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Qualified Reservations

A blogger I love to read is Mencius Moldbug, of Unqualified Reservations. I find him always thought provoking, and a pleasure to disagree with as well as to agree with. Indeed, he more than once changed my mind on topics where I didn't imagine I could be swayed, by bringing about a point of view I had never been confronted to.

Mencius Moldbug is familiar with libertarian ideas, which he once embraced; he notably shares with Misesians their methodological individualism in analyzing human behavior, and their resolutely realistic approach of what political power is, as contrasted with what some people would like it to be, or would like others to believe it is. This is the proper approach to social science, it is fruitful, and Moldbug seems to have taken it where it hadn't been taken before. For Moldbug embraced — and indeed regenerated — reactionary thought. He dusted from it all attachment to forlorn beliefs and institutions, and resurrected its core narrative: political power is an irreducible reality; order matters; dilution of responsibility is chaos, "progressives" bring this chaos; the US is controled by a "cathedral", a decentralized Establishment of intellectuals, bureaucrats, politicians, who all agree on "progressive" ideas and have been spreading them throughout the world in the XXth century causing hundreds of millions of innocent victims; etc. Moldbug is the most articulate and compelling reactionary I've ever read, indeed the only one I know of who doesn't give me the creeps by ultimately founding his explanations on some kind of superstition — though sometimes he seems to long for a superior source of authority he could believe in. In addition to clarifying many reactionary ideas, he made important contributions to political economics, including his theory of sovereignty, his theory of liquidation of the State, and his theory of money. I thus find Moldbug's reactionary narrative generally compelling, and have thus been reconciled with my own mother's reactionary values.

However, on his quest to rediscover and restore the reactionary tradition, Moldbug explicitly rejects some crucial libertarian ideas and values; he notably embraces de jure territorial monopolies and mercantilism. And there I strongly disagree with him. Indeed, not only do I think his rejection of libertarian ideals is unjustified, I also think that even in his accurate condemnation of the festering evil that purportedly represent "progressive" or "conservative" ideas and values, he fails to salvage the essential truths that need be salvaged — those kernels of truth around which lies acrete, and by which victims are hooked into the lying ideologies. My reactionary side values order. My libertarian side values freedom. My conservative side values tradition. My progressive side values novelty. There is no contradiction. The contradiction would come from trying to establish a hierarchy between them, from trying to prop one of them up where it doesn't apply, or from denying it where it does. (And no, it's not a matter of "balance" — typical emotionalist nonsense — but of propriety — to each its own domain.) Moreover, I notice how whenever he rejects libertarian ideas, he does so by erroneously departing from the methodological individualism and realism that brought his reactionary successes.

Tellingly, in a 2013 post Sam Altman is not a blithering idiot, Moldbug derides as "Pig Philosophy" any kind of hedonism or utilitarianism that would seek to satisfy human desires, whether immediate and lowly or remote and lofty. But viewed in such a broad way, there's no escaping "Pig Philosophy". If implementing some philosophy isn't in anyone's at least perceived and far-fetched interest, then no one's going to make it happen. Anything that requires purposeful action is "Pig Philosophy" by the overly broad standard of Moldbug. The politically elitist view of Moldbug, in which the ruler issues arbitrary edicts to promote his arbitrary values, be it contra libertarian advice, is no less "Pig Philosophy": unless you claim that the ruler's edicts have no human-intelligible and human-sought purpose whatsoever, and are but chaos and fury, it's still Pig Philosophy, whether the ruler is a decidedly lonely hero facing God and Devil all by himself, or an elite caste of enlightened aristocrats; and if you claim there is indeed but chaos and fury, that would certainly be the very opposite to the reactionary value of Order indeed. Order is not arbitrary and subjective, arbitrarily definable by rulers; it's objective. And Mencius knows it, or he would just be reveling in the glory of his progressive masters' social constructs. And so, regarding all that mercantilism that Moldbug justifies: Cui Bono? If no one actually benefits from the actions of the sick and cruel rulers, what was that qualifier already that Moldbug was using to describe the dysfunctional behavior of the DCvers towards their wards? sadistic government. And an implicit assumption behind the very notion of sadistic government, or of the good government that Moldbug is aspiring to, is indeed some form of Pig Philosophy. To paraphrase Daniel Dennett, adding in pigs: There is no such thing as pig philosophy-free science; there is only science whose pig philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.

So yes, libertarians and "Austrian Economists" in the tradition of Mises are indeed promoting "Pig Philosophy" (or at least, Pig-hybrid philosophy): we proudly study "Human Action", which is verily characterized by being purposeful, as well as acted by individuals capable of learning (Eliezer would say "anti-inductive"). Our "Pig Philosophy", however, is more "democratic" than "aristocratic", in that every one's purpose is accounted in the market; yet it remains more "aristocratic" than "democratic", in that there is no ballot and majority rule, but the reward of those who best move the world toward the satisfaction of human needs; and still, it remains more "democratic" than "aristocratic" in that those seemingly random humans who constitute our "aristocracy" are post-selected according to their demonstrated ability rather than pre-selected according to birth or cooptation. A natural, peaceful, aristocracy, if you want, rather than the warrior aristocracies of antique "nobility" or the artificial "aristocracies" of modern Establishment pull.

