In response to The conservation of coercion? that discusses this article: The Conservation of Coercion which discusses the book “Technology and the End of Authority: What Is Government For?” by Jason Kuznicki, I left the following comment.
(Disclamer: I have not read Jason Kuznicki’s book, but am replying to–and riffing off–the review of his book.)
The problem I see with the idea of using an engineering mindset over a philosophical one is this: what are you making? An engineering mindset helps when building a specific thing–but unless you know **what** you’re building, it’s all just bug fixing and patching and hoping no-one notices you have no clue what you’re doing.
Now if you have a very small community, such as a North American tribe (where most of its members are related in one way or another), or a small American town (where everyone knows everyone else), you can use ad-hoc mechanisms to guarantee order. And the goal of ‘government’–even an informal panel of elders or a strongman who everyone trusts–is to keep the peace.
But those solutions do not scale.
Instead, we need to build a government which scales. But if we don’t know what the goal is, all we’re doing is scaling the unscalable; applying lessons learned from a parent disciplining two squabbling children to large multi-billion dollar international corporations. And if we don’t know what the goal is, we may apply the wrong lessons: applying the lesson that the older child must share his toys with the younger child to a nation like Venezuela.
And applying an engineering mindset to scaling the problem of squabbling children or squabbling neighbors in a small tribe or town simply creates an efficient way to oppress people. Worse, this “engineering” without a goal, divorced (as
Kuzincki Wilson seems to suggest in this article) from historic or cultural context, doesn’t lead to libertarianism. It leads to over-engineered solutions like we saw in the former Soviet Union, were state planners drilled down into individual lives, forever tinkering (like a mechanic with a car or a software developer with some half-working code) at a lower and lower level, seeing citizens as replaceable cogs in a machine, stripping more and more layers of freedom in order to make the machine work. And if a hundred million people must die–well, you must break a few eggs to make an omelette, right?
Have a goal first. Then talk to me about “engineering” a solution.
Now let me suggest a goal: try creating a government which increases Trust between its citizens.
After all, that is what, ultimately, a parent tries with his children: to get them to trust each other. That’s what the tribal elders are trying to do: keep the peace by allowing tribal members to trust the other will do the “right thing.” That’s what motivates banking regulations: that we can trust thousands of our money to complete strangers in an impressive looking building around the corner. It’s what motivates police officers to arrest petty criminals: so we can trust our ability to walk down the street without being mugged. Hell, we have so much trust in this country we allow people to check out their own groceries and buy stuff from the Apple store without talking to a sales rep–but that Trust did not just pop out of the forehead of Zeus fully formed.
But no, none of these damned theorists want to talk about goals, which is why so many of them seem to want to “engineer” or “philosophize” authoritarianism–so as to impose order top-down, even as they pretend they want spontaneous order from the bottom-up.
See, the problem in the original article about Jason Kuzinski’s book is this:
What are the qualities of a society which make it more or less likely to be able to solve these dilemmas as they come up? Social scientists call societies that support commitment and enforcement mechanisms sufficient to overcome such dilemmas “high trust.”
The author then notes sources of trust: wealth (which allows people to afford to be cheated if their trust was misplaced), or religion, shared participation in clubs or social organizations, and implicitly by living in homogeneous cultures such as the culture of Scandanavia. Because:
Any social equilibrium will be unstable unless it contains some way of punishing antisocial behavior, otherwise the most selfish individuals with the shortest time horizons will prosper and prompt a general race to the bottom. A state can enforce its norms with fines, imprisonment, and execution. Civil society, on the other hand, has only “voluntary” tools like shunning and boycotts available. If it is difficult to imagine such measures having the same deterrent effect as prison, that is precisely the problem!
This leads the author to note:
It isn’t a coincidence that many of the most successful governments on earth, whether efficient and well-run welfare states on the Scandinavian model or free-market havens boasting low taxes and few regulations, have been small, tight-knit, often culturally and linguistically homogeneous.
The sound you just heard was that of my eyes rolling so hard they nearly popped back into my brain.
Even the author notices the contradiction, but fails to understand its source:
Those who love cosmopolitanism (among whom I count myself) talk a great deal about the incidental benefits it brings, and a great deal less about its drawbacks. I and other cosmopolitans love to exalt the dynamism that comes from diversity and the way it can help a society avoid falling into complacency. We are less willing to discuss the tiny invisible tax on everything and everybody that reduced social trust imposes, and the ways in which that will tend to make a nation more sclerotic.
tl;dr: The problem is that the original author notes that Trust is a quality that spontaneously arises in small groups of people who know each other, share common religious beliefs or values, or come from a homogeneous culture. In absence of that trust, state coercion is necessary for every transaction in order to compensate for this lack of trust.
