Against (Actual) Conservatism

A Decent Model

Some bad ideas are overstretched good ideas. Let’s start with the good stuff before the critique.

Edmund Burke, who might be the father of conservatism, would have been a fan of Chesterton’s Fence. Here’s the basic idea from Chesterton’s The Thing:

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

And here’s Burke:

People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.

Notice the similarity? Burke and Chesterton are conservatives in the real sense of the word. Don’t get rid of something you don’t understand. They care for tradition. A more modern conservative may be Nassim Taleb. We shouldn’t consider any of these people ‘right wing’ conservatives. They see things on a political axis of fragility-antifragility, rather than a more common compass view.

Tradition encompasses the ideas that have helped humanity get to where it is today. It is a resource of “stuff that works” even if we don’t know why. Fasting is one example. Religious fasting was once done by different people in different regions of the world. The people that fasted have been able to survive and spread their ideas. The people that didn’t fast… sometimes died. Today we know about the health benefits of fasting, but this wasn’t always the case.

Someone in the year 1917 that was thinking of holding on to this bit of their culture probably should have, even if they didn’t know exactly why the tradition existed. In that sense, I’m a Burkean as well. Chesterton is right when he says “when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” Fences, laws, and social institutions exist for reasons. If the reasons are bad, the institution need not exist. If the reason is good, destroying the institution can lead to death.

Hyperconservatism

But they mix up some different ideas here. I’m as pro-antifragility as you can get, but I’m not a traditionalist. Tradition tells us what has worked in the past, not necessarily what will work in the future. When you don’t know why a tradition exists, you should defer to it. Chesterton spoke of social institutions (marriage, religion etc.) that are commonly misunderstood. But I think people take Chesterton’s ideas too far. Nassim Taleb’s views on GMO food is probably the most famous example. As he notes, the precautionary principle should be:

…neither used naively to justify any act of caution, nor dismissed by those who wish to court risks for themselves or others.

I agree, but he may be closer to the “naively justifying caution” end of the spectrum than he realizes. The world without widespread GMO nutrition in the short run would not be such a terrible place. The same world in the long run would be. If there’s a 0.1% yearly risk of civilizational collapse due to GMO food production, I’m willing to take the risk. Taleb isn’t.

A Better Model

Any social, economic or technological system is going to fail eventually. We outgrew hunting and gathering. Something will eventually push us out of fertilizer-based agriculture entirely. Personally, I think it will be lack of oil for fertilizer (thanks to Charlie Munger). It could be something else that nobody’s thought of. We must make the transition to another system before ours fails. That’s not even mentioning that enforcing a biotech ban would be less and less feasible over time. If GMO sales become illegal, people will still sell GMOs. The only difference is that you gain maybe 2 or 3 decades before someone does it, and when they do they won’t be doing toxicology research to ensure safety.

“A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” -Albert Einstein

The way that Burke, Chesterton, and Taleb think about the world is based on a particular mental model. Imagine a string that splits into multiple threads. These are the timelines of humanity. Most threads end quickly. There are many bad ways to go and only a few correct paths. We are not on those short-lived threads. Our timeline has lasted so long thanks to our traditions. Our thread runs far into the future, and humans will be able to survive for a very long time if we stick to all of these traditions.

The other way of thinking about it is that the biotech thread length is longer than the one where humans don’t use biotechnology for food production. We could theoretically learn it without a monsanto-esque profit motive, but the research would take much longer sans funding. How much time do we have before the fertilizer-based production model fails? Looking at potential thread length forces the innovative approach.

This is dangerous, but not as dangerous as sticking to the same system for eons. If we had stuck to hunting and gathering, we would eventually have been killed. Maybe it would have been our Homo Erectus cousins that got to us, or some disease that managed to wipe us out. Most species don’t get far, even intelligent ones. Just look at Homo Erectus now. If we hadn’t gotten fertilizer-based farming, the same may have happened to us. Most hunter-gatherer societies have been taken over by agricultural civilizations. In the future, someone might say that most fertilizer-based agricultural societies have be taken over by biotech-based farming.

To keep the Malthusian trap at bay, and to provide food without oil-based fertilizer when our reserves run out, we need to consider every option we can. That means hydroponic growth systems, GMOs, and whatever else we can get our hands on. I’m not sure which new technologies will be successful, but I am sure we can’t continue on the path we have now. For society to survive, it needs to change.

