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"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Contra Robinson On Public Food


Earlier this year, Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs wrote an article against school vouchers. He argued that private schools would be so focused on profit that they would sacrifice quality, and that competition wouldn’t be enough to keep them in line.

I counterargued that yes it would, and cited among other things the success of food stamps (ie “food vouchers”). These give poor people access to the same dazzling variety of food choices as everyone else, usually at reasonable prices and low profit margins. If school vouchers worked as well as food vouchers, they would succeed in their mission of improving choice without sacrificing quality.

Now Robinson doubles down, sticking to his anti-voucher position and also proposing A Public Option For Food.

He starts by granting that food stamps give poor people access to an impressive variety of grocery choices:

[Scott’s] argument was a strong one. I will confess that I felt a bit stumped by it. He was right. Every week I go to the grocery store and I get relatively tasty things for relatively low prices. And so I found myself tempted by his idea that education could be provided by “learning stores” just like nutrition is provided by grocery stores.

And that capitalism deserves some credit for this:

Capitalism is very effective at increasing production. Even Karl Marx was impressed with its achievements.

But he counters that much of this food is unhealthy and addictive. Worse, it’s pitched in ways that trick people into thinking it’s healthier than it is. For example, the average Minute Maid juice bottle has about as much sugar as soda, but deceptive corporate branding ensures most people won’t realize that. And this is inherent in the logic of capitalism. If companies can lie about the nutritional value of their food, the ones that do will outcompete the ones that don’t. If the government tries to enforce truth in advertising, companies will somehow thwart it. Maybe the box will have some small print telling you how many grams of sugar are inside – but also a giant picture of a reassuring-looking doctor, whose gentle smile is infinitely more persuasive than nutritional information pegged to a carefully mis-selected serving size. Capitalism will find a way.

Robinson compares this to the paperclip maximizer AI scenario:

My friend Sarah likes to describe capitalism by comparing it to the “paperclip maximizer.” The paperclip maximizer is a thought experiment used to warn about the potentially deadly effects of artificial intelligence. It’s about how a machine given the wrong instructions will produce the wrong results. You have an intelligent robot, and you’d like him to collect paperclips. So you program the robot with the following instruction: “Maximize the number of paperclips in your possession.” Then you set it loose. The robot first goes around the world collecting all the existing paperclips. But once it has them all, it still isn’t finished. After all, it must maximize the number of paperclips it has. So it begins turning everything it finds into paperclips. Soon, the entire planet is nothing but a wasteland of paperclips. Eventually, the universe itself will be a vast cosmic heap of paperclips. A seemingly benign instruction, carried out with precision and efficiency, destroyed the world.

Corporations can operate similarly. The Coca-Cola company follows a mandate: “raise revenue by selling drinks.” It sounds innocent. But the result is perverse: the company simply tries to get “as many ounces as possible into as many bodies as possible.” Every additional Coca-Cola sold is an additional dollar of revenue. There is no upper limit, then. “Growth potential” is all that matters, regardless of other consequences. And the lives of people only matter to the extent that keeping them alive longer will allow them to drink more Coke. I’m not exaggerating here. Those are the words of the Coca-Cola executives. And they flow perfectly rationally from the structure of the institution […]

People who defend capitalism do think it produces good results, because the incentive is to sell as many goods as possible, and that means selling the products that people want to buy. But, like the paperclip maximizer, “sell the goods that people will buy” is a benign rule that leads to a perverse result. A company that takes a poll of the things people want in a snack, and sells a snack with those qualities, will probably do well. But a company that researches ways to trigger biological cravings, and use subtle branding cues to trick people into thinking the product is better than it is, will do even better. The theory of a free market works at the “lemonade stand” level. Yet the paperclip robot, too, works at first: it’s what happens when the imperatives are carried to their endpoint that is so destructive. Capitalism, carried to its endpoint, will devour the earth, because that’s what its programming requires.

So, says Robinson, not only should we continue resisting school vouchers, but maybe it’s time for a public option for food:

Let us imagine a public option for food. It is a state-funded restaurant called the American Free Diner. At the American Free Diner, anyone can show up and eat, and the food is free. It’s designed to be as healthy as possible while still being pretty tasty. It’s not going to be tastier than McDonalds fries, but the aim of the American Free Diner is not to get you to hooked on having as many meals as possible, it’s designed to get you to have a satisfying and nutritionally complete meal. And there are options. For breakfast you can have eggs and (veggie?) bacon with fruit, oatmeal, avocado on toast, or a smoothie. Lunch is soups, salads, and sandwiches. Oh, and you can also always stop by and grab free fruit or other snacks. Now, you have to eat your meal during the time you’re in the restaurant, so there’s no smuggling food away and selling it. Anyone can have up to three meals a day there; you sign up with an ID and then you get a card. If you ate at the American Free Diner for every meal, you’d be meeting every possible recommended nutritional guideline. Every town has an American Free Diner in it. The music is great and there’s a buzzing neon sign. but it’s nothing too fancy.

Our “public option” for food does not mean people can’t go elsewhere, just as our public school system doesn’t mean that people can’t enroll in private schools. But it does ensure that anyone who wants to can turn up and get a high-quality meal for free, without having to have much information on their own, without having to have any money, and without having to do very much

Objection! Wouldn’t the…

One of the reasons people will be skeptical about the Free Diner is that they have little confidence in the state to do anything right. There is a tacit acceptance of the basic idea of “public choice theory”: that state actors are just as much selfish maximizers as anyone else, and that the only difference between the state and a corporation is that the state doesn’t have to be as accountable to its consumers. But this view only captures part of the truth: sometimes states are selfish, sometimes they are not, just as human beings themselves are sometimes avaricious and sometimes benevolent. Which motive is acted upon will depend on who is in charge and how the institution is set up.

There’s nothing inherent about a public school being public that requires it to be crappy. As I say, I went to a fantastic public school. But a few things are necessary for a public institution to run well. It needs to be free of bureaucratic constraint. It needs to have a clear mandate. It needs to be run by the right people. And it needs to be well-funded. When people think of the state offering food, I think they probably recoil: they think of Soviet canteens, perhaps, and government cheese. But there’s no reason things need to be this way. I could give you a dozen people who could run a nutritious, delicious, and decidedly non-dreary nonprofit diner given a sufficient budget.

I agree with this last part. I can think of many people who could run Nathan’s diner program well – but I notice Trump hasn’t put any of them in charge of anything. In fact, I can think of many people who could run a country well – but I notice Trump. Maybe things are more complicated than this?


Capitalism sells healthy and unhealthy products with equal enthusiasm. But there’s a standard neoliberal solution here: taxes and subsidies. So for example, many cities place a special tax on sodas to increase their price and discourage consumption; soda is no longer quite so attractive relative to other options. I see a couple of advantages of selective taxation compared to Nathan’s public food option:

First, vouchers + taxes/subsidies let the rich and poor participate in the same system. I guarantee you that a public cafeteria system constructed to serve rich and poor people alike would be 90%+ poor within a year. I don’t even care if it’s a good cafeteria that rich people would otherwise enjoy. It would naturally start out with an overrepresentation of poor people. Rich people would feel uncomfortable there, both for signaling reasons (they don’t want to look like a poor person who can’t afford anything better than the public cafeteria) and for safety reasons (ie the same way rich people feel nervous going into poor neighborhoods, taking public buses, or hearing that their kids are going to be bused to poor schools). As the least tolerant rich people leave, the effect will amplify until slightly-more-tolerant rich people leave, then middle class people, and so on until it’s 100% people too poor to go anywhere else. At this point, going to the cafeterias will be stigmatizing to the point where school bullies will taunt poor kids by saying their family “eats at the cafeterias”. Also, any service that only serves poor people quickly deteriorates since none of its clientele have enough political power to demand its maintenance. You could have all this, or you could just have the poor people go to the same nice air-conditioned supermarkets as the rich people, blend in perfectly, and know that if anything goes wrong the rich people will make enough of a stink to get it fixed for them and their poor neighbors.

Second, vouchers + taxes/subsidies balance the government’s interest in preventing mis-alignment with poor people’s ability to control their own lives. If I love soda, and it’s the only good thing in my life right now, and I’ve thought long and hard about how unhealthy it is, but I’d rather improve my health some other way and stick with the soda – I can. I can buy soda (at slightly higher price) and compensate by cutting back on something else – maybe Twinkies. If I’m stuck going to the government cafeteria which only serves healthy foods, I’m out of luck. Maybe they’ve decided that my exactly-2000-calorie-diet today will include zero soda but one Twinkie. Oh well.

Will the government cafeterias include kosher food? Probably: there are lots of Jews and they have good political clout. Will they include halal food? Well, um, are the Democrats or the Republicans in power this year? Vouchers + taxes/subsidies don’t make poor Muslims choose between starving and blaspheming because the government decided their religion wasn’t worthy of inclusion. Will the cafeterias include food satisfying the complicated dietary requirements of a tiny New Guinea fertility cult with all of three members in the United States? Even if the people in power are competent sympathetic, this is just asking too much.

Third, under vouchers + taxes/subsidies, everyone could eat in their own kitchen, with their own family, on their own time. Under a public option, rich people could eat in the privacy of their own home, but poor people would have to go to the centralized cafeteria. That involves travel time (many poor people already work two jobs and desperately want time to themselves) and expense (many poor people don’t have cars and already spend much of their limited budget on mass transit). It might be impossible for people who are disabled, agoraphobic, or live in very rural areas. And once you arrive – well, it’s basically high school lunch all over again. Did anyone except the top-ranking bully enjoy high school lunch? Would they have enjoyed it more if it were limited to poor people, who [insert several paragraphs of apologies and caveats here] can sometimes be on the louder and more aggressive end? Do we really want transgender people, gay people, etc to have to spend three meals a day in the middle of High School Lunch Hour Ascended To Omnisocial Phenomenon, forever?

I assume a competent administrator could grant worthy exemptions. Maybe if you have celiac disease, or PTSD, or you live too far away, or you’re in the aforementioned New Guinea fertility cult, you can get permission to skip the cafeterias and just get food vouchers. But neoliberalism means not forcing poor people to spend six months groveling to upper-class administrators before they’re allowed to live their lives the way they want. It means just letting them live the life they want, the same way rich people can.

You’re probably thinking this is an argument that vouchers + taxes/subsidies are a great solution. Nah. I’m saying that in principle they’re a great solution. In practice, they’ve failed spectacularly, because we subsidize the least healthy foods and restrict the production of healthy ones. From Physicians’ Cooperative For Responsible Medicine:

Between 1995 and 2009, USDA distributed more than $246 billion in subsidies. USDA programs tend to favor the production of the unhealthiest foods. The subsidy system, updated approximately every five years, provides financial support primarily to producers of “commodity crops,” which include more than a dozen nonperishable crops. However, five commodity crops—corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and rice—receive the vast majority of subsidies. Corn and soybeans are largely used as animal feed for production of meat, dairy products, and eggs, either domestically or for export. Other commodity crops, including barley, oats, and sorghum, are also used for feed…

The USDA refers to fresh fruits and vegetables as “specialty crops.” Specialty crops do not receive subsidies. In fact, farmers who participate in commodity subsidy programs are generally prohibited from growing fruits and vegetables on the so-called “base acres” of land for which they receive subsidies. This provision, enacted in 1996, restricts the ability of both small and large commodity farmers from diversifying their crops and including fruits and vegetables as part of their production.

Corn in particular is heavily supported, so much so that corn farmers end up with way more corn than anyone knows what to do with. Around the 1980s, they finally hit upon a solution: high-fructose corn syrup. From NYMag:

[A soda tax sounds good], except that your tax dollars are simultaneously being used to promote soda-drinking. Since the eighties, the sweetener in most non-diet sodas has been high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. It is made from American corn rather than imported cane, and it is inexpensive, at about 30 cents a pound wholesale. (A pound is enough to make about eleven cans of Coca-Cola.) Mind you, it’s not really cheaper than cane sugar: Federal farm subsidies, amounting to about $20 billion per year, are twinned with a sugar tariff to stack that deck in favor of HFCS. In a free market, the bottom would fall out of corn prices, and the Midwest’s economy would start to look like Greece’s.

In short: We pay federal taxes to make that can of Mountain Dew cheaper than it should be, encouraging us to buy it. Then we are scolded by public-health authorities for doing so. Then New York proposes another tax, to discourage us from buying it. This is nuts.

HFCS is, today, slipped into practically every prepared food, from ketchup to soup, because consumers respond to sweetness, particularly when it comes cheap. It’s the legacy of Earl Butz, the Nixon-era secretary of Agriculture, who had one mission: Increase production to stamp out hunger. It worked a little too well, giving us a consistent corn glut.

Some of us might not even mind subsidizing wholesome family farms in hard times, but most of the money heads straight to megacorporations like Archer Daniels Midland, in an egregious bit of corporate welfare. (Kansans who vote hard-line Republican and howl about federal spending tend to go quiet and look at their shoes when you mention this.) ADM makes HFCS by the megaton, and the Cato Institute has figured that every $1 of profit ADM earns in this business costs consumers $10.

Even Earl Butz might have had second thoughts if he’d seen the study released last month by Princeton University. It showed decisively that rats gain more weight from eating HFCS than from cane sugar. Chart the adoption of HFCS by the food industries, and it lines up pretty closely with Americans’ thickening profiles…The brain-dead-obvious solution is to eliminate both taxes and even things out, right? Well, two words scuttle that idea: Iowa caucuses. As long as a corn-producing state holds the definitive first primary, we’re going to have pro-corn presidents.

