Pantomime Politics

“They said they would put down a vote of no confidence. Then said they wouldn’t. Then said they would, then they did it but wasn’t effective. I know it’s the Christmas season and the pantomime season, but what do we see from the Labour front bench and the RT honourable gentleman? He’s going to put a confidence vote. Oh yes he is! Oh no he isn’t!” – Theresa May

The State of the Commons

Theresa May’s rhetorical flourish is hardly unusual for Britain’s House of Commons. Many debates within the legislature are like a pantomime with members of parliament attempting to roast each other, whilst there are roars of cheers and boos. On Youtube there are many clips of MPs acting rather silly, including a ‘thug life!’ video of David Cameron’s banter in parliament with over a million views. It seems worrying that as politicians are more concerned with getting media hits, parliamentary debate focuses less on scrutinising legislation and changing the minds of MPs and more on one upping the opponent.

Whilst other legislatures around the world may have similar issues, it seems to me to be especially severe in Britain. Perhaps the Commons’ raucous is simply an evolved culture, stemming from our politicians’ private school playgrounds, or perhaps it is because the executive branch of government sits in parliament (just imagine how entertaining it would be if Trump sat in the senate debating Bernie Sanders).

Sam Bowman, ex-executive director of the Adam Smith Institute, suggests we stop cameras recording debate in the House of Commons. Without politicians being filmed and watched online by the public, they will have less of an incentive to show off to win voters and fire up their supporters. This should encourage politicians to focus more on the official purpose of parliamentary debate to scrutinise legislation and win support for or against the motions. An obvious concern is that if citizens cannot watch these debates from their own homes, voters may be less informed and less able to hold politicians to account for their actions. However if voters really care about legislation they can still read the minutes of the debates or go and see them within the Commons. As voters predominantly watch the more entertaining films of the Commons, it should be clear that they are not watching debates to learn about potential legislation.

The Unofficial Purpose of Politics

There is clearly something to Sam Bowman’s proposal, but we should first better understand the motivations that cause the pantomime of parliament and politics before we try and change it. Robin Hanson in his book ‘The Elephant in the Brain’ claims that with regards to our social behaviours and institutions we like to provide an official line for their purpose that sounds good to ourselves and others when they hear it. However we have hidden motivations that better explain our behaviour and institutions that we not only hide from others to protect our reputations, but that we also have evolved to hide from ourselves such that if we are not even conscious of our true motivations others cannot get us to admit to them. Take the example of charity. The official line for why we give to charity is to help those who are not so well off. This motivation is real to some extent, but it is not the whole story. Charity is often given at a whim without any consideration for how a given donation can do the most help. The institution of charity does seem wholly irrational if it is simply for helping people in unfortunate circumstances. Upon honest reflection we know why this is. It is because we have other motives to show off how kind, generous (and even rich) we are by donating to charities at a whim. As such, there is a logic as to why charities are not optimised for helping the needy but instead fund inefficient administration or create eye catching but ultimately useless projects.

The official purpose of politics is to create just governance and the official purpose of the legislature is to create just legislation. But we can better understand people’s real motivations in politics if we understand politics as an entertainment industry. Politicians want votes to achieve prestige, popularity, money and yes, they probably also want to do good. A single voter has a negligible impact on the events of politics so ensuring just governance is a very weak motivation. So what motivates voters? When we take interest in politics, vote and talk about politics, we are mostly just expressing ourselves (virtue signalling in the current jargon). You support LGBT issues and the environment to signal your compassion. You support building the wall because you want to show off that you are a proudly loyal patriot to the group and not to mention disagreeable enough to enjoy aggravating others. And of course people publicly support more free market policies to show off their big brains, understanding of basic economics and ability with ‘facts and logic’. To do these things we keep up with politics, even when it has no direct effect on us, to be able to show off our morals, diligent news reading and quick wit in discussing politics. Not to mention that politics also scratches a tribalistic itch. In the same way sports allows us to support our team through thick and thin, even though we have no connection to the team, nations and political parties allow us to practice our natural instincts and desires to be tribalistic.