He’s so damned close. Then he swings and misses:
Critics of capitalism frequently observe that a liberal economic order depends upon, and sometimes cannibalizes, precapitalist sources of loyalty and affection. What if the same is true of political freedom more generally?
Some might object that even to consider such a thing is to give in to the forces of bigotry. But the whole point of taking a flinty-eyed engineer’s approach to state-building is that we don’t have to like the constraints we are working with, we just have to deal with them. The human preference for “people like us”—whether that means coreligionists or people who share our musical tastes, and whether we choose to frame it as bigotry or as game-theoretic rationality—is a stubborn, resilient reality. Perhaps in the future some advanced genetic engineering or psychological conditioning will change that.
That sound you’re now hearing is the sound of Adam Smith, author of “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, a precursor to “The Wealth of Nations”, spinning in his grave. Wire him up with magnets and this sort of stupidity could provide thousands of homes with electricity.
Adam Smith, of course, would counter that our economic welfare is directly driven by our ability to work well with others, including those who are not like us. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker will do away with half their customers if they refuse to sell to the half of the population not like them–and so, while discrimination laws may be necessary in the extremis, by and large those who understand what side their bread is buttered will overcome any prejudice they may have in order to better support their families.
This is also the idea behind “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain The Modern World”, a book which expands on Adam Smith’s original work.
We don’t, in other words, need to “genetically engineer people”–with shades of Soviet style insane asylums populated with people who deny the Truth of the Soviet political process.
We just need to change the conversation, and remind people there is dignity in work, in making things for others, in helping others–even if it is just for a paycheck. Because it forces us to work with people not like us, to rely on people who are not like us, and in the end to become more “cosmopolitan”–and there is dignity in understanding and cooperating with those who are not like us.
The author, sadly, misses this–and in the end presupposes that Trust, being a finite resource derived from Tribalism, must be patched around in a multi-Tribal community, a flaw in the cultural machine that can only be addressed by a Government that does… well, something, though we’re not sure what.
So we are left arguing which tool set (philosophical or pragmatic) allows us to patch the bugs the fastest.
Look, what governments need to do is stick to three things:
First, keep the peace. That can be as simple as the beat cop walking the streets and stepping in to arrest petty pick pockets and angry thugs who beat people up. Or it can mean a standing army at the border keeping away foreign invaders, or a powerful navy patrolling the seas for pirates.
Second, create regulations that allow Trust to be maximized, by imposing penalties when trust fails. This includes regulations which allow us to trust thousands of dollars with strangers who work at a place called a “bank”, or regulations which assure us our food supply isn’t deadly. Increase transactional trust by giving us mechanisms to retreat to when we’re ripped off–such as buying a cell phone only to find a brick in a box. This also includes watching the watchers–making sure the beat cop doesn’t beat up random citizens for their lunch money or forcing local governments to stop harassing the poor to close budget gaps.
And in the rare case where we need mass action, governments make a logical point to help coordinate that action–such as when a hurricane or fire devastates a large area. (Of course in the United States that coordination needs support from local government officials more than the Federal Government–and if the two don’t cooperate, things are inefficient.)
The failure of the author is his belief that Trust is a limited resource, like oil or gold, to be preciously conserved where possible, to be engineered around when absent.
I believe Trust is a quantity that can be created from whole cloth–but can only be created when governments are stable, create laws which encourage trust (through penalizing the consequences when trust is violated), and which make small adjustments (rather than large omnibus changes) and which make changes slowly over time.
Trust is not a natural resource. It is a quality that can be engineered with the right laws.
After all, the single largest, most successful government in the world, in terms of government stability, longevity and effectiveness are not the Scandinavia countries. Hell, the region didn’t even see itself as “one Scandinavia culture” until the 1850’s, and the modern stability we see there that we think is timeless was an invention of the 1960’s.
No; the single largest, most successful government in the world is the United States, with one of the oldest continuous governments and constitutions in existence–and we’re not an empire or a lose confederation of homogeneous ethnic communities, like the Ottoman Empire was. And while our States do have a high degree of local autonomy, our individual states have populations which rival the population of many of the nations of the world (Norway is about the population of Minnesota, Denmark the population of Wisconsin), they certainly are not culturally monolithic.
Notice the biggest problems in Scandinavia: the influx of a very small number of immigrants are causing a hell of a lot of havoc as Scandinavia now has to deal with adjusting with the idea that not everyone thinks or feels or believes in lock-step with each other. They could never survive the same per-capita rate of legal and illegal immigration the United States routinely accepts without notice.
Treat Trust like it is a natural resource, and you will run out of it.
Generate Trust, by creating institutions which enforce trust–and you will never run out of it, even in the cosmopolitan areas the author of the original article claims to love.