans the most angry. Why? Because vitriol in the face of someone who doesn’t give a damn can be quite amusing. Whereas irony is a bridge between absurdism and righteousness, trolling is purely nihilistic, the act of bashing the absurd over the righteous’s head and laughing all the way.

Scott-AdamsEnter Scott Adams. He is the man best known for the absurdist office cartoon Dilbert, but has made a new name for himself through his blog as an internet troll extraordinaire. Behind the guise of quixotic psychoanalysis, Adams has essentially perfected the Anti-If-By-Whiskey: esoteric posts which somehow manage to piss off everyone who reads them.

Take his recent post, “Why Gun Control Can’t Be Solved in the USA.” At its heart is a fairly valid and almost banal point: The groups that either support or oppose gun control generally belong to different demographics with different relationships to the risk of being shot. As he puts it, “Our situation in the United States is that people with different risk profiles are voting for their self-interests as they see it.”

But that’s not how he begins his piece. No, he begins it in the most hilariously incendiary way possible:

On average, Democrats (that’s my team*) use guns for shooting the innocent. We call that crime.

On average, Republicans use guns for sporting purposes and self-defense.

If you don’t believe me, you can check the statistics on the Internet that don’t exist.

Democrats use guns to shoot the innocent? Wow.

Of course, he’s referring to the fact that, comparatively speaking, inner city gun violence is committed by a demo who tend to vote for Democrats, while the archetypical Republican gun owner sits peacefully in his castle, gun loaded. There’s just a lot nicer ways to say that. Ways that don’t end up pissing off Republicans and Democrats alike.

And whereas the classic If-By-Whiskey is conciliation bookended by proclamations of embracing controversy (“I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be”), a typical Scott Adams post is outrageous bridge burning bookended by claims to being totally noncommittal and disinterested in anything but the science of persuasion.

As a self-described persuasion expert himself, Adams surely knows the story behind If-By-Whiskey. So what then is the goal behind his trololololing?

The lulz, for one: Adams clearly has fun at the expense of the righteous.

Selling books, for another: Not a post goes by that doesn’t include a link to his Amazon page. Stoking controversy with a veneer of plausible deniability is just expert #content marketing.

Third, and more speculatively, I also think Adams wants to impart real opinions to a knowing audience by using a trick pioneered by Nigerian email scammers.

Ever wonder why that email from the Nigerian Prince is so full of basic spelling errors, and so obviously suspicious on its face? Far from a sign of incompetence, it’s in effect a gullibility sorting mechanism. If you make a scam obvious the only people dumb enough to respond are also likely the same cohort who will be wiling to hit send on a money transfer down the line.

Who remains on the other side of Adams’ troll-sensitivity filter? Sociopaths, rationalists, nihilists, comedians, individualists, neuro-atypicals, and fellow trolls. All of which overlap to a degree. And each of which is an important and underrated audience, insofar as the least partisan and most discerning thinkers represent a swing vote, both literally and in the larger battle of ideas.

An Appreciation for Irony…

Irony is in a state of disrepute. It’s been used and abused by hipsters who wear “ironic” clothing and facial hair based on the self-conscious selection of a style because it’s ugly or anachronistic or inappropriate for a grown man in his thirties. It’s an empty, hollow irony, as opposed to critical, elevating, or subversive.

That’s a shame, because an appreciation for irony is perhaps the highest virtue. Formally, irony (whether dramatic, verbal, or situational) is a kind of capacity for double meaning. Done right, it permits one to stand with one foot in two parallel universes, one meaningful and the other absurd, and live a richer life.

“The literal mind is baffled by the ironic one, demanding explanations that only intensify the joke,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in Letters to a Young Contrarian. To illustrate, he retells a true story from humorist P.G. Wodehouse, who was accidentally captured during the 1940 German invasion of France:

Josef Goebbels’s propaganda bureaucrats asked him to broadcast on Berlin radio, which he incautiously agreed to do, and his first transmission began:

Young men starting out in life often ask me—“How do you become an internee?” Well, there are various ways. My own method was to acquire a villa in northern France and wait for the German army to come along. This is probably the simplest plan. You buy the villa and the German army does the rest.

Somebody—it would be nice to know who, I hope it was Goebbels—must have vetted this and decided to let it go out as a good advertisement for German broad-mindedness. The “funny” thing is that the broadcast landed Wodehouse in an infinity of trouble with the British authorities, representing a nation that prides itself above all on a sense of humor.

Wodehouse’s answer, that the best way to become a German internee is to buy a villa in France, is hilarious because it confuses cause and effect so patently. But that’s what happened. He bought a villa in France and got captured by German invaders. By framing the literal fact as a kind of piece of advice to an aspiring internee his radio opening underscores the raw absurdity of the war.

