Slate Star Codex

In a mad world, all blogging is psychiatry blogging

Rational Orthography

What do DVORAK, polyamory, and home schooling have in common? They’re all about doing what’s weird-but-effective instead of what’s popular. What else is like that?

About three thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks invented a form of writing called boustrophedon. The first line was written left-to-right, the second right-to-left, and so on in a winding pattern. The advantage of the new system was that it was faster and easier to read – instead of constantly darting your eyes back and forth from one side of the page to the other at the end of each line, you just let them continue naturally.

The disadvantage was that it was hard to write, for much the same reasons most people would have trouble writing backwards now. So although boustrophedon and straight left-to-right Greek competed for a couple of centuries, in the end straight Greek won because the scribes were too lazy to do what was most convenient for their readers. According to Right Hand, Left Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms and Cultures:

A risk when offering any historical description is what has been called ‘the Whig interpretation of history’, the easy presumption that everything leads straightforwardly and inexorably to the highest state of humankind. Such an interpretation fails to look at the entire historical picture, ignoring the losers – in our case, the writing systems that became extinct […]

Boustrophedon, the writing of the ox, is, as it were, on the horns of a dilemma; either it is easier to read and more difficult to write, or vice versa. It is not surprising that it rapidly died out in ancient writing. Perhaps more surprising are moves to reintroduce it. Computers can be programmed so that only the standard twenty-six letters have to be typed on the keyboard, but the screen display or printout has normal or mirror-reversed letters according to the direction of the script. Enthusiasts claim boustrophedon is easier and quicker to read because the eye does not have to find its way back to the beginning of the next line.

These sorts of things have to start somewhere. So I asked SSC reader Bakkot to create a script that causes this blog to display in boustrophedon. I think you’ll agree that the experience is much improved. If there’s enough demand for a “classic” view, I can ask him to create some kind of optional browser add-on that will disable it, but I’d urge you to try the new version for a couple of weeks before turning to that “solution”.

More important: what if you want everything you read to be in boustrophedon from now on? For that I can unreservedly recommend The Boustrophedon Text Reader. Right now it only works on .txt, but hopefully as the movement catches on someone can turn it into a full browser extension.

OT17: Their Hand Is At Your Threads, Yet Ye See Them Not


This is the semimonthly open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. Also:

1. I’ll be pretty busy at work for the next few months, so expect a lower volume of blogging.

2. Comments of the week expand on the discussion of what is a “religion” vs. a “culture”, and bring up the importance of narrative and whether you can base a country on it.

I don’t know if Ozy’s still posting open threads on their blog. If they do, I’ll link it.

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Highlights From My Notes From Another Psychiatry Conference

I took a break from my busy schedule of learning all the reasons you shouldn’t eat bats to attend another local Psychiatry Conference.

This conference consisted of a series of talks about all the most important issues of the day, like ‘The Menace Of Psychologists Being Allowed To Prescribe Medication’, ‘How To Be An Advocate For Important Issues Affecting Your Patients Such As The Possibility That Psychologists Might Be Allowed To Prescribe Them Medication’, and ‘Protecting Members Of Disadvantaged Communities From Psychologists Prescribing Them Medication’.

As somebody who’s noticed that the average waiting list for a desperately ill person to see a psychiatrist is approaching the twelve month mark in some places, I was pretty okay with psychologists prescribing medication. The scare stories about how psychologists might prescribe medications unsafely didn’t have much effect on me, since I continue to believe that putting antidepressants in a vending machine would be a more safety-conscious system than what we have now (a vending machine would at least limit antidepressants to people who have $1.25 in change; the average primary care doctor is nowhere near that selective). Annnnnyway, this made me kind of uncomfortable at the conference and I Struck A Courageous Blow Against The Cartelization Of Medicine by sneaking out without putting my name on their mailing list.

But before I did, I managed to take some notes about what’s going on in the wider psychiatric world, including:

– The newest breakthrough in ensuring schizophrenic people take their medication (a hard problem!) is bundling the pills with an ingestable computer chip that transmits data from the patient’s stomach. It’s a bold plan, somewhat complicated by the fact that one of the most common symptoms of schizophrenia is the paranoid fear that somebody has implanted a chip in your body to monitor you. Can you imagine being a schizophrenic guy who has to explain to your new doctor that your old doctor put computer chips in your pills to monitor you? Yikes. If they go through with this, I hope they publish the results in the form of a sequel to The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.

– The same team is working on a smartphone app to detect schizophrenic relapses. The system uses GPS to monitor location, accelerometer to detect movements, and microphone to check tone of voice and speaking pattern, then throws it into a machine learning system that tries to differentiate psychotic from normal behavior (for example, psychotic people might speak faster, or rock back and forth a lot). Again, interesting idea. But again, one of the most common paranoid schizophrenic delusions is that their electronic devices are monitoring everything they do. If you make every one of a psychotic person’s delusions come true, such that they no longer have any beliefs that do not correspond to reality, does that technically mean you’ve cured them? I don’t know, but I’m glad we have people investigating this important issue.

– I’ll come out and say it: cluster randomization is really sketchy. Today I got to hear about a multi-center trial which randomized by location – half of their hospitals were the control group, the other half were the experimental group. Problem is, the patients in each hospital were given group-appropriate consent forms – either “We will be treating you as usual, but monitoring you more closely for a study” or “We will be giving you extra experimental treatment”. Not only does that break blinding, but it implies a different population of patients in each group – the ones willing to consent to monitoring versus the ones willing to consent to treatment? Might sicker people be more willing to sign the treatment consent, since they don’t want to deal with monitoring but treatment offers the chance for personal gain? Might paranoid people be more willing to sign the control consent, since they’re not being used as guinea pigs? I don’t know. But I checked those pre-intervention inter-group comparisons they have to show, and there were big differences between the two groups (for example, I think one – I can’t remember which – had like twice as many black people). Either randomize peopple properly or at least keep people blind to condition.

– On the other hand, I’m quickly losing my prejudice that RCTs always beat naturalistic studies. I’ll write more about this later, but today’s showcase was long-acting injectable versus oral antipsychotics. Conventional wisdom is that long-acting antipsychotics, in the right patient population, decrease relapse because they remove the option of not taking the medication. The best randomized controlled trials don’t find that. The best naturalistic epidemiological studies do. The expert who spoke today theorized – and I agree – that the naturalistic studies are right. He argued that one feature of RCTs is very close monitoring, which means the patients in them comply with their medication at an unnaturally high rate – thus removing the long-acting drugs’ one advantage. The studies conducted in the real world of patients not taking their medications regularly are more relevant.

– They say psychotic people don’t take their meds because they hate the side effects, or because they’re too crazy to know better, or because they just can’t be bothered. But one of the doctors today raised a novel hypothesis: are antipsychotics anti-addictive? After all, some of the most addictive drugs are those that raise dopamine levels – cocaine, meth, and MDMA are all either dopamine releasing agents or dopamine reuptake inhibitors. Antipsychotics have pretty much the opposite effect as those, lowering dopamine in the brain. Suspicious. But I have a feeling this isn’t true. Dopamine is more complicated than that. Levodopa-carbidopa, which is one step short of pure dopamine and is given to dopamine-deficient Parksinson’s patients, is as far as I know not addictive at all. It’s also very clearly antagonistic to antipsychotics. Probably antipsychotics are the opposite of non-addictive levodopa, not the opposite of cocaine or anything. I don’t know how to phrase it more rigorously than that. Still, I like the way that person thinks.

– Ever since Indiana’s legislature debated a bill that implied pi = 4, Midwestern states have had a reputation for trying to legislate science. Maybe this had something to do with the claim by one psychiatry lobbyist that Kansas’ legislature is trying to ban the DSM. I can’t find anything on it online and it sounds like an urban legend to me. Tangentially related silly clickbait: Arizona lawmakers say horses aren’t animals.

– Unintentional puns are some of my favorite puns. I still remember fondly when the head of a psychiatric hospital where I used to work said that if Obamacare passed there would be too many patients and the place would “turn into a madhouse”. I collected another good one today when an activist was talking about gun rights for psychiatric patients: “Taking guns from psychiatric patients isn’t going to be a panacea for violence – would anyone like to take a stab at why?”

– Clozapine really is the best antipsychotic, hands down, and the evidence isn’t even subtle. It’s also the most dangerous, and the rules say that you should only prescribe it to a patient after you’ve tried and failed with two other antipsychotics. One of the speakers was a researcher who’s trying to get a grant to prove that it’s actually more effective to try clozapine after only one failed antipsychotic, but the NIMH rejected his proposal because “even if you proved that, no one would listen”. They’re probably right. A lot of psychiatrists hate clozapine because it’s messy, scary, and requires a lot of paperwork and monitoring. The speaker presented survey after survey of psychiatrists making lame excuses like “My patients wouldn’t want it”, and then survey after survey of those psychiatrists’ patients saying they do so want it but nobody asked them. Clozapine is messy and scary and requires lots of paperwork, but if you’re a good doctor you’ll give your patient the drug that will help them anyway.

– The APA representative says that 95% of candidates supported by the APA’s PAC get elected. I think it was supposed to be a boast, like “look how effective we are”, but that’s a bit much. Either the APA single-handedly controls all American politics, or else they’re very careful to always back the winning side. Properly understood, that number should probably be taken as a measure of exactly how cynical they are.

– Not that they didn’t admit their cynicism straight out. Our Political Activism Consultant explained that state legislators are all sorta new and confused and inexperienced all the time because of term limits. And if you put on a nice suit and a tie and tell them “Hey, I’m a doctor from your district, here’s how you need to do health care policy…” you have a pretty good chance of getting them to nod along and assume you know what you’re doing. I didn’t realize how easy this was, and I hope I never use this power for evil.

– This is basically how the Eternal War Against Psychologists Being Allowed To Prescribe Medications is being fought, but the psychologists have caught on and now they have nice suits and ties too. Also, it turns out senators have a hard time differentiating the APA (American Psychiatric Association, fighting tooth and claw against psychologist prescribers) from the APA (American Psychological Association, fighting tooth and claw for psychologist prescribers) and they end up freaking out and trying to figure out why the same people are lobbying for both sides and whether this is some kind of weird shrink mind game thing.

– Drug companies were giving out stress brains! Like stress balls, only they’re shaped like brains and have little sulci and gyri on them! If in ten years I’m one of those people who never prescribes clozapine, it’ll because I’m prescribing the drug by the company that gave me a stress brain instead.

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Extremism In Thought Experiment Is No Vice

[content warning: description of fictional rape and torture.]

Phil Robertson is being criticized for a thought experiment in which an atheist’s family is raped and murdered. On a talk show, he accused atheists of believing that there was no such thing as objective right or wrong, then continued:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him.

Then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them, and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him, and then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now, is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if [there] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

If it happened to them, they probably would say, ‘Something about this just ain’t right’.

The media has completely proportionally described this as Robinson “fantasizing about” raping atheists, and there are the usual calls for him to apologize/get fired/be beheaded.