Politics can be thought of as an entertainment industry that is a beautiful mix of team sports, a drama series and reality TV. As already said, it’s a team sport in the way we spectate our parties and nations competing, we identify with the teams, are loyal to them and make their wins and losses our own. It’s a drama full of colourful characters we love and hate. These characters have interesting traits and flaws that in response to events create a fascinating narrative, whereby politicians develop themselves and their relationships with other characters, political factions and us, the audience. There are major and minor characters that come and go as seasons go by, but often comeback with surprise appearances to shake up the story. Politics is a reality TV show because the audience have the gripping illusion of choice and yet real control. Like on Big Brother or the X factor, we learn to love and hate characters making us desire to pay (taxes) for the right to vote for characters we like; but more importantly, against the characters we hate. Nonetheless the actors on these shows, on the camera, act silly, brave, kind etc. to get our attention and support or at least notoriety. Even though one vote makes no difference, the play is a puppet show with characters responding to our every whim.

Rupert Murdoch not only understood the hidden motivations behind our interest in politics and the news, but also showed how they can be exploited for immense personal gain. Most of what we like to read has no effect on us, but is generally entertaining. As I believe Murdoch once said “News is what makes people say ‘wow!’” Now is it any surprise that during the midterms Fox News was busy playing videos of their viewers’ pets and the Sun newspaper had for years scantily clad women on the infamous page 3?

Do hidden motivations support filming?

Politics is an entertainment industry. Politics is a pantomime, and not just for Christmas. Now that we have a better idea of the hidden motivations that drive politics perhaps you are more in agreement with Sam Bowman that we need to stop televising debates in the House of Commons to keep politicians from showing off and focus more on just governance. On the topic of hidden motivation, I suspect Sam Bowman also had a hidden motivation behind his policy, but he might be more than open about. Sam thinks of himself as a rather technocratic neoliberal who wants government run by experts considering the costs and benefits of policies to ensure government makes us more prosperous and free. I think he has a much broader motivation to make politics boring. If politics is not controlled by concerns of entertaining people, wiser technocrats can have a greater control of policy. If politics was not about entertainment, the dangerous populist characters we love to hate would get fewer votes, Russia would struggle to fuel unstable narratives in our politics and politicians would generally have a greater incentive to act sensibly.

With regards to stopping televising of debates, however, the psychology of formal debates prevents scrutiny from occurring regardless. Formal debates are good for changing the mind of the audience, but they are terrible for changing the minds of participants. In any debate of ‘rational’ people, assuming only one side can be right and that their arguments are superior, we should often expect the other side to admit they were wrong. This never happens. No one has ever seen a debate in which a participant changes side. We take part in formal debates because we have firmly committed to our view and then, once we say it, feel greater attachment to our opinion. This bias is worse in politics in which we are committed to the tribe’s viewpoint. Politicians are then incentivised to stick to the party line to win favour within their tribe and prove their loyalty. This goes so far that politicians are often willing to repeat the obvious lies of their leaders, damaging their reputation outside the tribe to prove their loyalty and make their careers dependent on staying within the tribe.

The above reasons explain why parliamentary debates are unlikely to ever be internally useful to the legislature in deciding issues, regardless of whether debates are being filmed. In less partisan issues for which MPs do not have views they are already committed to, a debate maybe useful for developing their understanding and opinion. Such debates probably include technical bi-partisan issues and ‘surprise’ issues for which the ideologies of the parties have no clear response. In these sorts of debates turning off the camera wouldn’t be very useful, as no one watches technical debates anyway. For surprise issues MPs have for once a real chance of changing the opinions of others and there is no clear other tribe to attack, making incentives to one up others very weak.

Hidden Motivations, Hidden Benefits

So whilst turning off the cameras probably isn’t very useful for achieving our official aims, the hidden motivations behind the pantomime might also have a hidden use. As we have said a single voter has almost no control over policy and thus has no real interest in the boring details of policies. Instead voters care about supporting the characters they think are the good guys. By voting for politicians with good characters to represent us, we can be more confident that they will have the right morals and knowledge that will be transferred into good policy. When we watch Commons debates we are interested in the character of the politicians. In debates on the burning down of Grenfell tower, do they show the right amount of compassion to show they are caring but neither hysterical nor Machiavellian? When asked about policy, are they cool and confident that they are doing well, yet not smug and arrogant? When ministers speak, does the party show competence? When the leader speaks does the party show loyalty and confidence in the cheers a good leader demands? Is the leader a bully, one we can trust to crush the other team and opponents to the nation ? When we watch debates and decide our opinions we rarely look at the arguments. We look at the quality of the debaters as that is often a much better guide to whether they are trustworthy people we would like to associate with, to make policy and to lead us.

