Thursday, August 30, 2007 32 Comments

The state is not a stable eleemosynary institution

George Weinberg posted some interesting and detailed arguments against neocameralism, the general focus of which is that I'm abusing the word "corporation." Since he's right that I'm abusing the word "corporation," he scores a hit and throws me onto my back foot.

Note that this is why I usually try so hard to work around ambiguous words. Fortunately, there is no need for coinage in this case. A much better word is readily available: institution.

An institution is a group of people working together to achieve some shared goal that demands detailed cooperation. This requires coordinated decision-making, or management.

The management of an institution can also be defined as its decision algorithm. There are two general classes of decision algorithm: formal and informal. A formally managed institution has a formal process by which decisions are made, and it does not deviate from this process, ever. Any deviation can be described as a formal violation.

An informally managed institution is also known as a gang. Informal management, while it can be quite regular and often even transitions into formal management, is fundamentally inseparable from violence, because violence can affect its decision algorithm. If the institution has any potential for profit at all, the powerful will turn it to their own profit. If there is any noncriminal use of informal management, it may be acceptable in knitting circles, as long as your knitting circle has no more than six people and none of them keep their needles sharp.

A gang big or strong enough to have an ideology, such as your average militant movement, people's liberation front, political party, etc, etc, can be called a supergang. And a supergang that maintains exclusive control of geographic territory is a metagang - it has gone so far beyond mere ganghood that it deserves at least a little pseudoclassical dignity.

There are two general classes of formally-managed institution: eleemosynary and lucrative. Basically, an eleemosynary institution is a charity and a lucrative institution is a company. Gangs do not exhibit this dichotomy, because there is no such thing as an eleemosynary gang.

Both lucrative and eleemosynary institutions have a single logical owner. That is, we can define the institution as if it was simply directed by one person, although this agent may be an algorithm which takes inputs from many people and integrates them into a decision stream.

One of the great social-engineering inventions of the last two centuries was the concept of fractional control. Under fractional control, a single logical owner can be divided into fractions. The institution has an arbitrary number of personal owners, each of whom owns some fraction of it. The fractions sum to 1.

Fractional control requires a decision algorithm to integrate the decisions of these fractional owners. For example, one simple fractional control algorithm is majority rule, in which any fraction that sums to greater than 0.5 can make any decision. Obviously, this number and this rule are arbitrary. Decision algorithms can be arbitrarily complex - although when they are so complex as to be ambiguous or even just incomprehensible, the risk of informalism increases.

One fractional control algorithm that has proven very effective is indirect fractional control. In indirect fractional control, two algorithms are used: one to choose a controlling committee, and one to make decisions within that committee. A controlling committee is a small group of old white men, sometimes with a token woman, black or Irishman, who make decisions in a personal and collegial way, typically over martinis after a round of golf. However, these controllers still have formal rules for resolving disagreements, although ideally they never have to use them.

Note that indirect fractional control seems to work quite well for both eleemosynary and lucrative institutions. In both "nonprofits" and "corporations" as we know them today, the controlling committee is called the "board of directors."

I am not quite sure how the average American 501(c)(3) nonprofit selects its board. I suspect the process is far too informal for my liking. In my book, the correct primary control algorithm for an eleemosynary institution is obvious: the donors are the owners. A donor's fraction of indirect control is that fraction of the institution's total lifetime donation receipts that he or she has contributed. Anything else strikes me as, quite frankly, dodgy.

The essential question about any institution is how its actions benefit its owners. Every formal institution by definition does what its owners want it to do. An institution may affect a large number of people in a variety of ways - for example, I am thankful that there is a new organic grocery down the street. But I am not a formal beneficiary of this institution, because I don't own any part of it.

We think of an eleemosynary institution as existing to benefit the public. Typically this is the case in some general way. But formally, it is not the case at all - as in a lucrative institution, the beneficiaries of an eleemosynary institution are its owners.

An eleemosynary institution can benefit its owners either actively or vicariously. An active eleemosynary institution affects its owners' lives directly. A vicarious eleemosynary institution does not affect its owners directly; instead, it affects something else in the world, in some way that pleases its owners.

A bridge club is an active eleemosynary institution - it benefits no one but the bridge players, who presumably control it. A battered women's shelter is a vicarious eleemosynary institution - while I'm sure there are exceptions, its donors are seldom in need of its services.

No clear distinction can be drawn between the active and vicarious cases. Recall the definition of human action: the goal of action is to alter the state of the world, to one the actor prefers. Whether active or vicarious, an eleemosynary institution acts on behalf of its owners, who control it. Thus, as always, control and benefit are aligned.

Or, at least, it should. But it doesn't always. Any formal institution, eleemosynary or lucrative, has the potential to evolve into an informal institution, ie, a gang. We can describe an institution which is unlikely to degenerate in this direction as stable, and one which is likely to degenerate as unstable.

As I see it, there are two ways to ensure that an eleemosynary institution remains stable.

One is to ensure that it controls no capital. A bridge club, for example, owns nothing except a few decks of cards, and a can of Mace to cool the ardor of any old ladies who get too excited and start to trump each other with rubber dummies. Since the definition of capital is that capital is lucrative, and since all gangs are lucrative, an eleemosynary institution which controls no capital is stable. Deductive reasoning at its finest, folks.

Two is to ensure that its activities are regulated by a superior authority. Obviously, most "nonprofits" are in this category. A regulator uses overwhelming force to prevent or deter the eleemosynary institution from devolving into a gang.

Regulating vicarious eleemosynary institutions is pretty easy. It is a matter of enforcing contract law, just as in the case of lucrative institutions. The natural conflict is that the owners want to shelter battered women and help them back to independence by providing a secure and supportive environment, whereas the managers want to sell the shelter for conversion to luxury condos and squash courts, invest the proceeds in a hedge fund run by their cousins, and move the women into a stack of dog cages in the parking lot. If the law is enforced, the owners win - end of story.

Active eleemosynary institutions are much harder to regulate. An active eleemosynary institution is almost the same thing as a lucrative institution, except that lucrative institutions benefit their owners by paying them in money. In an active eleemosynary institution, the benefit to the owners is intangible and unquantifiable.

It's easy to regulate a lucrative institution, because it's basically obvious whether or not it is violating formality. A lucrative institution is formal if it follows its decision algorithm, and it pays an equal dividend to each holder of each share. Because dividends are paid in money and money is amenable to mathematics, this is not hard to check.

At least, it's not hard relative to the problem of regulating active eleemosynary institutions. The problem of regulating the decision algorithm is identical. But how can we know that the institution is actually benefiting all of its owners equally? Perhaps 60% of the shareholders have organized as a gang, and are directing all the institution's benefits to themselves, screwing the other 40%? Opportunities for friction abound.

Unfortunately, it's hard to provide examples of how hard it is to regulate active eleemosynary institutions. This is because significant active eleemosynary institutions are quite rare. The closest examples are cooperatives, which when they work - which is certainly not always - tend to do so by adopting the standards and practices of lucrative institutions.

Unless, of course, we count the modern democratic state. Which is - or at least purports to be - a self-regulating active eleemosynary institution.

With a very unusual decision algorithm. Which resembles no decision algorithm in use by any other formal institution, active or vicarious, eleemosynary or lucrative, past or present. But to which many ascribe quasi-magical qualities of truth, wisdom, righteousness, etc. Not unlike other decision algorithms used in the past, which we now recognize as thoroughly informal. But clearly more adaptive than any such predecessor.

Do you ever get the feeling Occam's razor is trying to tell you something?

Let's face it: that last season of the Sopranos sucked. Actually, the last two seasons sucked. Actually, make it the last three. However, when Christopher explained to his AA sponsor that his higher power was his Mafia oath, it made up for a substantial fraction of the suckiness.

Suppose the democratic state is not a stable eleemosynary institution. Ergo, since today's democratic states were not born yesterday, they are not eleemosynary institutions at all. Ergo, they must be informal institutions.

"Informal" being a nice word for "criminal." Do you really think that in a state that's a criminal institution, everyone goes around thinking that the state is a criminal institution? How long would such a state last? Just because the state isn't a stable eleemosynary institution, doesn't mean it's not a stable criminal institution.

Au contraire - in a stable criminal institution, all or almost all of that state's subjects will worship it. They will not even consider it morally neutral. They will think of it as good and holy and true. It will be their higher power, their Mafia oath. We see this in all the great metagangs - Nazis, Communists, Jacobins, etc, etc.