If subsidizing soda isn’t enough for you, how about pizza? From Washington Post:

Pizza is popular because it’s delicious. But the roaring success of pizza isn’t entirely a free-market story. “In recent years, [the USDA] has spent many millions of dollars to increase pizza consumption among U.S. children and adults,” explains Parke Wilde of Tufts University, who runs the excellent U.S. Food Policy blog.

Here’s what he’s referring to. The USDA runs a “dairy checkoff program,” which levies a small assessment on milk (15 cents for every hundredweight of milk sold or used in dairy products) and raised some $202 million in 2011. The agency then uses that money to promote products like milk and cheese. And, as it turns out, pizza.

The USDA claims its checkoff program has been well worth it: For every $1 that the agency spends on increasing cheese demand, it estimates that farmers get $4.43 in additional revenue. But the results have been mixed. Milk consumption has declined in recent decades, while cheese consumption has soared.

The government doesn’t just economically subsidize unhealthy food. It also spreads misinformation about which food is or isn’t nutritious. For example, from NBC News:

The U.S. government’s latest eating guidelines came out Thursday — only to be greeted with the usual accusations that they go too far, or don’t go far enough, or leave out something important.

But this time some of the hottest criticism comes from cancer researchers. And other experts are upset that the guidelines don’t say more about eating less meat.

“We are pretty disappointed the report doesn’t recommend limiting red and processed meat because of the link to cancer,” said Katie McMahon of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Evidence goes back decades linking diets high in red and processed meats (like bacon and sausage) to cancer, McMahon told NBC News […]

Some nutritionists also said the federal government was pressured by the meat industry and by other lobby groups. “From my standpoint, Congress has caved in to the will of special interest food groups,” said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University.

Dr. Walter Willett, who heads the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, agreed. “Unfortunately, the USDA has censored the recommendation of the Scientific Advisory Committee to consume less red meat,” Willett said.

“In fact, the dietary guidelines promote consumption of red meat as long as it is lean, which is not what the science supports. There is strong evidence that red meat consumption increases risk of diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, and some cancers (especially processed meat), and there is not good evidence that this simply due to the fat content,” Willett added.

“This appears to reflect the powerful influences of the beef industry. Unfortunately, the public is being misled.”

So, what’s my point here?

Given a decent government that really wants what’s good for the people, we wouldn’t need a public option for food. We could just cancel all of our bad subsidies, replace them with good subsidies, and let people eat what they wanted.

Given our existing government, it shouldn’t be let within a light-year of getting to determine anybody’s diet. Speculating that maybe the people who administer the program will be virtuous competent individuals who act for the good of the public, is saying that the thing which has already happened won’t happen.

I mean, sure, maybe one of Nathan’s dozen competent people who could run the program correctly will get in charge. But then why haven’t they been put in charge of our agricultural subsidies? Why haven’t they been put in charge of the dietary guidelines? Why aren’t they in the White House?


Because the whole “public food” argument hinges on a giant case of double standards.

Presented with evidence that corporations do bad things, it concludes that the inherent logic of capitalism demands badness.

Presented with evidence that governments do bad things, it concludes that if we just put some nice people in power, everything would go great.

Why is that? Could someone with the opposite bias propose that Coca-Cola Inc would be fine if it just got a socially responsible CEO? But that the inherent logic of government demands that people who focus on electoral demagoguery and bureaucratic empire-building will always outcompete the altruistic public servants? Why is that any less plausible than the original article’s treatment?

Props to Nathan: this is a rare time the paperclip maximizer metaphor is appropriate. Capitalism is an agent more powerful and creative than any individual human, programmed with the imperative: “Give people with money what they want.” And Nathan correctly points out some ways this can go wrong:

1. Companies can just lie to consumers about the product they’re providing. They can say their drinks are healthy, then fill them with sugar. In fact, since this allows them to create products more desirable than any honest product could be, of course they will do this.

2. Companies can appeal to consumers by satisfying empty addictive desires that their best selves wouldn’t endorse them having, like for sugar-laden drinks. Worse, it can use advertising to encourage such desires on a society-wide level, since this will make its job easier.

3. Although it will claim to be socially responsible in order to attract consumers, in reality it only cares about people proportional to how much money they have. It will care about poor people a little, because even poor people have a little money, but it will be much more attuned to the needs of the rich – which is why pharma companies invest more into curing baldness than curing malaria.

But government is the same kind of misaligned system. It’s an agent more powerful and creative than any individual human, programmed with the imperative: “Give people with [votes] what they want,” where [votes] is a proxy for real votes or any other kind of power or king-making ability – campaign-contributing-ability, lobbyists, thought-leader-status. And so:

1. Candidates can just lie to voters about anything from their personalities to the effects of their policies. Somebody can say their plan will cut taxes on everybody while slashing the deficit, and people will believe them. In fact, since this allows a candidate to propose policies more popular than any real policy could be, of course they will do this.

2. Candidates, parties, and governments can appeal to voters by satisfying empty addictive desires that their best selves wouldn’t endorse us having. Worse, it can use the media to encourage such wants on a society-wide level. How much of the news cycle is devoted to real discussion of what will improve the country, versus clickbait, outragebait, identity politics, and the latest in who’s collaborating with Russia? This isn’t a coincidence – politicians find it useful to encourage these discussions, because it’s easier to win and keep voters with identity politics issues than it is by being competent, cf. Decision 2016.

3. Although it will claim to be civic-minded and altruistic in order to win voters and maintain the consent of the governed, in reality the government only cares about people proportional to how much power they have. It will care about ordinary people a little, because even ordinary people have a vote. But it will be much more attuned to the powerful – which is why we get tax breaks for billionaires more often than medical care for the poor.

Capitalism is Moloch. But democracy is also Moloch. Both are intense competitions. Both are going to be won by people trying to win the competition, not people trying to be nice and do the right thing. In both, we expect that winning the competition will have something to do with being good – capitalists win partly by making good products, candidates win partly by making good policy. But both systems have equally deep misalignments that can’t be eliminated just be filling them with nice people.

I’m focusing on democracy and elections here, but this is potentially true of any government. It’s true of the bureaucracy – bureaucrats who focus on empire-building and gaming metrics will outperform the ones who focus on running their bureaucracy virtuously and well. It’s true of dictatorships; colonels who optimize for helping the people will get replaced by colonels who optimize for pleasing the military / seizing and holding onto power. Start a revolution to sweep away everyone else and institute a form of government that isn’t Moloch, and your revolution will surrender to Moloch in all of of ten seconds. If there’s some elite force of commandos and technocrats to prevent your communist revolution from becoming Moloch, five seconds. The problem isn’t any contigent part of the system. It’s the concepts of competition, optimization, and selection. “Oh, but our system won’t be competitive”. Really? How do you decide who the leaders are? “Oh, we won’t have a single leader, we’ll make decisions by…” Two seconds to become Moloch, and and if your non-leader ends up with a death toll of less than a million you got off easy.

(cf: that famous scene from A Man For All Seasons, and the sentence here beginning “Soviet industry in its last decades”).

The rookie mistake is: you see that some system is partly Moloch, so you say “Okay, we’ll fix that by putting it under the control of this other system. And we’ll control this other system by writing ‘DO NOT BECOME MOLOCH’ on it in bright red marker.”

(“I see capitalism sometimes gets misaligned. Let’s fix it by putting it under control of the government. We’ll control the government by having only virtuous people in high offices.”)

I’m not going to claim there’s a great alternative, but the occasionally-adequate alternative is the neoliberal one – find a couple of elegant systems that all optimize along different criteria approximately aligned with human happiness, pit them off against each other in a structure of checks and balances, hope they screw up in different places like in that swiss cheese model, keep enough individual free choice around that people can exit any system that gets too terrible, and let cultural evolution do the rest. In the market/government case, you end up with taxes, subsidies, redistribution, compensation for externalities, providing public goods, maybe breaking up monopolies – I’m not saying there’s not a lot for government to do! I’m saying it’s specific, labelled things, specific actions that compensate for specific misalignments. Try to do more, and you’ll just make matters worse.

Both Nathan and I agree that poor people should have food. But we disagree on which misaligned system should give it to them. He favors the misaligned government. I favor the misaligned free market, plus some government-led redistribution and correction.

He says that “our public option for food does not mean people can’t go elsewhere, just as our public school system doesn’t mean that people can’t enroll in private schools”. But in practice, without some system of vouchers or redistribution, only the rich would have that option; poor people wouldn’t be able to afford anything else.

And “ability to go elsewhere” is probably the most important ingredient. If I really want, I can spend some time looking into the dangers of sugary fruit juice. In fact, I did this a few years ago and haven’t bought any since; just like that, all of the horrors of capitalism lost their power over me. The last drink I bought was a sugar-free sparkling organic kiwi dragonfruit french soda with a total of five calories, because I personally preferred that to the two-thousand-or-so other options available within a five block walk of my house.

On the other hand, I also spent a long time looking into the dangers of Trump. I voted against Trump. I begged other people to vote against Trump. I wrote a blog post officially endorsing literally any person in the world who was not Trump. Despite all of this, Donald Trump is my president. I feel less satisfied with this system than with the other one, honestly.

Getting to choose my own food (and schools, and health care) works for me. I don’t want poor people to have to settle for anything less.

OT89: Omen Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server. Also:

1. The Future of Humanity Institute asks me to advertise that they’re looking to fill two AI safety researcher positions. See their job descriptions for postdoctoral research scientist and research scientist, and see the application process at the link if you’re interested. Deadline is January 10th. FHI is affiliated with Oxford and I can vouch for them as a legitimate organization.

2. Comments of the week: Art Vandelay on how academic anthropology thinks about the rationality of pretechnological societies, tcheasdfjkl on reconciling power-based and cultural-evolution-based models, and CatCube on Bill Clinton’s creepy charisma. Also the subreddit team are highlighting the best comments on the culture war thread there.

3. David Friedman wants me to clarify that the version of his book I linked to earlier is out of date, and there’s a newer draft up online here. Some more of Friedman’s comments on my review of his book here and here.

4. Current Affairs wrote an article riffing off one of my links posts. I don’t think I can pad my response to the length of an entire blog post, but I want to address it here: I stand by my original sarcasm. I said it was silly to be angry at airlines offering a lower-fare standing option, since it’s just adding another choice to your list of choices. CA said I didn’t realize that actually some people are very poor and so couldn’t afford anything but standing room. I do realize that. My whole point was that if you are too poor to afford sitting fare, your only choice used to be “never fly”. Now it is “never fly” or “pay the affordable standing fare”. This is a gain for poor people, and in fact only for poor people (rich people will just sit regardless). This complaint reminds me of those people who put spikes on benches so that homeless people cannot sleep on them. It is true that in a perfect world nobody would have to sleep on benches. But you are not creating that world. You are just making sure homeless people can’t sleep anywhere. Likewise, in a perfect world nobody would have to stand up on flights. But you are not creating that world. You’re just making sure poor people can’t fly at all. If you want to help the poor, give them more money, not fewer options.

5. The Washington DC SSC meetup group is having a Thanksgiving potluck next Sunday. DM the organizer on Reddit or comment here if you need contact information.

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List Of Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of Legal Systems Very Different From Ours

[See previous post here; read book online here.]

Question I’d never thought to ask before: are we sure it’s a good idea to let people know what the laws are?

The Chinese legal system originated somewhat over 2000 years ago in the conflict between two views of law, legalist and Confucianist. The legalists, who believed in using the rational self-interest of those subject to law to make them behave in the way desired by those making the law, advocated harsh penalties to drive the equilibrium crime rate to near zero. They supported the ideas of a strong central government, equal treatment under law, and written law available to all. Confucianists saw the issues in terms of morality rather than law and the objective not to modify by behavior by punishing and rewarding but by teaching virtue. They feared that a written law code generally available would lead to rules lawyering and supported unequal treatment based on the unequal status of those to whom the law applied…Some early writers argued against making the law code publicly available.

Not that knowing what the laws were in ancient China would necessarily help:

Where the offense did not seem to fit any category in the code, the court felt free to find the defendant guilty of doing what ought not to be done or of violating an Imperial decree — not an actual decree, but one that the Emperor would have made had the matter been brought to his attention.

Actually, the ancient Chinese legal system just sucked in general – but suckiness might have been the active ingredient:

Another way of dealing with the disproportion between the [vast] population to be controlled by the legal system and the [few] resources commanded by that system was to discourage resort to law. One way in which this was done was to make the private practice of law, in effect, a criminal offense; individuals who wanted help with their legal problems were expected to get it from the district magistrate and his staff. Another was by making involvement with the legal system potentially unpleasant for all concerned. There was no equivalent of our tort law by which an injured party could use the legal system to compel restitution—all law was, in our terms, criminal, and all prosecution public. It was legal to torture witnesses in the process of extracting information from them. Participants in the legal process were expected to act as humble petitioners, recognizing the vastly superior status of the officials they were interacting with.

Making it costly to interact with the legal system was one way of reducing the amount of work required of the bureaucracy but risked providing an individual with the opportunity to injure an enemy by accusing him of an offense. It was a risky tactic, since both accuser and accused would be imprisoned, and if the accusation was found to be false the accuser was subject to the penalty that would have been imposed on the accused if found guilty. The obvious solution was to make the accusation anonymous. That problem was dealt with in a straightforward fashion by Ch’ing law; for an official to read an anonymous accusation was a criminal offense.

Continuing on the theme of “ancient Chinese law sucking”:

There remained a fourth category, convicts “deserving of capital punishment.” Their names were written on a sheet on which the Emperor drew a circle, separating those who would be executed from those to be held over for another year; it is unclear whether being inside or outside the circle implied execution. A defendant guilty of family offenses who survived this process twice had his sentence commuted to deferred execution; for other offenses it took ten times.