Sam’s idea of putting a stop to filming the Commons is certainly interesting and has some merits, but the real purpose of parliamentary debate is not scrutinising bills. We want to see our politicians perform a play so we can judge their character and ability, not have politicians debate legislation they have already made up their mind about. Nevertheless, I would be interested to see more research on the effects of filming legislatures and whether legislatures that have less drama are any more effective.

Our democracies are never perfect, but our ideas to change it are often impossible to implement and can have unintended consequences because of the human nature and the hidden motives we ignore. Instead of seeking utopia we should try to understand and work with what we have. Perhaps we should not try to take the pantomime out of politics; besides, it’s good fun.

Bike Rental: where state monopoly is justified

Visiting central park recently, I had planned to rent a bike to travel round the area. By cycling through the park to various tourist attractions I could enjoy the beautiful scenery of the park, be safer than on the road, move faster than walking and be cheaper than other forms of transport. Central park provided a tourist’s free lunch. My plans were ruined when I saw that the price was $15 an hour, well above what I was willing to spend. Of course it all made sense when I saw a sign that read that only one licensed company could rent out bikes round central park. When the market price for renting bikes was $3 elsewhere, I thought that this was a classic example of states creating monopolies to gain higher revenue at the expense of the consumer and economic efficiency. I will here explain the economics behind my upset analysis and also the economics behind why I was wrong…

In a market in which there is perfect competition firms are price takers not price makers. With many cutthroat competitors selling at the lowest price they can and still be worth running, a firm cannot raise prices without losing all their customers and cannot lower prices without going bankrupt. This means that the price the consumer pays for a good is equal to the cost the firms experience in producing the good. Consumers in this market buy the socially optimal amount of the good; since, no resources are wasted on providing consumers goods that cost more than the consumer values them and there are no consumers left unhappy who do not buy the good if they value it more than the cost to the firm. In economics jargon, surplus, the difference between the prices firms and consumers are willing to take and the actual price, is maximised. If any business could compete to rent out bikes round central park, the price would fall from $15 to the cost of operating at $3. This would allow all consumers like myself who value cycling between $15 and $3 to gain. Central Park Authorities were not only making cycling too expensive for me, but were also being inefficient – a double injustice! But of course why would the authorities care about efficiency, when, by banning competition their licensed firm could raise prices and create great revenues for the park.

Counter-intuitively I believe the case for the government monopoly is probably better than allowing the market to be let free.

By allowing visitors of the park to contribute to funding it by renting a bike, The government can make users pay more relative to taxpayers. One benefit is that it may seem unfair that taxpayers who do not gain from the park have to pay for it, especially when a lot of the visitors are foreign tourists for which feelings of charity may be a rather lot lower. Furthermore, by funding the park through visitors, the park authorities will spend their money to make the park more enjoyable to gain more revenues. In effect by making the park more like a business it reacts to consumer preferences to invest in the park in relation to how much consumers value the benefits to investment. On the other hand, as some taxpayers use central park less they will also use others more. This means that you would expect some balancing out of everyone‘s tax payments to correspond more closely to what the government spends on them. Nonetheless, there will still be people who would much rather save the money, especially the poor and those who use fewer government services.

But this begs a question: why not privatise the park if we want it to be the consumers who pay for it? This would help to make the owners of the park be even more responsive to consumer preferences and stop cyclists being the unfairly targeted visitor who has to pick up the bill. The most important reason is that it simply would not be politically feasible. Voters like the fact the park is open for everyone; there is some sort of emotive attraction to it, be it because of a feeling of entitlement to a park or the sense of community of everyone contributing to it. Even on a more narrow economic argument, however, I am not sure charging visitors fees to enter parks would be good decision by for profit seeking park owners or their consumers. Having barriers to pay and upkeep creates enormous hassle. Did you remember to bring coins? Are other ways of excluding non-customers worth it? Imagine having security guards asking to see your Central park membership card as you are trying to make out on a rock… and chasing out teenagers who don‘t pay. Charging for other entertainment like park dance classes, carriage rides, advertising, shows, concerts… or bike rental would be smarter.

