Three homeworks for Professor Hanson
It can’t be denied that Robin Hanson gives good blurb. He said, or is alleged to have,
Not only does Moldbug know such iron fists would rule best, allow emigration, not cheat their investors, and never ever accept manipulator payola, he apparently knows this deductively, as a noble philosopher, not like data-addicted corrupt pansy social scientists. And he has no interest in improvements in the status quo below his philosopher-deduced-best pinnacle.
What more can one say to such a person?
If this does not end up on the back of a book someday, something will have gone terribly wrong.
It is small wonder that Professor Hanson has never learned any philosophy. Meeting him, I was strongly impressed by the presence of a very fast CPU with very little RAM. Despite genuine sincerity and interest, he seemed unable to consider any argument that could not be addressed in 45 seconds or less. Some sort of internal buffer appeared to be overflowing.
This, of course, does not make him either a bad or a stupid person. On the contrary: as I have said before, I consider Professor Hanson one of the leading thinkers in his profession. It’s just that his genius is more in quickness and fertility, than concentration. Leaving him neither suited to philosophy, nor susceptible to my Sith mind tricks.
But a student of the Way never gives up. So let me be brief in exploding those arguments that his appear to be—and leave him with a little homework. Surely, such a distinguished fellow as Professor Hanson is not too old for homework.
And he does give good sound bite. So let’s deal with said bites. First, this bit:
he apparently knows this deductively, as a noble philosopher, not like data-addicted corrupt pansy social scientists.
Allow me to explain the relationship between reason and science in one quick punch, so that it fits in Professor Hanson’s 32-bit registers.
Science, if it means anything, means scientific reasoning. “Scientific” being an adjective, “scientific reasoning” is a subset of “reasoning.” Why are certain inductive methods, in certain cases, reliable? Because we deduce that they are so. It’s not that reason works because reason is scientific. It’s that science works because science is reasonable.
Since science works because science is reasonable, we can distinguish between science that works, and science that doesn’t work, by the exercise of reason. I.e., by philosophy. For instance, philosophy tells us: does this science make falsifiable predictions? If so, it probably works. If not, probably not. As the Bible says, the tree is known by its fruit.
Science that doesn’t work is generally known as pseudoscience. Pseudoscience, or cargo cult science, is any practice that appears to follow the methods of science, but is not reasonable.
Science and scientists are the eternal enemy of pseudoscience and pseudoscientists. The former in every case feel that the latter must be drummed out of government at the least, and polite society at the best. By any means necessary—in the famous words of Malcolm X. From scientist to pseudoscientist, there is no mercy whatsoever. To paraphrase a famous hadith, the very rocks and trees will cry out: “there is a pseudoscientist behind me.”
The trouble, of course, is that this makes the pseudoscientist the equal and opposite enemy of the scientist. The two are not safe in one aquarium—or rather, one department. And it is often quite difficult to see which is which, for the pseudoscientist always asserts the inverse. Furthermore, since the presence of lies is not a matter of life and death to the truth-teller, as the presence of truth is a matter of life and death to the liar, the bad fish often eats the good.
Because of this animosity, one in general does not see scientists and pseudoscientists sharing one department. As a broad generalization, however, in fields in which science can be done—i.e., the scientific method works—it will be done, and at least have a fighting chance against Lysenkoism. Unless, of course, your government is even more broken than ours is now.
Pseudoscience will generally be found solving problems, such as climate prediction, in which the scientific method does not work at all. Rather, other forms of reason are the only reasonable ways to reason about the problem—or there may be no effective means of prediction at all. Thus, there are no scientists to fight. You can’t beat something with nothing.
Moreover, it is not just science which is the enemy of pseudoscience. It is also philosophy. And just as there is pseudoscience, which is unreasonable science, there is pseudo-philosophy, which is unreasonable philosophy. It follows all the methods of rational thought, but rather than explaining it deludes.
Therefore, pseudoscientists in general should be found, allied with pseudo-philosophers, in the persecution (wherever possible) of scientists and philosophers. Thus, Professor Hanson’s philosophobia is by no means surprising. Rather, it confirms the general, if unfortunate, impression of a paid and practicing pseudoscientist. O rocks, O trees! Any counter-revolution that touches not Professor Hanson’s salary, is not much revolution at all.
Note, in particular, the Jedi mind trick accomplished by philosophobia. It’s not just that it allows Professor Hanson to keep my Sith mind tricks out of his limited registers; it’s also that it allows him to excommunicate essentially all political thought before the 20th century. And even much of 20th-century thought. For instance, the Professor’s social-science model is quite incapable of processing a book like Burnham’s The Machiavellians, which to me is more or less the pons asinorum of 20th-century history.