More variations on the same theme:

There are multiple cases where someone commits an offense on orders from a superior member of his extended family; the attitude of the court seems to be that although he must obey the order he is still criminally liable for the act; there appears to be no assumption in the legal system that an individual always has the option of acting in a way that does not violate one rule or another. That again might be interpreted as a policy driven by religion, the fear that if cosmic balance was not maintained by punishing someone for a violation of the cosmic rules, the result might be an increased risk of natural catastrophes.

On Jewish courts:

Until the reestablishment of the State of Israel in the 20th century, the Jewish population consisted of dispersed communities living under the authority of non-Jewish rulers. Such communities were subject from time to time to persecution or even expulsion. But for the most part, they enjoyed judicial autonomy. Gentile rulers, Christian and Muslim, found it convenient to subcontract the job of ruling and taxing their Jewish subjects to the local Jewish authorities. The ruler set the total tax burden to be imposed on the community, the local authorities were responsible for allocating it among the residents and settling disputes among the community’s members. Thus Jews in the diaspora lived largely under Jewish law. In some cases, the delegation of authority seems to have been carried to extraordinary lengths. Under Jewish law, “informing,” giving gentile authorities information about a fellow Jew injurious to him, was a crime. At some times and places, informing three times was a capital offense. Someone convicted of a capital crime was executed by the (gentile) mundane authorities. It follows, if Elon’s account of the situation in Spain is correct, that under some circumstances the gentile authorities were willing to execute a Jew for the crime of betraying information about other Jews. Betraying it, presumably, to the gentile authorities.

In Jewish law, someone with a terminal disease can theoretically murder (or commit any other crime) with impunity:

One of my favorite bits of legal logic concerns someone dying of a fatal organic disease. Maimonides starts by saying that the killer of such a person is legally exempt—although, of course, one must be very sure that the disease is incurable and fatal. He goes on to add that if someone suffering from such a disease kills he is to be put to death, provided he is so considerate as to do the killing in the presence of a court.

What if he doesn’t? Convicting him then depends on witnesses. Witnesses can only be trusted in a capital case if they themselves are at risk of punishment if their testimony is false. In this case, conspiring to use false testimony to convict someone who is innocent would result in no legal penalty, since the victim would be someone dying of a fatal organic disease and there is no penalty for killing such a person. Since the witnesses are at no risk of being put to death if their testimony is false their testimony cannot be trusted. Since their testimony cannot be trusted, there is no way of convicting the murderer. So someone dying of a fatal organic disease can commit murder with impunity, providing he takes care not to do it in the middle of the courtroom.

Jewish law says that community authorities have control over worldly but not religious law. But marriage is considered a matter of religious law, and community authorities have a strong interest in regulating marriage and divorce. How do they do it?

One ingenious solution hit upon by the communal authorities was to argue that while the marriage was [religious], the wedding ring, being a piece of property, was [worldly]. If a marriage was celebrated without satisfying their requirements, the communal authorities held that the ring was forfeit to them. Since the groom did not own the ring, the requirements of biblical marriage had not been satisfied, hence the bride was not married and was free to marry someone else.

Some religious law, like Jewish Torah law or Islamic Sharia, prescribes draconian or otherwise ill-advised punishments. Believers have long wanted to “correct” these errors, but hesitate at openly contradicting the word of God. There are multiple traditional means for solving the problem, like saying they will only implement the religious punishment if the prosecution meets an impossibly high standard of evidence, or if the offense satisfies an unsatisfiably high number of requirements. Eg:

Consider the case of the disobedient son. The Torah prescribes death by stoning for a child who defies his parents. Some legal authorities chose to read into the wording of the biblical verse requirements that could not in practice be satisfied―for instance, that the mother and father bringing the accusation must have identical voices and be identical in appearance. Maimonides argued that a boy below the age of thirteen could not be held responsible, that a boy of thirteen might impregnate a woman, a fact that would be known in another three months or so, at which point he would be a father not a son, hence that the prescription could only apply to a boy aged more than thirteen and less than thirteen and a quarter. In his view, the combined effect of the restrictions that could be read into the biblical passage was that the stated rule never had been and never would be applied.

Islamic sharia law famously demands that thieves’ hands be cut off, but this seems to be the same sort of more-honored-in-the-breach-than-observance kind of affair:

The hadd offense of sariqa is defined as theft, but theft that meets a variety of requirements. The thief must be a competent adult; the theft must be intentional, accomplished by stealth, of an item of more than a specified minimum value. The item must be one protected by its owner, so stealing an animal grazing at a distance from its barn does not qualify, nor does stealing from a house where you are an invited guest. Stealing perishable food does not count, because it is presumed that the theft is out of hunger and so permitted. The victim of the theft must attend both trial and execution.8 Arguably the list of requirements is so extensive because legal scholars, like many non-Muslim commentators, regarded the punishment―amputation of the right hand―as excessive. Since the punishment was Koranic it could not be changed, but it could be hedged around with enough qualifications so that it was unlikely to be applied―the same approach that Jewish legal scholars applied to the rule about stoning a disobedient son. A theft that did not meet the requirements for the hadd offense could still be prosecuted and punished under ta’zir [law less directly based on the Koran].

More on sharia:

An important feature [of this system] was the separation of law and state. Law, at least in theory, was not made by the ruler but deduced by legal scholars. In the view of at least some modern scholars, that was largely true in practice as well. After the first few centuries, rulers in the Middle East were frequently foreigners to the populations they ruled, often Turkish princes who had made the transition from mercenaries in service to Arab dynasties into de facto rulers. What they wanted from the legal scholars was support for their legitimacy; while they might occasionally meddle in some legal question of immediate relevance to themselves, they were willing for the most part to leave the legal system itself in the hands of the scholars. They were even willing to subsidize the scholars by endowing mosques and madrissahs, colleges, which provided employment for legal scholars. Think of the system as what Anglo-American common law would be if law professors ran the world, defined not by the precedents set by judges but by the medieval equivalent of law review articles.

The four schools of law are all Sunni; the Shia have their own legal rules, in most respects similar. A medieval Muslim city would have had separate courts for the four Sunni schools, the Shia, and the other tolerated religions. It was a polylegal system; disputes within each community would go to that community’s courts.

In Hallaq’s view it was the breakdown of this system in the 19th and 20th century due to the rise of the nation state, itself a result of western influence, that effectively destroyed the traditional system. In Islamic territories under colonial rule, such as India, Indonesia, and Algeria, the colonial rulers replaced the traditional system of decentralized law independent of the state with a system of statutory law incorporating elements of traditional law, in some cases elements interpreted in ways favorable to the ruling power. After the end of the colonial period, the newly independent states followed the same path. Thus, in his view, modern “islamists” who view themselves as wishing to reinstitute Shari’a are in fact proposing something quite different and less desirable, a centralized system of state made law with rules to some degree modeled on traditional fiqh.

Another perspective on polylegal systems I hadn’t considered before:

The same issue exists in current U.S. law, which is in its own way polylegal. Each U.S. state has its own system of legal rules. Most disputes have an unambiguous location in a particular state, but not all; consider the case of a customer in California who purchases a product produced in Massachusetts from a seller in Texas. What court gets to decide the resulting product liability dispute? U.S. legal theory includes an elaborate set of rules for solving such “conflict of law” cases. One of those rules is diversity jurisdiction. A civil case that would normally be under state law can be heard by a federal court instead if the plaintiff and defendant are from different states, under different state laws. Think of it as a modern version of the rule that sends cross cases to the ruler’s court.

On medieval Icelandic government:

Laws were made by a “parliament,” seats in which were a marketable commodity [called a godord]…the godord itself was in effect two different things. It was a group of men – the particular men who had agreed to follow that godi, to be members of that godord. Any man could be challenged to name his godord and was required to do so, but he was free to choose any godi within his quarter and to change to a different godord at will. It was also a bundle of rights–the right to sit in the lögrétta, appoint judges for certain courts, etc. The godord in this second sense was marketable property. It could be given away, sold, held by a partnership, inherited, or whatever. Thus seats in the law- making body were quite literally for sale.

Some interesting principles of Somali law:

The Somali system is ultimately a feud system, one in which law is enforced by the private application of force or the threat of force, but a feud system with institutions for avoiding violence via widely respected mechanisms to arbitrate disputes. Part of what makes it successful, according to Van Notten, is that families are obligated to help defend their kin but not to help attack their opponents, with the result that armed conflicts are likely to lead to stalemate, and from there to arbitration.


One such oath consists of the oath-giver swearing by his marriage; if it later turns out that his oath was false, the marriage is dissolved.


If the convicted defendant refuses to pay within the specified time, he is subject to penalties ranging from a fine in honey to having one of his animals slaughtered, cooked, and eaten by the villagers each day.


For intentional murder, the penalty is a life for a life; if the murderer succeeds in fleeing abroad, a member of his family of equal status may be put to death in his stead, a rule that gives his family a strong incentive not to help him escape. In most cases the victim’s family can choose to accept blood-money instead, at a rate of 100 camels for a man and 50 for a woman, although if the murder was sufficiently outrageous the court may insist on execution of the murderer.

On the English pardon system, which usually involved the offender’s relatives pleading to a noble or other high official to plead for mercy, and the judge granting it if and only if a sufficiently impressive noble made the plea:

Pardons procured in this way substitute an efficient punishment-a fine-for a less efficient punishment-execution. In doing so, they provide resources to the state and those who control it. Officials who give out pardons are selling them for non-pecuniary payments. Thus the legal system, in addition to providing a mechanism to reduce crime, also increases the ability of the state to maintain its authority. Considered from the standpoint of public relations, it is an elegant way of doing so. Nobody is threatened save the guilty convict. The squire is not oppressing his tenants but doing them a favor, at their request. The knowledge that such favors may occasionally be needed gives everyone in the village an incentive to be polite to the squire.

On clergyable offenses in early modern England, definition creep, and how juries interpret dumb laws as damage and route around them:

Offenses fell into three categories according to their possible punishments: minor offenses, clergyable felonies, and non-clergyable felonies. Minor offenses such as petty larceny-theft of goods worth less than a shilling-were typically punished with punishments designed largely to shame the offender, such as public whipping or exposure in the stocks.

The distinction between the second and third categories was whether or not offenders could claim benefit of clergy. Benefit of clergy originated as a legal rule permitting clerics charged with capital offenses to have their cases transferred to a church court, which did not impose capital punishment. By the 18th century, the application of the rule had changed in two important ways: The definition of clergy had been broadened to include anyone who could read (and, after 1706, any defendant whether or not he could read), and the church courts had lost their role in dealing with serious crimes. The result in many cases was that a defendant convicted of a capital felony could plead his clergy, be branded on the thumb, and be sent home.

Under a Tudor statute, a defendant who pled his clergy could be imprisoned for up to a year. But that appears to have been done only rarely.[10] Defendants who were not actually clergymen were supposed to be allowed to plead clergy only once; branding on the thumb may have originated as a device to identify those who had pled clergy once and so could not do so again. But this restriction does not seem to have been enforced very often. Presumably the brand had some stigmatizing effect. That, plus the costs born by the defendant prior to his conviction, seem to have been at some periods the only penalty actually imposed on someone convicted of a clergyable offense.


While hanging was, during much of the century, the only punishment that a judge could impose for serious non-clergyable felonies, that did not mean that everyone charged with such a felony, or even everyone charged and guilty, was actually hanged. A substantial fraction of defendants were acquitted. Of those convicted, many were convicted of a lesser offense. A jury might find a defendant guilty of an offense that was punishable by whipping or the pillory either in order to keep the offender from pleading his clergy and being released or to prevent him from being convicted of a capital offense and hanged. After 1717, they might find him guilty of a clergyable rather than a non-clergyable felony in order to convert the punishment from hanging to transportation.

In some cases the verdict was clearly an act of “pious perjury” by the jury. The fiction was clear when a jury found a defendant guilty of stealing from a house goods of value 39 shillings, although the goods were obviously worth much more than that; 40 shillings was the value that would make the theft non-clergyable. In other cases, the jury failed to include in its verdict features of the crime, such as the fact that the theft was from a house at night or involved breaking and entering, that would have made it non-clergyable. The combined effect of acquittals and convictions for a lesser (non-capital) offense was that, in the sample examined by Beattie, fewer than 40% of those charged with capital property felonies and fewer than 25% of those charged with murder were actually convicted of those offenses.

On the ancient Icelandic solution to class-action lawsuits:

Transferable tort claims could solve another problem in our system as well. Consider a tort that does a small amount of damage to each of a large number of victims, small enough so that no individual victim or small group will find it worth the trouble of suing. The current solution is a class action; an enterprising lawyer gets himself named as attorney for the class of all victims, sues on their behalf, and collects damages or accepts an out of court settlement. One problem with that solution is that there is nothing much to keep the attorney from acting in his own interest instead of that of his imaginary clients, settling on terms that give him a substantial sum in real cash and them compensation in the form of discounts on their hypothetical future dealings with the defendant. Transferable claims make possible a better solution. The lawyer purchases a large number of small claims, perhaps with the assistance of middlemen, then sues on his own behalf as their owner.15 In this respect, at least, our legal system is a mere eleven hundred years behind the cutting edge of legal technology.

Some gypsy customs:

The Kaale, the Finnish gypsies, a small population isolated for centuries, carry this attitude even further, refusing to openly admit the facts of human reproduction.3 They have no institution of marriage; couples that wish to reproduce are expected to first leave their family households, flee a substantial distance away—far enough so that their kin cannot find them and retrieve the woman—and return only when the child is weaned and so no longer requires a visible association with its mother. On returning, the father is expected to show the humility appropriate to one who has violated the norms of his society while the women of the mother’s generation smuggle mother and child back into the household, where the child will be expected to treat all the women of his mother’s generation as equally mothers.