In the end, it seems to me that Moldbug dropped the ball of rationality on this particular topic. As he has stated himself, he longs for the belief in a mystical, supernatural, source of authority; but since he isn't enthralled by any particular superstition yet, he is condemned to finding all candidates to the Embodiment of Authority ever lacking. Finding a good King? Good luck with that. In the words of Bastiat: They would be the shepherds over us, their sheep. Certainly such an arrangement presupposes that they are naturally superior to the rest of us. And certainly we are fully justified in demanding from the legislators and organizers proof of this natural superiority. There is no escaping the hard problem indeed of matching Order and Power — and the achieving of it by a providential man only gets less likely as the alleged reactionary virtues of the past get rooted away or at least irreparably corrupted from any place of influence in a systematic eradication by the progressives in power. Where demagoguery is the universal religion, not exclusive of other superstitions, and supported by world powers, your providential man will be a Hitler or an Allende, a Chavez or a Mugabe. The "progressives" have learned their lesson and won't let another Pinochet disrupt their plans, much less a Francia, that Moldbug seems to overly admire, after Carlyle.

Another problem with many of Moldbug's articles, especially latter ones, is that he sometimes falls in the same trap as many statists, especially those who like Moldbug have an engineering background, the social engineering way of thinking: looking at social issues as engineering problems for a superman above society. This superman stance is precisely the kind of unrealistic approach to political power that Mencius Moldbug had forgone when brilliantly analyzing the actual and historical structure of USG. Yet, when looking for a replacement for USG, there he falls into the same trap that he had avoided so far; he ponders choices to be made as if he were a superior being with direct access to all social knowledge, with total liberty to cheaply change social structures, as well as total responsibility for social outcomes. It is not surprising that like all would-be social engineers, he reaches conclusions as absurd as his premise, and quite similar to the conclusions of previous statists having adopted the same stance. But the superman stance is a lure: no one actually has these powers and responsibilities, no one makes such decisions; its role is thus not actually in making decisions at all; it does not make useful predictions either, because it assumes a supernatural force that isn't, and systematically neglects the real human forces that are assumed away. So what good is this stance for? Why do so many people use it and propagate its use? Actually, the stance is a way to sell people on the legitimacy of power; it doesn't matter which of the proposed options you pick, by picking an option, you have implicitly adopted the superman stance, assumed that those people in power act in the name of society, and legitimated the coercion by which they "engineer" society. By being something completely different from what it purports to be, this superman stance is therefore the ultimate corruption, to reuse the term with Moldbug's definition: any human action that is not what it appears to be. I believe Moldbug is in good faith being victim of this meme, yet in the end he too propagates it.

And this stance is how, in the above-mentioned article, Moldbug defends some protectionist agenda as a "solution" to the perceived problem of a growing underclass of people being less productive than machines (a fraction that, if we believe technophiles, is soon to be all-encompassing). Yet to an Austrian Economist, this is a non-problem based on a Self-defeating hypothesis: as long as machines are trade partners, by definition, trade only happens if everyone is better off. The notion of "not being able to compete with machines" is absurd: if machines are competitively more efficient, by definition they make things cheaper, not more expensive, which means less work to trade with the machines (or their owners) to achieve the same satisfaction, though the work may also change in nature. If the machine asks too much in return for its services, it is not being competitive, and you can return to the previous method of production. It can never ask "too little" and provide satisfactions at too low a cost. And the Law of comparative advantages ensures that even all-around superior machines will always be ready to trade what humans do relatively better for what machines do relatively more efficiently, so machines can focus on what they machines do even better. In the very worst case scenario that somehow sentient machines decide that humans have nothing valuable to offer and retract from trade, then humans will be exactly at the same point as the luddite protectionist want to place humans by force even when that is not the case; in other words, protectionism is once again but a futile attempt to escape the risk of some bad outcome by embracing the certainty of the worst possible outcome.

