Saturday, March 31, 2018

Ambivalence on Technocracy

I really have a knack for clickbait titles, don't I?

Hello hello! The weather is emphatically swinging into spring here in the SF Bay Area. Cheery sunshine = I feel cheery too. One of my friends delivered a lamb for the first time today, which is amazing 🐑

My last email to you was about livestreaming. In retrospect, that post was vapid and undershot my standards for Sonya Notes. Editorial quality will hopefully improve as I continue to iterate, and I appreciate your patience so far!

Granted, I originally pitched Sonya Notes as an experimental newsletter. Experiments often yield dumb results, so I don’t feel too guilty.

I’ve been sitting on the following post for a while, trying to get it where I want it.


“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.


Two of my favorite heuristics conflict with each other:

  1. Competitive markets solve most problems on their own. (The largest exceptions are externalities and physical monopolies.) Market participants should be free to express their preferences and create an emergent equilibrium, instead being subject to an authority that tries to engineer specific results.

  2. Any given member of the general public is a moron with no proper idea of what is good for them or anyone else. (See also: Cipolla’s laws of stupidity and Hanlon’s razor.)

#1 is a libertarian idea and #2 is a progressive idea (at least according to early American progressivism or perhaps High Modernism). #1 is bottom-up improvement of society and #2 is top-down improvement of society.

It’s worth noting that I phrased #1 as optimistic and #2 as cynical. (I used to go around defining myself as a “cynical optimist” like Bryan Caplan. Still pretty accurate: I’m cynical about human nature and optimistic about technology.)

The conflict between the heuristics is okay, as long as I’m aware of it. Heuristics need to be useful cognitive shortcuts more than they need to be completely accurate in all scenarios.

Despite my politics being laissez-faire overall, I have a soft spot for paternalistic technocracy. I think mixing the two yields a basically functional government. The current American system is too hands-off in some ways, but mostly far too interventionist (in the lives of its citizens, but also in the affairs of foreign countries).

I like how Redditor darwin2500 put it, with flipped rhetoric:

[P]ersonal responsibility is often a great idea for giving an individual one-on-one advice to improve their life, and is usually a terrible credo for public policy debates and political activism.

A society without both personal-level and systems-based vigilance and improvements will ultimately fail. You can’t only focus on one and not the other.

I tend to say that “anything gov’t touches is so routinely dysfunctional that we should only delegate issues that can’t be handled any other way” — in other words, minimum viable government. I would be a minarchist if minarchism accounted for social safety nets.

The soul of libertarianism is “everyone gets to do whatever they want unless they’re directly harming someone else,” for a pretty narrow definition of direct harm. (Yes, it has failure modes.) I find that very appealing, as a person who chafes under authority.

The soul of progressivism is “we need to take care of everyone and here’s how,” with a very strong desire for rules and behavior-shaping.


I don’t have a neat conclusion, so I’ll end with this quote about populism, which I recoil from, excerpted from an essay called “The Ignoble Lie”:

The uprising among the working classes across the developed West arises from a perception of illegitimacy — of a gap between claims of the ruling class and reality as experienced by those who are ruled. It is no coincidence that these rebellions come from the socialist left and authoritarian right, two positions that now share opposition to state capitalism, a managerial ruling class, the financialization of the economy, and globalization.

See also: “The Twin Insurgency” by Nils Gilman.


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