One result of the Kaale rejection of sexuality is to eliminate many of the taboos associated with it among other Gypsy groups. There can be no restrictions associated with menstruation since enforcing them would require recognition of the fact of menstruation, and similarly with pregnancy. A Kaale woman living in the household of her (or her partner’s) kin conceals the fact of pregnancy until shortly before delivery, and arranges for it to happen somewhere outside of the household—in modern times in a maternity hospital.

More on Gypsies, paging James C Scott:

A third approach to enforcing an embedded legal system, also employed by gypsy communities, is to use control over information to substitute for control over physical force. I started this chapter by reporting a range of estimates for the world population of gypsies. That the estimates range over almost an order of magnitude is not an accident. Gypsies do not wish to be controlled by gaije. It is hard to control people if you cannot count them, and it is hard to count people when there is no one to one correspondence between person and name—Gypsies treat a name, more generally an identity, as fungible, property belonging to the extended family to be used by any member who finds it useful. By this tactic and others, modern gypsies make it difficult for the states that claim authority over them to monitor and control them, and so increase the range of alternatives available to gypsies and gypsy law.

One of my all-time favorite Friedman passages, this time on the Amish:

In an earlier chapter, I suggested that in North America toleration might eventually destroy the status of gypsies as self-governing communities by making it too easy for unhappy or ostracized members to defect. Along similar lines, it is arguable that the emancipation of European Jews, starting in the late 18th century, was responsible for the decline of the Jewish communities as distinct and effectively self-ruling polities. Yet the Amish have maintained their identity, culture, and ordnung, enforcing the latter by the threat of ostracism, despite the lack of any clear barrier to prevent unhappy or excommunicated members from deserting. Such desertion is made easier, in the Amish case, by the existence of Mennonite communities, similar to the Amish but less strict, which Amish defectors can and sometimes do join.

A critic of the Amish might argue that their upbringing, with schooling ending at eighth grade, leaves potential defectors unqualified for life in the modern world; the obvious response is that there are a lot of jobs in the modern world for which the willingness to work and the training produced by an apprenticeship starting at age fourteen are better qualifications than a high school diploma. As some evidence of the adequacy of Amish education, Amish seem to do quite well at starting and running their own small scale businesses.

One might more plausibly suggest that a social system in which courting your future mate may start as early as fourteen leaves many young people locked into a future marriage well before the point at which they have to decide whether or not to accept the Ordnung and commit themselves to the Amish lifestyle—and it is a future marriage with a spouse raised Amish. It would be interesting to know whether, when Amish do choose to leave prior to baptism, they usually do it one by one or in couples.

One could also argue that the close bonds of Amish families create a form of lock-in. Social interaction between committed Amish and relatives who have chosen not to commit is not forbidden—shunning applies only to those who have sworn to obey the Ordnung and been baptised, but then fail to live up to their commitment—but given how much of the pattern of living of the Amish is determined by their religion and culture, refusing to commit must create a substantial barrier. The barrier is higher still for those who have been baptized, and so would face shunning if they left the church.

Finally, one might interpret the low defection rate as evidence of successful indoctrination, not only into the principles of Amish life but into the negative view held by the Amish of the lives lived by non-Amish. Reading books on the Amish, all positive, all written by sympathizers,34 one is struck by how dark their picture of the outside world is. It is a world where people spend most of their efforts in competitive endeavor and display, in keeping up with the Joneses, where lives are divided among the almost wholly separate circles of work, family, and church, where little meaningful happens or can happen, a world of boredom and alienation.

There is, of course, one other possibility. Perhaps the Amish are correct in believing that they have a superior life-style, as judged by most of those who have lived it and observed the alternative—albeit a life style superior only for those who have had the good fortune to be brought up in it.

Plains Indian wife stealing:

Wife stealing was illegal and done openly, so guilt was not an issue. Compensation was. The husband was expected to confront the wife stealer and demand generous compensation, with the amount an increasing function of the wealth of the stealer and the prowess of the husband, a decreasing function of the prowess of the stealer. There being no government to enforce the law, the threat that backed the demand was the private use of force. Pay or I’ll kill you.

Carrying out that threat was neither desired nor likely, since if the husband killed the stealer (or vice versa) the victim’s kin would take revenge by killing the killer. The intended result of the threat was to set off the game that economists call “bilateral monopoly,” a bargaining game in which the parties have a common interest in a peaceful resolution of their dispute but a conflict over the terms, in this case over how much will be given in compensation to the wronged husband.

What if the stealer was clearly the more dangerous man of the two—not unlikely, since a prudent man in search of status would prefer not to steal from too able a husband? The husband had the option of calling in his brothers or other kin to support his threats. The stealer, having set off the conflict in order to prove his status, had no such option—asking for help would be to admit that he had bitten off more than he could chew, and besides, he was on what everyone saw as the wrong side of the (unwritten) law. So at that point the stealer backs down and agrees to pay substantial damages, which damages are collected not by the husband but by his helpers.

Suppose the husband had no brothers? His option then was to find a champion, a brave, generous, well thought of warrior willing to take over the case and face down the stealer. This time the damage payment went to the husband. The champion’s payment was the status gained by his willingness to risk himself in defense of the right and his success in forcing another warrior to back down. Much the same pattern appears in some of the Icelandic sagas, where a bully who relies too heavily on his and his friends’ strength to let him violate the rights of weaker men is brought down by someone still more formidable out to establish his own status.

On Athenian juries:

Each year, 6000 jurors were selected by lot from those who volunteered; the only qualification was being a male citizen and at least 30 years old. The size of the jury for a case varied over time and according to the nature of the case, but seems usually to have been about 500. Jurors were paid 1/2 drachma for each day they served, about half the wage of a rower, so jury service provided a sort of low end welfare.

More on Athens:

The ordinary procedure was for the case to be privately prosecuted by any male citizen who chose to do so. If prosecution was successful and led to to the defendant paying a fine, the prosecutor would, for many but not all sorts of cases, receive a substantial fraction of the fine, sometimes as much as half, as his reward. Similarly, if the case was based on the claim that the defendant was holding property that properly belonged to the state, a successful prosecution would result in half of the property forfeiting to the state, half to the prosecutor. Such a system raises the risk of suits against defendants believed to be rich, unpopular, or both—whether or not they have broken any laws. One solution was a provision of the law under which a prosecutor who failed to get at least a fifth of the jurors to vote for conviction was himself fined, as well as barred from any future suits of the same kind.

Still on Athens:

The victim of theft was was entitled to get back both his stolen property and a sum equal to twice its value. We worry about police planting drugs on a suspect in the process of search; the Athenians worried about a private party planting his own property on someone in order to accuse him of stealing it. They had a simple, solution. The accuser was allowed to search the house where he suspected his stolen property was hidden. But he had to do it naked.

And my favorite section on Athens:

The Athenians had a straightforward solution to the problem of producing public goods such as the maintenance of a warship or the organizing of a public festival. If you were one of the richest Athenians, every two years you were obligated to produce a public good; the relevant magistrate would tell you which one.

“As you doubtless know, we are sending a team to the Olympics this year. Congratulations, you are the sponsor.”

Or: “Look at that lovely trireme down at the dock. This year guess who gets to be captain and paymaster?”

Such an obligation was called a liturgy. There were two ways to get out of it. One was to show that you were already doing another liturgy this year or had done one last year. The other was to prove that there was another Athenian, richer than you, who had not done one last year and was not doing one this year. This raises an obvious puzzle. How, in a world without accountants, income tax, public records of what people owned and what it was worth, do I prove that you are richer than I am? The answer is not an accountant’s answer but an economist’s — feel free to spend a few minutes trying to figure it out before you turn the page.

The solution was simple. I offer to exchange everything I own for everything you own. If you refuse, you have admitted that you are richer than I am, and so you get to do the liturgy that was to be imposed on me.

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Book Review: Legal Systems Very Different From Ours


Medieval Icelandic crime victims would sell the right to pursue a perpetrator to the highest bidder. 18th century English justice replaced fines with criminals bribing prosecutors to drop cases. Somali judges compete on the free market; those who give bad verdicts get a reputation that drives away future customers.

“Anarcho-capitalism” evokes a dystopian cyberpunk future. But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe we’ve always been anarcho-capitalist. Maybe a state-run legal system isn’t a fact of nature, but a historical oddity as contingent as collectivized farming or nationalized railroads. Legal Systems Very Different From Ours, by anarcho-capitalist/legal scholar/medieval history buff David Friedman, successfully combines the author’s three special interests into a whirlwind tour of exotic law.

Law is a public good. Crime victims have little economic incentive to punish the perpetrator; if you burn my house down, jailing you won’t un-burn the house. If you steal my gold, I have some interest in catching you and taking it back, but no more than I do in catching some other poor shmuck and taking his gold. It’s only society as a whole that wants to make sure criminals are reliably punished and the innocent consistently safe. This is the classic situation where economists usually recommend government intervention.

But sometimes that doesn’t work. Maybe you live in an area like Somalia or medieval Ireland without a strong centralized government. Maybe you live in a strato-klepto-kakocracy run by warlords who can’t even pronounce “jurisprudence”, let alone enforce it. Maybe you’re a despised minority group whom the State wants nothing to do with, or who wants nothing to do with the State.

Gypsies living scattered in foreign countries have generally wanted to run their own communities by their own rules. Nothing stops some of them from calling themselves a “legislature” or a “court” and claiming to make laws or pass sentences. But something does stop them from trying to enforce them: from the State’s point of view, a “court” that executes an offender is just a bunch of Gypsies who got together and committed murder. So the Vlach Rom – Romanian Gypsies – organize courts called kris which enforce their sentences with threat of banishment from the community.

Gypsies traditionally believe in marime, a sort of awful pollution that infects people who don’t follow the right rituals; anyone who interacts with polluted people will become polluted themselves. Kris courts can declare the worst offenders polluted, ensuring their speedy ostracization from Gypsy society. And since non-Gypsies are polluted by default, the possibility of ostracism and forced integration into non-Gypsy society will seem intolerable:

The effectiveness of that threat [of ostracism] depends on how easily the exiled gypsy can function outside of his community. The marimé rules (and similar rules in other societies) provide a mechanism for isolating the members of the community. Gaije, non-gypsies, do not know the marimé rules and so do not and cannot obey them. It follows that they are all polluted, unclean, carriers of a contagious disease, people whom no Rom in his right mind would willingly choose to associate with; when and if such association is unavoidable it must be taken with great care. The gypsy view of gaije, reinforced by the gaije view of gypsies as uneducated and illiterate thieves and swindlers, eliminates the exit option and so empowers the kris to enforce gypsy law by the threat of exclusion from the only tolerable human society.

This reminds me of The Use And Abuse Of Witchdoctors For Life: once your culture has a weird superstition, it can get plugged into various social needs to become a load-bearing part of the community structure.

Amish also live under the authority of a foreign culture and have settled on a similar system, with a twist. The basic unit of Amish society is the church congregation; Amish settlements big enough to support multiple churches will have many congregations mixed together. Each congregation will have its own rules, especially about which technologies their members are or aren’t allowed to use. Amish people who violate their congregation’s rules, either by using forbidden technology or by the usual litany of sins, are punished with public confession or temporary ostracism. Amish people who refuse to abide by lesser punishments are excommunicated, though they can be un-excommunicated if they change their minds and agree to follow the court’s orders.

Amish congregations are nominally democratic, but in practice Friedman calls them dictatorship-like because everyone votes the way the bishop wants. But they are a “competitive dictatorship”; since there are so many different congregations in the same town, an Amish family who doesn’t like their congregation’s leadership or legal system can move to another congregation and agree to be bound by their laws instead. This makes it a rare remaining example of a polycentric legal system outside anarcho-capitalist fantasies or Too Like The Lightning:

Such a system can be viewed as a competitive market for legal rules, constrained, like other competitive markets, to produce about the product that the customers want. Competitive dictatorship is the mechanism we routinely use to control hotels and restaurants; the customers have no vote on what color the walls are painted or what is on the menu, but an absolute vote on which one they patronize.

They do encounter the same problem as the Gypsies: can you just commit a crime, then accept your ostracism and integrate with another society somewhere else? The Amish have some internal mechanisms to prevent this: congregations are usually on good terms with each other, but if Congregation A accepts a member being shunned by Congregation B, then all of Congregation B’s members will shun all of Congregation A’s members. In practice, this makes it easy to switch rules as a member in good standing who honestly doesn’t like the laws, but hard to break the laws and get away with it.

Of course, you can still leave the Amish community and go join broader American society. But have you seen broader American society?

18th century England had a government, a court system, and some minimal law enforcement – but it really sucked. There were no public prosecutors; anyone who felt like it could bring a criminal to court and start prosecuting him, but if nobody felt like it then the crime remained unpunished. Prosecuting took a lot of time and money and was generally a thankless task. And the government didn’t want to go to the expense of imprisoning people, so they usually just hanged convicted offenders (if the crime seemed really bad) or pardoned them (if it didn’t seem to merit hanging). The exotic anarcho-capitalist part comes in as English civil society creates its own structures to work around these limitations.