Of course, the Nazis, Communists and Jacobins were not just criminal states. They were murderous states. Clearly, there are essential moral and organizational differences between these systems of government and the Western postwar democracies.

On the other hand, there are also essential differences between a murderer and a bank robber. If we accept that a criminal state need not be a murderous state, we should expect to see a second tier of criminal states after the murderous states - ones which are not murderous, but merely felonious, venal, or otherwise larcenous.

Yet, in the conventional story, this tier does not exist - at least not in the First World. Instead, World War II and the Cold War were contests between murderous states, and those that were good and sweet and true. Specifically, when we look at the Nazis, the Communists, and the Universalists, we have a choice: either we are looking at two murderers and a felon, or two murderers and a saint. Two metagangs and a charity - or three metagangs.

Hm.

Next week (remember, UR posts appear regularly every Thursday morning, as well as whenever else I feel they should appear), we'll look a little more closely at the fascinating subject of corruption.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007 8 Comments

A brief terminology adjustment

"Rationalists" are now automatists. Please update your equipment accordingly.

I like the word "automatist" because it reinforces the connection between the idea that reason can be reduced or transcended, and the discipline of constructing artificial reasoning devices, also known as AI. I don't think it's too hard to see how the desire to build AI could generate a bias in favor of formulaic epistemologies.

One book on AI I can recommend is HP Newquist's The Brain Makers. Newquist's book came out in 1994, and he was writing about the 1980s generation of AI, which focused its efforts on symbolic logic, very different from this new Bayesian revival. The collapse of '80s AI, sometimes known as the AI winter, after a decade-long avalanche of pure sickening hype, should have taught us a permanent lesson. Sadly, humans are not good at permanent lessons.

My own involvement with '80s AI was quite tangential - my first job ever, at age 15, involved translating an expert-system engine from Basic to C, on the Wang VS. Since I didn't know C at the time, and since I was using the first C compiler ever released for the VS, there was a great deal of merriment. But I also wondered: who the hell would use this product? And for what? The answer was no one, of course, though since my employer specialized in government work, this may not have even mattered.

But much later I had a coworker who was a veteran of Intellicorp - (Andi? Are you out there, Andi?) - and, after borrowing Newquist's book, he confirmed its general accuracy. I trust him, he trusts Newquist, and you trust me, and since you can get The Brain Makers for only a quarter plus shipping and handling, if you give a rat's ass at all about AI you should order it.

Of course the contents are industry dirt, not actual technical information. But as Boltzmann proved, information is fragile whereas dirt lasts forever. Why read today's dreamers, when you can read about yesterday's failures? It's the difference between grape juice and wine.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007 47 Comments

A reservationist epistemology

If I have a meta-ideology, it's that the world needs a lot more ideologies. Unfortunately, it doesn't have them. So I thought I'd fill in by making up some of my own.

If you're a formalist, you believe that any stable and predictable allocation of contested resources is an antidote to friction. If you're a neocameralist, you want to formalize the modern corporatist state, converting it into a joint-stock company whose beneficiaries are precisely defined, and erasing the last vestiges of the rotary system.

But UR would be a boring blog indeed if it did nothing but harp on these old ideas. So perhaps it's time for a new ideology, reservationism. A reservationist is anyone who reserves the right to think for himself. (Or herself.)

Of course, I'd like to think that anyone who thinks for herself (or himself) will arrive at the same conclusions as me, and thus be a formalist and a neocameralist. But since I have no way of guaranteeing this result, the monicker is not redundant.

The central dogma of reservationism is that reason is irreducible and untranscendable. Reason is no more and no less than common sense. It is not possible to construct a useful definition of common sense, nor is it possible to construct a system of thought that improves on common sense. Any system that purports to do so is either (a) bogus, or (b) justifiable via common sense, and thus a special case of it.

For example, mathematics is a special case of reason. Mathematics proves theorems by reducing complex formal propositions to a series of obvious steps. Since there is no mathematical definition of obviousness, there is no mathematical definition of proof.

I dislike the word "science" and wish people would stop using it, but inasmuch as the results of "science" are trustworthy, this trust can be explained by reason. For example, one reason why falsifiable "science" is trustworthy is that "science" is a social system which lionizes those who present falsifying evidence, and puts those whose theories are falsified in small metal cages, where passersby can jeer and poke them with sticks. When this social incentive structure breaks down, false theories which are logically falsifiable can be socially validated as "science."

Furthermore, the formal methods of mathematics and "science" are effective only for a very small set of problems. These problems do not include most of the things that most people disagree about. A reservationist has no objection to formal deductive and inductive reasoning, but he or she stoutly resists the proposition - all too common in the 20th century - that they can or should replace all other forms of thought.

The great enemy of the reservationist is the automatist. An automatist is a small, grubby person who believes he can reduce or transcend reason. In the last two centuries, enormous armies of automatists have proposed all kinds of replacements for common sense. The fact that these replacements often travel under the name of "reason" itself is best explained adaptively.

Automatists tend to fall into four camps. The stupidest are literalists, who believe that instead of thinking, we should accept the literal text of some holy book or other. The most dangerous are officialists, who believe that truth is whatever the government says it is. The most annoying are popularists, who believe that the most fashionable thoughts, as of right now, are the most likely to be true. And the most pernicious are algorithmists, who believe they have some universal algorithm which is a drop-in replacement for any and all cogitation.

Automatists are automatists not because they are evil, but because they are too familiar with special cases of reason in which their flavor of automatism is indeed reasonable.

For example, if you're a chemist, you might well come to believe that the CRC Handbook is the literal word of God. Certainly this belief is unlikely to serve you wrong in your chemical career. If Congress enacted the CRC Handbook as part of the US Code, the result would be a fascinating state of affairs in which Federal and natural law concurred, thus enabling a reasonable chemist to be both literalist and officialist. But this would not go one angstrom toward validating literalism or officialism as replacements for reason.

Automatists, in general, are fascinated by the elucidation of natural law. They have devised many effective techniques for reverse-engineering the structure of nature. I have no quarrel at all with these algorithmist methods. Where they work, they work because they are reasonable. There is no need to go as far as Feyerabend in rejecting formal methods.

Reservationists, in general, are fascinated by the interpretation of human affairs. In human history, politics, and economics, we observe patterns which appear to be patterns of cause and effect. If we can understand these patterns, we can predict the effects of our actions, and since most people are well-intentioned, we can wipe out war, poverty, bad television and tooth decay. If we misunderstand these patterns, our well-intentioned actions may indeed cause war, poverty, bad television and tooth decay.

One way to look at the reservationist problem is to imagine that a superintelligent alien, an agent of some galactic supercivilization of unimaginable wisdom and antiquity, is orbiting the earth in an invisible spaceship. The alien's name is unpronounceable, so we'll call her Beatrice. Beatrice has a mind-boggling array of cameras, invisible drones, and other monitoring devices by which she achieves effective omniscience. However, she is strictly prohibited from affecting the world in any way.

Beatrice's job is to explain what's going down on Planet Three. Every year, she sends a hypercable back to the Large Magellanic Cloud which summarizes political, economic and intellectual developments on Earth. So that human concepts only need to be translated once, Beatrice's annual cable is written in English. Let's say it's no more than 20,000 words.

Wouldn't you like to read Beatrice's reports? I certainly would. I'd like to understand Beatrice's view of Planet Three, at least to the limited extent that my pathetic monkey brain can even begin to follow her vast and oceanic wisdom. In fact, I'd like to think that if Beatrice's rules of engagement were relaxed and she was permitted to start a blog, it would look very much like UR, although I'm sure she would be funnier, less neurotic, and more punctual in answering email and moderating comments.

What I don't think is that any literalist, officialist, popularist, or algorithmist methods can even begin to help us in emulating Beatrice's worldview. In fact, I think these automatist methods are tremendously distracting and destructive, which is why I spend so much time trying to find and resurrect forgotten writers whose thought strikes me as unbiblical, unofficial, unpopular and certainly unalgorithmic. (My new favorite: Albert J. Beveridge.)

One new, and very popular (among the smart set) algorithmist automatism is Bayesianism. Bayesians are followers of Bayes' theorem, a result in probability theory. The Bayesians tend to congregate at the group blog Overcoming Bias, where they get together and figure out how many blue balls are in the white urn.

