Saturday, December 10, 2016

Two Visions of Anarchy–My Exchange With James Scott

A few weeks ago I had a debate on anarchy with James Scott, a writer whose books I find interesting. Robert Ellickson was moderator cum participant. It has now been webbed.

I have read two of Scott's books. One, The Art of Not Being Governed, is about the existence of extensive stateless areas in South-east Asia over a very long period of time. From the standpoint of the adjacent states, the stateless areas, typically hills, mountains, and swamps, are populated by primitive people who have not yet developed far enough to create or join states--"our ancestors." By Scott's account, on the other hand, much of the population of the stateless areas is descended from people who were once in states, much of the population of the states from people who were once stateless. The pattern as he sees it is a long term equilibrium based on the difficulty of maintaining a state when population densities are low and transport and communication slow. When a state is doing well it pulls in people, whether voluntary immigrants or the captives of slave raids, from the adjacent stateless areas. When the state is doing badly, the flow of people goes in the other direction, fleeing taxes, conscription, and other benefits of being ruled. 

Part of what I found interesting was Scott's discussion of features of stateless areas that make it unprofitable for adjacent states to annex them. It was very much an economist's point of view and suggested an approach to the question of how a modern anarchist society could avoid annexation by adjacent states that I had not considered. In my writing I have described that as the problem of national defense. What Scott's account implies is that military defense is only one part of a broader set of solutions.

The other book I read is Seeing Like a State. Its central theme is the ways in which states have attempted to reorganize societies in order to make them easier to rule, to make the territory look more like the rulers' necessarily simplified map. It is harder to rule a country if the people do not all speak the same language. It is harder to tax land if the country contains a wide variety of systems of land tenure and units of measurement. It is harder to keep track of who has or has not been conscripted if there is no uniform and consistent system of names. It may be possible, sometimes has been possible, to change those features of a country to make it easier to rule and tax.

A secondary theme is the amount of damage that states have done in the process of revising societies to be easier to rule and ruling them. While it was obvious to the author that his account would be attractive to market libertarians such as myself, he went to some trouble to make it clear that he was not himself one of those icky market libertarians. His part of the exchange linked to above may help suggest why.

Another theme that he devotes considerable attention to is what he describes as "high modernism," the belief that modern science lets us figure out how everyone should do things and, once we have figured it out, we should make them do it that way. Examples include planned cities, Soviet collective farms and attempts by first world agronomists to tell third world peasants what to plant.

Adam Smith had something to say on the subject:
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.

It All Depends Whose Ox is Gored

Recent news stories claim that Russia attempted to influence the U.S. election in favor of Donald Trump. How accurate the claim is I don't know. What seems clear is that the reaction of Americans is that doing that is wrong, cheating, meddling in our affairs. That is why, during the election, the story was popular with Trump's opponents. I expect it still is.

During the build-up to the Brexit vote, Barack Obama gave a talk in the U.K. in which he strongly hinted that if Britain pulled out of the E.U., leaving it free to negotiate its own trade agreements with other countries, the U.S. would not be eager to join such an agreement--“The UK is going to be in the back of the queue.” Pretty obviously, it was an attempt to influence the vote on the referendum. 

I am not sure if its actual effect was in the intended direction or the opposite direction. My impression at the time was that, while most Americans saw nothing wrong with Obama's talk, many in Britain resented the attempt to influence their voting. 

Which explains the title of this post.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

One Argument for the Electoral Vote System

An advantage of the present system that I have not seen discussed is that it reduces the problem of vote fraud. Stealing votes is easiest in a state dominated by a single party, the sort of place where the Republican poll watchers probably work for the Democrats or vice versa. With the electoral college system, there is no point to stealing votes in such a state, since the dominant party is going to get all of its electoral votes anyway. With a straight majority vote system, on the other hand, each party has an incentive to steal all the votes it can wherever it can.

Even with the electoral vote system, the problem still exists in any state where one party controls a large area, such as a major city, but the other  has enough support elsewhere to make the overall result uncertain. I still remember, long ago when I lived in Chicago, being told that the reason the downstate votes had not come in yet was that they were waiting to see how many they had to steal to outweigh the efforts of the Chicago machine.

More Inventions I Would Like To See

A Still Better Shower

The conventional controls for a shower or sink consist of one for hot water, one for cold. Getting your preferred mix is a process of trial and error adjustment, repeated every time you take a shower or wash your hands.

An improved version, now fairly common, has one control for the hot/cold ratio, another for the volume. Having once gotten the ratio right you can leave that control at your preferred setting and use the volume control to turn the water on at the beginning of your shower, off at the end.

Provided you are in no hurry. When I turn the water on the shower runs cold because it takes time for water to get from the water heater in the basement to the bathroom on the second floor. To reduce my wait, I shift the shower to all hot. That not only gets hot water to me faster, it also means that while I am waiting I am not wasting cold water down the drain. But now, when the water warms up, I have to find the proper mix. Every time I take a shower. It's an improvement over the older version, since I can to some extent set the ratio control by memory. But it could be better.

The simple solution is to add a control which shifts the shower to all hot temporarily without changing the lever that will set the ratio once that control is turned off.

Since I am in Silicon Valley and greedy, I am still not satisfied. The high tech version  monitors water temperature. As long as my desired temperature is impossible because what is coming out of the hot water pipe is colder than that, it runs straight hot. Once the temperature of the hot water gets high enough it automatically starts adding in cold, keeping the shower temperature at my optimum thereafter. The luxury model has a light, or perhaps a bell, to tell me when it is safe to get into the shower.

Making Conversation Possible

You are in a crowded restaurant, a bar, a meeting room filled with people. There is someone you are trying to converse with. Since the environment is noisy, you raise your voice. So does everyone else. As the room becomes louder, conversation becomes increasingly difficult, perhaps impossible.