The real problem with sentient machines is not their becoming overly efficient trade partners: it's their becoming mortal enemies rivalizing with us on grabbing vital resources without regard for our wants, desires, needs, or claims of priority or property. In other words, the real problem is that sentient machines vastly superior to us may treat us as we treat animals. But once you put the problem that way, you find that protectionism, embargo and war are as absurd and counterproductive a "solution" to the problem as they were to american indians invaded by europeans: antagonizing your vastly superior will only lead to defeat and extermination. The solution to this problem, if it exists, is rather to cultivate a sense of shared existence with these superior beings. Appealing to the good feelings of our superiors is likely to have as much success as PETA has, and be taken just as unseriously, for good reason. Egalitarian claims that humans are the equals to AIs, when they obviously are not, are also likely to bring nothing but contempt. A claim of one sentient being, one vote in a totalitarian democracy of sentient beings where the winner party does whatever he wants is unlikely to bring much relief anyway, when one trillion AIs vote to park humans in Qualified Reservations (a.k.a. concentration camps), and declare oxygen a pollutant to be removed from the atmosphere. More generally, political "solutions" only result in the repression of the weaker party, which by assumption will include all (or a least most) humans. Happily, sentient AIs are as interested as we are in the peaceful resolution of resource conflicts, because they face the very same issue against the next generations of even more vastly intelligent, more vastly powerful sentient AIs. And the one and only solution to the problem of peaceful resolution of resource conflicts, that scales to arbitrarily advanced AIs, is Universal Law, also known as property rights. Our best bet to survive the impending rise of sentient AIs is thus to strengthen the institution of property rights against political dominion, to homestead the resources we want to preserve for ourselves, and to invest in such resources, that will raise in relative value as labor gets displaced; humans may end up getting all their needs satisfied by machines as a rent for some of these resources, except for these needs only humans can satisfy, that will be the object of all trade between humans.

I much prefer an earlier Mencius Moldbug, who could claim the Irreducibility of Political Power (where indeed "vulgar" libertarians would believe in its dissolution), yet without looking for salvation in otherworldly intervention. He instead understood that at heart this is a problem of military technology broadly speaking (where politics is but the continuation of war by other means); and he was looking for some actual technological solution, not just waiting for the Ring of Fnargl to fall from the sky. He was willing to analyze things for what they are, before to make any pronouncement on what they should be; he would criticize proposed solutions considering how the inherent forces of human action would inevitably transform and (ab)use the proposed structures. For, having understood the lessons of Mises, he knows that the forces of Human Action, apply mechanically — or rather, humanically: not because of explicit purposeful human action toward it, and sometimes even despite explicit purposeful human action against it, yet as inevitable consequences of how human action involves purpose and responds to incentives. Ultimately, the capture of Political Power by a sadistic bureaucracy is just as likely in a military monarchy (as illustrated by the history of the Ancien Regime) or in a neocameralist corporation as in a progressive democracy: the root cause is institutional irresponsibility, and in fine, only property rights can solve that, by matching liberty (the freedom to choose) with responsibility (the accountability for choices).

Comments

Very valuable insights lacking the discussion of one question and one answer

The two are, unfortunately, not matched.

The answer is comparative advantage of which MM seems to be blissfully ignorant. The fact that another human being (either due to possession of innate ability or capital) is superior to me in every aspect does not imply that we cannot trade profitably. He still might want to employ me for something at which he is better (can do for less than he would need to pay me to do), just because it will free up his time (or some other resource) to do something at which he is even better.

The question is how to defend property rights against superior beings? Universal Law is a nice Schelling point as long as it is not entirely obvious who the stronger party is. You had no problem defending your property rights against the squirrel, but the squirrel would have a hard time protecting the nuts from the tree that her great-great-grandmother planted from you. You will tax the forest at the laffer maximum, if it were all yours, and will only negotiate with other human beings about rights to tax different parts of it, if it were not. The Laffer curve is the only thing protecting the squirrel, not property rights. But then the Laffer curve is the only thing protecting me against better armed people, not property rights. Actually, as much as I hate borders, I have to admit that as long as I am an unarmed peon, I am better off with being taxed by one gang to the Laffer maximum than with being plundered by a multitude of gangs.

I think the answer to the latter involves various committment strategies, but I am not sure how.

Re: Very valuable insights lacking the discussion of one question and one answer

I added a sentence about comparative advantage, though I treat the topic more in detail in my above linked post about Self-defeating hypotheses.

I believe you somewhat underestimate Universal Law: the stronger party of today is not guaranteed to be forever the stronger party — quite the contrary, actually. Respect for the Law might not just save the cost of a winnable war today, it might set a precedent that will save the cost of a losable war tomorrow.

That said, you're right that in absence of Universal Law, the Laffer curve is saving us — but it requires an intelligent enough and sane enough ruler to recognize it (as opposed to a sadistic government); and an even more intelligent ruler might be well inspired to follow Moldbug's advice and formalize its taxation revenues into actual tradable property rights.

Yes, the answer to the enforcment mechanism lies somewhere there, but I am not entirely satisfied with the simple mechanism that you provide. Surely, I am totally sure that I will be forever the stronger aprty against a squirrel. I gave a bit of thought to green libertarianism: formally trading with other species instead of taxing at Laffer maximum (agriculture) and plundering into extinction (fishing). But it doesn't add up (for now).

Superrationality

I don't think the mechanism is that simple, but I do believe that the enforcement is made much easier by what Hofstadter calls "superrationality", and that is indeed but Schelling points for game strategists with common knowledge of each other's rationality: when you understand universal law, and you understand that others understand it, then it becomes obvious to follow it, because that is your best interest. This mechanism doesn't apply to animals, that are not capable of to grasp the necessary abstraction and causation. It barely applies to a subset of humans, who are able to fathom these principles. But there is a fair chance that AIs advanced enough to surpass humans will be advanced enough to get it.
eyes black and white

April 2015

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