And war is absurd. But to the “very serious people” like the British, this war was not absurd. It was a noble cause in the defense of freedom, justice, democracy, and all that is right. To be ironic about something as serious as that was frivolous bordering on treacherous.

The thing is, though, that war can be both absurd and serious. Wodehouse’s irony uses a degree of ignorance or naiveté (feigned, in his case) to convey a penetrating and self-conscious insight. Similarly, absurdity only exists by way of contrast with radical purpose, knowledge and intelligibility.

It’s necessary to living at all that we believe the word makes conceptual sense and that we exist in it with definite purpose. Nonetheless, on some level our social practices and biological imperatives are deeply arbitrary, even weird, in a way that ought to induce nervous laughter. The goal of irony is to reconcile these two truths—to maintain a level of awareness that is neither overly self-serious or frivolous to the point of nihilism, and, when possible, to put it toward an edifying use.

Skin War’s Dual Identity

Take Skin Wars, a reality TV show that pits a bunch of random artists in body painting competitions. I found it while flipping through the TV guide, drawn in by the title and my primal alertness to all things ostensibly nude and aggressive.

Not fully knowing what to expect, I was amused that such a niche show even exists, followed by stunned to discover it was in its third season. I immediately traced the holy cross across my chest in awe at “the extent of the market,” before I suddenly realized what the real appeal of the show was: An excuse for never-ending shots of side boob.

skin wars

Essentially, the show is soft-core pornography with an art competition overlaid in order to provide the viewer additional fodder and a degree of plausible deniability. The fascinating part is how, couched within its brazen and kitsch totality, there are a dozen or so completely serious contestants.

With each body painting they explain the deeper meaning behind the work while being brutally critiqued by RuPaul. Half the time it feels like contestants are being rewarded less for their artistic ability than for their skill at impromtu apophenia. After the loser of each episode is eliminated, he or she invariably propounds one last time on the unappreciated genius of their Starry Night nipple integration, while casting shade on the remaining artists as unworthy hacks.

Taken as a whole, I believe Skin Wars is an excellent metaphor for the human condition. From behind the forth wall, as viewers looking in, the show is unapologetically absurd, if not borderline silly. And yet for the show to work at all it depends crucially on an internal, unironic kernel of purpose and earnestness in each and every participant. (Note: Nathan for You does an amazing job satirizing this common Reality TV dynamic).

Each half—from the show’s ratings savvy writer-producers, to their humorless Craigslist recruits—are necessary to the ironic whole. Just as one can forget to have fun through stern objections to the paucity of male models or the cynically slick editing, one can also become too invested in whose face paint was most on point. Only a sense of the show’s multifaceted irony allows for a critical though healthy engagement. 

It’s thus appropriate RuPaul is a main judge. He embodies the exact same duality of serious artiste meets outrageous performance theater. Shakespeare also made great use of dramatic irony through mistaken (sexual) identity. It is no accident that appreciation of irony is required for appreciation of drag.

Yet if irony is going to be reclaimed from the hipsters it’s got to be handled with care. Too often irony done poorly collapses into straight-up cynicism, which is ironic, since the cynic is excessively sincere in his own way. And so as with all virtues, irony requires practice, judgment and finding the right balance.

The Information Entropic Proof of God

My Mormon friend informs me scholars at BYU have a pet theory that Kierkegaard was directly influenced by Mormonism. Kierkegaard’s one reference to the nascent faith (quoted in the footnote below from this book) makes this doubtful. Still, I am intrigued by the suggestion that Mormon theology was influenced by the invention of the train and telegraph. In what ways have modern understandings of God and divinity been influenced by contemporary technological advances?

sk1

Scientology was obviously influenced by 20th century debates in psychiatry, the space race, and the Douglas DC-8 jet airliner, but otherwise I think Kierkegaard’s prediction that technological progress would fuel retrograde and mechanistic metaphors for God had it backwards. Technology and basic science have pushed in favor of more and more abstract conceptions of God, as more and more of the workings of the universe come under human control and are found to obey naturalistic laws. In that sense, the idealists, rationalists and pantheists like Hegel, Schelling and Spinoza used metaphors for God that were way ahead of their time.

Computer science, in particular, has led (or will lead) to more computation or cybernetic metaphors of God. “God is information.” Or perhaps, “God / spirit is the intentionality underwriting otherwise hollow and derivative computational processes.” Or something like that.

It reminds me of an argument I concocted on the spot in a philosophy of religion elective I took several years back. We read Aquinas’ “Quinque viae” aka his five proofs of God’s existence. The professor, a militant atheist and functionalist, lectured for awhile about internal contradictions and tautology. And while I was and still am a strong atheist, I found his arguments ungenerous, and worse, boorish. So I raised my hand.

metaphor-michelangelo-finger-of-god-lg[1]
God points at Adam and in so doing creates a position vector.
Professor, I said, You should note that Aquinas begins with the Argument from Motion:“Whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another,” and “Motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality.” This establishes God’s fundamental connection to entropy.