So let me use whatever credibility I have as a guy with a philosophy degree to confirm that Phil Robertson is doing moral philosophy exactly right.

There’s a tradition at least as old as Kant of investigating philosophical dilemmas by appealing to our intuitions about extreme cases. Kant, remember, proposed that it was always wrong to lie. A contemporary of his, Benjamin Constant, made the following objection: suppose a murderer is at the door and wants to know where your friend is so he can murder her. If you say nothing, the murderer will get angry and kill you; if you tell the truth he will find and kill your friend; if you lie, he will go on a wild goose chase and give you time to call the police. Lying doesn’t sound so immoral now, does it?

The brilliance of Constant’s thought experiment lies in its extreme nature. If a person says they think lying is always wrong, we have two competing hypotheses: they’re accurately describing their own thought processes, which will indeed always output that lying is wrong; or they’re misjudging their own thought processes and actually there are some situations in which they will judge lying to be ethical. In order to distinguish between the two, we need to come up with a story that presents the strongest possible case for lying, so that even the tiniest shred of sympathy for lying can be dragged up to the surface.

So Constant says “It’s a murderer trying to kill your best friend”. And even this is suboptimal. It should be a mad scientist trying to kill everyone on Earth. Or an ancient demon, whose victory would doom everyone on Earth, man, woman, and child, to an eternity of the most terrible torture. If some people’s hidden algorithm is “lie when the stakes are high enough”, there we can be sure that the stakes are high enough to tease it out into the light of day.

Compare Churchill:

Churchill: Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?
Lady: Well, for five million pounds…well…that’s a lot of money.
Churchill: Would you sleep with me for five pounds?
Lady: (enraged) What kind of a woman do you think I am‽
Churchill: We’ve already established what kind of a woman you are, now we’re just haggling over the price

The woman thinks she has a principle, “Never sleep with a man for money”. In fact, deep down, she believes it’s okay to sleep with a man for enough money. If Churchill had merely stuck to the five pounds question, she would have continued to believe she held the “never…” principle. By coming up with an extreme case (5 million Churchill-era pounds is about £250 million today) he was able to reveal that her apparent principle was actually a contingent effect of her real principle plus the situation.

In fact, compare physics. Physicists are always doing things like cooling stuff down to a millionth of a degree above absolute zero, or making clocks so precise they’ll be less than a second off by the time the sun goes out, or acclerating things to 99.99% of the speed of light. And one of the main reasons they do is to magnify small effects to the point where they can measure them. All movement is causing a little bit of time dilation, but if you want to detect it you need the world’s most accurate clock on the Space Shuttle when it’s traveling 25,000 miles per hour. In order to figure out how things really work, you need to turn things up to 11 so that the effect you want is impossible to miss. Everything in the universe has been exerting a gravitational effect on light all the time, but if you want to see it clearly you need to use the Sun during a solar eclipse, and if you really want to see it clearly your best bet is a black hole.

Great physicists and great philosophers share a certain perversity. The perversity is “Sure, this principle works in all remotely plausible real-world situations, but WHAT IF THERE’S A COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS SCENARIO WHERE IT DOESN’T HOLD??!?!” Newton’s theory of gravity explained everything from falling apples to the orbits of the planets impeccably for centuries, and then Einstein asked “Okay, but what if, when you get objects thousands of times larger than the Earth, there are tiny discrepancies in it, then we’d have to throw the whole thing out,” and instead of running him out of town on a rail scientists celebrated his genius. Likewise, moral philosophers are as happy as anyone else not to lie in the real world. But they wonder whether they might be revealed to be only simplifications of more fundamental principles, principles that can only be discovered by placing them in a cyclotron and accelerating them to 99.99% of the speed of light.

Sometimes this is even clearer than in the Kant example. Many people, if they think about it at all, believe that value aggregates linearly. That is, two murders are twice as much of a tragedy as one murder; a hundred people losing their homes is ten times as bad as ten people losing their homes.

Torture vs. Dust Specks is beautiful in its simplicity; it just takes this assumption and creates the most extreme case imaginable. Take a tiny harm and aggregate it an unimaginably high number of times; then compare it to against a big harm which is nowhere near the aggregated sum of the tiny ones. So which is worse, 3^^^3 (read: a number higher than you can imagine) people getting a single dust speck in their eye for a fraction of a second, or one person being tortured for fifty years?

Almost everybody thinks their principle is “things aggregate linearly”, but when you put it into relief like this, almost everybody’s intuition tells them the torture is worse. You can “bite the bullet” and admit that the dust specks are worse than the torture. Or you can throw out your previous principle saying that things aggregate linearly and try to find another principle about how to aggregate things (good luck).

Moral dilemmas are extreme and disgusting precisely because those are the only cases in which we can make our intuitions strong enough to be clearly detectable. If the question was just “Which is worse, a thousand people stubbing their toe or one person breaking their leg?” neither side would have been obviously worse than the other and our true intutition wouldn’t have come into sharp relief. So a good moral philosopher will always be talking about things like murder, torture, organ-stealing, Hitler, incest, drowning children, the death of four billion humans, et cetera.

Worse, a good moral philosopher should be constantly agreeing – or tempted to agree – to do horrible things in these cases. The whole point of these experiments is to collide two of your intuitions against each other and force you to violate at least one of them. In Kant’s example, either you’re lying, or you’re dooming your friend to die. In Jarvis’ Transplant Surgeon scenario, you’re either killing somebody to harvest their organs, or letting a whole hospital full of people die.

I once had someone call the torture vs. dust specks question “contrived moral dilemma porn” and say it proved that moral philosophers were kind of crappy people for even considering it. That bothered me. To look at moral philosophers and conclude “THESE PEOPLE LOVE TO TALK ABOUT INCEST AND ORGAN HARVESTING, AND BRAG ABOUT ALL THE CASES WHEN THEY’D BE OKAY DOING THAT STUFF. THEY ARE GROSS EDGELORDS AND PROBABLY FANTASIZE ABOUT HAVING SEX WITH THEIR SISTER ON THE HOSPITAL BED OF A PATIENT DYING OF END-STAGE KIDNEY DISEASE,” is to utterly miss the point.

So let’s talk about Phil Robertson.

Phil Robertson believes atheists are moral nihilists, or moral relativists, or something. He’s not quite right – there are a lot of atheists who are very moral realist – Objectivists, as their name implies, believe morality and everything else up to and including the best flavor of ice cream, is Objective – and even the atheists who aren’t quite moral realist usually hold some sort of compromise position where it’s meaningful to talk about right and wrong even if it’s not cosmically meaningful.

On the other hand – and I say this as the former secretary of a college atheist club who got to meet all sorts – there are a bunch of atheists who very much claim not to believe in morality. Less Wrong probably has fewer of them than the average atheist hangout, because we skew so heavily utilitarian, but our survey records 4% error theorists and 9% non-cognitivists. When Friendly Atheist says he “doesn’t know a single atheist or agnostic who thinks that terrorizing, raping, torturing, mutilating, and killing people is remotely OK”, I can believe that he doesn’t know one who would say so in those exact words. But I’m not sure how, for example, the error theorists could consistently argue against that position.

And what Phil Robertson does is exactly what I would do if I were debating an error theorist. I’d take the most gratuitiously horrible thing I could think of, describe it in the most graphic detail I could, and say “But don’t you think there’s something wrong with this?” If the error theorist says “no”, then I congratulate her for definitely being a real honest-to-goodness error theorist, and unless I can suddenly think up a way to bridge the is-ought dichotomy we’re finished. But if she says “Yes, it does seem like there should be something wrong there,” then we can start exploring what that means and whether error theory is the best framework in which to capture that intuition.

On the other hand, if I were debating Phil Robertson, I would ask him where he thinks morality comes from. And if he suggested some version of divine command theory, I could use an example of the graphic-horrifying-extreme-thought-experiment genre even older than Kant – namely, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. If God commands you to kill your innocent child, is that the right thing to do? What if God commands you to rape and torture and mutilate your family? And it wouldn’t work if it were anything less extreme – if I just said “What if God told you to shoplift?” it would be easy to bite that bullet and he wouldn’t have to face the full implication of his views. But if I went with the extreme version? Maybe Robertson would find he’s not as big on divine command theory as he thought.

But this sort of discussion would only be possible if we could trust each other to take graphic thought experiments in the spirit in which they were conceived, and not as an opportunity to score cheap points.

[EDIT: This post was previously titled “High Energy Ethics”, but I changed it after realizing it was unintentionally lifted from elsewhere]

Is Everything A Religion?


On the last Links thread, Eric Raymond writes:

The environmental movement tying itself to personal virtue may have been stupid, but it is completely understandable because the movement has all the rest of the emotional structure of an Abrahamic religion, including (a) an obession with sin, (b) an eschatology (AGW), (c) irrational taboos (GM foods), (d) weekly observances of no weight other than as symbolic virtue signaling (residential recycling), and (d) fideistic refusal to consider evidence contrary to its doctrines. The rise of environmentalism perfectly tracks the fall in religious observance among elite whites in the U.S., because it’s binding to the same receptors.

This reminds me of another article I read recently claiming that social justice is just a repackaging of Christianity. And why not? We are all sinners (racists) born to original sin (white privilege) based on the actions of our forefather Adam (all the previous generations of oppressive whites). While we struggle with our own sinful nature (unconscious racism) we must also perfect the larger society by rooting out heresies (calling out offensive ideas). Everyone else will mock us, because we live in a world (society) ruled by Satan (the Patriarchy). But one day, after the Second Coming (the Revolution, the March of Progress) everyone will admit we were right and be ashamed of their own evil.

But don’t forget that transhumanism is also Christianity!. It’s got weird beliefs, a promise of eternal life through anti-aging drugs (or resurrection through cryonics), and an eschatology in the Singularity. Objectivism is a religion.

Also, liberalism is a religion. And conservativism is a religion. Libertarianism is a religion. Communism is a religion. Capitalism is like a religion. An anthropologist “confirms” that Apple is a religion. But UNIX is also a religion (apparently Linux was the Protestant Reformation.

Is there anything that isn’t like a religion? I spent this morning trying to come up with the least religious things I could think of. Trying to think of practical disciplines aimed at producing a quantifiable result, disciplines which strive to be evidence-based with a minimum of extraneous ideology. What came to mind was investing and medicine.

But investing is about propitiating a mysterious deity (the market) whose blessing or wrath bestows innumerable riches or total ruin. Believers follow gurus like Warren Buffett and Jim Cramer who promise that if they do the right things they will achieve financial salvation. Those who follow their pronouncements will enjoy the blissful afterlife of a comfortable retirement; those who violate their laws will spent their retirement in penury among much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

And medicine involves petitioners going to white-robed priests (doctors) who consult the holy scriptures (Harrison’s Clinical Medicine) to tell them how to live their lives. It has rituals (the yearly physical), taboos (smoking, overeating), and heretics (alternative medicine). Those who follow its rules are assured of a long, happy life; those who violate the rules of its priests will get cancer and die.