Here is a good intuitive explanation of Bayes' theorem by one prominent Bayesian. Please take my word for it: this level of hubris is not at all atypical. When they say things like "in cognitive science, Bayesian reasoner is the technically precise codeword that we use to mean rational mind," they really do mean it. Move over, Aristotle!

Of course, in Catholicism, Catholic is the technically precise codeword that they use to mean rational mind. I am not a Catholic or even a Christian, but frankly, I think that if I had to vote for a dictator of the world and the only information I had was whether the candidate was an orthodox Bayesian or an orthodox Catholic, I'd go with the latter.

Let's take a slightly closer look at Bayes' theorem, and see why these people are on crack.

Bayes' theorem is a pure product of mathematics. It is extremely true and extremely reasonable. If A and B are stochastic events, P(A|B) really does equal P(A) * P(B|A) / P(B).

The only problem is that this little formula is not a complete, drop-in replacement for your brain. If a reservationist is skeptical of anything on God's green earth, it's people who want to replace his (or her) brain with a formula.

We can see this by looking for cases of cogitation for which Bayes' theorem is about as relevant as tits on a boar hog. Believe it or not, there turn out to be one or two such cases.

First, what Bayes' theorem gives us is a way of constructing one value from three others. We know: X = W * (Y/Z). Therefore, if we know W, Y, and Z, we can know X. Or if we know X, W and Z, we can know Y. And so on. Algebra! Do it yourself at home!

Now, there are certainly plenty of cases in which it is actually useful to calculate P(A|B) from P(A), P(B) and P(B|A). Spam filtering is one. P(Am) is the probability that message M is spam, P(Bs) is the probability that it contains some string S, P(Bs|Am) is the probability that if it's spam it contains S, and P(Am|Bs) is the probability that if it contains S it's spam. If we keep a database of past messages, we can estimate P(Bs|Am) and P(Bs) by assuming that spam messages are similar to other spam messages, and likewise for non-spam. Then we can construct P(Am) iteratively by starting with the percentage of all messages that are spam, and reapplying this algorithm for various S.

Note how interesting and special a case this is. It is precisely a case in which we have good estimates for Y and Z, and a crappy estimate for W which can be improved by iterating with a large set of Y's and Z's. Thus it makes sense to use Bayes' theorem.

But fundamentally, we are calculating one variable from three. The Rev. Bayes was a great man, no doubt, but his theorem does not contradict the Garbage Theorem. If there is garbage in W, Y or Z, there will be garbage in X. If we can iterate the computation for a wide variety of reliable Y and Z, we may be able to dilute the garbage in W to oblivion, but without reliable Y and Z, what we have is a magic box that turns garbage into fresh, tasty food.

To make this more concrete, let's look at how fragile Bayesian inference is in the presence of an attacker who's filtering our event stream. By throwing off P(B), any undetected pattern of correlation can completely foul the whole system. If the attacker, whenever he pulls a red ball out of the urn, puts it back and keeps pulling until he gets a blue ball, the Bayesian "rational mind" will conclude that the urn is entirely full of blue balls. And Bayesian inference certainly does not offer any suggestion that you should look at who's pulling balls out of the urn and see what he has up his sleeves.

Once again, the problem is not that Bayesianism is untrue. The problem is that the human brain has a very limited capacity for analytic reasoning to begin with. When you persuade it to obsess over one nifty, but basically unimportant, result in probability theory, you are doing your best to convert it into the Bayesian equivalent of this French civil servant.

A Bayesian will not exactly come out and tell you that you shouldn't think deductively or intuitively. He will just drop little hints that all other ways of thinking are special cases of Bayes' theorem, which in a sense is true, because they can be used to compute Y and Z. As the Turks say, all you need is three horseshoes and a horse. And this is why rationalism is the enemy of reason: you start with a fully shod horse, and end up with a horseshoe. Hey, where'd my brain go?

A reservationist is perfectly comfortable in applying Bayesian inference to Bayesian problems. Similarly, the Bible is a pretty good source of Biblical history, Centcom's statements about the war in Iraq tend to be quite reliable, I agree with most people that cold beer is refreshing and warm beer is nasty, and Pythagoras was right that the angles in a triangle sum to 180. This does not make me a fundamentalist Christian, a Bush supporter, a demotist or a Pythagorean.

Meanwhile, if you are actually interested in "overcoming bias," there's no better way to start than reading the Lincoln biographies of Beveridge (1928) and Masters (1931). Clear out some of them stinky old personality cults. After Lincoln, try Flynn (1944) on FDR. If that don't update your priors, I dunno what will.

(Update: "automatist" above used to be "rationalist," but was replaced by popular demand. Please see the comments.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007 58 Comments

Uberfact: the ultimate social verifier

As a generalist, I reserve the right to indulge in sharp changes of subject.

I'll excuse this one by pointing out that, if democracy actually is nonsense, we're suffering from a serious truth deficit. 9/11 Truthers are one thing - but when you start questioning 7/4, you're into some heavy alternate reality. Here at UR, Philip K. Dick is always in the house.

So: a social verifier is an institution, authority, Web 2.0 server, etc, etc, which collects and distributes information that its users trust.

Wikipedia is a social verifier. So is the Catholic Church. So is the New York Times. So is UC Berkeley. So are Reddit, Digg, and the new Hacker News (the trusted information being "this link is cool.") So is the scientific peer-review system. And so on.

This is a pretty wide range. Is the concept overgeneralized? Is there anything interesting we can say about all these systems in general? What could Digg and the Catholic Church possibly have in common?

Well, one possibility is that they both suck. No disrespect to Diggers or Catholics, but neither of these systems looks much like the kind of social verifier I'd like to see. Nothing like my dream SV exists, in fact. And I wish it did.

So on the off chance that any coders with a few spare cycles are reading UR, I thought I'd describe this system. Perhaps someone would be nice enough to build it. Unlike the rotary system (which is a joke, folks), it's not patented. At least, not by me.

But it needs a name, so let's call it Uberfact. Of course, who builds it gets to name it, but any system which follows this general design can advertise itself as uberfactious.

Uberfact, or any uberfactious SV, has three unusual features. One, it makes no attempt to separate fact from opinion. Two, its reputation system is factional. Three, its ambitions are unlimited.

Typical SVs today, such as Wikipedia or the New York Times, invest great effort in separating fact from opinion (see La Wik's NPOV page). Terms such as "objective" are popular.

In my opinion, this reflects a fact which is quite central to Western history, but is seldom expressed as such. The fact is that information is power. In the democratic era this is explicit: who commands public opinion commands the State. Before democracy it wasn't quite this simple, but ideas have always mattered. Anyone who can persuade others to share his or her opinions is powerful by definition, and very likely dangerous.

The attraction of depoliticized information, of objective truth, is obvious. Facts threaten no one. How could they? An opinion is an interpretation of reality, not an argument with it.

And so the democratic state, which after all is a state and must defend itself like any other, tends to favor objective SVs over those which propagate explicit perspective. Democratic society has integrated this bias so perfectly that it's hard to imagine life without it.

For example, racism is widespread in Western society. Or at least it supposedly is. And it certainly once was. So why isn't there, or wasn't there, a racist TV channel? Surely, in our brave new world of 300 channels, there's enough audience for Confederate Racist Television? Can you imagine the six o'clock news on CRT?

If you can't, you can visit the web site "South Africa Sucks," which I refuse to link to - if you Google it, you will see why. Perhaps CRT's anchorman would be someone like SAS's "The Uhuru Guru." Can you imagine a world in which a child could start in racist kindergarten, continue through racist elementary to racist college, then go to racist journalism school and become a racist reporter for CRT? Which might be part of a whole racist media empire?

If you happen to be a racist yourself, perhaps you find this prospect enticing. Try replacing "racist" with "Communist," "terrorist" or "jihadi." There are indeed terrorist kindergartens in the world, but fortunately none of them are in New Jersey. At least not yet.

This is why the idea of "objectivity" is so critical to the democratic system. By attacking opinion and perspective in general, it suppresses all kinds of thought, but the thoughts it suppresses best are the most unusual, and therefore the most dangerous. If your goal is to eliminate POV from Wikipedia, for example, the hardest kind of POV to eliminate is the POV of the mainstream status quo.