Then, in his Argument from Degree: “As fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.”

The idea of maximum heat is literally a thermodynamic metaphor. God is like absolute zero, the baseline which makes heat measurement possible. In terms of entropy, this implies God is a zero entropy state: a state of pure and total order and useful potentiality.

Consider what we know from physics: The universe began as a singularity and entropy, which is to say disorder, has been increasing ever since. Is it a stretch to relate this inextricable progression from order to disorder with the Christian metaphor of being fallen and separated from God? Is the punishment for original sin not that mortal beings must eventually age and die, that is, to be subject to the whims of entropy? And is the “heat death” of the universe not well captured in the metaphor of hell as state of uniform disorder and chaos?

Consider next how information theory has updated our understanding of these physical truths. Entropy, through the lens of statistical mechanics, refers to uncertainty about the state of a given system. A low entropy system requires less information to be fully described with certainty. A single particle, for example, can be described by its position and velocity with certainty in a way that a chaotic system cannot.

entropy

Let’s go back to the initial state of the universe, which began in a singularity of infinitesimal size, contained in an equally infinitesimal amount of space and time. This is not directly observed. Rather, it’s postulated by extrapolating backwards along the arrow of time until the universe’s entropy is asymptotically nil. That is, where the information required to describe the state of the entire universe and everything in it approaches zero, with the degree of certainty approaching one.

This asymptotic, zero entropy state is in dimensionless space, and, in informational terms, contains literally all the “knowledge” of how the universe will subsequently unfold. In other words, it is omniscient and omnipresent. And moreover, since it contains infinite potentiality, it is a state capable of creating its own momentum, to be the unmoved mover.

I lowered my hand, and returned the floor to the incredulous professor, who scoffed.

“Ridiculous.”

Of course, I agree. But isn’t there more virtue in creatively exploring positions you don’t actually hold, rather than contorting obviously bad arguments into an even worse light?

Either way, the information entropic “proof” of God (i.e. the sixth proof) seems to me to be also asymptotic in its degree of abstraction. Is a more abstract metaphor for God possible? If not, then maybe it does have an ontological reality. I have no doubt Aquinas would agree. And perhaps Kierkegaard would agree, too, given his faith in God despite the undeniable disorder of things.

Build That Space Moat

Elon Musk says we need to colonize a second planet to ensure the long run survival of human civilization. Stephen Hawking agrees.

The smart people have thought it through: Earth puts all our eggs in one basket. While the world is fairly healthy now and incremental progress marches on, it just takes one major asteroid, one nuclear world war,  one mass extinction event, or one unfriendly AI to send us back to the stone age (or worse). And while the probability of most apocalyptic scenarios is tiny, they can be made infinitesimal by diversifying humanity across another astronomical object.

Earth 2 is about diversifying against risk. Colonizing Mars does nothing to diversify against the risk of a massive solar storm, since it shares the same star. But it does diversify against the risk of global contagion, climate catastrophe, and robot wars. If and when we colonize Mars, however, it would defeat the purpose to carry on extensive interplanetary trade. Deep linkages between Earth 1 and 2 might have short term benefits (the division of Martian labor is limited by the extent of the market), but it would also allow major shocks on one planet to propagate to the other—the very thing the costly endeavor of terraforming Mars is trying to avoid.

It’s worth reiterating how long term and counter-intuitive this thinking is. Musk and Hawking are not unmoved by the massive improvements that have been made in global health and well-being in their lifetimes. But they also aren’t autoregressive thinkers, expecting that the state at period T to always closely resemble the state at period T-1. Their mental model contains the possibility of making slow and steady progress that is totally reversed by a single, rare roll of the dice.

Now substitute linkages with Earth 2 with the linkages globalization has created with the rest of the world. And substitute the far fetched risk of an unfriendly AI with the very real risk of global financial crisis, collapsing political authority, and the reversion to predominately decadent and dysfunction political institutions like those of the pre-Enlightenment era.

This is the forecast in the subtext of neoreactionary and paleocon fears about modernity and globalization. While global trade networks have created supply chain redundancies, reduced inter-state conflict, and raised millions out of poverty, a common market also creates the possibility of systemic risks that affect everyone. Think Europe’s deflationary debt spiral. Add to that a dominant liberal-cosmopolitan ideology which denies hard truths about assimilation, and you get an out of control refugee crisis, authoritarian backlash and the terminal decline of Western civilization. Or something like that.

