Cosmic Gambling and Decentralization

Pair of Dice

The success of decentralized power is dependent upon our all being cosmic gamblers. Not only that, but this inherent gambling nature is also the reason that there has never been a better alternative.

In other words, people producing things and trading them free of restriction would not be successful if we didn’t have a process of wager-making to drive the way we analyze everything. This may also be the reason why historical attempts to impose control on production and trade have resulted in disaster. Earlier, I explained how I think this “wager” process works. I submit that whenever we form a belief about p, we are betting that p is confirmed. Simultaneously, we adopt the risk that p is shown to be false. Testing to find out when we are wrong is a crucial component of living life because it serves as the primary method by which we discover what works and what doesn’t.

If this is truly the current state of human beings, then it seems that we should want to have society situated to maximize the benefits of this pseudo-scientific process of testing. I propose that the way to maximize it is to adhere to the principle of decentralization — of limiting the restrictions on and forceful interventions in the lives of the people. This way, we can see more results from more individuals who carry on with their tests, expanding the realm of what we consider possible. And ultimately, the innovation that results from this general state of affairs would bring about the greatest degree of prosperity for society relative to the alternatives.

Suppose that I am an entrepreneur and I want to create a start-up company that sells an online platform with which people can record music. When I develop my idea, every single assumption I make is something that I would (literally) be putting my money on. I assume that my future product will be useful to enough musicians to be profitable. I assume that I will be able to successfully market my product to a wide enough audience. I also assume that I can come up with a cost-structure that enough people will be willing accept in order to use my product. Then I can test all those assumptions by, for instance, polling the opinions of a bunch of musicians with regard to what they think about this kind of product.

Remember, this wager-making process isn’t only applicable when developing a start-up. It is the way we test all our beliefs.  Say I want to go see “Man of Steel 2” in theaters, and I observe online that there is a show-time scheduled for 8:10 PM. Based on this information, I can develop a hypothesis that if I go to the theater, buy a ticket, and sit down in the assigned room, I will be able to watch Ben Affleck‘s performance as Batman on the big screen. Then I can go do all those things, look at my watch as it flips over to “8:10” around the same time the pre-movie trailers are starting, and I will be pretty confident that I was right to bet on my assumption.

A political system that promotes this behavior takes a hands-off approach when it comes to intervention in the lives of people. Using coercion to enforce certain regulations as the norm largely prevents people from placing certain wagers and testing them, which is arguably the most important action that benefits society. The more regulation there is, the more limited regular people are in this capacity.

For example, take the issue of occupational licensing. In essence, this is a piece of paper from a state government that gives one permission to work in a certain field. The reasoning behind such certification is usually related to safety. Lawmakers want to make sure that people are qualified so that they will not bring harm to their customers. This sounds great as far as the intentions are concerned, but in practice, the fact that interior designers, shampooers, florists, home entertainment installers, and more work their craft safely without licenses in plenty of different states is evidence that such licensure is unnecessary. What it effectively does is erect obstacles that delay or block entrepreneurs willing to test their ideas. As a result, there are fewer people in each of these fields that can incentivize one another to innovate through competition.

A more poignant example can be found in public schooling. The evidence is overwhelming that the predominantly public K-12 education system in the United States has been failing hard. While there are attempts at innovation, the structures of control are centralized into bureaucratic school boards. As a result, we have administrators — often with very little experience as educators — developing top-down plans to revamp broken systems. Furthermore, standardization seems to take precedence over models in which power is diffuse. The obsession with standardized tests and common core legislation limits the innovation that can take place at the grassroots level.

The best alternatives in the U.S. can currently be found in school choice initiatives like charter schools. These schools are publicly-funded but typically freer of government regulations. The idea is to allow teachers at these schools more room to test their ideas. Moreover, giving students more options to choose between different educational options provides more incentive for teachers to develop effective methods of teaching in order to attract students. Even in Finland, which has strictly public schools, the suggestion is that teachers need flexibility on the ground as opposed to top-down control: “…the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.” This hints that the success is not found necessarily in the method of funding, but in the decentralized structure of planning, which frees teachers from regulatory constraints.