So a tradition of neutrality has the inevitable effect of centralizing and standardizing opinion. A European or American intellectual of 1907 would be shocked and appalled by the society of 2007 in many ways, but I think his general impression would be one of great mental conformity. It's much easier to find popular opinions of 1907 that have no living parallel in 2007, than the reverse. (Gay rights is the only major innovation I can think of.) The process of memetic extinction is quite advanced.

But note that I am thinking in just the same way as the partisans of objectivity. I am describing the aggregate social impact of neutralist social verifiers. Actually, on balance, I think this impact is positive, because I really have no desire to live in a city where there's a racist kindergarten on one side of town and a terrorist kindergarten on the other. (At least not if that city has a single democratic government.)

For Uberfact, what really matters is that objectivity is not what users want.

As a user, what I want from Uberfact is an infinite extension of my own personality. If I ask Uberfact some question Q, the best answer I can possibly receive is the answer I myself would produce, if I had infinite time to research Q and knew all the information that anyone knows about it.

For example, if my question is "where was George W. Bush born?", an objective SV like Wikipedia will give me a very reliable answer. But if my question is "is George W. Bush a tyrant?", I am SOL.

Wikipedia cannot possibly answer this question. And if it even came close to trying, I would have no reason at all to trust it. The answer would simply reflect the collective opinion of La Wik's admins. I'm sure the admins are great people, but why should I care what they think?

What I want to know is: if I knew everything that anyone knows about George W. Bush, and everything that anyone knows about the history and etymology of the word "tyrant," would I decide that the former is a case of the latter? Surely, if Uberfact can answer this question - and answer it with a mouse click, not a week of research - merely objective questions, like where the tyrant was born, will be no sweat at all.

So if Uberfact can solve both of these problems - if it can deliver the goods both subjective and objective - it can simply walk past the epistemological landmine of distinguishing the two. As an Uberfact user, what I get is my interpretation of reality.

Can Uberfact do better than this? Yes, in fact, it can.

Suppose my interpretation of reality is bad? Suppose I am simply wrong? Suppose my opinions are stupid? Well, of course, most people with stupid opinions are perfectly happy to live with them. Indeed they tend to insist on it.

But some of us are so crazy that we actually like to improve our understanding of the world. Uberfact would certainly be defective if it didn't assist in this process.

Therefore, Uberfact should tell me not just what I think, but what others think. I should be able to see everyone's interpretation of why George W. Bush is, or isn't, a tyrant. Who knows - maybe they're right and I'm wrong.

I've piled a lot of feature requests onto this product. I haven't said anything about how they're implemented. The MRD is getting fat and nasty. It takes all day to come out of the printer. How, exactly, can Uberfact produce these magical services?

Enter the world of factional reputation.

The error that most reputation systems make, I think, is that they assume a homogeneous and unstructured reputation environment. The natural impulse of any good programmer is to generalize and simplify. So we see SVs in which every user has a trustworthiness bit (like Wikipedia's admin flag), or a trust rating / karma as in many discussion boards, or even if you get really fancy a trust graph of who trusts who else, a la PageRank.

None of these has anything to do with the social structures that human groups actually form. Humans are what primatologists call a party-gang species, which means exactly what it sounds like. We have a seemingly irresistible urge to form violent alliances. For the human male, there's really nothing as fun as getting a bunch of the guys together, swimming across the river, ambushing the two-legged scum who live there, burning their village and enslaving their children. And the human female is even worse.

Furthermore, a graph is a somewhat obtuse representation of the reputation system within these gangs. Sure, every tree is a graph, but if all your graphs are trees, use a tree. Human status systems are without exception hierarchical. They have regal aristocrats at the top, arrogant henchmen right below them, and so on down to cringing, boot-licking peasants.

The whole idea of democracy, which of course comes out of Protestant Christianity, is that we can defeat these tendencies, and emerge into the Millennium, the New Jerusalem in which all are equal. Well, possibly. It would certainly be nice. If you find anywhere that I can place a bet on this one, please let me know.

The idea of factional reputation is that, at least while the New Socialist Man is still stuck at version 0.43, we can actually work with human nature as it is, not as it should be, and build Uberfact around these notorious primate pathologies.

First, we are going to compromise Uberfact's feature space a little. It will only work, at least work well, for those of us who are basically conformists. For example, I am a formalist and a neocameralist, and while there may be one or two of the former by now, I am quite sure I'm the only one of the latter. So Uberfact won't work for me, or for other eccentric weirdos.

Second, Uberfact will only answer questions which many other people who think like you care about. If you are the only Sufi who cares whether the Yankees are better than the Mets, Uberfact cannot help you.

Notice these group labels. In Uberfact, these are called factions. Factions are groups of people who see the world in the same way. Factions may form on any issue and for any reason - progressive vs. conservative, Ford vs. Chevy, emacs vs. vi.

Any user can have a reputation in as many factions as he likes. But reputation in one faction has no meaning to another faction. To a Ford-lover, it means nothing that you're a highly rated libertarian. What do you know about limited-slip differentials? Jack. Until you prove otherwise.

Every contribution to Uberfact must be associated with a faction, and it is judged by that faction and that faction only. If the contribution is good, it improves your local reputation within that faction. If I have something to share about Ezra Pound, I have to decide whether I'm saying it as a modernist, a postmodernist, a New Critic, etc, etc.

Factions are self-constituting - they are responsible for their own reputation algorithms. Anyone can start a new faction for any reason, but generally they form by the usual process of human group formation - one group gets too large and quarrelsome, and splits into parts. The faction's founders constitute and manage its reputation system.

For example, early in Uberfact's development, there would probably be a libertarian faction. This would then fragment into Rothbardian, Randian, and Kochian libertarians - at least. Various strongly-flavored personalities might spin off their own little factions, and so on.

As a user of Uberfact, you have access to all content produced by all factions. Your process for answering a question, such as "is George W. Bush a tyrant," is in two steps. One, figure out what faction is both (a) interested in this question, and (b) reasonably aligned with your own perspective in the area. Two, find out what that faction says about George W. Bush.

For example, it's easy to imagine upgrading Wikipedia to be uberfactious. Instead of one page for George W. Bush, you could read the story of George W. Bush according to libertarians, according to progressives, according to jihadis, racists, Ford lovers, emacs bigots, and so on - anyone who cares enough to have an opinion about George W. Bush.

One might quickly notice that these pages matched in certain details. For example, jihadis, racists, and progressives probably all agree that George W. Bush was born on July 6, 1946. So all of these groups might contribute to a consensus page, signed by a large number of factions, which might even be similar to today's "objective" page. And since this would probably be the most commonly requested George W. Bush page, it would come up first. An uberfactious Wikipedia doesn't need to be any harder to use than today's neutralist Wikipedia.

However, it would be largely free from "edit wars," because warring gangs would rapidly organize into factions and maintain their own forks of disputed pages. Note the difference between this and the existing bad practice of POV forking, which screws up the Wikipedia namespace. Note also the difference between uberfactiousness and system-level forks such as Conservapedia - there is no easy way to compare the views of Wikipedia and Conservapedia on any topic.

The Uberfact approach should also be effective for much smaller and more ephemeral questions, like "what are today's top 10 cool links?" This is a subjective question, just like "is George W. Bush a tyrant," and it demands a subjective answer.

Link sites like Reddit and Digg tend to suffer a kind of democratic degringolade, in which they start out cool and gradually transition to a point of total lameness. That this is the obvious consequence of universal suffrage on the Web should go without saying, at least to anyone who remembers Usenet in 1992.

Paul Graham's design for Hacker News tries to avoid the degringolade by actually using an oligarchy of human editors, including Paul himself, who will tweak hidden reputation scores. While this will certainly be an improvement on Reddit, I find it excessively algorithmic and antisocial. It has gotten past democracy, but it's not yet unapologetically medieval.

What I'd like to read at Hacker News is simply the set of links that Paul himself finds cool, or would if he had 80 hours a day to surf the net for links. Paul does not, in fact, have 80 hours a day to surf the net for links. But perhaps he has fifteen minutes to rate would-be toadies and henchmen, of whom he has I'm sure a large supply, who could then rate submitted contributions, and so on, producing a kind of ersatz impression of a massively overclocked Paul.

Eric Clapton may be God, but I refuse to believe that anyone else is. So there must be someone who has better taste than Paul. He or she can rise in Paul's hierarchy, then defect and form his own faction - teaching the master a lesson in hacker cool. And so on.