See, I don’t know if I buy any part of this story. But I believe in the principle of charity, which means framing my opponent’s view in the best possible light and avoiding attacks based on their motivation. And often the best way to do just that is to substitute your opponents argument with an analogous one which you’re already sympathetic to. In this case, my opponents are anti-globalists. They want an Earth 2 called the West, which limits its linkages with the rest of the world, forgoing short run benefits in favor of protection against radical, systemic changes with uncertain long run effects.

Given my priors, it’s easy for me to think of antiglobalists as simply xenophobic hatemongers, whose fear of modernity is nothing more than sublimated white identity politics. And many of them are. But I also know many who aren’t—many who are smarter than me, and more kind and humane, too.

So I’m torn. If the rallying cry for anti-globalists is “build that wall,” then the rallying cry for Musk and Hawking is “build that space moat”. And while I accept the latter I whole-heartedly reject the former, but can’t quite figure out why. Mood affiliation? Status seeking? Because the fantasy of colonizing Mars is far, while the implications of not responding to the refugee crisis are here and now, and will lead to real and tangible harms? Or because, in the case of globalization vs isolationism, the uncertainties cut both ways in roughly equal proportion?

It’s this last possibility that, Tyler Cowen argues, means we should focus on doing things we know produce good consequences in the short run:

Let us start with a simple example, namely a suicide bomber who seeks to detonate a nuclear device in midtown Manhattan. Obviously we would seek to stop the bomber, or at least try to reduce the probability of a detonation. We can think of this example as standing in more generally for choices, decisions, and policies that affect the long-term prospects of our civilization.

If we stop the bomber, we know that in the short run we will save millions of lives, avoid a massive tragedy, and protect the long-term strength, prosperity, and freedom of the United States. Reasonable moral people, regardless of the details of their meta-ethical stances, should not argue against stopping the bomber.

No matter how hard we try to stop the bomber, we are not, a priori, committed to a very definite view of how effective prevention will turn out in the long run. After all, stopping the bomber will reshuffle future genetic identities, and may imply the birth of a future Hitler. Even trying to stop the bomber, with no guarantee of success, will remix the future in similar fashion. Still, we can see a significant net welfare improvement in the short run, while facing radical generic uncertainty about the future in any case.

Autonomy or Autarky?

There’s a tension in liberalism when it comes to autonomy.

On the one hand, liberalism represents the thin set of rules that constitute the overlapping consensus, the implicit social contract between warring conceptions of the good made to share control of a political order. We accept liberal institutions, if only begrudgingly, because a) we recognize disputes over irreconcilable conceptions of the good are pointless, and b) we all stand to benefit from an expanded aperture of social cooperation.

This is the context in which Kant defined the concept of equal dignity. Though we may disagree with our neighbor’s way of life, dress or worship, we all have equal dignity through a common commitment to respect each other’s autonomy. Autonomy means moral self-constitution, or self-authorship: the freedom to chart one’s own course in life. To be treated as an end, and not as a means to an end, is to be left the constructor of one’s own ends, to conceive of whatever the good and just life means to you and to be left to pursue it.

Autonomy is neither hedonistic, nor atomistic. Autonomy is the subject and object of human reason, and acting in alignment with reason requires self-legislation, self-control, and obedience to the moral norms required of a civil and cooperative society. When whole societies of people are granted autonomy, an amazing thing happens: It creates the Kingdom of Ends, exemplified by the free market, where equal dignity is manifest in each and every commercial exchange.

But as time has worn on, an interesting thing has happened. The terms of the social contract seem to have become internalized as a conception of the good in their own right. That is, the political order, which emerged through conflict and error to sustain rivalrous conceptions of the good, has become mirrored in our sensory order. Liberal neutrality, rather than being a property of corporate institutions, percolates into an individual’s own faculty of judgment. Autonomy, rather than being an allusion to sectarian ceasefire, is reconstrued as a kind of end in itself.

There is no such thing as autonomy for autonomy’s sake. Autonomy gets its footing precisely through the way it enables, empowers and amplifies genuine, substantive conceptions of the good, irreconcilable though they may be. Autonomy for autonomy’s sake, in contrast, is without substance. It’s a purposive void.

More dangerously, this way of conceptualizing autonomy quickly becomes identified with lacking dependencies: romantic, familial, moral, and organizational dependencies. Yet being dependent on someone is not at all contrary to living an autonomous life. Mutual advantage presupposes interdependence. As do market exchange, specialization and the division of labor.

Fundamentally, this confuses autonomy for autarky. Autarky in economics is the refusal to trade. Translated to human psychology, autarky is the refusal to be vulnerable; to open one’s self to emotional and intellectual trade winds.

Self-reliance, it has been said, is just another word for poverty. So what will come of our psychic Juche? Will we move from a pluralistic Kingdom of Ends to a monastic Kingdom of Hermits? And what does the capacity to self-legislate look like when, morally speaking, we’re living out a hung jury?