Maybe we’re still being too abstract here. What about, I don’t know, not stepping in front of buses? It certainly has a commandment (thou shalt not step in front of buses). It has notions of sin (stepping in front of buses) and virtue (not doing that). It has its rituals (looking both ways before you cross the street), its priests demanding obedience (crossing-guards), and its holy places (crosswalks). It promises blessings on the virtuous, but also terrible vengeance on the wicked (if you step in front of a bus, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth).

So one critique of these accusations is that “religion” is a broad enough category that anything can be mapped on to it:

Does it have well-known figures? Then they’re “gurus” and it’s a religion.

Are there books about it? Then those are “scriptures” and it’s a religion.

Does it recommend doing anything regularly? Then those are “rituals” and it’s a religion.

How about just doing anything at all? Then that’s a “commandment” and it’s a religion.

Does it say something is bad? Then that’s “sin” and it’s a religion.

Does it hope to improve the world, or worry about the world getting worse? That’s an “eschatology” and it’s a religion.

Do you disagree with it? Then since you’ve already determined all the evidence is against it, people must believe it on “faith” and it’s a religion.


But that critique goes just a little too far. Once Communists start offering animal sacrifices to statues of Mao and requiring everyone own a copy of the Little Red Book and treat it respectfully, something is going on that’s deeper than just “it has well-known figures”.

Even though it’s easy to say that every belief or movement can be analogized to a religion, I still feel an intuition that some are more “religious” than others. Social justice and environmentalism seem more religious than gun control and pro-choice, even though all four are equally important lefty issues.

The first two are just more of a world-view. I can totally imagine someone saying “My life philosophy is centered around my passion for the environment”, but not so much “My life philosophy is centered around gun control.” I can see a speaker at a wedding saying “John and Jane are perfect for each other, since they are united by their shared passion about social justice”, but not so much “John and Jane are perfect for each other, since they are united by their shared passion for gun control.”

Both social justice and environmentalism spawn entire genres of art and literature, and I know people who pretty much exclusively draw their artistic consumption from those genres. But if somebody said “All of my art has a pro-choice theme”, that would probably be pretty creepy.

I know social justice people whose social circle is almost 100% based on social justice, and environmentalists whose social circle is almost 100% based on environmentalism. I don’t think there are that many people whose social circle is 100% based on gun control. And if someone says “I’m fanatical about the environment”, I get a whole lot of stereotypes about them – she probably eats granola, drives a Prius with a dreamcatcher in the window, has a college degree, does yoga. He probably goes hiking a lot, has a beard, takes supplements, is pretty relaxed. If someone says “I’m fanatical about gun control”, I’m stumped.

But all of this stuff about stereotypes and art and insularity sounds a little like religion but even more like culture, or at least subculture.

The difference between “religion” and “culture” has always been pretty vague. Shinto is the best example; it’s less a coherent metaphysical narrative than a bunch of things Japanese people do and a repository for Japanese traditions and rituals. A quick look at Hinduism reveals that they have no idea what gods they believe in, it’s a bunch of different religions stuck together under one umbrella, but the point is that it’s the sort of thing Indian people do and a repository of Indian traditions. Even though Jews have a pretty coherent religion, the line between “Jewish culture” and “Jewish religion” is equally fuzzy. Religion as distinct from culture seems like a pretty Western phenomenon, the result of a triumphant Christianity colonizing cultures it never originated from, ending out with the modern conception of culture as ethnic food + silly costumes.

American culture is paper-thin compared to say Hindu Indian culture, but consider its rituals like the Pledge of Allegiance, its holidays like the Fourth of July, its saints/culture heroes like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, its myths like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, its veneration of founding documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution), and even its hymns like “America the Beautiful” and “Yankee Doodle”.

(the last of which, like all good hymns, uses such archaic language that almost nobody knows what the heck it means)

This gets called American civil religion a lot, but at this point I’m starting to wonder why it should. Maybe instead of accusing every culture of becoming a religion, we should just admit that our current concept of “religion” actually owes a lot to “culture”.

As apparently arbitrary groupings – by ethnicity, by government, by god, by ideology – take on social significance, they undergo a burst of meme-human symbiotic cultural evolution that ends with a strong combination epistemic-social structure.

(go ahead, laugh at my jargon, but jargon is a sign of a flourishing meme-human-symbiotic epistemic-social structure)

The advantage for the meme is obvious. The advantage for the people involved has been discussed by better minds than mine, but the point is that it seems to help people build stronger and more trusting communities than they could on their own.

Eliezer writes that every cause wants to be a cult, but I’m not sure I agree with the connotations. I would say every cause wants to be a community. Communities hold values in common. Communities have rules their members have to follow. Communities have heroes and hierarchies. Communities shun people who don’t fit in.

And if all of this sounds super-conservative, keep in mind we’re still talking about environmentalism here, or social justice here. Values in common? Check. Rules? God yes. Heroes and hierarchies? You bet. Shunning people? All the time.

Communities and cultures have their share of danger. Their mix of social and epistemological functions means that any evidence challenging the community’s core beliefs will be taken as an attack on the members’ identity. As a result, community members risk ending up mind-killed. That’s not news. And I don’t think this is especially different from the way religious fanatics are mind-killed. And certainly someone could argue that “religion” is the perfect name for a culture built on shared belief.

But I still think it’s unfair to call these communities/cultures “religions”. “Religion” is too easy to use as the Worst Argument In The World here. It’s supposed to imply all of these other connotations of “religion” like “their beliefs are based on magical thinking” and “they use blind faith instead of reason” and “instead of coming up with a world-view based on evidence they just played Bible Mad Libs.” If those are the connotations you’ve got with “religion”, then I think the word “religion” is actively doing harm here, and you should just use “belief-based community” or “movement” or whatever.

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Links 3/15: Linksmanship

The OKCupid Bullshit-To-English Filter makes dating site cliches more interesting. “Random” becomes “banal”, “I love X” becomes “I for the most part tolerate X”, and “I like to have fun” becomes “I like institutionalized racism”. And it only gets worse from there.

People predicted online education would give everyone access to free courses on every subject taught by the world’s top experts. It did exactly that and disrupted approximately nothing. So how do we adapt online education to a credentialist world?

I liked this idea when it was speculative. Now it’s supported: Anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder have similar brain anomalies.

Here’s some utopian but creative speculation about weird alternative basic income systems.

Political bubble segregation alert: did you know Fox News is the most trusted news channel in America, and it’s not even close? But beware – the article claims this is true “even among Democrats”, which seems to contradict its own data.

When I lived in Ireland I never really got the impression that the government was very good at what it did. Sure enough, in one week Ireland manages to accidentally legalize all drugs, and almost accidentally ban non-homosexual marriage. On the plus side, they’ve finally gotten around to repealing the law that anyone selling horses outside Dublin will be put to death.

Researchers who probably have never done calibration training are 99% sure endocrine disrupting pollutants are linked to diabetes, ADHD, etc.

Infinite Jest in Legos.

Astrology meets economics: In Singapore, kids born in the Year Of The Dragon are considered lucky. So lots of parents have kids in the Year Of The Dragon, the class sizes are bigger those years, and it’s harder to get into good colleges and entry-level jobs. Not so lucky now, are you?

More than 6% of American synaesthetics have color-letter associations that match a popular set of Fisher-Price alphabet magnets.

Marginal Revolution: Larger companies means more income inequality.

The 2014 Effective Altruist survey results are out.

An article on divestment which makes a point I’m slapping myself for not realizing earlier: divestment can’t possibly have any economic consequences on the companies it targets because of the efficiency of the stock market. It then goes on to point out that the largest divestment campaign in history, against apartheid South Africa, didn’t change the prices of South African company shares one bit. It concludes divestment might be a good way to raise discussion, but nothing more.

The Justice Department recently joined all the other experts who took a careful look at the case in concluding that Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown in self-defense, and the whole “hands up, don’t shoot” story was made up by Brown’s friend. That isn’t news. What’s news is that a columnist who pushed the opposite narrative has apologized.

Speaking of Ferguson, why are there more than twice as many black women as black men there and what effect does it have on the culture? (h/t Marginal Revolution)

The Most Decade Specific Words In Billboard Hits, 1890 – 2014. One day our children are going to be astounded that we survived the 2010s.

I recently wrote about the Bay Area rationality community being difficult to get into. Well, not anymore! is a central listing of all their events and directory of people to contact. Thanks, Oliver!

The social justice movement is telling people to stop reading books by white male authors to fight the “inherent bias” of the literary world. But if you know how these things work, you shouldn’t be surprised that a rudimentary investigation finds that books written by women are just as likely to get reviewed in prestigious publications as those by men, and there are simply fewer of the former.

More shared-environment-mattering-blogging: a natural quasi-experiment in Norway finds that when maternity leave is increased, the children do better in school and make more money growing up.

More money-not-mattering-blogging: a natural quasi-experiment in Sweden finds that lottery winners’ children (who are raised rich) do no better than other children in school, in avoiding drugs, etc (suggesting that the clear real-world correlation between wealth and child success is genetic rather than financial). But of course Sweden has one of the world’s strongest social safety nets, so money may matter more in other countries.

Why are so many people myopic (ie need glasses) these days? It used to be thought that the problem was kids straining their young eyes reading too many books. A new study convincingly finds that it’s more likely kids not spending enough time in bright sunlight outside.

One reason California has become such an important tech center despite having some pretty terrible laws is that it got the important law right, says a group who track inventor movements and find the most important factor is banning non-compete agreements. This kind of thing could form the core of an interesting argument against libertarianism.

The Battle Of Castle Itter was the only time in history the US military defended a besieged castle.

I’ve seen a lot of smart people defending the Trans-Pacific Partnership recently. Here’s Noah Smith: A Trade Deal Liberals Can Live With. And Tyler Cowen: Why Paul Krugman Is Wrong To Oppose Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Scientists cure Alzheimers in mice. Human trials to begin in 20-something something who cares THEY’RE ONE WEEK LATE! A WEEK! WHY COULDN’T YOU HAVE JUST CURED ALZHEIMERS ONE WEEK EARLIER!

A pretty good explanation of the conflicting claims about sea ice at the South Pole.

As far as I can tell, this is not an early April Fools’ joke, a viral marketing campaign, or an urban legend. As far as I can tell, this is actually true: Mr. T will star in a home improvement show called “I Pity The Tool”

Bleeding Heart Libertarians argues against compulsory voting – not only won’t it help, but if it’s a sneaky plot to get the Democrats to win elections, it won’t do that either.

Colleges improve critical thinking skills, says research with no control group so they can’t differentiate it from the effects of normal aging. I dunno, maybe they didn’t go to college so they didn’t think of that.

Buying copies of your own music or books to game the best-sellers charts is practically universal.

It’s like rain on your wedding day. It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife. It’s like…

Hospitals are starting to try to address poverty among their patients to prevent easily preventable poverty-related problems from eating up too many health resources. Don’t be fooled by this looking like an expansion of the creeping social services bureaucracy – this is highly-competent profit-seeking institutions being given an economic incentive to improve the lives of specific poor people assigned to them, which is the same kind of promising as social impact bonds.