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Emacs and Org-Mode

I’ve been using Emacs ever since Robb Seaton wrote about using writegood-mode. to improve one’s writing clarity. To be honest, I think most people could do without it. In fact, most people don’t need Emacs at all. Emacs can do anything done by any other program. If it can’t yet, I assure you that someone is working on it. You can use it to play Tetris, write emails, take notes, maintain a schedule, and engage in almost any other productive or unproductive task. (Still looking for an Emacs video editor.) Browse the internet or run a regression. The world is your oyster. In fact, I’m writing this blog post from Emacs right now. It’s amazing.

It’s still unnecessary. I could write my blog posts in WordPress. I could play Tetris on an app on my phone, or some janky flash website. I could take notes in any text editor, and maintain a schedule with a calendar app. I’ve done all those things in the past. On their own, its easier to do things that way. Emacs comes with a learning curve that my phone’s calendar doesn’t have.

One of the reasons I use Emacs is that it’s really fast. Taking notes, working on schedules, and writing blog posts is so much more efficient than using any other system. I’m still not sure why, but I’ve got a theory.

One of the important mental models that I’ve learned about is switching costs. Switching from one grocery store to another can be annoying. All the food is in different places! But switching from one note taking app to another can be even worse. You’re fine with Evernote until you need a feature it doesn’t have. I’ve found myself in the situation of working on similar tasks on three different applications because none fit my needs. That means I had to learn three different systems when I only needed one.

Emacs does everything. Without any experience, you’ll need to look things up sometimes. After that, it’s honestly pretty simple. I suck at coding, unlike the programmers that typically use it. Give it a couple hours, and you’ll be able to get a working agenda and take notes. Give it a month, and you may find yourself doing ten times the work you can normally get done in a given day (assuming your work consists of manipulating information).

Leap into the rabbit hole. You won’t get it until you do. Once you do, you probably won’t look back.

Best Books For Mental Models

Here are my favorite books for learning new mental models. For those of you that don’t know what mental models are, check out this site.

I prefer books that simply list out the models and give brief explanations. My goal is to use books to find the models that work (most don’t). Once I find an interesting model from a book, I’ll do my own research to really grasp its importance.

The explanations provided in these books aren’t necessarily /bad/, but they seem too short to provide much benefit on their own. The 50 physics ideas mentioned in the first book could have a whole book to themselves. Reading all of them would be time consuming. I’d rather get a basic overview of a model before deciding whether or not it is useful.

Here’s the list:

1. 50 Physics Ideas You Really Need to Know, by Joanne Baker
2. 50 Economics Ideas You Really Need to Know, by Edmund Conway
3. The Laws of History, by Graeme Donald Snooks
4. Influence: Science and Practice, by Robert Cialdini
5. The Biology Book, by Michael and Gloria Gerald

That’s a lot of mental models. Filter the lists and find what’s useful to you. If you want more, the 50 ____ Ideas series has plenty more books. So does The _____ Book series by Sterling. I’ve heard good things about The Math Book in particular, but the series is light on mental models compared to the 50 ____ series. That being said, they also provide information about tools and the like that were used to discover models. The context is nice.

There are lists of ideas that I consider mental models in non-book form as well. These lists are even more succinct than the books, and contain ideas that aren’t really mental models at all. Nevertheless, if you’re looking to find more models, the responses to the latest Edge Annual Question is hardly a bad place to start. If you get tired of that, try the 2011 Annual Question.

The high-bandwidth route to mental models is probably useful for anyone that wants to expand the number of models they use and reduce “man with a hammer” syndrome. You should remember that models are not useful by default. You absolutely need to filter if you’re learning models one after the other. I think it’s still worth doing. Best case scenario: you learn some useful mental models that can be applied to your everyday life. Worst case scenario: you know why bridges can easily fall down and how antibiotics work.

Why Terrible Disasters Are Unlikely

Shane Parrish, from Farnam Street Blog, writes about the mental model of Multiplicative Systems. He uses the example of a basketball player that has everything going for him, but was unsuccessful because of a cocaine habit. We may consider the amount of basketball notoriety he could gain as a multiplicative system. His height could be, say, five points. His raw talent another five. His motivation another five. His drug addiction – zero.

Basketball notoreity = 5 x 5 x 5 x 0 = 0

So our basketball player went nowhere because of his one zero. Yet the multiplicative systems model doesn’t only describe how extraordinary people can lose their careers, but also how disasters are unlikely to be particularly terrible. One simple reason is that it’s hard to get so far to either side of a bell curve. Both terrible and amazing events are unlikely. Of course, a sudden apocalypse is more likely than a sudden appearance of Plato’s Republic.