Merchants, landowners, and other people with wealth banded together in mutual-protection-insurance-groups. Everyone in the group would pay a fixed amount yearly, and if one of them got robbed the group would use the money to hire a prosecutor to try the criminal. Group members would publish their names in the newspaper to help inform thieves whom it was a bad idea to rob. But this wasn’t about leaving poor people out to dry. The groups would also help indigents who couldn’t afford their own prosecutors, partly out of a desire to crack down on crime before it reached the point where it could inconvenience them. They wouldn’t help people who could have afforded insurance but declined anyway, though – otherwise there would be no incentive to buy in.

(if this sounds familiar, it’s from another, very different David Friedman book)

What about the lack of good punishments? Once a trial was underway, prosecutors would usually cut a deal: the offender would bribe the prosecutor with a certain amount, and the prosecutor would drop the case. The size of the bribe would vary based on how much the offender could pay, the extent of their crime, and the facts of the case (and therefore the likelihood of the magistrate choosing hanging vs. pardon). This not only helped tailor the punishment more precisely to the crime, but helped defer the cost of prosecution: victims (or their mutual-protection-insurance-groups) were incentivized to press charges because they could recoup their costs through the bribes paid to drop them:

What both modern and contemporary commentators seem to have missed is that, however corrupt such arrangements might be from a legal standpoint, they helped solve the fundamental problem of private prosecution. The possibility of compounding provided an incentive to prosecute-it converted the system into something more like a civil system, where a victim sues in the hope of collecting money damages. And while compounding might save the criminal from the noose, he did not get off scott free. He ended up paying, to the prosecutor, what was in effect a fine.

10th through 13th century Iceland was in the same position as the Vlach Rom: a legislature (the Althing), some courts, but no executive branch. Unlike the Rom, the Icelanders’ problem wasn’t foreign oppressors – it was that they were the Viking equivalent of those hard-core libertarians who live in compounds in Montana where the Feds can’t reach them. In this case “the Feds” were the forces of King Harald Fairhair, who had just taken over and centralized power in Norway. Some Norwegians decided they would rather live on a remote and frequently-exploding piece of rock on the edge of the world than be anyone’s subject: thus, medieval Iceland.

If an Icelander thought a crime had happened, they would go to court and plead the case themselves. If the court pronounced a guilty verdict, it would demand a penalty from the criminal. Usually this was a fine paid to the victim; even murders were punished with wergeld. If the criminal paid the fine voluntarily, all was well. If they refused – or didn’t even come to court – then the court could declare the criminal an outlaw, meaning it was legal to kill him and take his stuff. And:

One obvious objection to a system of private enforcement is that the poor (or weak) would be defenseless. The Icelandic system dealt with this problem by giving the victim a property right – the right to be reimbursed by the criminal – and making that right transferable. The victim could turn over his case to someone else, either gratis or in return for a consideration. A man who did not have sufficient resources to prosecute a case or enforce a verdict could sell it to another who did and who expected to make a profit in both money and reputation by winning the case and collecting the fine. This meant that an attack on even the poorest victim could lead to eventual punishment.

A second objection is that the rich (or powerful) could commit crimes with impunity, since nobody would be able to enforce judgment against them. Where power is sufficiently concentrated this might be true; this was one of the problems which led to the eventual breakdown of the Icelandic legal system in the thirteenth century. But so long as power was reasonably dispersed, as it seems to have been for the first two centuries after the system was established, this was a less serious problem. A man who refused to pay his fines was outlawed and would probably not be supported by as many of his friends as the plaintiff seeking to enforce judgment, since in case of violent conflict his defenders would find themselves legally in the wrong. If the lawbreaker defended himself by force, every injury inflicted on the partisans of the other side would result in another suit, and every refusal to pay another fine would pull more people into the coalition against him.

There is a scene in Njal’s Saga that provides striking evidence of the stability of this system. Conflict between two groups has become so intense that open fighting threatens to break out in the middle of the court. A leader of one faction asks a benevolent neutral what he will do for them in case of a fight. He replies that if they are losing he will help them, and if they are winning he will break up the fight before they kill more men than they can afford! Even when the system seems so near to breaking down, it is still assumed that every enemy killed must eventually be paid for. The reason is obvious enough; each man killed will have friends and relations who are still neutral–and will remain neutral if and only if the killing is made up for by an appropriate wergeld.

I think this is asking: are we sure you can’t end up with outlaw cascades, where everyone just agrees to be outlaws together? Suppose Warren Buffett cuts off my arm. The court asks him to pay a fine, and he refuses, so the court declares him an outlaw and legally killable. I gather some of my friends to form a posse to kill him, but he hires a hundred bodyguards to resist me. There’s a fight, the bodyguards kill my friends, and the court fines the bodyguards. They don’t pay, so the court declares the bodyguards outlaws. I gather a thousand people to kill Buffett and/or his hundred bodyguards, and Buffett and his bodyguards pool their money to hire a whole force of mercenaries to resist us. The mercenaries kill lots of us, the court fines them, and the mercenaries don’t pay. Now the court declares the mercenaries outlaws. But it seems like at some point maybe more than half the population of Iceland will be outlaws, and then maybe they just have to declare a new legal system or something.

An Icelander might retort: why doesn’t that happen in modern America? A policeman catches you dealing drugs, so you offer the policeman $10,000 to let it pass. The policeman refuses because it’s illegal and he would get in trouble. Well, you say, what’s the worst thing that could happen if you got in trouble? The police would come after you? But police would hesitate to arrest a fellow officer, plus we’ve already established that they can be deflected with bribes. Sure, there’s a stable equilibrium where you arrest me right now. But there’s also a stable equilibrium where 51%+ of the nation’s police join our sordid bribery chain, accumulate more power than the law-abiding police, and end up as some weird mercenary army that takes over the country and rewrites the law to their own advantage.

This is a good place to remember that David Friedman is also the author of A Positive Account Of Property Rights, maybe the single most mind-opening essay I’ve ever read. No summary can do it justice, but the basic outline is that governmental “legitimacy” is the government’s position as a conspicuous Schelling point for everybody who wants to avoid civil war/the state of nature/a worse government. Once it’s common knowledge that a government is legitimate, everyone expects everyone else to enforce its rules, and so they’ll enforce its rules in turn until it becomes common knowledge that the government isn’t legitimate anymore. This works just as well in medieval Icelandic anarcho-capitalism as it does in modern America. Just because our government dresses all of its enforcers-of-state-sanctioned violence in snazzy uniforms and makes them work out of the same building doesn’t make the whole system any less of a mass hallucination.


This book works well alongside James Scott’s Seeing Like A State and the whole discourse around cultural evolution.

In Seeing Like A State, ordinary people living their daily lives blunder into highly advanced systems for doing whatever it is they do. Primitive farmers will know every tiny detail about exactly when to plant which crops, and how to exploit microvariations in soil quality, and know ridiculous tricks like planting fish heads in the ground as fertilizer. Ordinary city-dwellers will organically build houses and stores and streets in exactly the right fractal patterns to maximize some measure of quality of life. Scott dubs this “metis”, an evolved intuitive sense of practical wisdom that often outperforms seemingly more scientific solutions.

Many of the societies Friedman profiles in Legal Systems Very Different From Ours seem to operate on metis. Most don’t know who developed their legal system; in a few of them, it is explicitly declared to have been the work of God. Most don’t really know why their legal system works – in some cases, Friedman only gives an economic analysis of why some rule might exist after admitting that previous scholarship (both modern academic, and within the society in question) has failed to come up with answers. And a lot of them are too brilliant, and need too many weird interlocking parts, to be the work of any single person.

“Cultural evolution” is the idea that cultures evolve in a way analogous to biological organisms. The definition gets kind of fuzzy – if I come up with a good idea and my culture adopts it, is that the result of “cultural evolution” or ordinary human ingenuity? `But a lot of people find the concept to have some value – and if it has any at all, Legal Systems Very Different From Ours has to include some of the best examples.

Friedman frames this in economic terms. Social “entrepreneurs” come up with some new system that solves a need, and it catches on by raising the utility of everyone involved. The mutual-protection-insurance-groups of 18th century England work this way: somebody invents them and offers the opportunity for other people to sign on, everyone who does ends up better off than the people who doesn’t, and they eventually reach fixation. Same with the criminal-prosecutor bribes; someone thinks it up, it leaves both sides better off, so everybody who hears about it does it. Viewed very optimistically, wherever there’s a problem in your culture, institutions to solve the problem will magically appear and spread until everybody does them.

Conflict is an especially fertile ground for cultural innovation. Friedman stresses how many legal systems, including advanced ones with lawyers and codes and everything, show signs of originating from feud systems, which might be the most basic form of law. They work like this: “If you offend me in some way, I will try to kill you”. A slightly more advanced version that takes account of possibly power differentials between offender and victim: “If you offend me in some way, everybody in my family will try to kill everybody in your family”. This originally sounds unpromising, but it turns out that people really don’t want their family members murdered. So we end up with an even more advanced version: “If you offend me in some way, we had better find some way to arbitrate our dispute, or else everybody in my family will try to kill everybody in your family”.

The Somali system seems to be somewhere around here: if two people have a dispute, they find a mutually agreeable judge to arbitrate; the judge will decide who’s in the wrong and what fine they need to pay to make it right. If someone refuses to go to the judge, or refuses to abide by the judge’s decision, then it’s family-member-killing time. Needless to say, Somali judges’ services remain popular. And since judges gain status by arbitrating, and since only judges who make widely-regarded-as-good decisions get invited to keep doing so, there’s economic pressure for the judges to make good decisions (which then go down as precedent and inspire future cases). It’s easy to see how something like this can turn into a perfectly respectable legal system where people totally forget that killing each other’s family members is even an option. Catch it at this last stage, and hear enough people admit they have no idea who “invented” their legal system, and it looks like it appeared by magic.

In fact, one of the most interesting things I got from this book is that all legal systems need a punishment of last resort – one that can be enforced whether or not the offender agrees with it – but these punishments practically never happen in real life. The Gypsies and Amish will ostracize members who defy the court – but since everyone lives in fear of ostracization, in real life they’ll just pay the fine or make their public confession or whatever. The English will hang criminals at the drop of a hat – but since the threat of hanging incentivizes them to bribe prosecutors, in reality few people will need to be hanged. The Icelandic courts could declare offenders outlaws who can be killed without repercussion – but the threat encourages Icelanders to pay the wergeld, and nobody has to get outlawed. The Somalis are ready to have murderous family feuds – but the possibility of such a feud keeps people willing to go to arbitration. Even our own legal system works like this. The police can physically drag you to jail, kicking and screaming. But more likely you’re going to plea bargain, or agree to community service, or at least be cooperative and polite while the police take you away. Plea bargains – which are easier for prosecutors, easier for defendants, and easier for taxpayers – seem like a good example of cultural evolution in action; once someone thought them up, there was no way they weren’t going to take over everything despite their very serious costs.


Three other things worth noting about Legal Systems Very Different From Ours.

First, something kept seeming off about all the legal systems mentioned, which only clicked into place about halfway through: they really, really didn’t seem prepared for crime. A lot of them worked on a principle like: “If there’s a crime, we’ll call together a court made of all the town elders, plus at least three different religious leaders, plus the heads of the families of everybody involved, plus a representative of the Great King, plus nine different jurists from nine different universities, and all of them will meet on the Field Of Meeting, and a great tent will be erected, and…” The whole thing sounded like it might work as long as there was like one crime a year. Any more than that and none of the society’s officials would ever have time for anything else.

As weird as it is to punish murder with a fine, the fines these societies levied for murder sounded really high: the Islamic price was a hundred camels, the Irish price was seven female slaves. The average person wouldn’t have that many slaves or camels, so people in Arabia or Ireland would band together into clan/family-based blood-money-paying-groups that acted kind of like insurance companies. If a member got convicted of a crime, everyone else would come together to help them pony up the money. I assume this helped incentivize people’s families to discourage them from committing crimes. But it has the same feeling of nobody expecting very many crimes to be committed. How much of medieval Arabia’s GDP consisted of transfers of 100 camels from murderers to victims’ families?

One little-admitted but much-worried-about justification for mass incarceration in our society is the concern that some people are just so naturally violent that, left in the outside world, they would offend again and again until they died. The societies in this book didn’t seem to worry about this. If someone killed, their family would give up the relevant number of camels, and then everyone would be on their way. As far as I can tell, the Amish have no idea what to do about any crime more dire than using a telephone. Nobody used anything at all like incarceration. 18th century England occasionally sent prisoners somewhere horrible like America, but once the colonies revolted they experimented with jails, found them too expensive, and just sort of flailed around punishment-less until they finally discovered Australia.

There’s a lot of concern about police brutality, police racism, police failure-to-actually-control crime, et cetera. A few far-leftists have flirted with the idea of abolishing police, and the only way I can make sense of this is by analogy to something like Somali or Icelandic law. These were genuine community-based non-hierarchical legal systems. And, for the place and the time, they seem to have worked really well (Somaliland, which uses traditional Somali law, is doing way better than Somalia proper, whose law system is somewhat westernized). But I also know that it’s weirdly hard to get a good picture of how modern crime rates compare to ancient ones. On the one hand are statistics like the ones saying crime has increased by an order of magnitude since 1900 or so; on the other are findings like Steven Pinker’s that violence is constantly declining. Apply the “court made of town elders plus at least three different religious leaders plus…” to Baltimore, and the Field Of Meeting is going to get pretty crowded. On the other hand, in my past work with criminals I’ve been constantly surprised by how much role their families and their communities still play in their lives, and maybe a system that left legal enforcement up to them would do better than the overstretched and underperforming police.

(but what would the transfer process look like? Just cancel all funding for the Baltimore Police Department and hope for the best?)

Second, some complaints that are kind of unfair because they’re along the lines of “this book is too good”, but which probably need a mention.