Orwell said that he who controls the past controls the future. By excommunicating philosophy, the mere practice of reason by verbal argument, the Professor has excommunicated all of historical Western thought previous to the New Deal. This result is almost hilariously Orwellian—the Professor has not so much controlled the past, as demolished it. He is not the only one to achieve this result, nor his the only method that achieves it. But still, it works.
Second, let’s roll back to
Not only does Moldbug know such iron fists would rule best, allow emigration, not cheat their investors, and never ever accept manipulator payola,
Not cheat their investors, in the sovereign joint-stock corporation, is accomplished by a cryptographic command chain. This is a novel technical gizmo which, though perfectly reasonable in theory, is basically untested in practice. This lacuna actually serves a useful role in my theory: it explains why the structure I propose has never existed in the past. However, untested is untested. I admit to some sensitivity on this point.
But more interesting is such iron fists would rule best. Here I suspect a philosophical confusion on the nature of sovereignty. Because I have no original ideas on this point, I refer the reader to the correct philosophy of sovereignty, which is that of John Austin—well summarized here.
In the conventional critique of those who misunderstand sovereignty, Professor Hanson confuses, or at least appears to confuse, absolutism with tyranny. At least, he uses the term iron fist, which implies that there exists some non-iron fist (or hand)—i.e., a government that, because of some structural feature, cannot be tyrannical.
This problem is certainly worth addressing. For instance, my answer is: a sovereign corporation will not tyrannize, for the same reason a sovereign restaurant would not poison its customers, butcher them, and put their chops on tomorrow’s lunch menu. It would be bad for business.
But the argument is not entirely watertight—what about organ farming, for instance? Surely some people are worth more as their organs. Moreover, I am quite willing to defend the ancien régime in Europe, which though quite imperfect was surely superior to the debacle that followed. The ancien régime operated under no such financial constraint. And yet, no Hitlers or Stalins were seen. No—these characters were reserved for the century of democracy.
Thus I paraphrase Professor Hanson’s criticism: “your machine does not spin forever.” This is absolutely true. The system of government I prescribe is by no means perfect, because it is not a perpetual-motion machine. Rather, it is only the peddlers of perpetual-motion machines who are obliged to defend the perfection of their products—a subject they almost never mention. Those who are not quacks know that man is always governed by man, and always dependent on the justice and good will of his governors.
If you understand Austin’s theory of sovereignty, you know that there is no such thing as limited government. The fallacy is visible in the passive voice. If a sovereign is limited, it is either limited by something, in which case that something enjoys some or all of its sovereignty; or it is limited by nothing, in which case it is not limited at all.
For instance, a lot of people (possibly even Professor Hanson) believe that the United States Government (USG) is “limited” by a historical document called “the Constitution.” Nothing could possibly be farther from the truth.
Does this “Constitution” exist? It most certainly exists, and has been faithfully maintained, with many elegant and interesting amendments. None of which are in any sense sovereign. A document cannot govern. Rather, all sovereign decisions must be taken by human beings.
When we look at how USG actually works, we see that it is governed by a set of rules known as “constitutional law.” The relationship between “the Constitution” and “constitutional law” is entirely arbitrary and historical. The proposition that the latter can be mechanically derived from the former is too absurd to even consider defending.
Rather, we observe two conventional interpretations of this relationship. The first and most defensible, “originalism,” asserts that while “constitutional law” does not match “the Constitution,” it should. Fine. It should. It doesn’t, though. I might as well say that the Stuarts should rule England. Perhaps they should. They don’t, though.
Once the actual constitution of a country—the actual rules of decision by which its government operates—has diverged from its official constitution, what is the meaning of the latter? The answer is: it has no meaning at all. A constitution is a contract. Once broken, it is meaningless. “The Constitution” is an interesting historical document, no more valid than the Salic Law. Rather, it is “constitutional law,” i.e., the precedents of the Supreme Court, which are the supreme law of the land.
Here we arrive at the more conventional interpretation, the “living constitution” theory, which has largely prevailed for the last 75 years. Certainly, after 75 years of “living,” there cannot be much left of any written “Constitution!” The theory of the “living constitution” is simply the theory of the rule of force. Who rules, makes the rules. We arrive again at Austin.
This theory, while having the great merits of being correct, has no reason to expect any mercy from its foes. It certainly cannot expect them to take it seriously when it uses “the Constitution,” from which it has beaten such an effective sword, as a shield when the contest turns against it. Power flows from the barrel of a gun? So it does indeed.
