Sometimes serendipity happens. I was trying to think of a way to link together a couple of sections of the Hyperpost book, when I found this old post from Scott Aaronson’s blog Shtetl-Optimised.
In it, Aaronson talks about how he’d noticed that there was a lot of overlap between Libertarians and proponents of the Many-Worlds Hypothesis in quantum physics, and had tried to figure out why:
Some connections are obvious: libertarianism and MWI are both grand philosophical theories that start from premises that almost all educated people accept (quantum mechanics in the one case, Econ 101 in the other), and claim to reach conclusions that most educated people reject, or are at least puzzled by (the existence of parallel universes / the desirability of eliminating fire departments)…
My own hypothesis has to do with bullet-dodgers versus bullet-swallowers. A bullet-dodger is a person who says things like:
“Sure, obviously if you pursued that particular line of reasoning to an extreme, then you’d get such-and-such an absurd-seeming conclusion. But that very fact suggests that other forces might come into play that we don’t understand yet or haven’t accounted for. So let’s just make a mental note of it and move on.”
Faced with exactly the same situation, a bullet-swallower will exclaim:
“The entire world should follow the line of reasoning to precisely this extreme, and this is the conclusion, and if a ‘consensus of educated opinion’ finds it disagreeable or absurd, then so much the worse for educated opinion! Those who accept this are intellectual heroes; those who don’t are cowards.”
I think he’s on to something, but I think there’s a second aspect, which is what happens when those ideas actually hit reality.
Because Libertarianism and the Many Worlds Hypothesis have one big difference between them – one has immediate real-world consequences, and the other doesn’t. And that means that it is no longer a purely intellectual exercise.
Leaving aside whether the claims for Libertarianism (of the Ayn Rand type, which is what Aaronson is referring to) stack up logically, and assume for a moment one believes them to be correct, should you *act* as if you believe the claims to be correct? To take Aaronson’s example, should we privatise the fire service?
If you’re a libertarian, you believe the answer should be yes – that privatising the fire service would have the end result of fewer fires, and those fires being fought more cheaply. But what if you’re wrong? If you’re wrong, then the result would be people – potentially a lot of people – losing their homes.
So there’s a second level of calculation to be done here – how sure are you of your own reasoning ability and the information (your priors, in Bayesian terms) you use to come to your conclusions? *WHEN YOU FACTOR IN THE PROBABILITY OF YOU BEING WRONG* does the expected benefit if you’re right outweigh the expected loss if you’re wrong?
Now, on this blog I often fall into the ‘bullet biter’ side of things *when talking about ideas with no real-world immediate consequences*, because it’s both intellectually right and more interesting. But take the Many-Worlds hypothesis. I consider this the most likely of the various explanations of quantum theory I’ve read, and would put my confidence in that judgement at about 80% – I’m a bullet-biter there, and proud of it.
And I’m a bullet-biter when it comes to certain forms of alternative medicine. I’m convinced from the experimental evidence, for example, that taking certain vitamin supplements in large doses will massively decrease the risk of cancer, and have stated that on this blog too. And again, I’d put my confidence in that at about 80% (I rarely put my confidence in *anything* much above that).
Now, the downside with taking vitamins is that there’s a cost of maybe a pound a day and – if you believe the very worst possible reports, which as far as I can see have no evidentiary basis, but if we’re assuming I’m wrong we’re assuming I’m wrong – a very small increased risk of kidney stones. The benefit, if I’m right, is not getting cancer. An 80% chance of ‘not getting cancer’ outweighs a 20% chance of a 1% increase in kidney stones, so it’s worth the pound a day to me to put my money where my mouth is and actually take the vitamins.
On the other hand, one can come up with a real-world test for the Many-Worlds Hypothesis. If it’s true then, were I to stand at ground zero of a nuclear weapons test, I should expect to live through it. There would be a googolplex or so universes where I’d die instantly, but I would not experience those, because I’d die too quickly. On the other hand, there’d be a one-in-a-googolplex chance of me surviving, which according to Many-Worlds means there’s a universe where I *would* survive. That would be the only one I’d experience, so from my own point of view I’d survive.
But even though I am persuaded by the Many-Worlds hypothesis, I’m not going to try that one out.
However, there are people out there who *would* do it, who would say “No, I’ll be fine! Drop the bomb!” – let’s call them bomb-testers.
And I think while being a bullet-biter can be a good thing, being a bomb-tester never is.
A bullet-biter might say “I’m convinced the Singularity is coming, but I’ll give some money to Greenpeace just in case” while the bomb-tester would say “I’m convinced the Singularity is coming, so I’m not going to support environmental protection measures, because we’ll be gods in twenty years anyway”.
A bullet-biter might say “I’m convinced the Bible is literally true, but I’m not going to hurt anyone who thinks differently”. A bomb-tester would say “I’m convinced the Bible is literally true, so I’ll persecute homosexuals”
I think a lot of people – particularly in the ‘skeptic’ community – think of themselves as being bullet-biters when they’re actually bomb-testers. They’ve reached a logical conclusion, and are going to act on that and damn the consequences. This is why some people say Richard Dawkins and fundamentalist Christians are the same kind of person – not because their beliefs are equally unjustifiable, but because they are both certain enough of their own rightness that they’ll act on it even when the downside of that action looks to the rest of us far worse than whatever upside they believe in.