The Less Wrong Sequences by Eliezer Yudkowsky are now available as an ebook:

But those of you who are looking for something steamier don’t even have to go entirely off topic!

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List Of Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of “Machinery Of Freedom”

Under any institutions, there are essentially only three ways that I can get another person to help me achieve my ends: love, trade, and force.

By love I mean making my end your end. Those who love me wish me to get what I want (except for those who think I am very stupid about what is good for me). So they voluntarily, ‘unselfishly’, help me. Love is too narrow a word. You might also share my end not because it is my end but because in a particular respect we perceive the good in the same way. You might volunteer to work on my political campaign, not because you love me, but because you think that it would be good if I were elected. Of course, we might share the common ends for entirely different reasons. I might think I was just what the country needed, and you, that I was just what the country deserved.

Love—more generally, the sharing of a common end—works well, but only for a limited range of problems. It is difficult to know very many people well enough to love them. Love can provide cooperation on complicated things among very small groups of people, such as families. It also works among large numbers of people for very simple ends—ends so simple that many different people can completely agree on them. But for a complicated end involving a large number of people—producing this book, for instance—love will not work. I cannot expect all the people whose cooperation I need—typesetters, editors, bookstore owners, loggers, pulpmill workers, and a thousand more—to know and love me well enough to want to publish this book for my sake. Nor can I expect them all to agree with my political views closely enough to view the publication of this book as an end in itself. Nor can I expect them all to be people who want to read the book and who therefore are willing to help produce it. I fall back on the second method: trade.

I contribute the time and effort to produce the manuscript. I get, in exchange, a chance to spread my views, a satisfying boost to my ego, and a little money. The people who want to read the book get the book. In exchange, they give money. The publishing firm and its employees, the editors, give the time, effort, and skill necessary to coordinate the rest of us; they get money and reputation. Loggers, printers, and the like give their effort and skill and get money in return. Thousands of people, perhaps millions, cooperate in a single task, each seeking his own ends. So under private property the first method, love, is used where it is workable. Where it is not, trade is used instead.

The attack on private property as selfish contrasts the second method with the first. It implies that the alternative to ‘selfish’ trade is ‘unselfish’ love. But, under private property, love already functions where it can. Nobody is prevented from doing something for free if he wants to. Many people—parents helping their children, volunteer workers in hospitals, scoutmasters—do just that. If, for those things that people are not willing to do for free, trade is replaced by anything, it must be by force. Instead of people being selfish and doing things because they want to, they will be unselfish and do them at the point of a gun.

Is this accusation unfair? The alternative offered by those who deplore selfishness is always government. It is selfish to do something for money, so the slums should be cleaned up by a ‘youth corps’ staffed via ‘universal service’. Translated, that means the job should be done by people who will be put in jail if they do not do it.

I just highlighted this because it was a beautifully phrased argument.

One of the most effective arguments against unregulated laissez faire has been that it invariably leads to monopoly. As George Orwell put it, “The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.” It is thus argued that government must intervene to prevent the formation of monopolies or, once formed, to control them. This is the usual justification for antitrust laws and such regulatory agencies as the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Civil Aeronautics Board.

The best historical refutation of this thesis is in two books by socialist historian Gabriel Kolko: The Triumph of Conservatism and Railroads and Regulation
. He argues that at the end of the last century businessmen believed the future was with bigness, with conglomerates and cartels, but were wrong. The organizations they formed to control markets and reduce costs were almost invariably failures, returning lower profits than their smaller competitors, unable to fix prices, and controlling a steadily shrinking share of the market.

The regulatory commissions supposedly were formed to restrain monopolistic businessmen. Actually, Kolko argues, they were formed at the request of unsuccessful monopolists to prevent the competition which had frustrated their efforts.

So many books I need to read before I can have opinions on things.

It was in 1884 that railroad men in large numbers realized the advantages to them of federal control; it took 34 years to get the government to set their rates for them. The airline industry was born in a period more friendly to regulation. In 1938 the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), initially called the Civil Aeronautics Administration, was formed. It was given the power to regulate airline fares, to allocate routes among airlines, and to control the entry of new firms into the airline business. From that day until the deregulation of the industry in the late 1970s, no new trunk line— no major, scheduled, interstate passenger carrier—was started.

The CAB had one limitation: it could only regulate interstate airlines. There was one major intrastate route in the country— between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Pacific Southwest Airlines, which operated on that route, had no interstate operations and was therefore not subject to CAB rate fixing. Prior to deregulation, the fare between San Francisco and Los Angeles on PSA was about half that of any comparable interstate trip anywhere in the country. That gives us a good measure of the effect of the CAB on prices; it maintained them at about twice their competitive level.

In this complicated world it is rare that a political argument can be proved with evidence readily accessible to everyone, but until deregulation the airline industry provided one such case. If you did not believe that the effect of government regulation of transportation was to drive prices up, you could call any reliable travel agent and ask whether all interstate airline fares were the same, how PSA’s fare between San Francisco and Los Angeles compared with the fare charged by the major airlines, and how that fare compared with the fare on other major intercity routes of comparable length. If you do not believe that the ICC and the CAB are on the side of the industries they regulate, figure out why they set minimum as well as maximum fares.

Continuing to have nothing much to say except “wow”.

Defenders of [government health spending] programs argue that the poor are so poor they cannot afford vital medical care. Lurid reports to the contrary, most poor people are not on the edge of literal starvation; evidence indicates that in this country the number of calories consumed is virtually independent of income. If the poor spent more of their own money on doctors, they would not starve to death; they would merely eat worse, wear worse clothes, and live in even worse housing than they now do. If they do not spend very much money on medical care it is because that cost, which they are in an excellent position to evaluate, is too high.

Finally something where I can say something more interesting than wholehearted agreement.

The average cost of treatment for a heart attack is about $15,000. The poverty line for a single person in the US is $11,000. On the one hand, credit cards and loans can make up some of the difference; on the other, heart attacks are by no means even close to the most expensive medical condition. So if we’re talking about actually buying health care then no, the poor literally cannot afford it.

If we’re talking about buying health insurance, I understand a very cheap policy would cost about $2000, so the poor can probably literally afford that. I mean, they don’t have a whole lot of fat to trim, but they can afford it in the sense that if they choose to give up their home and car, and live on the streets, then they can have the health insurance. At least until their job fires them because they don’t have a car and can’t get there, and so they lose the money they were using to pay for it. But they won’t starve to death!

But then, why is starving to death such a uniquely interesting endpoint? Why assume that if the poor would die without health insurance we’re morally obligated to give it to them, but if they wouldn’t, we’re not? If we’re amoral or denying all obligations to help others, why care if the poor starve to death? And if we’re not amoral and feel some responsibility to the poor, why not also be concerned about them having a minimally tolerable life?

If some libertarian doesn’t think we have any obligation to help the poor, I’d rather they just say “Well, the poor might starve to death, but that’s too bad.”

Otherwise it seems sort of misleading to me. Saying “Well, the poor won’t literally starve to death” sounds like you’re saying “Well, it’s not that bad.” But if you were actually saying that, I could respond that it is that bad. It’s just bad in a non-starvation-related way. If you don’t care how bad it is, say so instead of hedging about whether starvation is occurring or not.

The best solution to this problem would be for any state instituting a voucher system to include, as part of the initial legislation, the provision that any institution can qualify as a school on the basis of the performance of its graduates on objective examinations. In New York, for instance, the law might state that any school would be recognized if the average performance of its graduating class on the Regents exam was higher than the performance of the graduating classes of the bottom third of the state’s public schools.

The best answer I’ve ever heard to the question of how to decide who gets school vouchers.

It might be possible to reform our present universities in the direction of such free-market universities. One way would be by the introduction of a ‘tuition diversion’ plan. This arrangement would allow students, while purchasing most of their education from the university, to arrange some courses taught by instructors of their own choice. A group of students would inform the university that they wished to take a course from an instructor from outside the university during the next year. The university would multiply the number of students by the average spent from each student’s tuition for the salary of one of his instructors for one quarter. The result would be the amount of their tuition the group wished to divert from paying an instructor of the university’s choice to paying an instructor of their own choice. The university would offer him that sum to teach the course or courses proposed. If he accepted, the students would be obligated to take the course.

The university would determine what credit, if any, was given for such courses. The number each student could take for credit might at first be severely limited. If the plan proved successful, it could be expanded until any such course could serve as an elective. Departments would still decide whether a given course would satisfy specific departmental requirements.

A tuition diversion plan does not appear to be a very revolutionary proposal; it can begin on a small scale as an educational experiment of the sort dear to the heart of every liberal educator. Such plans could, in time, revolutionize the universities.

At first, tuition diversion would be used to hire famous scholars on sabbatical leave, political figures of the left or right, film directors invited by college film groups, and other such notables. But it would also offer young academics an alternative to a normal career. Capable teachers would find that, by attracting many students, they could get a much larger salary than by working for a university. The large and growing pool of skilled ‘free-lance’ teachers would encourage more schools to adopt tuition diversion plans and thus simplify their own faculty recruitment problems. Universities would have to offer substantial incentives to keep their better teachers from being drawn off into free-lancing. Such incentives might take the form of effective market structures within the university, rewarding departments and professors for attracting students. Large universities would become radically decentralized, approximating free-market universities. Many courses would be taught by free-lancers, and the departments would develop independence verging on autarchy.

Under such institutions the students, although they might have the help of advisory services, would have to take the primary responsibility for the structure of their own education. Many students enter college unready for such responsibility. A competitive educational market would evolve other institutions to serve their needs. These would probably be small colleges offering a highly structured education with close personal contact for students who wished to begin their education by submitting to a plan of study designed by those who are already educated. A student could study at such a college until he felt ready to oversee his own education and then transfer to a university.

It is time to begin the subversion of the American system of higher schooling, with the objective not destruction but renaissance.

One of the better university reform proposals I’ve heard, plus an incremental strategy for achieving it!

I have solved the problem of urban mass transit. To apply rny solution to a major city requires a private company willing to invest a million dollars or so in hardware and a few million more in advertising and organization. The cost is low because my transit system is already over 99 percent built; its essence is the more efficient use of our present multibillion dollar investment in roads and automobiles. I call it jitney transit; it can most easily be thought of as something between taxicabs and hitch-hiking. Jitney stops, like present-day bus stops, would be arranged conveniently about the city. A commuter heading into town with an empty car would stop at the first jitney stop he came to and pick up any passengers going his way. He would proceed along his normal route, dropping off passengers when he passed their stops. Each passenger would pay a fee, according to an existing schedule listing the price between any pair of stops.

Holy !@#$, I think he has solved the problem of urban mass transit. There’s an obvious Uber parallel, but this system seems even better since it’s run by people going that direction anyway and each car will be packed, making the costs probably much cheaper. This is such an obviously good idea that I can only assume that it was regulation and the taxi lobby that prevented it from coming to pass. This paragraph probably did more to raise my confidence that there are extremely good libertarian solutions to important problems that we’re missing out on than anything else in the entire book.