Still, multiplicative systems can prevent apocalypses from getting too bad. Let’s say a bioterrorist tries to give people Ebola. They will probably go around, giving some people Ebola and a small number may die, giving some others the disease before they perish. Still, Ebola doesn’t spread easily. Perhaps a dozen or so people die. This is bad, but it’s no apocalypse, numbers-wise. Compared to a real apocalypse, it’s basically nothing. Without a better way to spread Ebola, the bioterrorist has been unsuccessful at ending the world. They get five points for Ebola and zero (or maybe 0.0001, as it did kill some people) for the distribution method.

Magnitude of oblivion = 5 x 0 = 0

(I don’t know if terrorists, never mind bioterrorists would want to actually end the world. If I meet one I will ask them and get back to you.)

Let’s try another example, where the terrorist has figured out how to make Ebola airborne. Five points for Slytherin! Not to mention the five points they already had for Ebola.

Magnitude of oblivion = 5 x 5 = 25

In reality, there would be more than two parts to the equation. There would be five points for acquiring the Ebola, five for transporting it safely, five for not getting caught by the authorities, etc. Thankfully, all it takes is a single zero to prevent the worst kind of disaster. Smaller events, such as mass shootings, have fewer variables and lower likelihood of a zero showing up. This is how the bell curve happens. Smaller quantities of evil occur more frequently than larger doses.

A Messier World Map

Institutional Decay

The traditional form of government is a region controlled by a single entity. The quintessential “monopoly on violence in a given area” definition should suffice. It used to be a single person, but today it is an organization of multiple people in pretty much the whole world. Even in China, Xi Jinping does not hold all power. Governments have thousands or millions of people, with vary levels of power, split up into different divisions. But they have a single area of land, or maybe multiple areas, such as the Continental United States plus Alaska and Hawaii. That is three regions of land for one government. I expect governments to spread across multiple, non overlapping areas in the future.

The traditional nation-state gains money by taxing trade, or property. As the black market swallows up larger and larger portions of the world’s economy, taxing trade will no longer suffice. Government will tax property instead. A billionaire living in a small apartment would not pay much in taxes. Most billionaires have sophisticated tax avoidance schemes already, but millionaires and six-figure earners could easily make the jump and pay low taxes despite high incomes. If more wealthy people are willing to buy cheaper housing, the government would receive much less funding than it does now. Again, this all assumes the black market continues to grow.

Libertarian readers may rejoice at the concessions the government has had to make. Of course, this is not the end. All nation-states will try to gain more funding, one way or another. They may simply set property taxes high enough that it could make up for the loss from income and sales tax. This would also have problems. Anyone in these neighborhoods that was actually poor would end up on the street, which creates more problems than it solves.

What would they try next? Seizing control of ports and trade routes would be a good idea. Anything that passes through is subject to a tax. This would not bother the domestic markets which probably don’t have to worry about checkpoints, but would slow down the foreign trade considerably. Still, savvy businessmen could create new ports and trade routes. Drone transportation would also be hard to regulate. At the end of the day, modern political institutions will have to face a slew of problems.

Anarcho-Capitalist Paradise?

Any government will surely become less powerful, but this doesn’t mean it will cease to exist. The central bank could continue to issue and repurchase its own bonds. The government could sell its physical assets, at least until there was nothing left to sell. Governments can potentially solve local coordination problems, even if they currently don’t. If a government regulates factory pollution, factories will pop up in a country that has no such laws. But government can prevent overfishing in a lake, even if they are hard pressed to end pollution (a global coodination problem) or terrorism (a fat tail risk). They can scale down, solving more legal issues at the province/state or city levels, and only a few key problems, such as military defense, at the national level.

Modern political and economic systems are getting squeezed in two directions at once. First, lower tax rates are making it difficult for the government to sustain itself. Second, coordination problems are making it harder for free markets (and some governments) to prevent pollution, corruption, and other issues with potentially deadly consequences.

The fact that neither polycentric societies nor governments are capable of dealing with coordination problems is not a point in favor of anarcho-capitalism, or against government. Moloch will literally be our demise, unless we create institutions that are capable of dealing with them. Government is a bad way of solving the largest of coordination problems, as a government cannot regulate globally. Not only that, governments cannot regulate themselves, and can suffer from an internal ability to coordinate.

The standard variant of polyentric law does not do well either. A polycentric society has just as many problems with large-scale coordination, and is worse than governments at coordinating locally. However, libartarian societies are also more adaptable, and can route around Moloch. If everyone overfishes a lake, people will start fish farms to keep the supply up. The solutions to coordination problems are hopefully politically agnostic. They must be able to function between different types of political organization.