You can also attempt to charge visitors to the park through bike rental without creating a monopoly. Why not allow any number of firms to rent bikes around the park, whilst asking them all to pay a licence fee for operating? This indirectly charges some visitors to the park whilst also creating perfect competition and thus a perfect solution? You might argue that the monopoly works better at moving the funding to consumers and not taxpayers as it can raise prices on them, but you can just raise the fees to the many sellers instead to create the same revenue. The argument for limiting competition has merit if the firms’ experience economies of scale, providing the tenth bike is a lot cheaper than providing the first as you have already paid for equipment and staff you do not need any more of. With economies of scale it is wise to limit competition so bike rental firms have lower costs allowing the government  to extract more funds for the park.

Related to the point about the bike monopoly being a good way to raise revenue for the park, is that it’s also generally a great way to raise revenue from citizens. One of Ricardo’s principles of taxation is that a tax should distort incentives as little as possible. If putting up stamp duty on housing creates huge disincentives to moving house, there is a huge opportunity cost from all the benefits of moving house. Making bike rental around central park a monopoly is a bit like raising a tax that has small effects on incentives. Demand for bikes in central park is price inelastic – only a few stingy tourists are going to stop renting a bike even though the price increased by 400%. Most tourists are there for a nice holiday and are willing to take the hit to their wallet. This means that cyclists who keep renting just have money transferred to the government. Very few people, like myself, who stop buying result in a loss to society by no longer providing revenue to the government and losing the gains from cycling. This means that the bike monopoly’s efficiency is hardly different from perfect competition, a lot more efficient than income taxes that reduce incentives to produce or stamp duty keeping many people in places they would rather not be.

Perhaps the best argument for this government monopoly comes from the theory of second best. The loss of welfare from limiting bike rentals through higher prices might be a good thing if cyclists actually reduce the welfare of others. The more cyclists there are in central park, the more traffic there is. This is annoying for pedestrians having to dodge bikes, parents whose children could get hurt, or the government by having to invest more in wider cycle paths. Because there is an external cost to cycling that consumers don’t experience, raising the price with a monopoly makes the cyclists internalise the costs they create for others. This ensures people only cycle if their joy of cycling is not only greater than the cost of providing the bikes, but also greater than the costs imposed to others. The inefficiency of cyclists not internalising the cost they give to others and the inefficiency of monopoly reducing output actually cancel each other out. You could argue that the monopoly over reduces output because the external costs of cycling are small, but the many other benefits described are surely more valuable? And if it is not sufficiently reducing output then the government needs to further increase prices, further going against my initial impression that the price was too high. There is a lot of wisdom to the phrase ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’. But in economics sometimes ‘Two inefficiencies create efficiency‘.

Applying basic theories in economics can often lead to the wrong conclusions. PERFECT competition in this scenario is IMPERFECT. An irony, not for this post, is that it is rarely perfect. The monopoly is a good compromise way to ensure taxpayers pay less for parks they don’t use, park authorities invest appropriate amounts in the parks, governments can raise revenues at only a slight cost to welfare but most importantly, in this example, reducing output by monopoly actually raises efficiency.

After note:

Why didn’t I use some graphs or mathematical models to explain my thoughts? The models all exist and it would have allowed me to more precise about my points. I could have given visual descriptions of the exact sizes of net losses to society. I could have not used ‘cost‘ to ambiguously refer to marginal, average, net, gross, total, accounting and economic costs if I had a graph to explain which ones I was describing. . It would also have been a good way of checking my arguments. If I could not put my arguments into equations and graphs then I could have been fudging my arguments. Looking back on the piece, to someone who knows little (or quite a bit) economics, it is difficult to know that I have, in places, proven that certain gains/losses to surplus outweighed other gains/losses.

So let me explain why I chose not to use the maths:

1) It’s boring

2) It makes the piece much longer

3) I might have had to been explicit about distracting and uncontroversial assumptions like diminishing marginal utility for the demand curve, or increasing marginal cost.

4) The maths is not the best medium for intuiting certain economic principles. You can visually show perfect competition maximising surplus, but that doesn’t help much in giving you a feeling for why the loss of monopoly profits is outweighed by consumer gains

5) Related to 4), unless I as the author can explain important economic lessons just with words, then I am not intuiting those lessons.