Whenever I read a book by anyone other than David Friedman about a foreign culture, it sounds like “The X’wunda give their mother-in-law three cows every monsoon season, then pluck out their own eyes as a sacrifice to Humunga, the Volcano God”.

And whenever I read David Friedman, it sounds like “The X’wunda ensure positive-sum intergenerational trade by a market system in which everyone pays the efficient price for continued economic relationships with their spouse’s clan; they demonstrate their honesty with a costly signal of self-mutilation that creates common knowledge of belief in a faith whose priests are able to arbitrate financial disputes.”

This is great, and it’s important to fight the temptation to think of foreign cultures as completely ridiculous idiots who do stuff for no reason. But it all works out so neatly – and so much better than when anyone else treats the same topics – that I’m always nervous if I’m not familiar enough with the culture involved to know whether they’re being shoehorned into a mold that’s more rational-self-interest-maximizing than other anthropologists (or they themselves) would recognize.

And also, the cultural evolution idea is really optimistic. I’ve been trying to read a bit more about Marxism and Postmodernism lately, and they would be pretty skeptical about analyzing social systems by asking “What large-scale problem of human interaction is this system the exactly optimal solution for?”

Like, there’s a perspective where lots of countries have a King, because societies that have a single central nexus to their coordination structure are able to coordinate better than ones that don’t, and having them rule for life promotes long-term thinking, and them be hereditary provides a clear Schelling Point for secession disputes that prevents civil war and cleverly ensures that the previous ruler is incentivized to promote the peaceful transfer of power to the next one, and this is why constitutional monarchies have slightly higher yearly GDP growth than other forms of government.

And there’s another perspective where lots of countries have a King, because some guy seized so much power that he can live in a giant palace and order people around all day instead of doing work. And if anyone tries to prevent him from doing that, he can arrange to have that person beheaded.

Legal Systems Very Different From Ours is very much part of the first perspective. It’s a story of nations and legal systems evolving towards ever-more-optimal and ever-more-efficient institutions for the good of all, and it presents strong evidence supporting that story. I can’t disagree with its evidence from within its narrative, but I still wonder how much to worry about this alternate way of looking at things.

Third, in all of the fretting about how terrible our government is, and trying to change our government to be less terrible, and trying to convince other people to go along with our terribleness-decreasing government change proposals – it’s important to keep on remembering the degree to which you can still pretty much do whatever you want.

In New York, Orthodox Jews with business disputes still bring them before a tribunal of rabbis, who judge them based on Jewish law. In Pennsylvania, the Amish live their own lives in their own way pretty much completely disconnected from US government decisions (although they needed a decent lobby group, the Amish Steering Committee, to work out a few special exemptions like from the draft). Socialists occasionally set up worker-owned companies run for the good of the proletariat, and they make products and earn money just like everyone else.

If you don’t like the government, you’re out of luck. But if you and your whole community don’t like the government, you can organize your own internal relations however you want. You can’t override existing laws – you’ll still have to pay taxes, and you can’t set up a bomb-making factory in your backyard. But you can add as many new laws as you want, enforced by threat of ostracism from your community, plus any other clever commitment mechanisms you can think of. There’s nothing stopping communities – a broad term covering anything from villages to church congregations to cults to political organizations to online message boards – from creating internal welfare systems to help their poorer members, taking a say in when their members marry or divorce, making home schools that educated their members’ children, demanding their members in business treat their employees or business partners a certain way, et cetera.

Right now doctors’ services are super-bloated and expensive because if a patient sues them they can be held liable for not filling out any of seven zillion forms or following any of twenty zillion best practices. But if the doctor only saw patients in their own community, and everyone in the community had mutual arbitration methods that worked better than the courts, maybe they could charge a fraction of the current price. This might not be illegal, as long as the community wasn’t based on a protected group like race or religion. There just aren’t many existing communities strong enough to make it work.

But some small seeds are starting to sprout. Social justice communities have sexual harassment policies much stronger than those of the country at large, and enforce them by ostracism and public shaming. Christians are trying to build the Benedict Option, an embedded society that works on Christian norms and rules. And there’s always the seasteading movement, currently led by – oh, that’s interesting – David Friedman’s son.

Legal Systems Very Different From Ours hints that we could build something like Archipelago gradually, without anybody noticing. The Jews and Gypsies did something like it. So did the Amish. Maybe all we have to do is start threatening to feud against each other’s families, and utopia is right around the corner.

[Legal Systems Very Different From Ours is available for free online at this link]

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Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

The Alchemist asked if I wanted a drink. I did, but no amount of staring could make my eyes settle on the color of the liquid in the flask. And the gold the alchemists paid the taxmen smelled funny and made crackling noises. I declined.

I took the summons and set it on the table between us. The King’s son was dying. The doctors, astrologers, witches, and other assorted wise people of the kingdom could not save him. The King had asked for an alchemist, and been given one. He, too, had failed. But he had let on that there were other alchemists in the guild, greater alchemists, who knew far more than he. So the king had demanded that all the guild’s top alchemists come to the palace and try to save his son’s life. And the alchemists’ guild had refused, saying their studies could not be interrupted.

So here I was, come to make the request again, more formally but less politely.

The Alchemist pretended to read the parchment. I could tell he was faking; his eyes stayed still the whole time. Finally he gave me the same answer he had given the king’s courier: the alchemists’ studies could not be interrupted.

“Why is a few weeks subtracted from your studies more important than the prince’s life?” I demanded, staring straight into his creepy too-still eyes.

He spent too long not answering. I worried I’d broken him, that he was some kind of intricate clockwork machine and I’d yelled too loud and shifted a gear out of place. Finally he asked: “How long would you have to study architecture before you could build a castle like this one?”

“I’m no architect,” I said. “I’m a man of war.”

“Yes. So how long would you have to study, before you were an architect?”

“Ten years?” I asked. “Twenty?”

“Why so? There are books of architecture, some of them written by men far greater than the planner of this castle. Some are five hundred pages long, others a thousand. Are you so slow a reader, that it would take you ten years to read a thousand pages?”

“You can’t just read a book and know architecture.”

“But why not?”

“Because…you wouldn’t…” I had been annoyed when he first asked, but now I found the question interesting, at least amusing. Why couldn’t a great architect write his knowledge down in a book? And why couldn’t I read it and become as good as he?

“Because you’d have to memorize it all,” I finally concluded.

“Not so. I will let you carry the book with you as you build the castle.”

“It wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t be…indexed properly in my head. I would want to build a wall, and I wouldn’t even know what things to consider when building a wall, and I would have to search the whole book for them each time.”

“You are a man of war,” repeated the Alchemist. “Do you know Caesar’s histories?”

“Almost by heart.”

“Are you as good a general as Caesar?”


“Why not?”

I took his point. Caesar had written down everything he could about war. I had mastered all of it. But I was no Caesar. It couldn’t just be the difficulty of memorizing books.

“Knowledge,” said the Alchemist, “is harder to transmit than anyone appreciates. One can write down the structure of a certain arch, or the tactical considerations behind a certain strategy. But above those are higher skills, skills we cannot name or appreciate. Caesar could glance at a battlefield and know precisely which lines were reliable and which were about to break. Vitruvius could see a great basilica in his mind’s eye, every wall and column snapping into place. We call this wisdom. It is not unteachable, but neither can it be taught. Do you understand?”

I did. If I trained with Caesar for years, some of his skill at reading a battlefield might rub off on me; I might dimly see the outlines of his genius. But he couldn’t just tell me. It wasn’t a secret which he hid from other men to remain above them. It was a power belonging to him alone, only partially transferable.

“So imagine,” continued the Alchemist, “that you wanted to build the simplest of structures. A cottage for peasants. How long would you have to study architecture under Vitruvius before you could do it?”

This time I didn’t bother protesting that I didn’t know. I just guessed. “A year?”

“And suppose you want to build something more complex. An aqueduct, every bit the equal of the Romans’. How long?”

“Five years?”

“Some grand building, a palace or temple?”

“…ten years?”

“The grandest building in the world. St. Peter’s Basilica, or the Pantheon, or Chartres Cathedral, or something new that combines the virtues of all three.”

“How should I know? Twenty years? Thirty?”

“Would you believe me if I said it was two hundred years?”

“No. The human lifespan is three score and ten. If you needed more than seventy years of studying architecture to design St. Peter’s, it would never have gotten designed.”

“Then,” said the Alchemist, “we have discovered something surprising. The art of architecture is limited by the human lifespan. The greatest building that can ever be designed is the one that would take seventy years of studying architecture to master; God has drawn a line in the sand forever closing off buildings grander than these.”

I thought for a second. “That doesn’t seem right. There are new innovations every year. The flying buttress, stained glass, the pointed arch. The Romans had none of these. We progress not only by studying the works of Vitruvius, but by pushing beyond him. Perhaps it takes a century for someone to invent the buttress, but once it is invented, only weeks for other architects to observe it and understand it well enough to incorporate into their own buildings. Architecture does not advance only architect by architect, but also civilization by civilization.”

“Are you skilled at mathematics?” asked the Alchemist.

I shook my head.

“Then we will talk this over, though rightfully it should be an equation. The first term is the speed at which a student can absorb already-discovered architectural knowledge. The second term is the speed at which a master can discover new knowledge. The third term represents the degree to which one must already be on the frontier of knowledge to make new discoveries; at zero, everyone discovers equally regardless of what they already know; at one, one must have mastered every previously-discovered fact before one can discover anything new. The fourth term represents potential for specialization; at one, it is impossible to understand any part without understanding the whole; at zero, it can be subdivided freely. The fifth…”

“I don’t think saying it in words makes the math easier to understand.”

“Ah. Well, imagine a science that takes one-tenth as long for a student to understand, as it did a master to discover. And imagine that one cannot advance the science until one understands everything that has already been discovered. And one cannot split the burden; tell one architect ‘Oh, you learn how to make walls, I will learn how to make roofs’ – a single genius must understand the whole building, every part must fit together perfectly. We can calculate how far the art can advance.”


“The first student has no master, and must discover everything himself. He researches for 70 years, then writes his wisdom into a book before he dies. The second student reads the book, and in 7 years, he has learned 70 years of research. Then he does his own original research for 63 years and writes a book containing 133 years of research. The third student reads for 13.3 years, then does his own research for 66.7 years, ending up with 200 years. Imagine going further and further. After many generations, 690 years of research have been done, and it takes a student 69 years to master them. The student only has one year left of life to research further, leaving the world with 691 years of research total. So the cycle creeps onward, always approaching but never quite reaching 700 years of architectural research.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” I protested, partly because it didn’t, and partly because something about the story distressed me more than I could say.

“Not in architecture. An architect who has not yet mastered the entire field can still make discoveries. And the field can be split – I can work on walls while you work on windows. It would only work that way if there were an Art so unified, so perfect, that a seeker had to know the totality of what had been discovered before, if he wanted to know anything at all.”

“Then you really could never advance past 700 years of knowledge.”

“You would have to be clever. We imagine each master writing down his knowledge in a book for the student who comes after, and each student reading it at a rate of ten times as quickly as the master discovered it. But what if there was a third person in between, an editor, who reads the book not to learn the contents, but to learn how to rewrite it better and more clearly? Someone whose job it is to figure out perfect analogies, clever shortcuts, new ways of graphing and diagramming the information involved. After he has processed the master’s notes, he redacts them into a textbook which can teach in only a twentieth the time it took the master to discover.”

“Then we could double the amount of research that could eventually be completed, to 1400 years’ worth.”

“Not easily. Remember, the editors face the same problem as the students: they can only redact knowledge they themselves understand. We are adding many new people, and many generations of work, to the problem. But in the end, yes, you could accumulate 1400 years of knowledge. What if you wanted more?”


“I’m afraid so.”

“Hm. You…could get more layers of redactors. Redactors of redactors, to make the textbooks truly perfect.”

“Perhaps what you are trying to say is that redaction is an Art.”

The Alchemist made the the capital letter unmistakeable.

“Every Art has its own structure. Architecture, with enough study, can allow you to accumulate seven hundred years of collected knowledge. How many years could redactors and tutors accumulate? Would some first redactor have to spend seventy years coming up with principles of redaction to pass down to his student, who advances the art by sixty-three more years, which he passes down in turn? Would a 1400-year redactor be an incomprehensible master, able to build whole basilicas of redaction, a master teacher who could frame any concepts to make it intuitive and memorable?”

“I changed my mind. I’m going to have that drink.”

The Alchemist poured me the liquid of indeterminate color. I took a sip. It reminded me of nothing I had ever tasted before, but very slightly of the letter “N”. More important, I was pretty sure it was alcoholic.

“You’re talking about an infinite regress”, I said, when I had finished the glass.

“Not infinite. Architects. Teachers. Teachers of teachers, but the art of teaching teaching is much the same as the art of teaching. Three levels is enough. Though the levels have to mix. The teacher who trains the next architect must be a master both of teaching and of architecture. I will spare you the math, but one needs a series of teachers at different points on the teaching-skill/architecture-skill tradeoff-curve. One will be a master teacher who has devoted decades to learning the textbook-writing skill, and who can write a brilliant Introduction To Architecture textbook that makes the first ten years of architecture ability seem perfectly natural and easy to master. Another will be a mediocre teacher who knows enough advanced architecture to write a passable textbook on the subject. Still another will do nothing but study pure Teaching itself, in the hopes that he can one day pass on this knowledge to others who will use it to write architecture textbooks. In practice we are limited to a few strategic points on the tradeoff curve.”

“In practice?”

He motioned for me to get up. We walked through dark corridors until we reached a courtyard, bathed in the glow of the full moon. It took me a second to see it. Then the dull shapes took form. Obelisks, covered in hieroglyphs. A garden of obelisks.