The key point here is that central planning is simply antithetical to the wager-making process that is essential to understanding the world around us and thus, bringing about prosperity in society. People will always go about this process. The goal is to foster the conditions under which it can reach its maximum potential. I am convinced that those conditions involve as much decentralization of power as possible, both economic and otherwise.

Masochism, Economics, and Ice-Cream

Usually we are inclined to say that there is something strange about a person who enjoys pain. How could it ever make sense to like pain, to want it, or to even seek it out? Certainly, I do think it would be unhealthy for a person to treat pain as the same thing as pleasure. But I would submit that sometimes wanting pain is not abnormal. My position is that it is human nature to require some traumatic experiences. In order to substantiate this, I will examine a few theories and common examples.

Blue yin yang

Blue yin yang (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, I think it would be apt to examine Taosim. There is a lot of junk about how the universe was created, but I’ll skip the incomprehensible parts and get right to the concept of Yin and Yang. The idea is of two objects, dependent upon one another such that object A could not exist without object B and vice versa. There are many things in this world that can be thought of in this way. Hot and cold is a good example. Night and day is another. One might call these things opposites.

There is a giant historical and philosophical discussion about opposites regarding the different kinds. For example, there is the distinction between those that are binary and scalar. Aristotle had his theories. Marx and Engels had their theories. I am actually going to have to set all of this aside too. All that I want to communicate is this: In our brains, we hold certain sets of concepts that consist of two interdependent ideas.

It is my contention that pain and pleasure can be placed in this category. If we need to experience some degree of pain to even understand what pleasure is, then there is some level of rationale behind the emo kid who developed a cutting habit or the codependent young woman who keeps returning to her abusive boyfriend.

But there is also a rationale behind the everyday masochistic things that we “normal” people do, up on our high horses. Why does Margie love soap operas so much? After all, they just make her cry over and over again. Why does Dusty love that feeling of working out so much? It looked like he was putting himself through a ton of stress! No pain, no gain. Why do Calvin and Sally watch slasher films every weekend? Why does Halloween even exist? Why does television media always make a spectacle out of the most terrible and shocking things? Why are you so compelled to watch?

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. I don’t pretend to know how to quantify any of this. But at the very least, I am bringing an observation to light that maybe we need pain in our lives a little bit more than we think we do.

English: A supply and demand curve. The point at which the red and blue lines cross is the equilibrium price. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s look at it from a different perspective by applying the most basic law of economics: the law of supply and demand. Part of this theory states that when there is a higher quantity of something, there will be lower demand, and it will be sold at a lower price. The equilibrium is the point at which the supply and demand curves intersect, demonstrating the point at which the market is most efficient.

(This might be a bit shoddy, but bear with me.) Now let’s replace “price” on the y-axis with “value” and examine this in relation to an individual instead of a market or a firm. Suppose that I am eating ice-cream. The supply curve represents the “supplier” part of my brain that provides the urge to “sell” ice-cream to my body no matter what. The more that supplier-me values ice-cream in general, the greater the quantity it will want to shovel into my mouth. The inversely proportional curve represents the “buyer” part of my brain that provides the limit to what my body will take. This is my demand… or hunger—”demunger,” let’s say. Equilibrium represents the point at which I will eat the right amount to satisfy both my overall love for ice-cream and my current hunger.

Notice what happens as I eat more and more, traveling from left to right. Slowly my demunger goes down until it reaches equilibrium. Across the same time-line, the marginal value that I attribute to ice-cream decreases with every bite. I am wanting it less and less as my body consumes it. As I cross the equilibrium point, I am beginning to feel sick. Finally, I am expelling liquid bile-cream as the demand curve comes to an end, and quantity hits zero.

What does this say about masochism? Well, if we are talking about value and demand, we are talking about something closely related to pleasure and therefore, pain. There are things in this world we desire—our needs and wants. We place a value on those things as an attempt to quantify the degree to which they are desired (or demanded). Value is often measured by the degree of pleasure or pain that is caused. We value things that we like, and we contend that the things we dislike lack value. (This is not to say that value is entirely subjective.)