6) This is not an economics exam, it is an analysis of a policy choice.

 

Why AI might not kill us all…

The dangers of artificial intelligence have become cliché. Discussion of how an AI would create an apocalypse (what I will call AIpocalpyse) is trendy, highbrow, cool and, more importantly, a ‘hot take’. I accept fashions and collective preoccupations; after all, it is useful for the public to discuss and develop better positions on issues of importance. AI discussion, however, has moved onto a stage of mass hysteria where even the greatest minds hold rather unfounded assumptions on why AI will kill us all. From Elon Musk claiming AI is man’s greatest existential threat, to James Damore claiming that there is no convincing argument for why AI WOULDN’T want to kill mankind. Whilst I cannot claim to have all the answers regarding artificial intelligence, I think there are convincing reasons for everyone to calm down about AI.

Artificial intelligence can be generally understood as the human invention of a general intelligence; a thing with an IQ capable of reasoning and learning to pursue its goals. The argument that AI will inevitably lead to our downfall goes something vaguely along the following lines: Once a machine has intelligence it will begin to have a mind of its own and its own interests. This machine will then reach the ‘singularity’ where by its intelligence grows at something akin to an exponential rate as greater intelligence helps it to further improve its intelligence. Humans, which act as competitors for resources, will inevitably be seen as a threat and a barrier to the machine’s goals causing a conflict. The machine with almost infinite intelligence will then win this conflict.

Whilst there is certainly some merit to the above argument it is far from fool proof. The first major problem to the AI’s conquest of the world is that it may not have the physical capabilities to do so. The AI may be unable to move, have limited access to a few outputs in the world which are not sufficient to killing all humans, have limited memory and processing power to even begin improving itself and most importantly, it will probably have an off switch. The AI pessimist will probably respond by saying that with many AIs in the world with a lot of time and intelligence on their side, they will surely be able to get out of their restraints? Whilst it is certainly plausible that some restraints maybe overcome, many will be physically impossible to overcome. Without going off into many tangent thought experiments, the idea that AIs will have capability constraints is more than sufficient to show that an AIpocalypse is far from certain.

The second critique of the AIpocalpyse is that the machines may not have the desire to get rid of humans. David Hume once said that ‘Reason is… the slave of the passions’. His point was not that we should act impulsively, but rather that reason in itself is a tool to realise our desires and that reason itself could not tell us what we desired. The belief that an AI would want to kill off humans to maximise its wealth is question begging. Why would a machine want to own things? This is the fallacy of anthropomorphism, ascribing human traits to something that is not human. Man desires wealth because evolution has selected these individuals to reproduce. To combine Richard Dawkins with economics we might say that nature favours genes that optimise their survival function. Artificial intelligence has the capacity of reason but will only use it if the machine is programmed to maximise some variable, a preference or what may be described as a morality. If humans design AI to maximise a set of human preferences then it will only act according to a certain group or individual’s desires, not against humanity as a whole. It might be argued that the machines could write their own utility function to go against humanity’s interests, yet an AI with a given set of desires would probably be going against its desires to change its desires. It is possible for AI to change its utility function because, with multiple preferences, an intelligent being, like a human, would want to supress or even destroy one desire (eating chocolate) to better maximise another value (staying fit). But again, why would AI have to look like this? Could it not have an overriding preference to never alter its desires?

The AI pessimist may respond to my second critique by editing his original argument. Rather than AI intentionally killing humans to rid themselves of a threat, it may do so as a side-effect of some optimisation task humans have set it. This simple argument is certainly not compelling once you realise that; firstly, a machine may be given a side constraint or a ‘deontological ethic’ that prevents it from making a specified action regardless of whether it would maximise some other variable. Secondly, you can programme the AI to place a particular value on human life such that it would not allow us to die as a side-effect of its actions, assuming it knew the consequences of its actions. An alternative ‘side-effect’ argument for AIpocalypse is described in this Ted talk. An intelligent computer trying to maximise an outcome under uncertainty, like ‘reduce world poverty’, would continuously build its computing power to eventually find a solution to the poverty problem. In the meantime the machine could have used its time and resources to reduce poverty more significantly. This is effectively the critique of act utilitarianism that by trying to maximise utility you spend forever calculating the answer rather than improving the world. The AI like a human would realise that calculation/thinking to reduce uncertainty itself may be costly to succeeding in one’s aims; thus, under what may be called rule utilitarianism it would surely use heuristics like don’t kill and guess probabilities to satisfice utility.