Today’s coordination between governments are already inefficient and insufficient. In the future, different forms of smaller governance will create compatibility issues, and contracts between large swaths of the human population will be harder to come by than agreements between just a few large nations.

Of course, in a world of smaller institutions, different types of agreements can become available as well. A contract may not cover anybody, but people may be able to subscribe at an individual or city-scale level. If the contract stipulated that one could only do certain kinds of business with others who have agreed to the 2037 Antipollution Agreement, there will be a network effect leading to more and more people, businesses, and polities reducing their pollution levels. Probably other forms of agreements I haven’t even thought of will be able to take place.

Will this actually happen?

I’m still not sure. The world is, and probably has always been, in a balancing act between a few large institutions that can better solve coordination problems and many small institutions that are resilient to fat tail risk. Terrorists would find it difficult to attack a gated private city but could easily attack a nation’s capital. Pollution can be prevented by a theoretical global government, but a plurality of independent townships won’t be able to work it out between themselves.

The proper task is to make it easier for many city states to independently coordinate and also help large governments deal with fat tail risk. I cannot accurately predict how political organizations will work in the future, but I can better forecast which societies will have which kinds of problems. If the world becomes an archipelago or patchwork of polities, they must be able to kill Moloch. If it consolidates into a few large continental unions or a global government, they will need to be resilient to both external threats to the central political system and internal threats that would freeze the political system. The future will hopefully be more and less structured at the same time. An ideal world that can coordinate if necessary and is as resilient as possible. I think this is a good goal since we may all die without it.

No Overpopulation

In Scott Alexander’s famous essay, Meditations on Moloch, Scott cites many examples of how Moloch plays out in our world. One of them is about overpopulation. He mentions:

The Malthusian trap, at least at its extremely pure theoretical limits. Suppose you are one of the first rats introduced onto a pristine island. It is full of yummy plants and you live an idyllic life lounging about, eating, and composing great works of art (you’re one of those rats from The Rats of NIMH).

You live a long life, mate, and have a dozen children. All of them have a dozen children, and so on. In a couple generations, the island has ten thousand rats and has reached its carrying capacity. Now there’s not enough food and space to go around, and a certain percent of each new generation dies in order to keep the population steady at ten thousand.

A certain sect of rats abandons art in order to devote more of their time to scrounging for survival. Each generation, a bit less of this sect dies than members of the mainstream, until after a while, no rat composes any art at all, and any sect of rats who try to bring it back will go extinct within a few generations.

V0010670 Rats roaming the sewers, some of them dying, heralding the p

I want to talk about why a small population that engages in art is better than a large population that focuses on short run competition. Art exists for a reason. If art didn’t benefit a society, it would cease to exist, according to the Law Of Malthus. There are some who say that art may be useful now, perhaps it takes advantage of some inherent mental heuristics to make people feel a certain way that leads to a ritual-like state. However, evolution will select for people who do not have this subconscious ritual state of mind and art will cease to exist.

To those people, it must seem like there is a certain perfectly efficient organism, and the Law Of Malthus slowly makes humans more and more like this perfect organism. Eventually, all life will evolve into perfect machines. Of course, there will be some complexity. Chaotic variables can influence who gets which genes. Some sexual selection undermines the ability of a species to think or to fight. Costly signalling exists.

Yet evolution also favors diversity, this detraction from efficiency, for other reasons. As the world becomes more complex, societies will thrive by having different forms of people who think in different ways. Let’s suppose two warring groups of the same kind of people are fighting a costly battle of attrition. Both group A and group B could go on until the sun burns out, but neither is gaining ground. They are the same. If group A has one person that spends their time daydreaming about military strategy instead of fighting on the frontlines, they lose out in the short term. Group B has a small, one-member advantage in numbers, and begin to inch forward. This becomes moot when Group A, thanks to its daydreamer, begins using maneuver warfare to fight. Despite losing out to group B in the beginning, group A is able win because they had an individual that spent time thinking about a better way to do things. Now, one could argue that this doesn’t mean anything. At the end of the day, group B will begin using maneuver warfare as well. A small, creative and technologically advanced population can fight off a horde of illiterate fighters. There is at least some incentive for at least some people in society to be living comfortably. These people, free from backbreaking labor, will have time to think.