Insofar as this is the case, though, this means that we will have some interesting things happen when we replace ice-cream with pleasure in the thought experiment. Now as the quantity of pleasure increases, its value decreases. If the value of pleasure disappears, what else is there? In the absence of pleasure, there is usually pain. It makes sense that in order to continue perceiving pleasure as something that holds value, we might want to sometimes abstain from doing pleasurable things. This might even entail that we would do something painful. By this reasoning, as odd as it sounds, it would be possible for a person to want to do something painful and be justified in doing so.

It’s almost always the case that we have to give up some things, usually our time and effort (pain), in exchange for the things that will satisfy our desires (pleasure). Now imagine a world in which you get a lot of pleasure in exchange for the pain you endure. There is no war. There is very little time investment in getting sustenance to survive. Any specific information that you might want is at your fingertips. Transportation to any part of this place is available and attainable.

If you live in the United States or in a similar situation, this might sound familiar. Relative to the past and poverty-stricken countries, we don’t have to give up very much today for what we get. If you have heard of First-World-Problems, you probably already understand. With little pain and an abundance of pleasure of little value, perhaps it is no wonder that people sometimes seek out pain, whether they realize it or not.

The Morality of Moral Judgement I: The Metaphysical Junk

Making judgements can sometimes be a tricky thing, especially when making them about people. As human beings, we ascribe moral value judgements to actions (sometimes actions to which they shouldn’t be ascribed). Based on those actions, we compile them into broad judgements about an individual’s character. Because people fear mistakes in judgement, there has been a common theme in recent years that tells us, “Don’t judge.” This is wrongheaded. Judgements about people are critical to living the kinds of lives that we want. They allow us to befriend the people who will likely be a positive influence, while avoiding the people who would be detrimental. The key is to figure out how we make judgments and when to make judgements. The goal of this post is to provide an initial metaphysical framework that I will use in my discussion of the morality of moral judgement.

What the heck does this mean, this “morality of moral judgment” thing? I am referring to the general rules that explain when and how we should make moral judgements about one or more individuals. Although I use the word “morality,” my intention is not to say that making this or that judgement is good or evil. My intention is for it to be understood as morality-lite, in which the stakes are not that high, and right and wrong is determined by what is effective in helping one to reach a wiser life. The second usage describing a type of judgement, includes both the normal usage of morality involving good and evil and morality-lite. By “metaphysical framework,” I am referring to (or attempting to refer to) what exactly is going on when we make moral judgements. The following is what I will be assuming in this series.

There is a difference, as I hinted at earlier, between a judgement about an action and a judgement about a person. The second kind of judgement is derived from one or more of the first kind. If Jimbob throws a pipe-bomb into a circus resulting in a number of deaths and injuries, then I can judge that action on its own terms. All things considered, I would judge that action to be pretty darn immoral because it involves harming and/or extinguishing human life.

creepy clown

creepy clown (Photo credit: greenkozi)

From this, many would conclude that, therefore, Jimbob is an evil person. But what if Jimbob also volunteers as a firefighter? What if he protests the clubbing of baby seals? What if he is a wonderful husband and father that would never be expected to do something as erratic as chucking a pipe-bomb into a host of clowns?  Maybe he just had a really, really good reason to throw it. Suddenly, it isn’t so easy to label Jimbob as “evil” because there are actions he has done in his life that are good as well as bad.

The reason this can be so tricky is because our goal is to ascribe static traits to dynamic situations and somewhat indistinct personalities. There are a number of different ways in which people would ascribe to Jimbob a moral judgement (that may even stretch beyond those here). (A) They might call him evil, justifying it by saying that killing people overrules any possibility of labeling him as a good person; (B) they might call him good, arguing that his character shows that he wouldn’t do something so outlandish without a good reason; (C) they may call him neither good nor evil, with the explanation that (A) and (B) are inaccurate; or (D) they could call him both good and evil, emphasizing that he has proven that he is capable of both.