My most significant criticism to the AIpocalypse hypothesis is that I question why a created intelligent being with any set of preferences would fight humanity in mortal combat. We can predict how man would probably interact with artificial intelligence because we know he interacts with natural intelligence. In the 50,000 year history of modern man he has interacted with many highly and lowly intelligent organisms. In nature the desire to reproduce has created conflicts over resources. The pessimist can see that nature is in fact ‘Red in tooth and claw’ since we killed our close relatives, like the Neanderthal, out of selfishness. This is nonetheless a narrow view. Nature can be co-operative as well as competitive. Historically human beings have killed each other in great numbers for resources and reputation think Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and even in pre-historic conflicts between starving farmers and nomads for food. Today however the world could not be more different, the population has skyrocketed, homicides have fallen to historically trivial levels and starvation has gone from being the norm to soon being practically eradicated. The truth is that the world is not a zero sum game; when rational people work together for their own gain they may be immensely more wealthy than they when they fought for gains. We have learnt to survive and thrive with our fellow man, as described by Stephen Pinker in ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’, through the protection racket of the state defending property rights, the greater benefits of trading such property over stealing it and through developing empathy (boosting the value of other people and their rights in our utility function). Furthermore, there is much co-operation between humans and other less intelligent animals in nature like pets and farm animals for whom would be dead without us. Furthermore, when there is no co-operation there is often relative indifference with other animals in the wild. If man’s rationality has allowed us to get out of the Hobbesian state of nature to achieve co-operation or indifference with others in order to improve everyone’s welfare, why would an unnatural intelligence with his own desires want to do anything different with mankind?

Whilst there is some credible theory for why AI might destroy man it is far from compelling. AI pessimism suffers from many questionable assumptions about what AI would be like and how we would interact with it. My counter thesis is certainly not capable of disproving pessimistic predictions, but at show them to be unlikely. I urge people to be far more relaxed and realistic when discussing AI. Others may fear the day when machine crushes man. I, on the other hand, will be looking forward to the day when machines are our customers, producers and friends.

P.S. This is a rather old article I wrote and forgot to put up. Also these posts are meant to be about improving my ability to write thoughts down and better organise them and experimenting in the progress. As such, I know very little about many of the topics and especially little about AI. These  posts are not meant to be good arguments to convince others, but rather a clear account of my view.

Rebooting History: Why Fukuyama was right and why I hope he will become wrong

Why Fukuyama was right

Francis Fukuyama argued history itself had come to an end because the political system of liberal democracy had become universally recognised as the best system of government. We can debate whether history is just conflict between people over the ideal form of government and whether the end of such conflict leads to the end of progress in art and philosophy. However, Fukuyama’s core thesis that democracy has won is almost undeniable. The number of countries that are democratic is continuously increasing. The alternative systems are now run by elites immersed in western liberal culture and education who believe in the superiority of democracy and are moving their countries towards it. The fact that this core thesis makes so many people hot under the collar perhaps highlights its truth. People who claim that history has not ended may do so because they actually believe in the clear superiority of democracy. They cannot imagine that the alternative systems like fascism, communism and absolutism were once immensely more popular and have only recently been defeated by democratic ideas. They then find hard to grasp the substance of history as that of an intellectual progress towards democracy.

Fukuyama takes the analogy from Hegel that ‘human consciousness’ (human nature) in underpinning all relations between people is expressed in social and political organisations. Fundamental contradictions between a political system and human consciousness ferments change in the system, typically through a competition for power between different organised groups. The final stable synthesis of this competition for power is sensibly thought to be democracy. To gain power, in excess of the system, you have to remove the feature of one person one vote. This shows to others you clearly wish to exploit or control them, creating a large coalition against you, strengthened by free speech and voting rights. Whilst there can be some regression into less democratic systems through organised and powerful coalitions based in force, the twentieth century has shown how difficult these are to sustain. The fall of dictatorial systems in the 20th century seems to have occurred when the people see no legitimacy in governments that they have no role in and are less conducive to welfare than nearby democratic systems.