“The word ‘alchemy’ comes from ‘al-Kemi’, the Arabic word from Egypt. It was the ancient Egyptians who first considered the project. They didn’t want the Philosophers’ Stone, not at first. They just wanted normal philosophers. But philosophy, more than other subjects, requires the wisdom that comes with age. More than other subjects, a philosophy book cannot merely be read; it must be digested, intermingled with life experience, wrestled with. The Egyptians scholars ran into precisely the problem as our hypothetical architects – there were secrets that evaded the human lifespan.

“So they wondered whether a way to cheat death might be found. The answer was both exciting and discouraging. Through the mysteries of spiritual chemistry, an elixir might be created which would grant immortality. But the Work itself would take far more knowledge than any one man could accumulate. The symbol of alchemists is the ouroboros because our task loops back upon itself. In order to become immortal, you must first become immortal.

“All we could do was go the slow way, the same as the architects working on their great basilica, for generation after generation. So Egypt fell, but we did not fall. Rome passed away, but we did not pass. A few lines, the remnants of the old priestly families of Hierakonopolis and Memphis, continued the work. To stop would be to reset a process requiring four thousand years of gradual asymptotic improvement all the way to the beginning – texts are not worthless, but only the true tutors trained by tutor-tutors trained by tutor-tutor-tutors are fit to tutor an alchemist. A misstep is too terrible to contemplate. But any victory – a single vial of the Elixir, a single fragment of the stone – would end the nightmare forever. We would have an immortal, a philosopher whose lifespan finally matches the depth of the challenges Nature throws at us.

“That is our guild’s mission. A few of us, those who pass all their tests, do the alchemic research that moves the Work onwards. Others train to be teachers, or teachers-of-teachers. Those who fail a test somewhere along the way stay in the guild, managing its worldly affairs. Some scour the countryside for prodigies to take in and train as apprentices. Others manage our finances. And the very least capable, like me, have time to waste talking to outsiders, trying to convince them of our mission. A few centuries more, and we will have the Stone. Does that satisfy your curiosity?”

“All except my original question. Are you so busy that you cannot spare a few weeks for the prince?”

“God does not make the Great Work easy. We have done all we can to train our alchemists, our tutors, our tutor-tutors, and so on, yet in the end, the limit of human skill is the same place the possibility of success begins. It is His will to grind us up to the very asymptote.”

“I still don’t get it.”

“Do you remember the architects who learned at ten times the rate they researched, the ones who would never accumulate more than 700 years of learning? The fiftieth alchemist in the sequence has 696 years of learning, and is able to do a scant five months’ original research before his death. The hundredth alchemist has 699.98 years of learning, and is able to do about a day’s research before dying. We are not so far along as all that, but we are far. We do not have the Stone, but we have tinctures that can stabilize the lifespan, make sure nobody dies before their time. The last few generations – on their deathbed, they say they can almost taste the Stone, that it lies only a few hours of further thought beyond their level. They say of my grandfather that he realized the recipe for the Stone on his deathbed, that he started speaking it, but that his eyes closed forever before he could complete the ingredient list.”


“You ask that we pause a few weeks from our studies to save the prince’s life. Pausing a few weeks would set us back generations. This far into the project, only the last few hours of an Alchemist’s life are of any value at all. We cannot spare the prince hours. We cannot even spare him seconds.”

“Then your teachers…or your teacher-teachers?”

“Know some alchemy, but are in the same situation. Our textbooks have been so perfectly written and rewritten over the years that it is only in the last few days of a teacher’s life that he is skilled enough to write a better one. And our teacher-training has become so perfect that it is only in the last few days of a teacher-trainer’s life that he is qualified to create teachers better than the ones who already exist.”

“There’s no slack in the system at all?”

“Only me, and those like me. Those judged unfit for research and condemned to worldly matters. We sent you one already. He failed you, as he did us. We have nothing more to give.”

“The king will not be happy. And the Prince will die.”

“Everyone dies,” said the Alchemist. “If the prince does not die this year, he will die the next, or fifty years hence. The question is not when we die, but what our life adds to the Work which accumulates in spite of time. Quicksilver evaporates to nothing unless reacted with aqua fortis; but the part which is reacted endures forever. Those lives not part of any Work mean as little to me as they will one day mean to their possessors; those which add to the Work are more precious than gold. Tell the King this.”

“He won’t understand,” I said.

“Then you will have to teach him,” said the Alchemist, “as I taught you, and my tutors taught me, and as their tutors taught them, all the way back to the first philosophers of Egypt.”

He stared at me as he spoke, and the blackness in his too-still pupils was the depth of Time.

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Does Age Bring Wisdom?

[Related: Can It Be Wrong To Crystallize Patterns?]


I turn 33 today. I can only hope that age brings wisdom.

We’ve been talking recently about the high-level frames and heuristics that organize other concepts. They’re hard to transmit, and you have to rediscover them on your own, sometimes with the help of lots of different explanations and viewpoints (or one very good one). They’re not obviously apparent when you’re missing them; if you’re not ready for them, they just sounds like platitudes and boring things you’ve already internalized.

Wisdom seems like the accumulation of those, or changes in higher-level heuristics you get once you’ve had enough of those. I look back on myself now vs. ten years ago and notice I’ve become more cynical, more mellow, and more prone to believing things are complicated. For example:

1. Less excitement about radical utopian plans to fix everything in society at once
2. Less belief that I’m special and can change the world
3. Less trust in any specific system, more resignation to the idea that anything useful requires a grab bag of intuitions, heuristics, and almost-unteachable skills.
4. More willingness to assume that other people are competent in aggregate in certain ways, eg that academic fields aren’t making incredibly stupid mistakes or pointlessly circlejerking in ways I can easily detect.
5. More willingness to believe that power (as in “power structures” or “speak truth to power”) matters and infects everything.
6. More belief in Chesterton’s Fence.
7. More concern that I’m wrong about everything, even the things I’m right about, on the grounds that I’m missing important other paradigms that think about things completely differently.
8. Less hope that everyone would just get along if they understood each other a little better.
9. Less hope that anybody cares about truth (even though ten years ago I would have admitted that nobody cares about truth).

All these seem like convincing insights. But most of them are in the direction of elite opinion. There’s an innocent explanation for this: intellectual elites are pretty wise, so as I grow wiser I converge to their position. But the non-innocent explanation is that I’m not getting wiser, I’m just getting better socialized. Maybe in medieval Europe, the older I grew, the more I would realize that the Pope was right about everything.

I’m pretty embarassed by Parable On Obsolete Ideologies, which I wrote eight years ago. It’s not just that it’s badly written, or that it uses an ill-advised Nazi analogy. It’s that it’s an impassioned plea to jettison everything about religion immediately, because institutions don’t matter and only raw truth-seeking is important. If I imagine myself entering that debate today, I’d be more likely to take the opposite side. But when I read Parable, there’s…nothing really wrong with it. It’s a good argument for what it argues for. I don’t have much to say against it. Ask me what changed my mind, and I’ll shrug, tell you that I guess my priorities shifted. But I can’t help noticing that eight years ago, New Atheism was really popular, and now it’s really unpopular. Or that eight years ago I was in a place where having Richard Dawkins style hyperrationalism was a useful brand, and now I’m (for some reason) in a place where having James C. Scott style intellectual conservativism is a useful brand. A lot of the “wisdom” I’ve “gained” with age is the kind of wisdom that helps me channel James C. Scott instead of Richard Dawkins; how sure am I that this is the right path?

Sometimes I can almost feel this happening. First I believe something is true, and say so. Then I realize it’s considered low-status and cringeworthy. Then I make a principled decision to avoid saying it – or say it only in a very careful way – in order to protect my reputation and ability to participate in society. Then when other people say it, I start looking down on them for being bad at public relations. Then I start looking down on them just for being low-status or cringeworthy. Finally the idea of “low-status” and “bad and wrong” have merged so fully in my mind that the idea seems terrible and ridiculous to me, and I only remember it’s true if I force myself to explicitly consider the question. And even then, it’s in a condescending way, where I feel like the people who say it’s true deserve low status for not being smart enough to remember not to say it. This is endemic, and I try to quash it when I notice it, but I don’t know how many times it’s slipped my notice all the way to the point where I can no longer remember the truth of the original statement.

And what about number 9 on the list? Believing nobody cares about truth is cynicism, which seems sort of like wisdom. But traumatize someone enough and they’ll reliably pick up some new cognitive styles; it’s much easier to give someone hypervigilance than it is to cure them. Imagine someone reading enough newspapers that they hear all of the worst and scariest things, and maybe start thinking that the country is 50% Nazis and 50% violent antifa. Is the resulting pessimism and paranoia really wisdom? Or is it just a more stable, more thermodynamically-preferred state than innocence?

And if I accept my intellectual changes as “gaining wisdom”, shouldn’t I also believe that old people are wiser than I am? And old people mostly seem to go around being really conservative and saying that everything was better in the old days and the youth are corrupt and Facebook is going to be the death of us. I could model this as two different processes – a real wisdom-related process that ends exactly where I am now, plus a false rose-colored-glasses-related process that ends with your crotchety great-uncle talking about how things have been going downhill since the war – but that’s a lot of special pleading. I remember when I was twenty, I thought the only reason adults were less utopian than I was, was because of their hidebound rose-colored self-serving biases. Pretty big coincidence that I was wrong then, but I’m right about everyone older than me now.

There’s one more possibility that bothers me even worse than the socialization or traumatization theory. I’m going to use science-y sounding terms just as an example, but I don’t actually think it’s this in particular – we know that the genes for liberal-conservative differences are mostly NMDA receptors in the brain. And we know that NMDA receptor function changes with aging. It would be pretty awkward if everything we thought was “gaining wisdom with age” was just “brain receptors consistently functioning differently with age”. If we were to find that were true – and furthermore, that the young version was intact and the older version was just the result of some kind of decay or oxidation or something – could I trust those results? Intuitively, going back to earlier habits of mind would feel inherently regressive, like going back to drawing on the wall with crayons. But I don’t have any proof.

Wisdom is like that.

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Concept-Shaped Holes Can Be Impossible To Notice


When I wrote about my experiences doing psychotherapy with people, one commenter wondered if I might be schizoid:

There are a lot of schizoid people in the rationalist community from what I can tell. The basis of schizoid is not all the big bad symptoms you might read about. There are high functioning people with personality disorders all the time who are complex, polite and philosophical.

You will never see this description because mental health industries center entirely around people Failing At Life, aka “low-functioning”. As many radicals have noted, mental health tends to constitute itself mostly around “can’t hold a job” or “can’t hold a marriage”.

The only thing you need to be schizoid is to dislike contact with other egos, and to shave off the experience of those other egos ruthlessly before they can reach the fantasy world you retreat to.

It doesn’t mean you’re evil. It doesn’t mean you stalk people and plan to harm them. It doesn’t mean you’re over-reactive or even bizarrely delusional. You could call it a form of delusion, but really the basic descriptions of perception like top-down processing and culture could all be called delusional thinking if you want to be properly pointed about it. It’s schizoid. It’s often quite gentle. And I’ve noticed from interacting with various people in high IQ communities that if you have sufficiently high enough intelligence, despite the inherent defined tendency to retreat from reality, you can in fact become aware you have a personality disorder.

Anyway, my guess based on projection (I’ve never met you) is that people aren’t being emotional around you because you can’t be reached by them emotionally, and they know that on some level.

I feel like I experience emotions and genuine human connection. You would think that ‘not experiencing emotions or having genuine human connection’ is hard to miss. But then I think of the stories in What Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It?

In the first, Francis Galton discovered that some people didn’t have visual imagination. They couldn’t see anything in their “mind’s eye”, they couldn’t generate internal images. None of these people knew there was anything “wrong” with them. They just assumed that everyone who talked about having an imagination was being metaphorical, just using a really florid poetic way of describing that they remembered what something looked like.

In the second, a user on Quora described their experience with anosmia – not having a sense of smell. They didn’t realize there was anything wrong until college. Until then, “I teased my sister about her stinky feet. I held my nose when I ate Brussels sprouts. In gardens, I bent down and took a whiff of the roses.” Though they didn’t say so explicitly, it sounds like they thought smell was just a metaphorical way of saying something was disgusting or delightful.

And in the third – well, this is awkward – I went years without realizing I didn’t have any emotions. I was getting treated for obsessive-compulsive disorder with high dose SSRIs. When these work well they dull your depression and anxiety; when they work less well, they dull all your emotions. For me they worked less well, but I never realized it until I came off them after five years and was suddenly overwhelmed by emotions I’d almost forgotten it was possible to have. In the interim, I’d understood that getting a birthday present was a positive and desirable event, and said it made me “happy”, without realizing something was missing. This was particularly inexcusable since I’d felt the full range of emotions before I started the drugs, but I guess the hypothesis “I have stopped feeling emotions” is a hard one to consider and collect evidence for.

So if someone says I’m incapable of genuine human relationships – well, I should stress that I think my relationships are genuine. But if they weren’t, maybe I wouldn’t notice. There would be something I was capable of, I would call that “genuine human relationships” since it was my only example of the concept, and I would never have anything else to compare it to.


This post isn’t about relationships. This post is about ideas.

In high school I took a sociology class, and the teacher talked about how modern society was atomized and there were no real community bonds and so on. And I thought this was dumb. I didn’t live in an atomized society! My family knew our next-door neighbors, and we’d even been over at their house once for dinner. There was a Community Center a few blocks away, and when I was a kid I would go there a couple of times a year for some kind of Neighborhood Art Night. Sometimes my mother volunteered at my school, and my dad was too busy to volunteer but probably would have if he could. We weren’t devoid of community at all.