Urban renewal uses the power of the government to prevent slums from spreading, a process sometimes referred to as ‘preventing urban blight’. For middle-class people on the border of low-income areas, this is valuable protection. But ‘urban blight’ is precisely the process by which more housing becomes available to low-income people. The supporters of urban renewal claim that they are improving the housing of the poor. In the Hyde Park area of Chicago, where I have lived much of my life, they tore down old, low-rental apartment houses and replaced them with $30,000 and $40,000 town houses. A great improvement, for those poor with $30,000. And this is the rule, not the exception, as was shown years ago by Martin Anderson in The Federal Bulldozer

I don’t know much about urban renewal programs or whether they purport to help the poor; anyone want to weigh in here?

Most conservatives now seem to have accepted, even embraced, the space program and with it the idea that the exploration of space can only be achieved by government. That idea is false. If we had not been in such a hurry, we not only could have landed a man on the moon, we could have done it at a profit.

How? Perhaps as a television spectacular. The moon landing alone had an audience of 400 million. If pay TV were legal, that huge audience could have been charged several billion dollars for the series of shows leading up to, including, and following the landing. If the average viewer watched, altogether, twenty hours of Apollo programs, that would be about 25 cents an hour for the greatest show off earth…

A greedy capitalist could have sold the moon landing in 1969 for something over $5 billion. The government spent $24 billion to get to the moon. It costs any government at least twice as much to do anything as it costs anyone else. It would have cost something under $12 billion to produce the Apollo program privately.

But Apollo was a crash program. If we had been in less of a hurry, it would have cost far less. While we were waiting, economic growth would increase the price for which the moon landing could be sold and technological progress would cut the cost of getting there. We would have arrived, at a profit, sometime in the seventies.

This is the business model of Mars One, which may be a scam. Which makes me wonder: how come, if the business model is sound, in 25 years of us having approximately the technology necessary to go to Mars, no one has come up with a non-scam version of this?

The NFL makes $10 billion a year through TV ads and sponsorship rights. I don’t know if a Mars mission would do better or worse than that – certainly the touchdown would be more exciting, but would people tune in month after month for “Yup, we’re still in this capsule, it’s really cramped in here and outside the window it just looks black”?

Robert Zubrin says he thinks a private company could reach Mars for $5 billion, which sounds promising, but he gets that because the government estimate is $50 billion and he thinks private companies can be ten times more efficient. Come on, Robert Zubrin! Even David Friedman estimates more like twice as efficient. I also note that SpaceX is estimating $1 billion to convert their existing Dragon to a crew-ready Dragon. $1 billion for a famously efficient private company to go from existing small rocket + small capsule to slightly improved small rocket + small capsule that can go to low Earth orbit – and you’re expecting another private company, right out of the gate, to be able to create ex nihilo a Mars-worthy spacecraft and the rocket that can launch it for $5 billion? Plus the astronaut training program, the production of the TV specials, the overhead for this new giant aerospace company you’re founding, the cost of the colony itself, etc, etc? Really?

And even if it’s possible in theory, think about the risk. The risk that the spacecraft explodes on the launch pad, and either you’ve just stuck your company name on a national tragedy or else you’d invested $6 billion in a TV special that’s never going to happen. Or the risk that five years later, the Mars One people come to you and say “Okay, Robert Zubrin was way too optimistic, we spent all your money to build the spacecraft’s left navigational fin, can you give us some more?” The risk that the Chinese beat you there and televising the second manned Mars landing isn’t very exciting.

Nothing I’ve seen so far convinces me that a serious version of Mars One is anywhere on the horizon. SpaceX will probably send a man to Mars someday, but they’ll do it because Elon Musk is vision-driven instead of profit-driven and he’s making enough profits somewhere else to fund his vision. And I don’t think even that would have worked without the funding and help that NASA has given SpaceX so far.

I worry that very big high-risk projects are exactly the sort of thing our current market system is really bad at.

My own conclusion—that drug companies should be free to sell, and their customers to buy, anything, subject to liability for damages caused by misrepresentation—must seem monstrous to many people. Certainly it means accepting the near certainty of a few people a year dying from unexpected side effects of new drugs.

This probably needs its own post, but no no no no no no no no, regulating drugs by liability is not a good idea, maybe even a worse idea than regulating them with regulations. Just as a quick example, here is an excerpt from Wikipedia’s article on the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program:

“In 1988, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) went into effect to compensate individuals and families of individuals who have been injured by covered childhood vaccines.[5] The VICP was adopted in response to an earlier scare over the pertussis portion of the DPT vaccine. These claims were later generally discredited, but some U.S. lawsuits against vaccine makers won substantial awards; most makers ceased production, and the last remaining major manufacturer threatened to do so. “

In other words, people kept winning so much money by suing the makers of pertussis vaccines that all of them except one just gave up and went out of business, and the only way the government saved that last one was by promising that the public purse would pay all of its losses. If the government hadn’t stepped in, we would not have vaccines right now because lawsuits would have made it unprofitable to make them. Idiotic lawsuits, I might add – pertussis vaccine doesn’t actually hurt people in any way. This is “my kid got autism after getting a vaccine” level stuff, and the courts were just like “Sure, fine, we believe you, let’s make the vaccine companies pay you so much money they all go bankrupt.”

This is not an isolated incident. The way malpractice works these days is that patients sue for things that are completely medically impossible, the malpractice insurances know that juries are too dumb to realize this, and they settle for more money than you will ever make honestly in your life. The FDA and its regulations are actually a rare force limiting this madness – if nothing else, a doctor can say “Well, that drug was approved by the FDA, so I wasn’t negligent in prescribing it to you.”

I understand that this book’s proposals include a large package of reforms which include those to the court system. But Friedman’s worries about how any “limited government” will eventually regrow into the kind of government that says you feeding your own grain to your own pigs is interstate commerce, are matched by my worries about how any “reformed court system” will eventually regrow into the kind of court system where children must be banned from sledding because if they get hurt they can sue the city for not having banned sledding, or lots of people who come to a psych hospital have to be committed lest years later somebody sue the hospital for not committing them.

If you invite more lawyers in to help control the government, you might end up like that Irish warlord who invited the English in to help control a rival warlord; you’ll find they’re even worse and they never leave.

The argument of this chapter received striking support in 1981, when the FDA published a press release confessing to mass murder. That was not, of course, the way in which the release was worded; it was simply an announcement that the FDA had approved the use of timolol, a ß-blocker, to prevent recurrences of heart attacks. At the time timolol was approved, ß-blockers had been widely used outside the U.S. for over ten years. It was estimated that the use of timolol would save from seven thousand to ten thousand lives a year in the U.S. So the FDA, by forbidding the use of ß-blockers before l981, was responsible for something close to a hundred thousand unnecessary deaths.

If examples of times when bad FDA decisions cost tens of thousands of lives made people abolish the FDA, we would probably have like negative seventeen FDAs by now.

Special interest politics is a simple game. A hundred people sit in a circle, each with his pocket full of pennies. A politician walks around the outside of the circle, taking a penny from each person. No one minds; who cares about a penny? When he has gotten all the way around the circle, the politician throws fifty cents down in front of one person, who is overjoyed at the unexpected windfall. The process is repeated, ending with a different person. After a hundred rounds everyone is a hundred cents poorer, fifty cents richer, and happy.

Annnnd we’re back to me just highlighting passages for rhetorical brilliance.

How much would it cost workers to purchase their firms? The total value of the shares of all stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1965 was $537 billion. The total wages and salaries of all private employees that year was $288.5 billion. State and federal income taxes totalled $75.2 billion. If the workers had chosen to live at the consumption standard of hippies, saving half their after-tax incomes, they could have gotten a majority share in every firm in two and a half years and bought the capitalists out, lock, stock, and barrel, in five. That is a substantial cost, but surely it is cheaper than organizing a revolution. Also less of a gamble. And, unlike a revolution, it does not have to be done all at once. The employees of one firm can buy it this decade, then use their profits to help fellow workers buy theirs later.

When you buy stock, you pay not only for the capital assets of the firm—buildings, machines, inventory, and the like —but also for its experience, reputation, and organization. If workers really can run firms better, these are unnecessary; all they need are the physical assets. Those assets—the net working capital of all corporations in the United States in 1965—totalled $171.7 billion. The workers could buy that much and go into business for themselves with 14 months’ worth of savings.

Compare to A Future For Socialism. In the research for that post I believe I found that the ratio of capital assets to wages had been rising pretty sharply recently, so it might take more time these days. But even if it took an entire decade, that’s a lot faster than most Communists expect the Revolution to come.

It probably says something very important about human nature and politics that the Socialist movement isn’t dominated by the project of doing exactly this.

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Book Review: The Machinery Of Freedom

[conflict of interest: David Friedman is an amazing person who has been very nice to me and among other things hosted the San Jose SSC meetup earlier this month]

David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom is half Libertarianism 101: Introduction To Libertarianism, and half Libertarianism 501: Technical Diagrams For Constructing An Anarcho-Capitalist State.

And aside from either of these, it’s interesting as a historical artifact. The first edition was published in 1973; the Third Edition copy I read is from last year, but the updates are minor and the book keeps its 1973 feel – including a discussion of health care economics which puts the price of a doctor’s visit at $10.

One of my takeaways was how new libertarianism was in 1973. The introduction says:

These peculiar views of mine are not peculiar to me. If they were, I would be paying Harper and Row to publish this book instead of Harper and Row paying me. My views are typical of the ideas of a small but growing group of people, a ‘movement’ that has begun to attract the attention of the national media. We call ourselves libertarians.

This book is concerned with libertarian ideas, not with a history of the libertarian movement or a description of its present condition. It is fashionable to measure the importance of ideas by the number and violence of their adherents. That is a fashion I shall not follow. If, when you finish this book, you have come to share many of my views, you will know the most important thing about the number of libertarians – that it is larger by one than when you started reading.

There is something very innocent about expecting someone to become a libertarian after reading a book arguing for libertarianism, something very much a product of the time when the movement was new and anything was possible. Friedman discusses and debates the views of Ayn Rand not as some sort of ascended cultural archetype, but as a fellow theorist who happens to be writing around the same time. It makes the book somehow fresher than one that starts from the perspective of “Okay, you’ve heard all of these arguments before, so let me preach to the choir and see what happens.”