The point of factional reputation is that, since all reputation is in-group reputation, a faction that succumbs to democratic degringolade, or to any other social disease, will simply sink in importance and prestige on the system at large. If the Paul faction is doing just fine, and then Paul drops too much acid and becomes a born-again Mormon, and kills everyone's reputation unless they promote links about the angel Moroni, someone else will step in and feed our need for crack, excuse me, links.

Finally, in the usual tradition of pseudonymous Internet hypesters and vapor-peddlers, I refuse to believe that there are any limits on the power of Uberfact.

The construction of scientific and historical consensus, for example, is a perfect problem for an uberfactious design. Academics have always formed factions, and always will. They have always rated each other, and always will. Academic gang fighting is brutal, and it is conducted with lethal weapons. Get someone's funding pulled and you can kill their career.

In Uberfact, all this fun backstabbing can be totally open and official. There is no reason at all why an uberfactious design can't validate original research or rank researchers - within factions only, of course. Peter Woit versus Luboš Motl? Steve McIntyre versus Michael Mann? Bring it on, baby. These fights are simply gorgeous spectacles, and we should see them up close and personal. Ideally, I could click back and forth between the McIntyre and Mann versions of the hockey stick story, for example. Who needs ESPN Classic?

The same is true for literary critics and writers. Again, writers have always formed gang families and will always form gang families. A factional reputation system would just take existing networks of blurb backscratching and make them official.

And then there's journalism. Ah, journalism! But I'm afraid that's another post.

Monday, August 20, 2007 65 Comments

A landscape of bewildering contradictions

Folks, I have to apologize to anyone who took the rotary system seriously. If you're already in the process of deploying the technology (illegally, of course, since it is my property), I'll have to ask you to stop. As UR's astute comment brigade quickly noticed, the idea is pure satire.

In case it wasn't obvious, the "rotary system" is a corporate rebranding of democracy, specifically the version of it used by the US Federal Government (fondly known as Fedco). "Rotors" are politicians, "stators" are civil servants.

As one commenter wrote: "this would seem to state that our government was already privatized! And what a poor result!"

Precisely.

My point is that Fedco, today, is a corporation. The English word "corporation" just means an organization with a formal name and a legal identity. All nation-states are corporations. The world of 2007 is an anarcho-libertarian paradise - exactly as Peter Leeson describes.

Of course, an orthodox libertarian would not agree. In Murray Rothbard's model, the relationship between Fedco and central North America is nothing like the relationship between Apple and 1 Infinite Loop, because Apple has a chain of title leading back to some grizzled prospector who "mixed his labor" with the great land of Cupertino.

I have not personally investigated Apple's title. So perhaps this is true. As a formalist, though, my theory of property is not ethical, but instrumental. There is an interesting homology between Rawlsian socialists and libertarians: both have a moral calculus which tells them who should own what. I suspect this reflects shared Christian roots.

For a formalist, Fedco owns central North America because it does own it. The description is factual, not normative. Fedco maintains exclusive and unchallenged possession and control. No one on the premises can defy the orders of Fedco's Inspection Council - excuse me, Supreme Court. We are all of us customers in Fedco's big corporate Disneyland.

In fact, given the US's insistence on taxing its citizens wherever they live in the world, one can make a good argument that Americans are not just Fedco's customers, but also its serfs. (The argument fails, though, because Americans can renounce their citizenship.)

This transformation is not a thought-experiment. It's an alternate interpretation of reality. Redefining the US as "Fedco," or the Supreme Court as its "Inspection Council," or its citizens as "customers," does not change the facts at all. Just as chemistry is a special case of physics and biology is a special case of chemistry, a government is a special case of a corporation.

Ergo, no one can construct an ethical system in which this minor rebranding changes the moral valence of actors or actions. If Fedco is evil, the US is evil. If the US is good, Fedco is good. And the same goes for all deeds of all its employees.

What's strange, however, is that this distinction between private and public, corporation and government, which is no more than the difference between a general case and a special case, seems to have a remarkable impact on management techniques. Since biology obeys the laws of chemistry and chemistry obeys the laws of physics, I find this quite unusual.

In my last post I claimed that the rotary system, as described, will result in optimal customer service. Or at least, better customer service than present corporate governance, which gives the customer no voice at all in selecting managers.

Now, this claim is either true, or it ain't.

If it's true, clearly I am the great management guru of all time. Taylor, Deming, Drucker, these men are punks. Two-bit lip-flappers, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. As the rotary system is adopted, I will conduct packed seminars across corporate America. Hardened regional vice-presidents will break down and cry. Marketing chicks in tight sweaters will whisper suggestively and slip me their room numbers as I autograph their books with broad, confident strokes of the pen.

Unfortunately, if I am this organizational savant, my actual opinion - that the "rotary system" is a hideous and nonsensical disaster, a Kafkaesque monstrosity which I wouldn't wish on my most dangerous competitor - must count for something. So we arrive at the same place.

I think almost anyone who's worked at any sort of corporation, whether it makes software, socks, or sadomasochist sex videos, would agree with me that the rotary system would not improve customer service. Quite the contrary. It would be a bizarre, bureaucratic hell, profoundly ineffective and absurd.

But when we put on our magic citizen glasses, and consider not the rotary system as a form of corporate governance, but democracy as a form of government, we see another reality.

We realize that democracy is in fact the best form of government. (Or, as per Churchill, "the worst, except for all the others" - a very Churchillian way of saying "the best.") That is, democracy provides the best customer service. There is no other way to judge a form of government - surely what matters is what the government does, not who does it or why.

In fact, many Americans feel so strongly about this proposition, and have for many years, that they are willing, even happy and proud, to fight and die while invading other countries to bring them the joys of the rotary system. Excuse me, democracy.

So much for Total Quality Management! Would even "Neutron Jack" himself take a bullet for Six Sigma? Did Taylor drive past IEDs on the way to his time-and-motion studies?

Meanwhile, keeping our magic citizen glasses on, when we look at the perfectly normal, if not uniformly perfect, model of corporate governance that provides excellent customer service in companies large and small, American, Australian and Albanian, makers of software, socks, and sadomasochist sex videos - the model in which the shareholders elect a board, the board chooses a CEO, and the CEO tries to make (and not make up) the quarterly numbers - we notice that this system is, in fact, evil.

More precisely, shareholder governance is a form of oligarchical plutocratic dictatorship. Just as red-blooded Americans have fought for democracy, they have fought against dictatorship. And all parties, left and right, approve. Americans today may quarrel about the war on Iraq, but they agree about the war on Japan, and both wars on Germany.

So when we take the glasses off, we see that evil becomes good. And good becomes, at the very least, ridiculous inefficiency and bureaucracy. Slip the glasses back on and the good is evil again, and inefficiency and bureaucracy are motherhood and apple pie. It is all very confusing! Sometimes I just want to sit in the corner and cry.

If I can pull this back together, however, we have two plausible hypotheses.

Hypothesis A is that the actual business of government is so different from all other industries that it demands a completely different theory of management. The special case is actually special. "Customer-driven positional rotation," while absurd in nonsovereign corporations, is essential in sovereign ones.

Hypothesis B is that "democracy" is just another cult of the state, older, subtler and eventually more successful than its upstart 20th-century competitors. We all believe in it not because it is good and sweet and true, but just because we were brainwashed in third grade. Rotation in office has nothing at all to do with good government, and what we've been worshipping isn't even a golden calf, but an ancient mummified pig, filled with lead and spray-painted yellow.

Both of these strike me as perfectly fair conclusions. And they are certainly mutually exclusive.

Are there any Bayesians in the house? Diligent readers of Overcoming Bias? Here's your chance to overcome some big-time bias. Give me a rational derivation of Pr(A) or Pr(B), and I'll take back everything bad I've ever said about Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Sunday, August 19, 2007 26 Comments

Rotary management: the next big thing

I confess: I am not actually a management consultant.

However, I have invented a new theory of management, which I call the rotary system. My prediction is that rotary management will take the world by storm. The French will adore it, the Chinese will export it, the British will borrow it, the Israelis will adopt it as standard military procedure, the EU will define it as an environmental safety regulation, and the IRS will insert it by reference as Form 1337.

The rotary system separates all employees into two types, which it calls the stators and the rotors. Stators are normal employees as you would find at any other company. What makes the rotary system superior is its use of rotors, who practice customer-driven positional rotation.