I believe that (D) is probably the most accurate of these options. (A) and (B) characterize Jimbob by a limited set of data, while (C) is a refusal to make any moral judgement. Although moral answers can sometimes be ambiguous, (C) simply does not provide an answer. The implication behind (C) is either that there is no such thing as morality, or Jimbob is among those who cannot be classified in this particular case. The first possible implication could be plausible if it is decided that the framework of morality is no longer a useful one (but we are assuming that it still is useful). The second, I suspect, would make it difficult to justify any punishment or praise for Jimbob’s actions because there would no longer be a connection between the moral action and the moral agent.

There is still another aspect that I haven’t yet included that is quite important. This is time. Until now, the judgements I have considered stretch across an undefined range of time. There is a problem in attempting to ascribe unchanging labels to ever-changing individuals. Answer (D) allows more flexibility when taking this into account. If individuals are both good and evil, the way we measure morality can now be measured in the form of a scale. Instead of a mere binary understanding of good or evil, we can ask how good and how evil individuals are. Thinking about it in this framework, I hope, should lead to more accurate moral judgements.

Let’s apply this to Jimbob. We can look at all of the things he has done over the course of his life, his “moral history,” if you will. We can take the good things: saving a grandmother from a burning house last week, spending quality time with his daughter making sure she studies and stays healthy, etc. Then we can take the bad things: the exploding clown incident, the inexplicable drunken brawl this weekend, and so on.

There are at least two key considerations that follow from analyzing things this way: 1) How do you measure the degree to which actions are right or wrong? 2) How do you compare the good and the bad with one another?

In response to (1), there is a clear difficulty here in attempting to think quantitatively about something so qualitative. However, I would contend that if we want to have a moral discussion, then there isn’t really a choice. We already attempt to discover the degrees to which something is good or bad. We may as well try to be as scientific as we can (which includes retaining a healthy dose of skepticism). As for (2), I think this is the kind of question we would need to ask if, for example, we were to decide whether or not to continue dealing with someone. Although this is an important question, providing an answer goes beyond my scope here, but we may be able to zero-in on something resembling the truth in later posts.

Objectivist Government: A Critique


Cowboy (Photo credit: Kevin Zollman)

Ayn Rand points to a few reasons why even a faultlessly moral society will still need a government structure: Honest disagreements between moral individuals will need a third-party arbiter and objective rules; pacifist societies will be at the mercy of the first bully to cross their path; and so forth. The underlying argument is that only a government structure could fulfill these needs. But even more crucial is that the objectivist goal is to develop a rule of necessity that must be true in all cases and applicable to all human societies. There must be a principle based upon human nature and morality that tells us that the right to self-defense should always be monopolized. It is my understanding that: A) objectivism provides no such principle and that B) defining “government” as a monopoly on force is troubling position.

The reasoning to answer challenge (A) is as follows: 1) A desirable society can only exist by recognizing civil rights. 2) Rights can only be violated through use of physical force. 3) Therefore, getting rid of the use of physical force between individuals is required in order to have a desirable civil society (that must deal in reason). 4) In conclusion, “The use of physical force—even its retaliatory use—cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens,” and there must be a government to monopolize it.

I happen to believe that, as it stands, the conclusion is a solid practical position for today’s society. For instance, I do not believe the current United States would benefit in the short-term from a sudden shift to anarchy. However, the problem here is that (4) does not follow from the premises. It makes sense that if we want a society that respects civil rights, we should try to rid ourselves of the use of force in every-day exchanges. But it does not follow necessarily that a government structure will always be the best means to accomplish this.

I do believe that a group of pacifists would likely be vulnerable to a bully, and a post-apocalyptic anarchy or something similar would likely develop into a brutal free-for-all scenario. But Rand apparently believes that people need the threat of retaliatory force to be civil in more than just these cases. It is never enough to count on a society that will rationally and freely police itself.

When looking at the logical ramifications, there are some worrying conflicts here. If individuals—in general— are morally wise enough to put society under the “objective control” of a collectivized police force and justice system, then why wouldn’t they be wise enough to act justly without such institutions? On the other hand, if individuals generally lack the self-control to be without a police force and justice system, what will make the individuals in charge any better than the average immoral citizen?