Which is not to say that “acting on one’s beliefs” is a bad thing. One reason I have more respect for Eliezer Yudkowsky (of Less Wrong ) than for other Signulatarians is that he’s willing to act on his beiefs (even though I don’t find his arguments convincing, and think he has more than a little of a Messianic streak at times). But his actions *take into account the possibility he’s wrong* – he’s acting in a way to minimise expected harm. If he’s right and he doesn’t act, the world will end. If he’s wrong and he does act, then he wastes his time and looks a fool. Were I to find his general arguments convincing, I’d be doing the same.
If you find yourself defending an intellectual position that others don’t hold, then you’re quite possibly an ‘intellectual hero’. But if you find yourself acting on that position without considering what might happen if you’re wrong, then you’ll end up a real-world villain…
Recently, there appears (and ‘appears’ is the word – it’s almost certainly an artefact of looking over a few blogs and reading more into tone than into content, but this is something that has been remarked on by people other than myself) to have been an influx into the Liberal Democrats of Libertarians. This is typified by the members of ‘Liberal Vision‘, which is in turn part of a Tory organisation called ‘progressive voice’ (essentially a bunch of Objectivists).
Now, in many ways I agree with libertarians on many subjects – which is, of course, why we can be in the same party – I am all for more personal freedom, for a lack of government interference in people’s lives, for the restoration of recently-lost civil liberties and so on. But libertarians seem, to me, to have two big holes in their thinking, both of which are summed up by some recent comments by ‘Nick’ in this thread on Liberal Conspiracy (scroll down).
‘Nick’ may or may not be a self-described libertarian (or indeed liberal) but he’s following the libertarian ‘party line’ almost exactly. The government should not interfere with the workings of the market when companies are failing. Not only should they not spend any money bailing out the companies (a reasonable, debatable position) or on retraining the workers so they can get jobs elsewhere (a much less reasonable position in my view) – they should not even pay unemployment benefit to the people who lose their jobs, because the money would be better allocated by the market.
Now, there are two distinct errors here. The first, and less important, is the one that pretty much every ‘free market’ advocating politician of whatever stripe for the last thirty years has fallen into – the belief that markets will always guarantee the most efficient allocation of resources.
People who know a little about economics can fall into this trap, because free-market economists define ‘efficiency’, tautologically, as the state where everyone has the maximum possible without anyone else having any of their property taken from them – in other words, as ‘that state which a market will produce’.
However, ‘efficiency’ in this context is merely a local optimum, not an overall optimum. As an example, suppose that you, O Hypothetical Reader, have a pound – a whole shiny pound all to yourself. And I have nothing. Now, assuming you don’t want to just give me your money, that’s the most efficient distribution of the money possible.
But suppose that, while you don’t want to give me your money, you were forced to, and I invested the money and made ten pounds, of which I was forced to give you five. Instantly, we have *both* benefited, substantially, even though this is ‘less efficient’ in market terms.
Now, in this hypothetical situation, you would of course either just give me the money or invest it yourself. But in a real life situation involving billions of pounds in the pockets of millions of people, it can’t be guaranteed that the equivalent would happen.
A market is a very good way of ensuring, not that the economy always gets more efficient or runs at peak efficiency, for the common understanding of the word efficiency as opposed to the economists’ understanding, but rather that the economy *always moves into the most efficient adjacent position in the economic phase space*. These are very similar things, but they can be crucially different.
As an analogy (appropriately Newtonian for today) imagine a ball rolling downhill. Now, normally, that ball will continue down until it reaches the bottom of the hill (a state of maximum gravitational efficiency). But imagine a little dip in the hill halfway down. The ball rests there, because to go any further down it would first have to go up.
That kind of situation, economically, is when it makes sense for government intervention. Sometimes a mass of people acting independently do not come up with the most efficient solution, and a change, even an arbitrary one, needs to be made to free the ball from the rut. As an example, we need laws stating that you should only drive on one side of the road. The choice of which side is arbitrary, but not having those laws would cause infinitely more problems than the tiny amount of personal freedom given up.
I think the main defining characteristic of a liberal – as opposed to a libertarian – is that a liberal recognises the need for such measures but thinks they should be as few and as minimal as possible.
However, I have left the more important error to last, which is simply this – who says ‘efficiency’ of whatever kind is the thing we need most? For a long time the right have predetermined the terms of the debate by talking about ‘economic efficiency’ and ‘modernisation’. These are probably good things, overall, but are they the be-all and end-all? I think not.
Libertarians almost all seem to believe that they have achieved everything in life entirely by themselves, having struggled against mighty odds and overwhelming enemies to become moderately successful computer programmers, despite the horrible disadvantages of being born white, English-speaking heterosexual males in middle-class families. Their thought is ultimately a selfish one – “I did this, so anyone else can, and I had no help so I won’t help anyone else”.
I, on the other hand, have experienced poverty. I’ve never been at the lowest possible point, but the few months when I had to support my now-wife and myself on one person’s benefits were unpleasant, to say the least. So now I’m in a position where I’m working for a well-known company, earning a good income, doing a job I enjoy, I feel not only an obligation to society to pay back what I’ve taken (for I couldn’t have got this job without help both from individuals and from government institutions), but a profound *need* within myself to make sure that no-one else should have to dig around for half an hour to find twenty pence for a pack of custard creme biscuits which will be their only meal of the day…
PEOPLE are inefficient, messy things. There is no possible rational justification for supporting the continued existence of the human race, let alone helping individual members of it. But anyone who would gladly see tens of thousands of people jobless and with no source of income, either in the name of keeping a few extra pence a week in their own pocket or in the name of a heartless ‘efficiency’ has so little compassion in their heart, so little empathy, that I can’t even begin to imagine a common frame of reference for discussion, despite many surface similarities in our philosophies.