Needless to say, I am currently seeking vital intellectual-property protection on the rotary system. [Just this week we've filed in Malawi and Antigua - I'll bet they still think just one person writes this blog... ha - QM] And CDPR is the principal claim. So you'll understand if I am a little vague about some of the more technical aspects of the design.

But I can talk about the basic features of the system. Again, people, this is my property. Please don't try to use the rotary system yourself. You will probably do it wrong, and someone will get hurt. At least contact me first. My fees are not excessive.

The premise of the rotary system is that, at any large company, you have a class of generalist managers who can occupy any important position. Top management is fungible. As John Sculley proved, selling soft drinks is an excellent preparation for running the world's leading computer company.

Therefore, rather than a rigid hierarchical process for promoting managers, we can nurture these generalists by rotating them in office. Rotation keeps managers from overspecializing, and more important, it breaks up the little cliques and empires that form in every office.

And even more important, rotation gives us a way to involve the customers in the process of management. Customer-driven rotation is a critical competitive advantage for the new sustainable enterprises that will compete and win in the 21st-century global market. Whatever your business is, you'll find that giving customers a voice in management makes it more efficient and responsive. In the 20th century they used to say "the customer is king," but as we'll see, in the rotary system the customer almost literally is king.

One of the basic insights of rotary management theory is that there are two types of people: specialists and generalists. These are basic personality types - S and G. Like Myers-Briggs, but with only one letter.

In the old days, people tended to move back and forth between specialist and generalist roles, or advance from specialist to generalist positions. We see a lot less of this now, and for very good reasons. The rotary system makes this division scientific by separating the personality types into career tracks. When an employee starts with the company, he or she is coded either S or G, and this code is permanent. Personality tests, of course, are ideal, but another easy way to assign S or G codes is by race, religion, or national origin - for example, all Germans might be G, all Shiites might be S, and so on. A little touch of whimsy goes a long way here.

However you do it, every S is a stator and every G is a rotor. The rotor and stator tracks must be separate. No one who has ever worked as a stator can become a rotor, or vice versa. It's sort of like the difference between a doctor and a veterinarian.

To use the rotary system, start by hiring a good-sized pool of rotors, always people who have strong liberal educations (never advanced technical or scientific degrees), and have worked in other fields, at nonprofits, in law or medicine, or in any other role either unskilled, unmanaged, or both. A rotor must never have held any statorlike position. The generalist mind is delicate. Any hint of specialization ruins it.

The rotary system manages stators in more or less the same way as 20th-century corporate employees. They are salaried, they have formal grades or ranks, and HR must initiate or at least approve all promotions. All stators hold their positions indefinitely, and change jobs only at their discretion or that of their supervisor.

Rotors are salaried as well (there are no "options" under the rotary system, nor is anyone paid by the hour or piece), but they have no formal ranks. Pay is by position. However, rank can usually be inferred from a rotor's salary and/or responsibility. A rotor's importance is defined by the importance of his or her position. A rotor with no position is returned to the rotor pool, in which he or she receives no salary at all, but is allowed to engage in external freelance consulting. Obviously, attrition in the pool is high, which keeps rotors focused on success.

Responsibilities are defined as follows: the rotors are always on top. Except in the special case of inspection (see below), no stator ever gets to tell a rotor what to do. No position fluctuates between stator or rotor: each job is always one or the other. And the rotor thickness is one. There is never any direct administrative relationship between any two rotors. No rotor can be the supervisor of another rotor, at least not officially, although informal relationships will of course form.

The company assigns rotors to their jobs in a very special way. Rotors rotate in office. This is the secret of the rotary system. (Of course, it's not a secret now. But that doesn't mean it isn't proprietary technology. If you think you can just copy my invention - think again, buddy.)

Every rotary position has a formal period at which the rotor who occupies the position is, or at least can be, replaced. Periods are typically a small number of years, such as two or four. Depending on how the rotary system is installed (ideally, it should be integrated with your ERP system), it may or may not limit the number of consecutive periods for which any one rotor may be reappointed, but the simplest approach is to just disallow reappointment.

For each rotary position, at each period expiration, your HR department will produce a list of candidates, all of whom are rotors and present employees of the company. The individual rotors who hold these positions will then be chosen by a process of customer selection.

Customer selection is exactly what it sounds like. The goal of the rotary system is to produce a truly customer-driven enterprise. It proposes a simple solution to this problem, which for some reason has been overlooked: allow the customers to select the management.

Because HR chooses only qualified candidates, there is no danger whatsoever that anyone who is not qualified will be selected for the position. Quite the contrary! Rotors will compete on the basis of their ability to satisfy the customer's needs. Obviously, an uncompetitive candidate, if one somehow slips past HR, will be unlikely to fool the eagle-eyed customer.

Successful rotors will have to demonstrate a commitment to customer service - to the customers themselves. They will be chosen by those who feel the results of their work. If Starbucks, for example, starts selling burned, watery espresso - oh, wait! They do sell burned, watery espresso. That's probably because they don't use the rotary system.

A customer is anyone who benefits from the company's work. It's important to use the widest possible definition of this term. Employees are customers too, for example. Stockholders are certainly customers. Any employee of any supplier or distributor is a customer. Any direct family member of a customer is a customer. And so on. Basically, a customer is what corporate governance experts call a stakeholder - anyone to whom the company's activities matter.

Each customer gets one loyalty point. In the rotary system, customer selection is a human process. As the inventor of rotary management, I absolutely reject the idea of varying loyalty points by stakeholder importance - whatever that might even mean. When any position's rotary period expires, the company conducts a selection, and the candidate rotor who receives the most loyalty points has the job for the next period.

Under the rotary system, all company employees are assigned to one of three arms, whose roles are defined as execution, standardization, and inspection. Basically, the execution arm performs the actual functions of the company, the standardization arm sets the procedures by which it operates, and the inspection arm makes sure the standards are followed.

Most stators work for the execution arm, which is headed by a single rotor, the Primary Rotor. The P-Rotor is the rotary system's equivalent of a CEO, or at least the closest equivalent. Unlike a CEO, the P-Rotor has no control over standardization or inspection.

There are two classes of stators in the execution arm: staff stators and line stators. Staff stators are selected by the P-Rotor personally, at his or her own discretion. Line stators (most stators are line stators) are selected by HR. You can think of a staff stator as almost a sort of sub-rotor, although again, no one who has ever been any kind of stator can become a rotor. However, it's unusual for a stator to move between staff and line roles.

Again, the P-Rotor and all stators in the execution arm are subject to full standardization and inspection. This is one of the main advantages of the rotary system: all work is standardized and inspected, ensuring a completely customer-driven enterprise.

Standardization is controlled by a large body of rotors called the Committee. The Committee, which should have at least fifty rotors, and may scale up to hundreds, drafts and enacts standards for all company procedures. All employees in the execution arm must comply with all Committee standards. Needless to say, unstandardized execution is undesirable.

Committee rotors (C-rotors) all have the same job title and status. They are selected by different segments of the customer base. For example, if you produce computers, you might have one C-rotor for the education market and another for the adult entertainment industry. Obviously, these are very different points of view. The purpose of the Committee is to make sure all these views are heard, and all are taken into account when standardizing procedures.

Each C-rotor has a small group of staff stators, and HR also assigns some line stators to serve the Committee. However, since obviously the Committee is not directly involved in execution, keeping it lean and mean minimizes overhead.

The Committee can standardize anything. All execution procedures are under its supervision. If it wants to require all stators in the execution arm, or even the P-Rotor himself, to keep all pens on the left side of their desks, it may do so. Since the Committee is selected by the customers, any such procedure is almost certainly necessary for customer satisfaction.

Ensuring compliance with Committee standards is the task of the Inspectors. The Inspectors have a very unique role in the rotary system: they are stators supervised by no rotor. Even the highest Inspectors, the Inspector-Councilors, are stators.

There are only a small number of Inspectors, and they are not subject to the ordinary stator personnel system. Instead, Inspectors are selected personally by the P-Rotor (and staff), and the selection must be approved by the Committee. Their positions are permanent.

The role of the Inspectors is to decide whether or not the execution arm is following the procedures set by the standardization arm. Inspectors may order any employee of any arm, rotor or stator, to comply with any command. Noncompliance is grounds for termination.

Decisions of lower-ranking Inspectors can be appealed to a higher-ranking Inspector. At the top level, appeals are heard by the Inspection Council, a small panel of exceptionally distinguished Inspectors.