But sometimes the book is dated in ways less innocuous than ten-dollar doctor visits. For example, in Chapter 5, “The Rich Get Richer And The Poor Get Richer,” Friedman argues against excessive concern with inequality, saying:

In absolute terms, the rich have gotten richer, but the gap between rich and poor seems, so far as very imperfect statistics make it possible to judge, to have ben slowly closing…we can note that both the rise in the general standard of living and the decreasing inequality appear to have been occurring fairly steadily over a long period of time, in a variety of different more or less capitalist societies…in the previous chapter I argued that liberal measures tend to injure the poor, not benefit them, and to increase, not decrease inequality. If that has been true in the past, then the increasing equality we have experienced is in spite of, not because of, such measures…

Even if the capitalist invests all the income from his capital and consumes none of it, his wealth will only grow at the rate of return on capital. If the interest rate is less than the rate at which the total wages of workers increase, the relative wealth of the capitalists will decline. Historically, the rate of increase in total wages has run about 5 to 10 percent a year, roughly comparable to the interest rate earned by capital. Furthermore, capitalists consume part of their income; if they did not, there would be little point in being a capitalist. The share of the national income going to capital in this country has varied over time but not consistently increased, as shown in Appendix III.

The heartbreaking thing is that every word of this was true in 1973. In fact, 1973 is frequently given as the inflection point, when for some reason middle-class wages stopped rising at the same rate as the wealth of the top 1% and capital’s share of income started a steady climb (this is frequently blamed on Reagan, but started almost a decade before his presidency).

There are enough issues like this that they make the book’s arguments less compelling, or at least cry out to be addressed. Likewise, the book’s statistics are fascinating and in many cases very counterintuitive and convincing, but I have a lot of trouble double-checking them because they’re mostly 1970s statistics.

I can’t do justice to the Libertarian 101 arguments in this review because there are too many of them on too many different topics. This is too bad because they are excellent and fascinating and you should really read them. Aside from recommending you get the book, I’ll shove those into a separate Highlights post later this week. But for now I want to focus on the claim that I found most interesting: Government claims legitimacy partly from its role in helping the poor, but the costs fall disproportionately on the poor and it screws them over more than any other group:

Suppose that one hundred years ago someone tried to persuade me that democratic institutions could be used to transfer money from the bulk of the population to the poor. I could have made the following reply: “The poor, whom you wish to help, are many times outnumbered by the rest of the population, from whom you intend to take the money to help them. If the non-poor are not generous enough to give money to the poor voluntarily through private charity, what makes you think they will be such fools as to vote to force themselves to take it?

I think I have a good answer to this question. Nobody’s vote makes very much difference, so people are happy to vote for signaling/psychological reasons rather than financial ones. If casting my vote to help the poor makes me feel like a good person, but losing money in redistribution schemes makes me poorer, well, my vote 100% determines whether I feel good or not, but only 1/300-million determines whether I get poorer. This might also be profitably mapped onto construal level theory, ie Robin Hanson’s Near Mode vs. Far Mode.

Anyway, having determined that democracy should not be expected to help the poor, he gets on to demonstrating that in fact it doesn’t:

There are some programs that give money to the poor – Aid to Families With Dependent Children, for instance. But such programs are vastly outweighed by those having the opposite effect – programs that injure the poor for the benefit of the not-poor. Almost surely, the poor would be better off if both the benefits that they now receive and the taxes, direct and indirect, that they now pay were abolished.

He then goes on to list examples, including Social Security, food subsidies (which increase food prices and go to rich farmers), state universities (since they cost tax money and mostly rich people go to university), and urban renewal projects (which bulldoze low-quality housing that the poor can afford to create high-quality housing that they can’t, thus pushing up their housing prices).

I don’t know much about the 1973 situation, but a lot of these don’t seem very convincing nowadays. Social Security no longer appears regressive: as per Wikipedia, “for people in the bottom fifth of the earnings distribution, the ratio of [Social Security] benefits to taxes is almost three times as high as it is for those in the top fifth.” And by my understanding, people who earn less than about $20,000 don’t pay federal income taxes at all, meaning the burden of universities, etc don’t fall upon them. A Cato Institute study finds that poor people on welfare can get benefits packages worth up to about $20,000. It seems really unlikely that whatever they have to pay because of farm subsidies or whatever compensates for that.

But Friedman also makes the stronger point that when government programs fail, it’s the poor who are most affected and who have the fewest other options. For example, he notes that the cost per capita of law enforcement/police/courts is $40 (remember, this is 1973!) and estimates that minus government waste and corruption, the free market could provide extremely competent policing for $20. He says:

There are many inhabitants of the ghetto who would be delighted to pay twenty dollars a year if in exchange they actually got protection; many of them have more than that stolen every year as a result of the poor protection they get from our government-run protection system. They would be even happier if at the same time they were relieved of the taxes that pay for the protection that the government police does not give them. In spite of popular myths about capitalism oppressing the poor, the poor are worst off in those things provided by government, such as schooling, police protection, and justice. There are more good cars in the ghetto than good schools.

I somewhat agree with the spirit of this quote, but certainly some of the problem is that poor people live in poor areas that collect little tax revenue and underfund their social services. Bigger government could solve this problem – just have school district funding set at the state or federal level. It’s less obvious that smaller government could – poor people would still have X dollars to spend on schools, for low values of X. But here we get into complicated proposals like vouchers and private policing that I’ll leave for later.


Let’s get to what we’re really here for – the crazy anarcho-capitalist utopia.

This quote is very long, but it’s worth it:

How, without government, could we settle the disputes that are now settled in courts of law? How could we protect ourselves from criminals?

Consider first the easiest case, the resolution of disputes involving contracts between well-established firms. A large fraction of such disputes are now settled not by government courts but by private arbitration of the sort described in Chapter 18. The firms, when they draw up a contract, specify a procedure for arbitrating any dispute that may arise. Thus they avoid the expense and delay of the courts.

The arbitrator has no police force. His function is to render decisions, not to enforce them. Currently, arbitrated decisions are usually enforceable in the government courts, but that is a recent development; historically, enforcement came from a firm’s desire to maintain its reputation. After refusing to accept an arbitrator’s judgment, it is hard to persuade anyone else to sign a contract that specifies arbitration; no one wants to play a game of ‘heads you win, tails I lose’.

Arbitration arrangements are already widespread. As the courts continue to deteriorate, arbitration will continue to grow. But it only provides for the resolution of disputes over pre-existing contracts. Arbitration, by itself, provides no solution for the man whose car is dented by a careless driver, still less for the victim of theft; in both cases the plaintiff and defendant, having different interests and no prior agreement, are unlikely to find a mutually satisfactory arbitrator. Indeed, the defendant has no reason to accept any arbitration at all; he can only lose–which brings us to the problem of preventing coercion.

Protection from coercion is an economic good. It is presently sold in a variety of forms–Brinks guards, locks, burglar alarms. As the effectiveness of government police declines, these market substitutes for the police, like market substitutes for the courts, become more popular.

Suppose, then, that at some future time there are no government police, but instead private protection agencies. These agencies sell the service of protecting their clients against crime. Perhaps they also guarantee performance by insuring their clients against losses resulting from criminal acts.

How might such protection agencies protect? That would be an economic decision, depending on the’-costs and effectiveness of different alternatives. On the one extreme, they might limit themselves to passive defenses, installing elaborate locks and alarms. Or they might take no preventive action at all, but make great efforts to hunt down criminals guilty of crimes against their clients. They might maintain foot patrols or squad cars, like our present government police, or they might rely on electronic substitutes. In any case, they would be selling a service to their customers and would have a strong incentive to provide as high a quality of service as possible, at the lowest possible cost. It is reasonable to suppose that the quality of service would be higher and the cost lower than with the present governmental system.

Inevitably, conflicts would arise between one protective agency and another. How might they be resolved?

I come home one night and find my television set missing. I immediately call my protection agency, Tannahelp Inc., to report the theft. They send an agent. He checks the automatic camera which Tannahelp, as part of their service, installed in my living room and discovers a picture of one Joe Bock lugging the television set out the door. The Tannahelp agent contacts Joe, informs him that Tannahelp has reason to believe he is in possession of my television set, and suggests he return it, along with an extra ten dollars to pay for Tannahelp’s time and trouble in locating Joe. Joe replies that he has never seen my television set in his life and tells the Tannahelp agent to go to hell.

The agent points out that until Tannahelp is convinced there has been a mistake, he must proceed on the assumption that the television set is my property. Six Tannahelp employees, all large and energetic, will be at Joe’s door next morning to collect the set. Joe, in response, informs the agent that he also has a protection agency, Dawn Defense, and that his contract with them undoubtedly requires them to protect him if six goons try to break into his house and steal his television set.

The stage seems set for a nice little war between Tannahelp and Dawn Defense. It is precisely such a possibility that has led some libertarians who are not anarchists, most notably Ayn Rand, to reject the possibility of competing free-market protection agencies.

But wars are very expensive, and Tannahelp and Dawn Defense are both profit-making corporations, more interested in saving money than face. I think the rest of the story would be less violent than Miss Rand supposed.

The Tannahelp agent calls up his opposite number at Dawn Defense. ‘We’ve got a problem. . . .’ After explaining the situation, he points out that if Tannahelp sends six men and Dawn eight, there will be a fight. Someone might even get hurt. Whoever wins, by the time the conflict is over it will be expensive for both sides. They might even have to start paying their employees higher wages to make up for the risk. Then both firms will be forced to raise their rates. If they do, Murbard Ltd., an aggressive new firm which has been trying to get established in the area, will undercut their prices and steal their customers. There must be a better solution.

The man from Tannahelp suggests that the better solution is arbitration. They will take the dispute over my television set to a reputable local arbitration firm. If the arbitrator decides that Joe is innocent, Tannahelp agrees to pay Joe and Dawn Defense an indemnity to make up for their time and trouble. If he is found guilty, Dawn Defense will accept the verdict; since the television set is not Joe’s, they have no obligation to protect him when the men from Tannahelp come to seize it.

What I have described is a very makeshift arrangement. In practice, once anarcho-capitalist institutions were well established, protection agencies would anticipate such difficulties and arrange contracts in advance, before specific conflicts occurred, specifying the arbitrator who would settle them.

In such an anarchist society, who would make the laws? On what basis would the private arbitrator decide what acts were criminal and what their punishments should be? The answer is that systems of law would be produced for profit on the open market, just as books and bras are produced today. There could be competition among different brands of law, just as there is competition among different brands of cars.

In such a society there might be many courts and even many legal systems. Each pair of protection agencies agree in advance on which court they will use in case of conflict. Thus the laws under which a particular case is decided are determined implicitly by advance agreement between the protection agencies whose customers are involved. In principle, there could be a different court and a different set of laws for every pair of protection agencies. In practice, many agencies would probably find it convenient to patronize the same courts, and many courts might find it convenient to adopt identical, or nearly identical, systems of law in order to simplify matters for their customers.

Before labelling a society in which different people are under different laws chaotic and unjust, remember that in our society the law under which you are judged depends on the country, state, and even city in which you happen to be. Under the arrangements I am describing, it depends instead on your protective agency and the agency of the person you accuse of a crime or who accuses you of a crime.

In such a society law is produced on the market. A court supports itself by charging for the service of arbitrating disputes. Its success depends on its reputation for honesty, reliability, and promptness and on the desirability to potential customers of the particular set of laws it judges by. The immediate customers are protection agencies. But the protection agency is itself selling a product to its customers. Part of that product is the legal system, or systems, of the courts it patronizes and under which its customers will consequently be judged. Each protection agency will try to patronize those courts under whose legal system its customers would like to live.