The war still exists, of course. There has been no change in fact that there is war itself. There has, however, been a change in the way the war is fought. Instead of fighting in direct head-to-head combat, the war has evolved to require more creative people. Creative people are expensive to educate and develop (even if you teach them well), so there won’t be a high population of creatives. This small group of creatives will be able to outmaneuver the largest forces of uneducated fighters through their use of better strategies and more efficient technologies. The world of art in each group would not die, but flourish. Art, literature, and philosophy all combine together in peoples’ minds to create new ways of seeing the world. In order to fight successfully, the creativity fostered by art is necessary. Of course, this does not ring true for art whose subject is so abstract as to not yield anything for anyone. Although art may not be strictly utilitarian, it has to serve the purpose of fostering idea combinations, putting people into a mental state of being “ready for war,” or anything else useful.

If one defines art as something which serves no purpose, of course Scott is right and art will cease to exist. But to serve a purpose does not make something less worthy of the title “Art.” If anything, having a purpose makes art more appealing to me. Not only does it serve some aesthetic sense, but it does it in a way that is meaningful.

hohenfriedeberg_-_attack_of_prussian_infantry_-_1745
Prussians think this is an effective strategy

If we imagine group A now fighting against a horde of fighters with absolutely no emotion (Which is to say, not the LessWrong view of rationalism), we won’t find that the emotional humans are any worse at fighting. In fact, as long as the emotions are in line with truth, we may see these humans as more rational (in the truly LessWrong sense of the word) and more successful as well. If emotions can be useful, is it really proper to say that art cannot?

Using History to Improve Forecasting

“There is no better teacher than history in determining the future.”
– Charlie Munger

To better predict the world’s future, one must understand it’s present. To better understand its present, one must understand its past. Understanding the past is best done by history books. In Susan Wise Bauer’s History of the Ancient World, we learn of environmental problems causing grain yields to decrease throughout the Fertile Crescent. Decreasing grain yields caused social schisms. Social schisms caused uprisings, which developed into civil war. In the modern Middle East, rising grain prices led to…social schisms and civil war.

History does not always repeat itself. There are differences between the ancient environmental problems and those that led to the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War. However, history provides certain patterns that make for useful knowledge. If you can identify how modern events are similar and different from past events, prediction becomes easier. Nobody can become a Nostradamus from these techniques. Complete accuracy is not possible, nor should it be the goal. Rather, one should look at long chains of cause and effect, and attempt to estimate where the trends are going, as well as the changes in the trends. A developing economy does not have high growth rates forever. The trend must stop at some point. History books tell us an enormous amount about the chains of cause and effect that led to the present.

As useful as this information is, I have not met a single person who reads history books. After trying to find good history books to learn from, I can see why. Most are terribly written, and terribly specific. Biographies of Napoleon cannot get anyone to understand the cause and effect patterns of the world. Details can be important, but knowing about World War I will only help identify issues similar to those that caused World War I. Much of the time, these problems will not play out as expected. If you see current events from the lens of WWI history, you will always assume that the world is on the brink of destruction and war. To avoid getting lost in the details, we must focus on general histories.

The other requirement is to have a multicultural understanding of history. Some readers may find multiculturalism a worthy goal in and of itself. Some may feel the opposite way. I have no cultural preference as such. I’m not trying to learn multiculturalism because of any political upbringing. Remember, the goal is to forecast more accurately. My liberal readers will be willing to learn multiculturally for no utilitarian reason. Conservatives may not see the usefulness of the multicultural approach.

Skeptics may want to know what is possibly the most important example of multicultural learning. A French translation of Sun Tzu’s Art of War became available in 1772. A minor French officer began to read it. His name was Napoleon, and he used Sun Tzu’s tactics to create an Empire. Be like Napoleon. Learn multiculturally.

Multicultural history is also important for the old adage of an increasingly intersecting world. Culture clash and transnational movements will both take place. Political maneuvering and war between different nations will occur on a scale never seen before. This makes the history of Africa important even to a Chinese person, and the history of China more relevant to a European.

Besides giving a general overview, and providing histories from different parts of the world, one’s history bookshelf should contain books that are easy to read. Reading Toynbee is not something most people do for fun. Good history books are clear to understand and easy to read. The clearer the better. You can read Hegel, Toynbee, and Spengler after you’ve gotten the basics. Philosophy of history books may not actually help with prediction anyways.

If you learn history through reading books that are both general and multicultural, you are (hopefully) able to make better predictions with the time-tested mental models they provide. There is no way for you to do that if you’re not committed to finding and actually reading through these books. I’m not sure how well this actually works, but I have an account at the Good Judgment website, so hopefully I will be able to update this every so often to see my prediction scores.