There is a simple solution. Everyone wears a bluetooth earpiece/mike. Look at someone, next to you or across the room, click a button on the earpiece. Your earpiece is now linked to hers, so you can converse quietly. Setting the link by looking at someone may require Google Glass, but there is a lower tech version, some easy identifier, perhaps a number on the name tag that everyone at the event wears.

Social norms would have to be worked out. The person you want to speak with may not want to speak with you, so there needs to be some way of accepting or denying the request to link. In a room full of conversations I am quite likely to be wondering around looking for interesting ones, which is hard to do if I cannot hear them. So there should be an option to make the conversation open, meaning that anyone who chooses can listen and join in, or closed.

So far as I can tell, all the technology needed already exists and would be reasonably inexpensive to implement. All it takes it an enterprising entrepreneur.

Before you go into business, however, there is one question you may want to consider. In quite a lot of the environments I am describing, the noise is not merely accidental. Bars, in particular, tend to play music, often loud enough to make conversation even more difficult than it would otherwise be. That suggests that some people, perhaps many people, prefer a noisy environment. The only reason I can think of for such a perverse taste is the increased privacy–at some level of background noise, nobody more than four feet away can hear what you are saying. My technology should provide a better solution to that problem. 

But there may be other reasons I have not thought of.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Four Possible Trumps

1. The Nightmare. A wild man who offends all our allies and enemies and everyone else and declares war on Kyrgystan to punish it for being too hard to spell.

2. Promise Keeper/Paladin of the Right.  Trade barriers up, immigration down, many illegals expelled. Everything the government was doing that offended his base, from restrictions on burning carbon to pressuring colleges to lower their standard for convicting students accused of sexual assault, cancelled or reversed.

3. Virtuous Traitor. All the bad ideas on immigration and trade either retracted, forgotten, or deliberately proposed in versions Congress won't pass. All the good ideas–school vouchers, reduced regulation, legalizing interstate sales of health insurance, replacing Obamacare with something that works, simplifying the tax code–implemented.

4. Hillary+. Lots of ideas the left likes–increased government spending, increased borrowing, free colleges, student loan forgiveness–implemented with the support of most of the Democratic party and parts of the Republican.

All of these are possible. The first is less likely and the last more likely than most commenters, especially on the left, think. The belief that Trump is crazy is based on his performance during the campaign, repeatedly doing things that would obviously result in his losing. Since they resulted in his winning, one has to revise that judgement and consider that perhaps he is crazy like a fox. 

The belief that he is a right winger is also based on his performance during the campaign. There too, the fact that it worked suggests that his positions may have been tactical, not ideological. We do not know what ideological beliefs, if any, he actually has. Things he has said in the years before are at least equally consistent with viewing him as center left.

That is half of the argument for the final possible Trump. The other half is George Bush. Bush was elected as a conservative. He proceeded to sharply increase spending, the deficit, and government control over education. Spending money is generally popular, lowering taxes is generally popular, and there are usually political points to be made by "doing something" about whatever people at the moment want something done about.

My guess is that the two least likely outcomes of the election are the first and worst and the third and best.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Silver Lining?

This was not my least bad among the possible electoral outcomes. But now that it has happened, it is worth looking at whether anything good might come of it. I see three possibilities:

1. Trump might turn out to be better than I expect. Judging by the campaign, he is a skilled demagogue with no particular political principles of his own, which makes him a high variance actor. Looking at his list of what he plans to do in his first hundred days, it is a mix of things I am strongly opposed to, such as restrictions on trade and immigration, and things I am strongly in favor of, such as support for school vouchers and legalizing the sale of health insurance across state lines. Trump might decide, for reasons of politics or ego, to act mostly on the ones I like. One can always hope.

2. One of the problems which I think partly explains Trump's victory is the arrogance and condescension of the coastal elites towards "flyover country." In one online exchange, someone responded to that point by explaining that they were just acting that way because the people they treated that way were all racists and misogynists (by memory, so not verbatim), thus nicely illustrating the problem. Arguing climate issues online, I am struck by how poor the scientific understanding is of most of the people on both sides, including the ones who imagine that they are the upholders of science against the deniers thereof.

With luck, Trump's victory will jolt some of those people into rethinking their self-image as the ruling elite. For a first step in that direction, from just before the election, consider Cass Sunstein's proposed reading list for liberals, books intended to let them see that there exist serious critiques of their views. I will forgive Cass for not including anything of mine since he starts the list with Seeing Like a State, a good and interesting book by someone who makes it clear that he isn't a libertarian–while writing things that libertarians will very much like.

3. If, contrary to my hopes in 1 above, Trump continues with the positions that won him the nomination and the election, that will mean a Republican party less friendly to libertarian views. That plus Trump's victory might make the Democrats willing to think seriously about how to pull libertarian voters into their coalition, something I have been hoping for for a long time.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Wishful Thinking on Election Night

I have been saying for some time that the least bad outcome there is any reasonable chance of getting from this unfortunate election is Hilary Clinton in the White House but both houses of congress held by the Republicans. It occurred to me that one possible way of getting there would be if Trump voters, including ones not normally Republican, voted for the whole ticket, while anti-Trump Republicans confirmed their party loyalty by voting for every Republican on the ticket other than Trump.

I am posting this now as results are just beginning to come in so that if it turns out that way, which seems unlikely but not impossible, I can claim to have predicted it--or at least raised the possibility. One early result that might be a tiny bit of evidence is the early vote in Ohio, which shows the Republican senator believed to be at risk being reelected by a sizable margin while Clinton leads Trump, also by a sizable margin, although apparently not enough for the news organizations to have called the race yet.