So are there any contradictions in the democratic system that could cause fundamental change? There is clearly political conflict within democratic societies such as the role of government in the economy and the role of identity politics. But these conflicts are over policy, not the system of government itself and do not seem to be significantly grievous to cause a large group to take power by force. Perhaps the tendency to concentrate power above the nation state to supra-national states could spell the end of democratic hegemony in the world? The demands of a more globalised world could plausibly make such organisations popular. Whilst it is doubtful whether there is enough support for supra-national governments like the EU to completely undermine nation state democracies, such supra-national states would themselves be democratic. I suppose these governments being more removed from the citizens and lacking a cultural unity could be less democratic and more technocratic but the immense popularity of democracy will surely prevent them from being anything else. After all, even the EU and the UN are entrenched in democratic organisation with parliaments, assemblies and bills of rights.

 

Why the End of History is not desirable

The stability and hegemony of democracy in the world is largely a force for good. It is responsible for great successes in supporting welfare generally, even if its stability maybe banal for the political philosopher and revolutionary. Nonetheless, I believe democracy not to be a theoretically optimal system of government and probably not the best one practically. Government failures due to democratic systems are numerous and often uncontentious among experts, yet fail to be addressed. For example, policies like government subsidies, tariffs and nationalised industries are inefficient ways of enriching interest groups since it is cheaper simply to transfer money to such groups without incentivising unproductive enterprises contrary to comparative advantage and maximising output. At the root of most democratic failures is voter ignorance. When your vote is unlikely to make any substantial difference it is perfectly rational to not spend years of your life becoming an expert in the social sciences. Without incredible expertise how can the majority of people know which policies are best? Whilst it is clear voting is not a perfect way to make decisions it may seem impossible to do without it if we are to have governance reflect and maximise the preferences of all people. I have heard David Friedman point out the solution by an analogy to firms; businesses, unlike democracies, are run according to both the preferences of its customers (citizens) and run by experts. For example, a restaurant is best run by well-trained chefs who know how to make good food. The decision regarding which restaurants to go to and thus make sufficient revenue to survive are well made by consumers who know their own preferences and need no expert knowledge to make a good choice.

Regardless of the details of the best political system, be them for profit, not for profit, anarchist, socialist, private, public or even monarchic, it is clear that there almost certainly is one better than democracy giving the opportunity to reboot history valuable. Continuing on the firm analogy, assuming there is free competition for citizens amongst governments we would expect experimentation of differentiated governance with the best types winning out.

 

How to reboot history

It is clear rebooting history is unlikely to come from within democracies due to their stability and lack of severe contradictions. If humans discover new territory to inhabit requiring new governance, that could stimulate competition of ideas over the ideal system. For example, when Europeans moved to the Americas it was highly difficult to sustain colonial rule by the old world powers. This forced the colonialists into considering what their form of governance should be, allowing the most popular ideals of the influential members of society to be realised: a quasi-democratic republic. The arrival of seasteading, allowing people to live in international waters, and the colonisation of space provides opportunity to try new types of government. I think it is unlikely for a colony upon independence to choose an alternative to the well-tried methods of democracy, given its risk and unpopularity with the laymen (not unlike the outcome Robert Heinlein’s story ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’). After all, when Brazil became independent of Portugal it seemed sensible for the people who were used to the old system to adopt a monarchy. However, if political entrepreneurs set up and defend their own states before a democracy colonises it, political experimentation will return. The citizens of these new systems would presumably come for its advantages against democracies, like lower taxes, fewer regulations and the absence of victimless crimes?

Although there’s good reason to think history will be rebooted in new territory, I do not know whether it can return to present day democracies. Even if there are successful examples of new states, the cost of changing political systems may be too great or the benefits of comparative advantage from having the democracy product available may convince people to keep it. To exemplify, Hong Kong and Singapore during the 20th century had extremely high growth with undemocratic governments yet no one seriously considered turning democratic states into many Singapore like city states. Also if democratic governments struggle to efficiently privatise individual industries without creating poor incentive systems and monopoly power (as may be argued with regards to privatisation in Britain and Russia), how could they be trusted with handing the state itself to one or many different groups of political entrepreneurs? Who would you sell the democratic state to, how many new states should there be, and how would citizens get to have a say in the matter? It is difficult to see how you could effectively change a democratic state into one or more that look like firms, especially if there was no market like competition to decide which states should come about.