Thus, in the terms of John Austin, who holds sovereignty in the United States? The Council of Nine, also known as the Supreme Court. For they are the unmoved mover, those whose decisions are final and cannot be overridden.
If the Supreme Court orders President Obama to give his next video address standing on his head, or converts as a group to Islam and establishes the Caliphate of America, or declares that “the Jews are our misfortune” and gives them one year to leave the country, these things will be done. Or at least, if they are resisted, they can only be resisted unlawfully.
Of course, the Justices are unlikely to do these things. Why? Because these things are neither (a) in their personal interests, nor (b) in accordance with their values and beliefs. The Supreme Court, a sovereign committee, is unlikely to tyrannize in these appalling ways—but only because of the personal responsibility of the sovereign individuals. Exactly the same is true of any monarchy, however the ruler is selected.
Thus, sovereignty is by definition absolute—a zero-sum game. It is often thought that dispersing or fragmenting sovereignty—e.g., resting sovereignty in nine lawyers, rather than one true King—is a good way to design a sovereign structure which is more effective and responsible.
And indeed, fragmentation of sovereignty has its advantages—as well as its disadvantages. I believe that corporate sovereignty, in which the fragmentation is nonrivalrous, captures most of the advantages and excludes most of the disadvantages. Still, if a majority of the stockholders goes insane—or, more realistically, a coalition acts with some rivalrous collective motive—there is nothing to be done. Because of this, the initial distribution of shares must be carefully designed to correspond with the actual social distribution of responsibility, and transfer restrictions are by no means unthinkable.
But—it is an indefensible proposition that is that there is some qualitative distinction between unified and dispersed sovereignty, or that any sovereign government is anything but absolute. At least, if this proposition is defensible, I would like to see someone defend it.
Why, then, is this fallacy so conventional? In the fallacy of “rule by law,” and the fallacy of “rule by science,” we see a common thread: the fallacy of “rule by formula,” in which it is pretended that an government can be conducted by some mechanical process, in which the human character of the governors is irrelevant.
As we have seen, “rule by law” means “rule by judges,” and “rule by social science” means “rule by pseudoscientists.” Either, in other words, equates to “rule by men.” If these men are effective and responsible, they will govern well. Otherwise, they will govern badly. This has been true for all of history and will never change. Only in our time has it been so persistently denied.
Finally, we arrive at the last fragment of the Professor’s barb:
And he has no interest in improvements in the status quo below his philosopher-deduced-best pinnacle.
I certainly have no interest in incremental improvements. This is because, when I look at USG as it is today, I see anything but a state which is continually making incremental improvements. I appreciate that, for Professor Hanson and many like him to retain their intellectual relevance, they must delude themselves that such a state exists. In reality, however, the nonincremental transition I envision seems far more realistic. And that’s not very realistic at all.
USG is not a state guided by Platonic social scientists—as Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, H.G. Wells, and the other founders of Professor Hanson’s tradition anticipated. Rather, it is a state guided by dead social scientists—to repeat the famous wisecrack of Keynes. To be exact, it is a state governed by bureaucrats, whose ideology is the fabric of Lippmann, Dewey, Wells, etc.
To be brutally frank, these bureaucrats have no interest at all in Professor Hanson’s results. For one thing, his ideology is completely incorrect. Behind the veil of pseudoscience lies an oligarchy, of which Professor Hanson is not a member. He and his lessers in the George Mason School are of no relevance at all, because they are wingnuts at a Virginia cow college. At the top, power is always a matter of social exclusion.
In reality, all professors but a small elite of genuinely influential public-policy gurus are entirely irrelevant to the decisions of the sovereign civil service. For every professor whose “work” does matter, there are a hundred declaiming pompously in the desert. In particular, a GMU professor, because his classes will never contain first-rate students, will never build a network of superstars that spreads across Washington, and will have no chance at all to serve as a priestly eminence grise. Even if this “Brains Trust” role was still possible, which I’m not sure it is. In practice, I think, the ideology is simply frozen. Even the smallest and most liberal changes are bureaucratically impossible, much less Professor Hanson’s wacky libertarian nostrums.
So the purported advantage his work obtains from incrementalism—policy relevance—are in fact of no meaning at all. Washington (a) does not change, and (b) does not change in a right-wing direction. Exceptions to (a) are rare, exceptions to (b) absurdly rare. When they milk well-meaning rich people for money, conservative think-tanks seldom dwell on this delicate point.