And then three things happened. Number one, I read some good anthropology about primitive and medieval societies, which actually described pre-atomized life and the way that there was barely even an individual identity and the community determined everything you ever did. Number two, I spent a little time in an honest-to-goodness Third World village and saw a little of what life was like there. And number three, I got involved in some good subcultures – including Bay Area rationality – which were slightly but noticeably less atomized than the neighborhood where I grew up. I realized that I’d mistaken the existent-but-weak forms of community in my suburban neighborhood for the really-strong forms of community that people complaining about atomization say we’re missing, because I had so little experience with the latter I couldn’t even imagine them.

This is a similar error as the SSRI/emotions problem. People talk about emotions/community. I have something sort of similar occupying that space. So I reasonably assume it’s the same thing everyone is talking about.

I think I’ve figured out the whole “atomization” thing. But I’m not sure. What if there’s some real non-atomized community that even second-hand anthropology plus some good subcultures can’t point to? Am I just making the same mistake as I did as a high schooler, only one level higher?

Some of these same sociologists worry about advertising and consumerism. They think capitalism turns people into perfect consumers who overwork themselves at jobs they don’t like to buy products they don’t need. They think people’s entire identities revolve around brands and consumption.

And once again, I think: “Good thing this isn’t happening to me.” I don’t really watch TV and I tune out online ads. I buy things occasionally, usually things that I need or things that I occasionally enjoy. But I don’t own much “clutter”. And I don’t care about brands, except ones that really signal high quality.

Is this the same kind of mistake as “I met the neighbors once, so I’m not atomized”? I don’t know!

Either understanding “consumerism” was so easy for me that I got it immediately and effortlessly, and I live a charmed life that has prevented me from ever encountering that problem.

Or I have only a superficial fascimile of understanding it, and when I actually understand it, it’ll seem profound and important, the same way “atomization” did.

When I see other people making a big deal out of seemingly-minor problems, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’ve avoided them so easily I missed their existence, or fallen into them so thoroughly I’m like the fish who can’t see water.

And when I see other people struggling to understand seemingly-obvious concepts, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’m so far beyond them that I did it effortlessly, or so far beneath them that I haven’t even realized there’s a problem.


Last week, some people proposed it was useless to steelman/understand post-modernism. It was just people being stupid or having garbled thinking. Maybe. There are some post-modernists who even the other post-modernists say are probably just pulling it out of their asses.

But how would we know? There are concepts nobody gets on the first reading, concepts you have to have explained to you again and again until finally one of the explanations clicks and you can reconstruct it out of loose pieces in your own head.

And there are concept-shaped holes you don’t notice that you have. You can talk to an anosmic person about smell for years on end, and they’re still not going to realize they’ve got a big hole where that concept should be. You can give high-school me an entire class about atomization, and he can ace the relevant test, and he’s still not going to know what atomization is.

Put these together, and you have cause for concern. If you learn about something, and it seems trivial and boring, but lots of other people think it’s interesting and important – well, it could be so far beneath you that you’d internalized all its lessons already. Or it could be so far beyond you that you’re not even thinking on the same level as the people who talk about it.

I’m looking back on my book review of After Virtue, a seminal philosophy book which won a bunch of awards and recognition from important philosophers. My review was that it seemed very confused. It kept claiming to have an important insight, but every time it said it was going to reveal the important insight, it actually said a bunch of platitudes and unrelated tangents. This is a huge red flag. Which makes more sense – that I was the lone genius able to see that the emperor had no clothes and Alasdair MacIntyre is really dumb? Or that he’s saying something really hard to understand, and I haven’t understood it yet?

Maybe there are fields doing the intellectual equivalent of gaslighting, insisting they have really profound points when they’re just vapor. But err on the side of caution here. Most of us have some hard-won battles, like mine understanding atomization. Where after a lot of intellectual work, a concept that seemed stupid suddenly opens up and becomes important. Sometimes it’s about anarchism, or reactionary philosophy, or privilege, or religion as benevolent community-building institution. Erring too hard on the side of “that’s dumb, they’re probably just gaslighting” closes off those areas to you forever.

I don’t think it’s always worth delving deep into a seemingly-meaningless field to discover the hidden meaning. That rarely works – if you had the concepts you’d need to understand it right now, you would have done so already. But I think it’s worth leaving the possibility open, so that later if something clicks you’re not too embarrassed to return to it.

OT88: Homage To Threadalonia

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server.

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Non-Expert Explanation

SSC’s review of postmodernism got very mixed reviews. Some of them made a good point: why should I be trying this at all? I’m not a postmodernist, I’m not a philosophy professor, surely someone much more qualified has already written a blog-post-length explanation of postmodernism.

This is all true. My only excuse is that trying to figure out complicated concepts requires a different approach than trying to teach simple ones.

Some knowledge is easy to transfer. “What is the thyroid?” Some expert should write an explanation, anyone interested can read it, and nobody else should ever worry about it again.

Other knowledge is near-impossible to transfer. What about social skills? There are books on social skills. But you can’t just read one and instantly become as charismatic as the author. At best they can hint at areas worth exploring.

There are lots of books about social skills, and there should be lots of them – I don’t know which social skills book is the best, but it doesn’t obsolete all the others. Maybe it’s because you need a kind of triangulation – one person’s views on social skills give you one perspective, another person’s views on social skills give you another perspective, and after reading enough different books you can sort of make out the shape of the territory in question. Maybe it’s about different people having different problems and deficiencies, but our language is imprecise enough that they all get called “Social Skills” and it won’t help unless you stumble across the one solving your specific issue. Or maybe it’s about different people’s minds working in different ways, so that you can only make sense of a book by someone who thinks like you – whose mind groups things into the same concepts as yours, so that you can import them over directly. There are some Social Skills For Autistic People books out there, and the autistic people I know say they’re much more helpful than the generic-brand. Autism is a well-circumscribed thing; how many less-well-circumscribed groups are out there with similar needs?

Complicated ideas are like this too. I remember reading a mathematician talking about how there were two different-but-equivalent formulations of some high-level mathematical concept – let’s say an algebraic one vs. a geometric one. He’d always learned it as the algebraic one and had only the slipperiest grasp on it. Then one day he read a textbook presenting the equivalent geometric version, and it made perfect sense; he really understood it, could mentally manipulate it, could think creatively with it and make progress. He wondered why everybody didn’t teach the geometric version first. Another mathematician responded that he had the same story – except that for him, he’d learned the geometric version first, hated it, and only really been able to make progress once he learned the algebraic version. Then a third mathematician chimed in, said that both the geometric and algebraic version had confused her, but that in some obscure textbook she was able to find a third equivalent formulation she thought was better than either.

My own version of this experience was reading Eliezer Yudkowsky’s A Human’s Guide To Words, which caused a bunch of high-level philosophical ideas to slip neatly into place for me. Last week David Chapman wrote about what was clearly the same thing, even centering around the same key example of whether Pluto is a planet. A Gender Studies major I know claims (I can’t confirm) that the same thing is a major part of queer theory too. But Chapman’s version and queer theory don’t make a lot of sense to me; I was able to understand the former only because I already knew what he was talking about, and I have to take any statements about the latter on pure faith. On the other hand, nobody else seems to have found Guide To Words as important as I did; I don’t see paeans to it all over, nobody’s offering Eliezer any Nobel Prizes. It was a perfect fit for where my mind was at that moment – but there are probably a hundred other versions equally objectively good, some of which don’t even realize they’re versions of the same thing.

To carry on the analogy to social skills: even after reading the best, most perfect-fit social skills book in the world, it’s still not going to be enough. People need to ask questions. Both in my psychiatrist role and my community-member role, I have to answer (and sometimes ask) a lot of “Hey, is this socially acceptable? What’s the best way to behave here?” type questions.

And questioning requires mental fit at least as much as straight information-transfer does. Speaking of having poor social skills, I remember what I used to be like in college. A professor would say something that didn’t make any sense to me. I at least had the social skills to avoid saying “that doesn’t make any sense”, so I would raise my hand and ask the professor “Excuse me, I don’t understand what Aristotle meant when he said everything had a telos. Do snails have telos? Do air molecules? Does a random rock?” The professor would mumble something kind of meaningless that didn’t answer the question, and again being too polite to say so, I would say “I’m not quite sure what you meant by that ‘only specific things have a telos’. Which specific things are you talking about? How would we figure out which ones?” And then so on, until I became more and more exasperated with the professor seemingly giving irrelevant responses or completely misunderstanding my questions, and the professor started thinking I was some sort of hostile troll trying to embarrass him. I quickly learned that there were some professors, tutors, and fellow students who would immediately understand what I was asking and answer as best they could, and others who would go through the motions of answering while leaving me even more confused than before.

And continuing on the social skills analogy even further: at some point you have to go to a party, try out what you know, and totally humiliate yourself. The intellectual version is something like steelmanning – you try to construct the position you’re trying to understand as best you can, then see if it sounds right to people who know about it.

One of the great things about the old Less Wrong was that it was a community built for this kind of thing. A bunch of people with a certain worldview and way-of-thinking explained some curated hard-to-understand knowledge to other people who also shared their worldview and way-of-thinking. Then they discussed it among themselves, questioned it back and forth, agreed or disagreed with it, and absorbed it in a social way. This is also what I’m trying to do with SSC. The knowledge itself may or may not be original – I think at a certain level of complexity “originality” becomes hard to monitor (what percent of the 10,000 psychology books that have been published are truly “original”?). But it’s packaged slightly differently than what’s come before, and it’s well-targeted at a community of people who have the right mental fit to absorb it and then refine it among themselves.

Some of the academics I know say similar things about their own field. It’s not just that you have to read lots of books, although you do. It’s the experience of working with an advisor and other grad students, of coming up with theories and having them be shot down. Two stories I’ve heard from multiple grad student friends: “I spent two months working on something really cool, and in the first thirty seconds of presenting it to my advisor she came up with a simple proof it could never work” and “I spent two months working on something really cool, and in the first thirty seconds of presenting it to my advisor, she said ‘Oh yeah, that’s Smith’s Lemma, very exciting when it was published forty years ago.'” But eventually you come out of it not just with book learning, but with the thought-patterns and methods of a field baked into your brain, a strong sense of what is or isn’t interesting, can or can’t be done.

The spiritual traditions seem to endorse some similar process. They have some complicated thing you’re supposed to ‘get’ – enlightenment, gnosis, whatever. They make a big deal of how it’s useless to communicate in words. But they also make a big deal of reading the scriptures, of having teachers, of the importance of back-and-forth conversations with teachers beyond just reading books and listening to lectures. So you read lots of sutras, and you do lots of meditation, and you talk to your guru a lot, and then suddenly (at least in some traditions), it makes sense. You see a falling leaf, or you hear a raindrop, or someone hits you with their stick, or something else that’s never the same for two different people, and you get it. I know the suddenness aspect is exaggerated, I know there are some traditions that say it’s not like this at all, but they all share this view of a knowledge which can’t be mass produced through traditional educational methods.

Maybe this is on my mind because of the recent post on Kolmogorov complicity. Some people asked – why can’t people just figure out what’s taboo, either believe it quietly or reject it openly, and then shut up about it? And part of the answer has to be that the process of coming to understand a field at all has to involve this pattern of back-and-forth questioning, approaching from multiple sides, devil-advocating, etc. Lots of the process will look the same whether you end out ultimately rejecting or accepting a truth; you’ve got to go through the same steps just to understand what you’re considering.

The Internet seems like an increasingly hostile place for this sort of thing. I can’t remember how many times I’ve read an essay I really liked and appreciated only to see somebody mocking it for “reinventing the wheel”. Oddly enough, none of these people ever point out who said the thing first, or what its standard name is. Maybe they think it’s too obvious to mention? Or, if someone screws up, or asks a stupid question, it gets screenshotted and goes viral all over Twitter as “Look what this stupid person said now!” I will admit being complicit in this – I get really nervous whenever someone posts something unsophisticated in the comments here or on the subreddit, because I’m worried it will go viral as an example of “what those people at Slate Star Codex believe”. I’m not even talking about offensive things here! Just stupid ones!

There’s an awkward tension between blogs and comments as “something some random person has typed into a box on the Internet” vs. “strong claim to authority and of being worthy to educate everyone else”. Offline it’s easier to distinguish these sorts of things – tone of voice, what kind of situation you’re in, whether you preface it awkwardly with “This is stupid, but…”, whether you’re just talking to your equally-stoned friend. On the Internet, having a blog gives this aura of “Hey, I’m going to educate you about things using my superior knowledge”. I try to fight that with epistemic status tags explaining when things are tentative or just me looking for feedback, but I guess maybe these are sometimes hard to believe. Sometimes they just earn more anonymous hate: “If you’re admitting you’re too stupid to have an opinion on this, you must be really stupid to give it anyway!”

This is a shame. The authoritative-lecture format works for facts, but isn’t enough when you’ve got any subject more complicated than thyroid anatomy. Collaborative truth-seeking where people are throwing out ideas, trying to reconstruct arguments themselves, asking questions, and arguing – these are more promising, but they leave you open to accusations of reinventing the wheel, arrogantly dabbling in fields you don’t understand, or being too insular. When some of the topics involved are taboo, add the sins of “just asking questions” or “thinking it’s my job to educate you”. But unless you’re such a good lecturer that everybody will understand you on the first try, this is a necessary part of communicating hard things.

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Postmodernism For Rationalists (my attempt)

EDIT: Been told by people I trust that this is not a good explanation. Retracted.

Continue reading

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