The idea is that these protection agencies are companies like any other, and so will try to provide a good product at a low cost that satisfies their customers. People can choose their favorite, and so in some sense decide which laws to be bound by. Although they will not have complete flexibility in choosing their laws, lawmaking bodies will be sort of subject to consumer demand.

He correctly points out that contrary to what you might expect this system does not by definition exclude victimless crimes. If you want to hire a police agency that things being gay is a crime, you can pay them money to go find gay people and throw them out of town. Then the gay people will hire their own police agency to defend themselves. I think Friedman believes that opposing homosexuality has a major free rider problem, and that most people like to signal virtue by complaining about them but very few people would be willing to pay money for it. By comparison, gay people would be willing to pay a lot of money to be protected from this sort of thing, so their protection agencies would be stronger than the agencies of whoever wants to kick them out, and they’d stay.

This seems to me overly optimistic. After all, back when only a tiny percent of the country was tolerant of homosexuality, it might be that church groups could raise a lot of money to enforce anti-gay laws, and gay people were mostly poor and couldn’t raise very much money to defend themselves. I think I know what Friedman’s response would be, which is “Yes, and during that time in your real-world statist society, homosexuality was also illegal. Yes, you would have to wait for cultural norms to change before homosexuality would be legalized, but it would very likely be easier to do my way than yours.” I think he’s possibly right.

My overall conclusion is that I am delighted by this fascinating and elegant system and would very much like to see it tried somewhere very far away from me.

I am sure Friedman has to listen to so many objections that he can recite most of them by memory and is sick to death of them. Indeed, he admits this and devotes no small amount of space to rebutting many of them. Will we get taken over by one giant protection racket? Probably not, monopolies are rare in practice. Will criminals get their own protection and arbitration agencies that say crime is okay? Probably not; no other protection agency would agree to arbitrate on their terms, and without arbitration they would be in a war with all the other agencies, which the other agencies would win since legitimate business can mobilize more money than crime can. Would there be constant bloody battles? Probably not; profit-seeking corporations would be too smart to lose money that way when better options like arbitration are available. Would the heads of protection agencies form a pact, then use their combined might to take over the country and become kings? Probably not; right now police chiefs and military generals don’t do this, even though they are in a good position to.

Here are some objections of mine I didn’t see rebutted:

1. People who don’t purchase protection are pretty much fair game for anyone to rob or murder or torture or whatever. This seems harsh, especially since this society is likely to have a sizable underclass. I don’t know if “$20 for a year of police protection” was a reasonable estimate for the 70s, but I expect this would be much costlier now. Compare the percent of people who, pre-Obamacare, still didn’t have health insurance, and how much higher it would have been if there weren’t government programs that kind of got health insurance bundled in with employment.

2. Protection agencies are going to be engaged in constant brinksmanship for the same reason nation-states are engaged in constant brinksmanship. If Agency 1 wanted concessions from Agency 2, it has an incentive to seem kind of crazy and like it might actually declare real war, however unprofitable, in order to bluff Agency 2 into complying. Remember, countries have the same economic incentives to avoid war that companies do, but they still occasionally get involved in them. Even when they don’t, the threat of such leads many resources to be wasted in military buildup.

3. Security companies and their clients are very unlikely to want to pay for the cost of incarcerations. There’s no incentive to pay extra for criminal rights, so convicted criminals are likely to end up facing something like corporal punishment Never mind, this went an unexpected direction and is probably a good thing.

4. If I am the church-funded protection agency charged with flogging gay people, and you are the gay-person funded protection agency charged with protecting them, it’s hard to see what kind of arbitration we would agree on. I…uh…guess this might be another one that isn’t so bad, since that might mean the agencies are forced to actually fight, which raises the cost of being anti-gay to a potentially prohibitive level.

5. There are some things which might decrease crime in an area in general instead of just involving crime against a specific person. For example, adding streetlights, fighting drug abuse, putting troubled youth in after-school programs, fighting the broken window effect. If these are public goods, nobody will be incentivized to pay extra for them.

6. In fact, protection agencies have a strong incentive to make everybody as scared of crime as possible, and in fact to raise the actual crime rate if they can, in order to get people to buy their Premium plan. Given that this is anarcho-capitalism and there are no laws against crime, this can’t possibly end well.

7. It would be hard to have large-scale public laws. Right now Saudi Arabia can have laws about how no woman can go outside unveiled, America can have laws that nobody can go outside unclothed, and some European beaches can have laws saying go ahead and be naked. Likewise, some small villages can have zoning laws saying not to build non-scenic skyscrapers, but Dubai can say to build as high as you want and then some. This seems harder under anarcho-capitalism until people start coordinating the formation of intentional communities, at which point it becomes less anarcho-capitalism and more Patchwork.

8. Gang leaders and barbarian warlords had the chance to become protection agencies like this, but never did. This suggests that this system is unstable or unnatural. It’s possible that once the equilibrium of protection and arbitration agencies is established it will be stable, but of all of the various lawless societies to exist throughout history, none of them coalesced upon this system. Suspicious.

9. An extension of this: it’s unclear that we’re not already living in this society. It’s just that one protection and arbitration agency has completely taken over from all of the others and instituted a policy of using force against those who don’t pay for its services. That’s allowed under anarcho-capitalism because everything is allowed under anarcho-capitalism. So expecting anarcho-capitalism to be stable is expecting the thing that has already happened to not happen again a second time.

10. There seems to be a lot of opportunities for rich people to purchase greater privileges not available to the masses. After all, negotiation results are often determined by a party’s BATNA. Rich people may have access to very strong security companies (or premium plans from regular companies) that could win most fights; they can use this to insist on better arbitration terms. A rich person’s company might only accept basic arbitration (eg punish the rich person for murder) if other companies agree to lopsided deals (like don’t go after the rich person for less dramatic things like sexual harassment. On the other hand, a poorer person’s company might have to accept the worse side of the deal, where the poor person can be prosecuted for a very wide range of crimes against the rich person, including giving offense and not being respectful enough. Yes, it’s easy to see how a company could arise that charges extra in exchange for not accepting these compromises, but this still suggests you’re going to have more rights if you’re able to pay more money.

But the main reason I want this tried far away from me is none of these. It’s just a general expectation that something will go wrong when we try a social system we’ve never tried before. I was very impressed to learn that very few people predicted, before the fact, that Communist countries would have terrible economies. Even the American 1950s opponents of Communism argued that okay, fine, Communist countries will probably outperform capitalist countries economically, but freedom is more important than mere wealth.

If people can’t figure out that Communism might sink the economy, I don’t trust them to figure out all of the things that might go wrong with anarcho-capitalism. Even if David Friedman replies with utterly convincing rebuttals to all of my ten points above, it’s going to be the eleventh point I didn’t think of that makes the system explode.


And this leads me into one of my deepest problems with libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism: why should it work?

I don’t mean the sort of “why should it work” where you answer with specific reasons why no, monopolies won’t form, and no, people won’t routinely sell themselves into slavery, and no, protection agencies won’t form a new feudal ruling class, and no, people won’t bash their heads against public goods problems and externalities forever without any market solutions appearing, and no, the poor won’t starve to death. I mean the very Outside View question of “why is it that, by coincidence, not using force is an effective way to solve all problems?”

Good governance is a really really hard problem. The idea that the solution to this problem contains zero bits of information, that it just solves itself if you leave people alone, seems astonishing. Even if we agree that capitalism works very well by incentivizing companies to do what the consumers wants, there are still a lot of peripheral issues which that just doesn’t cover. Friedman for example is a strong supporter of child rights, because children should mostly be free from coercion from their parents, and that children treated this way turn out better. Now in addition to solving governance with zero bits of information, you have solved optimal child-rearing with zero bits of information. That is implausibly impressive.

Given that the universe is allowed to throw whatever problems it wants at us, and that it has so far gleefully taken advantage of that right to come up with a whole host of very diverse and interesting ones, why is it that none of these problems are best addressed by a centralized entity with a monopoly on force? That seems like a pretty basic structure from a game-theoretic perspective, and you’re telling me it just never works in the real world? Shouldn’t there be at least one or two things where a government, or any form of coercive structure at all, is just the right answer? And can’t we just have a small government that does that?

The closest thing I’ve found to a response here is on page 142, where Friedman makes the following very witty observation:

The internal dynamic of limited government is something with which we, to our sorrow, have a good deal of practical experience. It took about 150 years, starting with a Bill of Rights that reserved to the states and the people all powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government, to produce a Supreme Court willing to rule that growing corn to feed your own hogs is interstate commerce and can therefore be regulated by Congress.

So if we have any kind of government at all, it will eventually metastasize into the sort of thing that makes laws about whether we’re allowed to grow corn to feed our own animals, or bans us from drinking raw milk, or whatever else it feels like doing.

So which is better: moving to full anarcho-capitalism, or trying to move towards a system that can provide more of the benefits of government with fewer of the costs?

I don’t know, so it’s a good thing I don’t have to choose. The obvious next step seems to be setting up anarcho-capitalist experiments somewhere and seeing how they do, as well as continuing to experiment with new and better forms of government. Trying to predict anything from theory runs into the same problem where everyone assumed Communism would be an economic powerhouse – we’re just not that smart. Instead we need to figure out ways to produce experimentation with and competition among different governments and government-like-entities – a goal I know David Friedman agrees with.

List Of Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of “Willpower”

[content note: dieting]

Warning: I have not checked any of these claims for truth, I was generally not impressed with the skepticism level displayed in this book, and I highlighted the passages I found most surprising or counterintuitive. So these are quotations, not endorsements. As Ashleigh Brilliant says, “My sources are unreliable, but their information is fascinating.”

A good way to appreciate the Zeigarnik effect is to listen to a randomly chosen song and shut it off halfway through. The song is then likely to run through your mind on its own, at odd intervals. If you get to the end of the song, the mind checks it off, so to speak. If you stop it in the middle, however, the mind treats the song as unfinished business.

[Examination-related words] popped more frequently into the mind of the group who had been told about the exam but hadn’t made plans to study for it. No such effect was seen among the students who’d made a study plan. Even though they, too, had been reminded of the exam, their minds had apparently been cleared by the act of writing down a plan.

In 1995, Tierney did a semiscientific survey of a New York phenomenon: the huge number of intelligent and attractive people who complained that it was impossible to find a romantic partner. Manhattan had the highest percentage of single people in any country in America except for an insland in Hawaii originally settled as a leper colony. What was keeping New Yorkers apart? Tierney surveyed a sampling of personal ads in the city magazines of Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. He found that singles in the biggest city, New York, not only had the most choice but were the pickiest in listing the attributes of their desired partners. The average personal ad in New York maganize listed 5.7 criteria required in a partner, significantly more than second place Chicago’s average (4.1 criteria) and about twice the average for the other three cities.