The decision of the Council is final. The size of the Council is fixed, and it is odd, so that there are no ties. It should be less than ten, but no less than eight. When an Inspector-Councilor dies or resigns, the P-Rotor and Committee must select a replacement as soon as possible, so that the inspection arm functions normally, but when vacancies result in a tie, the decision of the lower Inspectors stands.

The inspection arm is small, but it employs a few staff and line stators in the usual way. Staff stators in the inspection arm are, unlike stators elsewhere, eligible for Inspector positions. All administrative matters in the inspection arm are handled by the Chief Inspector, who is one of the Inspector-Councilors (although his opinions carry no special weight).

Ideally, if the rotary system is applied fully, these personnel categories will be reinforced by a comprehensive sumptuary code, with distinctive and easily recognizable uniforms for all classes of stator and rotor. These will prevent confusion.

For example, line stators in the execution arm might wear gray, darkening with rank. Staff stators of the P-Rotor would look good in red, and the P-Rotor himself could wear scarlet trimmed with ermine. Aquamarine dishdashas or "man-dresses" seem fitting for C-rotors, with their staff stators in close-fitting blue jumpsuits. Inspectors, I think, should wear only robes of the severest black, with no distinction in rank except for the Chief Inspector - on whose robe a little gold braid would be very fetching.

Saturday, August 18, 2007 8 Comments

"Life is better without politics."

For a less abstruse approach, Lisa Goldman's description of her visit to Beirut is pure money. I want that bumper sticker! Set aside a few minutes and read Goldman's essay - it will make you happier. Or something.

(Hat tip: the world's best journalist, Michael Totten.)

Thursday, August 16, 2007 89 Comments

Against political freedom

I am quite sure there are still some UR readers who believe in democracy.

(I am supposed to be a generalist, and it hasn't escaped my notice that I've been concentrating excessively on this particular spot on the piñata. It is a tough one and it may take a couple more whacks. Then we will move on to more fun stuff. If you already feel convinced, if you are ready to open the window, stick your head out and yell like Peter Finch in Network (in your scream, please be sure to include the full URL - if you just howl "UR!", they are unlikely to understand you), you have done enough and you can skip this one.)

Let's call anyone who believes in democracy a demotist. A demotist is just anyone who has a positive association with the compound of demos and kratos. He or she thinks that democracy in general, if not necessarily every specific use to which this vague and ancient term has ever attached itself, is basically a good thing.

Presumably then an antidemotist would be one who disbelieved in democracy, who thought that democracy in general is basically a bad thing. An antidemotist might use the word demotist in much the way some demotists seem to call anything they don't like fascist.

Can you imagine a 21st-century post-demotist society? One that saw itself as recovering from democracy, much as Eastern Europe sees itself as recovering from Communism? Well, I suppose that makes one of us.

The obvious problem for any would-be antidemotist is to explain the 20th century, in which Universalist liberal democracy fought and defeated Fascism and Communism. (See my last post.) Unless you are a Nazi or a Communist, you have to explain how democracy can be bad, yet the victory of democracy over non-democracy can be good.

As I've explained, my answer is that all three of these contenders were shoots from the branch of the 19th-century democratic movement. All revered the People, all devised a doctrine by which the State represents, symbolizes, or is otherwise identified with the People, and all attributed great importance to public opinion and went to great lengths to manage it.

To borrow the cladistic method of biological taxonomy, just as a human, a gorilla and a chimpanzee are equally related (or unrelated) to a baboon, Universalism, Fascism and Communism are equally related (or unrelated) to monarchism. Just as a human may find the gorilla and chimpanzee vaguely baboonlike, a Universalist is likely to think of Fascist or Communist dictatorships as somehow monarchy-like. But to a baboon, an ape is an ape, and biology supports his claim.

The baboon, therefore, is perfectly within his right in generalizing across the whole ape clade. He notes the general tendency of apes to slaughter, dismember, and otherwise abuse baboons. That not all apes are bad apes he will cheerfully admit. Indeed he's very interested in knowing how to tell a good ape from a bad ape. But the general proposition that apes are dangerous and scary strikes him as quite uncontroversial.

I am neither a baboon nor a monarchist. However, when we look at the astounding violence of the democratic era, it strikes me as quite defensible to simply write off the whole idea as a disaster, and focus on correcting the many faults of monarchism. Certainly, it's hard to imagine how the Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Holocaust, etc, could have occurred in a world where the Stuarts, Bourbons, Hohenzollerns, Hapsburgs and Romanovs still reigned and ruled. The royal families of old Europe had their squabbles, but conscription, total war and mass murder were not in their playbooks.

So let me coin another name for formalism, and call it neocameralism. The word is mainly picked for its Google virginity, but it should also be reminiscent of cameralism, the governing philosophy of Frederick the Great, whose Anti-Machiavel is good reading for anyone wondering what went wrong in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Of course, if you're a demotist, maybe you don't think anything went wrong at all.)

The basic insight of cameralism was that well-governed states tended to be prosperous. This was associated with a variety of primitive economic theories, such as mercantilism, which are probably best discarded. And cameralism was of course associated with monarchism, whose biological vagaries are infamous. A family business is a great idea if your business is a corner store or an auto-body shop. If you have a continent to run, you want professionals.

To a neocameralist, a state is a business which owns a country. A state should be managed, like any other large business, by dividing logical ownership into negotiable shares, each of which yields a precise fraction of the state's profit. (A well-run state is very profitable.) Each share has one vote, and the shareholders elect a board, which hires and fires managers.

This business's customers are its residents. A profitably-managed neocameralist state will, like any business, serve its customers efficiently and effectively. Misgovernment equals mismanagement.

For example, a neocameralist state will work hard to keep any promise it makes to its residents. Not because some even more powerful authority forces it to, but because it is very pleasant and reassuring to live in a country where the government can be trusted, and it is scary and awful to live in a country where it can't. Since trust once broken takes a long time to rebuild, a state that breaks its own laws has just given its capital a substantial haircut. Its stock is almost certain to go down.

Suppose, for example, that our neocameralist state raises all its revenue with a property tax, a la Henry George. One easy way to run a property-tax regime is a self-assessment registry: every real-estate owner lists and updates a reserve price for every property, and anyone can buy at this price. If owners set the price too high, they will pay too much tax. If they set it too low, their property will be snapped up. This system is trivial to administer, its Laffer curve should be easy to map, and the curve's peak should be quite high.

It's easy to value this single-tax state as an enterprise. The value of the corporation is a function of its tax rate and the total value of its real estate. Assuming tax rates are fixed by contract, the neocameralist state's incentive is simply to maximize property prices. Any policy that would make it a less pleasant place to live or work is clearly contraindicated.

Imagining, therefore, that Hohenzollern Prussia had somehow failed to degenerate into quasi-democratic nationalist militarism, but instead had listed shares in London - or imagining that 21st-century Singapore, Dubai or Hong Kong could somehow do an IPO - we can examine the demotist period from our safe, if imaginary, neocameralist future.

Clearly, the worst forms of demotism, the really bad apes, were the totalitarian systems - fascism and communism. The main difference between fascism and communism was not in mechanism, but in origin - fascist elites tended to be militarist, communist elites intellectual. But the one-party state is a clear case of convergent evolution.

To a neocameralist, totalitarianism is democracy in its full-blown, most malignant form. Democracy doesn't always deteriorate into totalitarianism, and lighting up at the gas pump doesn't always engulf you in a ball of fire. Many people with cancer live a long time or die of something else instead. This doesn't mean you should smoke half of Virginia before lunch.

A political party is a political party. It is a large group of people allied for the purpose of seizing and wielding power. If it does not choose to arm its followers, this is only because it finds unarmed followers more useful than armed ones. If it chooses less effective strategies out of moral compunction, it will be outcompeted by some less-principled party.

When one party gains full control over the state, it gains a massive revenue stream that it can divert entirely to its supporters. The result is a classic informal management structure, whose workings should be clear to anyone who watched a few episodes of "The Sopranos." Without a formal ownership structure, in which the entire profit of the whole enterprise is collected and distributed centrally, money and other goodies leak from every pore.

Totalitarian states are gangster states, in other words, and they tend to corruption and mismanagement. The personality cult of dictatorship is quite misleading - a totalitarian dictator has little in common with a neocameralist CEO, or even a cameralist monarch.