 

A call for caution

The return of history promises great rewards but also potential risks. The benefits of history, so far, in leading us to democracy have been large but have involved much bloody death to get to. The French Revolution being perhaps the most famous case. It is not obvious that fighting on the side of progress and change towards an ideal world is best. Sometimes giving a foe a temporary win may be worth saving many lives. The choice not to escalate the Cold War is a good example. The process of competition and creative destruction between different political systems will be far more costly than between businesses. The bankruptcy of a business may be temporarily harmful to prosperity before its resources get allocated to more efficient uses. The fall of new types of political systems could be devastating. The idea of private space government becoming bankrupt, leaving its citizens stranded and without oxygen might be great science fiction, but it would be a terrible reality.

The risk of new states provides legitimate reasons for foreign interventions to prevent and halt the return of history. The risk of new undemocratic states competing for citizens maybe low upon further consideration. Why would immigrants move from safe democracies to new political systems unless they had certain assurances of safety? Such safety measures could be other governments promising to buyout the dying state in case of a catastrophe, a democratic fail-safe referendum to move the state to democracy, an automatic return to democracy upon collapse, assurances regarding the freedom to emigrate or even limits on increasing taxation.

The great potential of alternative systems of governance, the lower risk than seen prima facie and the fact such political systems could create prosperity until the end of mankind’s existence makes me optimistic for the return of history even if mankind’s conservative instincts should stay vigilant.

 

 

Afterword

What eventually brought me to read Fukuyama was my own struggle to empathise with pro-monarchy and absolutist arguments and the realisation that I could not understand a dominant ideology in most of European history. In particular, I was shocked when my Grandmother told me she would have supported the cavaliers in the English civil war. Furthermore, making two libertarian friends at university who are Polish and Catholic tell me they are doggedly monarchist is culturally and ideologically eye opening. After coming to terms with such fringe views and how recently they have died to democracy, and the incredible growth of prosperity in the world has brought to life Whig history for me. Whilst this progress in history seems clear, its degree of inevitability due to a specific understanding of human nature is probably for another blog post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“One Death is a Tragedy; A million deaths is a Statistic”

‘One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic’

The phrase is attributed to Stalin although it is doubtful that he ever said it. Regardless of origin, it gives an insight into the mind set of Stalin and others like him that made them responsible for mass tragedy. When we think of one death it is easy to engage with the terrible consequences. We can easily imagine the loss of life and its effect on others. This becomes even more powerful when we have a name or picture to attach to the death to make it all the more vivid. These thoughts ultimately prevent people from causing such tragedy. The incredible loss of one million deaths, on the other hand is impossible to grasp. We can’t imagine all one million individually unique lives lost and all their friends and family who have to live with the death.

The quote has fascinated me for a long time as it highlights the way our emotions don’t always support our moral aims. This is typically seen by the type of news people get upset about. People were furious about the Grenfell tower fire which killed 71 people, yet have failed to care or even notice the 340,000-460,000 people who died from the fallout of US nuclear testing. Take that in for a moment. Nearly half a million people died in recent history, in a western country, due to a government oversight and few people have ever heard of this or even care about it. That is equivalent to 4789 Grenfell tower fires. Frederic Bastiat described this as the ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’. He said bad economists were only able to consider the obvious effects of actions, whilst the best could forsee and weigh up all the consequences, even those others find hard to engage with.

The fact that our emotions do not make us care for those most in need or those we most care about perfectly according to need is not such a problem in normal life. The greatest consequences of most peoples’ actions effect themselves and the people they know well. Evolution has surely made us to focus on these people around us with names and faces, not the million dead or starving people on a spreadsheet. When dealing with actions of great consequence, especially corporate and government policy, the problem of our emotions steering us to the ‘seen’ rather than ‘unseen’ is catastrophic as it allows resources to be wasted that could go to those most in need and can in fact ignore the side effects of suffering for others. The history of Communism is littered with mass starvation that was (and is) simply forgotten when compared to the glory of revolution. The lesson to be learnt here is that policy ought to be designed by technocrats using evidence and theory to make predictions of policy effects for which the costs and benefits ought to be weighed up. When we let mobs or autocrats design policy it no longer reflects our best interests, but let’s the ‘seen’ disregard the ‘unseen’.