Bob Boice looked into the writing habits of young professors and tracked them to see how they fared. Some of these professors would collect information until they were ready and then write a manuscript in a burst of intsense energy. Others plodded along at a steadier pace, trying to write a page or two every day. When Boice followed up on the group some years later, he foud that their paths had diverged sharply. The page-a-day folks had done well and generally gotten tenure. The so-called “binge writers” had fared far less well, and many of them had had their careers cut short.

As early as the 1920s, researchers reported that students who spent more time in Sunday school scored higher on laboratory tests of self-discipline. Religiously devout children were rated low on impulsiveness by both parents and teachers…But psychologists have found that people who attend religious services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress others or make social connections, don’t have the same high level of self-control as the true believers.

A clear difference between Chinese and American toddlers appears when they’re asked to override their natural impulses. In one test, for instance, the toddlers are shown a series of pictures and instructed to say “day” whenever they see the moon and “night” whenever they see the sun. In other tests, the toddlers try to restrain themselves to a whisper when they’re excited, and play a version of Simon Says. The Chinese four-year-olds generally perform better on these tests than Americans of the same age. The Chinese toddlers’ self-control might be due in part to genes. There’s evidence that the genetic factors associated with ADHD are much rare in Chinese children than in American children. But the cultural traditions undoubtedly play a role as well. Asian-Americans make up only 4% of the US population but account for a quarter of the student body of elite universities like Stanford, Cornell, and Columbia. They’re more likely to get a college degree than any other ethnic group, and they go on to earn salaries that are 25% above the American norm. Their success has led to the popular notion that Asians are more intelligent, but that’s not how James Flynn explains their achievements. After carefully reviewing IQ studies, Flynn concludes that the scores of Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans are very similar to Americans of European descent. If anything their IQs are slightly lower, though they do show up more at both the upper and lower extremes. The big difference is they make better use of their intelligence. People working in elite professions like physicians, scientists, and accountants generally have an IQ above a certain threshold. For white Americans, that threshold is IQ 110, but Chinese Americans manage to get the same elite jobs with an IQ of only 103.

When asked how parents could contribute to childrens’ academic success, the mothers who had emigrated from China most frequently mentioned setting high goals, enforcing tough standards, and requiring children to do extra homework. Meanwhile, the native-born mothers of European ancestry were determined not to put too much pressure on children They most frequently mentioned the importance of not overemphasizing academic success, of stressing the child’s social development, and of promoting the idea that “learning is fun” and “not something you work at”. Another of their chief concerns was promoting the child’s self-esteem, a concept of just about no interest to the Chinese mothers in the study.

[In his preliminary marshmallow-test-style experiments in Trinidad], Mischel stumbled upon a bigger and more meaningful effect. Children who had a father in the home were far more willing than others to choose the delayed reward. Most of the racial and ethnic variation could be explained by this difference, because the Indian children tended to live with both parents whereas a fair number of the African children lived with a single mother. These findings, which were published in 1958, didn’t attract much attention at the time or in ensuing decades, since it was dangerous to one’s career to suggest that there might be drawbacks to single-parent homes…One possible explanation is that children in one-parent homes start off with a genetic disadvantage in self-control. After all, if the father (or mother) has run off and abandoned the family, he may have genes favoring impulsive behavior. Some researchers have attempted to correct this by looking at children who were raised by single parents because the father was absent for other reasons (like being stationed overseas, or dying at a young age). Predictably, the results were in between. These children showed some deficits, but their problemes were not as large as those of the children whose fathers had voluntarily left the home.”

Nurture Assumption said the opposite (children whose fathers left for valid reasons were totally indistinguishable from children with two parents), I believed them until I coincidentally found the contrary evidence, and I’m still angry at them for this.

When fat lab rats are put on a controlled diet for the first time, they’ll lose weight. But if they’re then allowed to eat freely again, they’ll gradually fatten up, and if they’re put on another diet it will take longer to lose the weight this time. Then, once they again go off the diet, they’ll regain the weight more quickly than the last time. By the third or fourth time they go through this boom-and-bust cycle, the dieting ceases to work – the extra weight stays even though they’re consuming fewer calories.

If true this would require a pretty high-level uncoupling of calories and weight gain.

An English bookmaker, the William Hill agency, has a standing offer to bet against anyone who makes a plan to lose weight. The bookmaker, which offers odds of up to 50 to 1, lets the bettors set their own target of how much weight to lose in how much time. It seems crazy for a bookmaker to let bettors not only set the terms of the wager but also control its outcome – it’s like letting a runner bet on beating a target time he sets himself. Yet despite these advantages, the bettors lose 80% of the time.”

I tried to find these people’s website to see how the numbers worked, but it wouldn’t let me in because I’m in the US. Brits might want to check this out.

Dieters have a fixed target in mind, and when they exceed it for any reason – [like being told to taste test a milkshake as part of an experiment] they regard their diet as blown for the day. So they think what the hell, I might as well enjoy myself for the day and the resulting binge often puts on far more weight than the original lapse.

People who weigh themselves every day are far more effective at preventing their weight from creeping back up.

Some of the [experimental subjects] were shown a meal from Applebees consisting of chicken salad and a Pepsi; others were shown an identical meal with some added crackers prominently labeled “Trans Fat Free”. The people were so entranced by the crackers’ virtuous label that their estimate for the meal with crackers was lower than that for the same meal without the crackers!

A new form of the Conjunction Fallacy?

To mimic the human studies [on ego depletion], experimenters depleted the willpower of one group of dogs by having each dog obey “sit” and “stay” commands from its owner for ten minutes. A control group of dogs was simply left alone for ten minutes in cages. Then all the dogs were given a familiar toy with a sausage treat inside of it. All the dogs had played with the toy in the past and successfully extracted the treat, but for this study the toy was rigged so that the sausage could not be extracted. The control group of dogs spent several minutes trying to extract it, but the dogs who’d had to obey the commands gave up in less than a minute. It was the familiar ego-depletion effect, and the canine cure turned out to be familiar too. In a follow-up study, when the dogs were given different drinks, the drinks with sugar restored the willpower of the dogs who’d had to obey the commands. Newly fortified, they persisted with the toy just as long as the dogs who’d been in cages.

People with poor self-control were likelier to hit their partners and to commit a variety of other crimes, again and again, as demonstrated by June Tangney, who worked with Baumeister to develop the self-control scale on personality tests. When she tested prisoners and then tracked them for years after their release, she found that the ones with low self-control were most likely to commit more crimes and return to prison.

In one remarkable study, researchers in Finland went into a prison to measure the glucose tolerance of convicts who were about to be released. Then the scientists kept track of which ones went on to commit new crimes. Just by looking at the response to the glucose test, the researchers were able to predict with greater than 80% accuracy which convicts would go on to commit violent crimes. These men apparently had less self-control because of their impaired glucose tolerance, a condition in which the body has trouble converting food into usable energy.”


When people in laboratory experiments exercise mental self-control, their pulse becomes more erratic; conversely, people whose normal pulse is relatively variable seem to have more inner energy available for self-control, because they do better on laboratory tests of perseverance than people with steadier heartbeats.

Also pretty skeptical here, given past experience.

A psychoanalyst named Allen Wheelis in the late 1950s revealed what he considered a dirty little secret of his profession: Freudian therapies no longer worked the way they were supposed to. In his landmark book, The Quest For Identity, Wheelis described a change in character structure since Freud’s day. The Victorian middle-class citizens who formed the bulk of Freud’s patients had intensely strong wills, making it difficult for therapists to break through their ironclad defenses and their sense of what was right and wrong. Freud’s therapies had concenctrated on wayhs to break through and let them see why they were neurotic and miserable, because once those people achieved ionsight, they could change rather easily. By midcentury, thought, people’s character armor was different. Wheelis and his colleagues found that people achieved insight more qui9ckly than in Freud’s day, but then the therapy often stalled and failed. Lacking the sturdy character of the Victorians, people didn’t have the strength to follow up on the insight and change their lives

This is actually sorta plausible to me. My (very limited) experience with psychoanalysis is that it’s not nearly as hard as people claim to get patients to tell you things about themselves and produce apparent “revelations”, but these rarely change behavior in interesting ways. I’d never thought before that this might be a historical change as opposed to just Freud getting it wrong.

[Subjects] wore beepers that went off at random intervals seven times a day, prompting them to report whether they were currently experiencing some sort of desire…the researchers concluded that people spend at least a fifth of their waking hours resisting desires – between three and four hours a day…Overall, they succumbed to about a sixth of the temptations.

Someone responded by my last post by pointing out a Christian philosopher saying the same thing and noting that Science always thinks it’s gotten ahead of Religion only to find that Religion’s known it all along. Nevertheless, I will venture to say no religious source on temptation includes the observation that on average people succumb to about one-sixth of them. That one totally goes to Science.

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Answer to Job

(with apologies to Jung)

Job asked: “God, why do bad things happen to good people? Why would You, who are perfect, create a universe filled with so much that is evil?”

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the whirlwind, saying “WHAT KIND OF UNIVERSE WOULD YOU PREFER ME TO HAVE CREATED?”

Job said “A universe that was perfectly just and full of happiness, of course.”


Job facepalmed. “But then why would You also create this universe?”


“Yes,” said Job, “but all else being equal, I’d rather be in the perfectly just and happy universe.”


“Okay,” said Job, very carefully. “I can see I’m going to have to phrase my questions more specifically. Why didn’t You also make this universe perfectly just and happy?”


“Hmmmmm. But couldn’t You have have made this universe like the happy and just universe except for one tiny detail? Like in that universe, the sun is a sphere, but in our universe, the sun is a cube? Then you would have individuals who experienced a spherical sun, and other individuals who experienced a cubic sun, which would be enough to differentiate them.”


“All of them? That would be…a lot of universes.”


“Small amounts! But the universe has…”


“Oh.” Then: “What, exactly, is Your endgame here?”


“I’m not sure I understand.”


“But why couldn’t I have been one of those other versions instead!”


“I don’t know! Is one of the beings in that universe in some sense me?”




“Let me try a different angle, then. Right now in our universe there are lots of people whose lives aren’t worth living. If You gave them the choice, they would have chosen never to have been born at all. What about them?”


“But that’s monstrous! Couldn’t You just, I don’t know, have created a universe that looks like it has such people, but actually they’re just p-zombies, animated bodies without any real consciousness or suffering?”

” . . . ”

“Wait, did You do that?”


“Actually, I do have some evidence. Before all of this happened to me I was very happy. But in the past couple years I’ve gone bankrupt, lost my entire family, and gotten a bad case of boils. I’m pretty sure at this point I would prefer that I never have been born. Since I know I myself am conscious, I am actually in a pretty good position to accuse You of cruelty.”

“HMMMMMMMM…” said God, and the whirlwind disappeared.

Then the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before, and healed his illnesses, and gave him many beautiful children, so it was said that God had blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning.

[EDIT: According to comments, this was scooped by a Christian philosopher five years ago. Sigh.]

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