The difference is the management structure. The CEO and the monarch owe their positions to a law which all can obey, and those who choose to obey the law are naturally a winning coalition against those who choose to break it. The dictator's position is the result of his primacy in a pyramid of criminals. This structure is naturally unstable. There is always some other gangster who wants your job. Dictators, like Mafia chiefs, are not good at dying in bed.

The internal and external violence typical of totalitarian states is best explained, I think, by this built-in mismanagement. Dictators are violent because they have to be - they use violence as an organizing principle. The totalitarian state has no principle of legitimacy that would render it impractical for an ambitious subordinate to capture the state with a coup. European monarchs made war, sometimes they were assassinated, and there were even succession struggles, but coups in the modern sense were very rare.

Note that the financial logic which keeps the neocameralist state lawful does not apply in any way to the totalitarian state, because the latter does not have a stable management structure which is controlled by its shareholders. Lawlessness is not profitable for the state as a whole, but it may be quite profitable for the part that chooses lawlessness, and in the totalitarian state no one is counting as a whole.

Similarly, only shareholder control gives the neocameralist state an incentive to remain small and efficient. The totalitarian state has an incentive to become large and inefficient, because every functionary has an incentive to expand his or her own department, and no bean-counter who demands that the department do more with less.

In a totalitarian state, since no gangster is permanently safe from any other gangster, there is a strong incentive for anyone with power to take what he can, while he can. And there is no disincentive for him to avoid abusing a resource which neither he nor his allies benefit from. Under gangster management, the totalitarian states often engaged not only in mass murder, but mass murder of their most economically productive citizens.

It may seem odd that a two-party state would be so much better than a one-party state. But it actually makes a great deal of sense.

Two-party or multiparty states succeed because none of the parties can redirect state revenue openly to its own pocket. They have an incentive to compromise, and they often compromise on something like professional management. The result, although still afflicted by factional tension, may approach something like the rule of law.

Unfortunately, two-party states have a number of paths by which they can degenerate into one-party states. For example, one party might use the power of government to marginalize and destroy its competitors. But this is by no means the only possible disaster.

Perhaps the greatest danger is that partylike structures form in civil-service departments that are nominally nonpartisan. If you think of Western journalists as a political party, for example, you notice that they fit the description quite well. Certainly their training is very much along the lines of cadre indoctrination. I'd argue that the entire Polygon is essentially an embryonic one-party state, although in the United States at least, it still has to be moderate in its attacks on the old political system. Nonetheless, the outlines of a "post-partisan" state are becoming clear, especially in Europe, and it is not neocameralist in the slightest.

All of this is easy to say. However, all of us grew up knowing that democracy is the best of all possible systems of government, and it takes a large stack of reasonable reasons before this deep fondness will even begin to buckle. So let me take another whack while the piñata is still swinging, and attack the idea of "political freedom."

Political freedom is the freedom to engage in acts whose purpose is not direct satisfaction, but indirect satisfaction obtained by influencing government policy. When you vote, demonstrate, print underground leaflets, etc, you are engaged in acts of political freedom. You do these things only because you believe they have some political effect.

Personal freedom is the freedom to engage in all other acts that satisfy you directly, and that do not infringe the rights of others. For example, the other day I quoted Navrozov quoting Hobbes, who lists the following personal freedoms:
to buy, and sell, and otherwise contract with one another; to choose their own abode, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves think fit; and the like.
Note that democracies tend to do a rather poor job of respecting these Hobbesian liberties. The only two that are customarily still respected are abode and trade of life - the Universalist democracies, at least, do not assign their citizens housing or jobs. They are massively obsessed with the regulation of buying, selling, and contracting, they manage enormous programs of official education, and they are not without their dietary laws.

Furthermore, there are some rather obvious candidates for "the like" in a modern society. For example, one might have freedom of medicine - absolute ownership of your own body, and the right to choose what experts help you maintain it, or what chemicals, devices, or procedures they may employ. Or freedom of association - the absolute right to choose who you work and play with, when and why. Or freedom of finance - the absolute right to manage your own property and dispose of it as you see fit.

If a neocameralist state has any reason to infringe its customers' freedoms in any of these areas, I cannot imagine what it might be. Whereas our democratic governments are constantly infringing them in almost every way imaginable, for reasons that seem to be rooted simply in the production and maintenance of official employment.

Of course, if you have political freedom, you can use it to agitate for personal freedom. Thus, the demotist catechism goes, political freedom is actually the most important sort of freedom, because if you have political freedom and enough people agree with you, you can get anything - including personal freedom. And if you can't convince the People, well, you were probably wrong in the first place.

And political freedom can also get you other goodies. Such as, for example, a share of this delicious revenue stream that the State is constantly producing. Or various benefits purchased with such.

Perhaps I'm not presenting the case for political freedom eloquently enough, because these arguments strike me as very poor. If politics is good because you can use it to achieve personal freedom, this is not a case for politics over other methods, which seem much more effective, of producing personal freedom.

And the use of politics to benefit yourself is simply lawless extortion. Here we see the essentially paramilitary nature of democracy. When you use power to monopolize some scarce resource, in the absence of a law that assigns an owner to that resource, you are inevitably struggling against others who will use power themselves. This may be extremely limited war, but it is war nonetheless.

On the border between personal and political freedom are freedoms such as freedom of the press, which can be defined as personal freedoms, but which as such affect relatively few people in a relatively minor way. Not many people are intellectuals who like to write for the public - there are probably more windsurfers, for example, in the world. Banning windsurfing would be a personal cost to those that like to windsurf, but not so much to anyone else.

Of course, infringing the freedom of the press harms the freedom of those who like to read - a much larger group, if still hardly the majority. But suppose the freedom of the press is infringed only on political subjects? Or only trivial subjects? For example, suppose it's illegal to insult the King, as it is in Thailand?

When I compare freedom of medicine, for example, to freedom of political publishing, I can't help but feel that the former is much more important. Am I crazy? Perhaps I am crazy. If so, perhaps someone will write in and tell me.

The issue arises, you see, because of the existence of vaguely quasi-neocameralist states such as Singapore and Dubai. I linked earlier to this discussion on a very orthodox Universalist blog (Unfogged) of Singapore - it's interesting how Universalists can maintain their convictions even while living in a place whose very existence contradicts them. The contradiction becomes just another proof of faith. Yet another case of Auster's unprincipled exception, I suppose.

Singapore and Dubai are not neocameralist paradises. They are certainly very well-managed in most senses, but they are also extremely conscious of living in a political world. Singapore in particular emerged out of very nasty postcolonial street politics - the ruling party is still called the People's Action Party. I really cannot think of a more terrifying name.

And so Singapore in particular works very hard, and very famously, to suppress politics and political freedom. My understanding - perhaps someone can correct me - is that almost everyone in Singapore has no interest at all in antigovernment politics, that people really are genuinely happy to simply think about their own lives.

But for a Singaporean to be involved in antigovernment politics has roughly the same result that involvement in racist or other extremist politics has for an American. It is simply politically incorrect in Singapore to say bad things about the government, much as it's politically incorrect here to say bad things about protected minorities. At least it's a social faux pas, at most it might cost you your job.

I find it difficult, of course, to endorse political correctness. This is because I'm an intellectual and I have trouble keeping my mouth shut. I have enough trouble with the American version of the doctrine.

But I agree with Hobbes on one thing: a government is not a government unless it takes all necessary steps to preserve itself. It is not physically feasible to arrest and prosecute every soldier of an invading army. The same applies for domestic "militant" movements as well. A state that does not have the power to ban political organizations is leaving itself open to linked political-military movements, such as Sinn Fein and the IRA - an open invitation for every political party to grow a paramilitary wing. In Weimar Germany, even the Social Democrats had their own equivalent of the SA.

If we regard suspension of political freedom in this light, Singapore is simply protecting itself from the ravages of democracy - which has certainly afflicted it in recent memory. It's hard to fault the People's Action Party for this. But I wish there was a better modern example of Bismarck's dictum with regard to the press: "they say what they want, I do what I want."

In my ideal neocameralist state, there is no political freedom because there is no politics. Perhaps the government has a comment box where you can express your opinion. Perhaps it does customer surveys and even polls. But there is no organization and no reason to organize, because no combination of residents can influence government policy by coercion.

And precisely because of this stability, you can think, say, or write whatever you want. Because the state has no reason to care. Your freedom of thought, speech, and expression is no longer a political freedom. It is only a personal freedom.