And thus, incrementalism is of no meaning to me, and nor should it be. It is simply another form of presentist arrogance, blind worship of the status quo—which has no place in the deliberations of noble philosophers. Only among ignoble, mendacious hacks is this practice of any relevance whatsoever. It is never too late for the latter to aspire to the ranks of the former. It will not be done by disdaining philosophy.
Let me propose three homework problems which Professor Hanson, or of course anyone else, can solve to demonstrate the ability to reason competitively with a classical philosopher. All of them are quite difficult—so I would be impressed if the Professor tackles even one.
One: write a reasonable response (a document that would be intelligible and convincing, given translation, to the author and his contemporary audience) to Maistre’s Letters on the Spanish Inquisition. If Professor Hanson can contend with Joseph de Maistre, he can certainly contend with me. But does he agree with Maistre? If not, where does he disagree, and why?
My suspicion is that, even in English, the Professor will barely be able to parse Maistre—indicating at the very least a need for more philosophical and historical study. He should probably not try Maistre until he has read Burke. In fact, Professor Hanson could surprise me a great deal by merely declaring that he has read and understood Reflections on the Revolution in France—a task I fear is just beyond him. If it’s not, Maistre may well be. But I am always happy to see unexpected positive results.
Two: watch the 20-minute film Detroit: City on the Move. Imagine explaining to the social scientists of 1960, seen on your screen with their blackboards (Detroit, as the film claims, was one of the most progressively-governed cities in America), what would happen to their city over the next 50 years. And why. The what would be easy to explain—but the why?
The devastation of Detroit, clearly a disaster, can like any disaster can be placed in one of four categories. It can be described as (a) inevitable—something, like a hurricane, that could not have been averted by any plan; (b) accidental—something that was not meant to happen, but happened anyway in some way that could have been averted; (c) criminal—something that happened as a result of mens rea; or (d) worthwhile—something bad, but yet an unavoidable cost of some other action whose result was even more good.
For anyone, any disaster is either inevitable, accidental, criminal or worthwhile. Either dispute that the fate of Detroit has been a disaster, or attribute it to one of these categories. Whichever your choose, please describe the relationship, if any, between “social science” and this outcome. Assume, again, the audience of 1960—for which there is no cultural or language barrier.
Three: that cynosure of the Platosphere, The Economist, recently published an unsigned editorial which includes the following remarkable suggestion:
Genomics may reveal that humans really are brothers and sisters under the skin. The species is young, so there has been little time for differences to evolve. Politically, that would be good news. It may turn out, however, that some differences both between and within groups are quite marked. If those differences are in sensitive traits like personality or intelligence, real trouble could ensue.
Obviously a sensitive matter! Professor Hanson, the whole world is waiting to hear your thoughts on this matter. Here is one way you can express them.
What is The Economist’s sensitive proposition, distilled? The proposition (also expressed by one James Watson, who does know a thing or two about these matters) is that of Disraeli: that human biodiversity has a significant impact on human history, past and present.
A reasonable person may take one of three positions on this issue. Because all the existing names for these positions are emotionally loaded, I have leveled the playing field with a convenient set of pleasant and plausible neologisms.
First, one can be an egalist. An egalist is a person who is confident that human neurological biodiversity has no significant impact on human history, past or present.
Second, one can be a ragnostic. A ragnostic is a person who is not sure whether or not human neurological biodiversity has any significant impact on human history, past or present. I.e.: one who considers the egalist hypothesis as neither reasonably shown, nor reasonably refuted.
Third, one can be a ratheist. A ratheist is a person who agrees with Disraeli, i.e., considers the egalist hypothesis as reasonably refuted. Rather, the ratheist considers human neurological biodiversity as a fact of tangible reality, and sees many historical phenomena, past and present, for which it is the most parsimonious explanation.
Anyone else can use these clear and sensible definitions to label his or her position on this obviously sensitive matter. For instance, I am a ratheist. This poses many practical problems for me—not least, that it is illegal for me to admit this opinion in any American workplace. Nonetheless, it’s what I believe, and there is no helping the matter.
Clearly, Professor Hanson is not a ratheist, because—being an honest man—he (a) would have admitted it, and (b) might well have lost his job for it. Therefore, he must be either an egalist or a ragnostic. Since even the latter is dangerous, it is socially obligatory to assume that everyone is an egalist unless discovered to be the converse.
Therefore, I can safely assume that Professor Hanson is an egalist. Therefore, unless he denies this, I (and perhaps others) would be interested in hearing the reasoning process that led him to egalism. Does he have some evidence that human populations are neurologically identical? Or that any such neurological biodiversity, if significant, has no historical (e.g., political or economic) impact? If not, why is he an egalist? Or is he not an egalist at all? Inquiring minds, etc.