The situation appears to be a paradox of sorts, but it is not necessarily true that a faultlessly moral society will have no use for governmental institutions. It is also not necessarily true that a society generally lacking morality will always have at the same instance, ineffective or morally questionable institutions to the degree which they are lacking. However, I find it difficult to predict otherwise in either case after taking history into account.

Let us examine this further. Take any area in which there is very little crime. You will notice a high correlation between low crime and institutional competence. One might expect it to be that the effective institutions cause the low level of crime. I would probably have to agree, but I would add that there is also a deeper causal relation that travels in the other direction. It is that the low level of crime, i.e., the relatively moral society, causes there to be effective institutions. If the two are truly interdependent, as I am led to believe, then it is no wonder that they are correlated.

Yet, I am also led to believe that one is more primary than the other. In a city full of thieves and killers, a strong institution can only do so much before it throws everyone in jail and empties the city of people to police (though one could hardly call what I describe a society in the first place). A weak institution could do little but be corrupt to some degree in order to survive. An effective institution requires a generally moral people. I think Mises and Bastiat would agree, individuals are ontologically prior to the groups they create. It should follow that the morality of the groups are dependent upon the morality of the individuals that fill them.

Given that this is true, an effective solution may be, as Rand proposes, to codify a set of objective laws with a government to enforce them. Some anarchists would argue that the solution is to remove all central control because power is what corrupts. History shows us that both sides have a point. Nearly all governments grow into monstrosities over time, even those born with something close to objective laws. But true anarchy can lead to utter chaos, suggesting that there should be some degree of order.

Neither proposal fixes the problem that individuals may choose not to follow the objective laws. What are governments after all? They are still just people. A stable society with effective institutions depends in the long-term upon the rational and moral individuals that comprise it. In turn, the development of these individuals depends upon the proper ideas and memes that will foster moral and rational behavior. If this is true, the correct type of government is simply not the most crucial requirement to create the kind of idealistic society we all want to see (though it would affect it for the better). Not only would a rational standardization of the Law be necessary for long-term stability, but also our systems of morality and logic and so forth.

At this point, people really would be coming to all the same conclusions about the most important things. If most everyone knew what the Law was, agreed to it, and were rational enough to follow it, there would be no need to enforce hardly anything by means of a police force or justice system. There would be no question as to when a criminal were breaking the Law, and any given citizen could carry out the sentence.

This may sound incredibly idealistic. It absolutely is. But I see no problem traveling here if Rand’s idea is to have a specific type of government limited to a justice system, police force, and military, funded entirely without taxes. There are examples of many unique semi-anarcho systems: small American towns and settlements in the old West, medieval Iceland, various Native American settlements, ancient Mediterranean “colonies,”  and so on.

This brings us to the definition of “government” and challenge (B). If Rand’s definition fits all of these examples, then she may be correct because there will be no cases of successful societies without government. But I don’t believe her definition fits any of these examples, nor any of the examples today. Her definition is as such: A government is an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area,” and, “A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective controli.e., under objectively defined laws.”

We might typically think that government has a monopoly on force. But governments almost never have a monopoly on force or even the enforcing of certain rules. It is usually only an attempt at a monopoly. A true monopoly has an exclusive control or possession of something. The potential for application of force exists in every individual, and it is applied every day by individuals of and not of various groups. Thus, the creation of governmental institutions is no more than the formation of an organized gang, a gang that we hope to hold to certain benevolent standards.

When it comes to government, there is little difference in kind between the giant institutions of today’s globalist West, and a posse of citizens gathered in the old American West to fight bandits. They are both groups of people gathered to exert (what should be) retaliatory force. The difference is that large institutions more often have a written set of rules. Even so, it is written in the United States Declaration that the people have a right to overthrow an unjust government because it recognizes that all individuals are capable of being arbiters of force. It should not be the burden of the state to tell everyone what is just; this is ultimately the burden of the individuals that allow the state to exist.

The part of Rand’s work that is very important is the need in society for an objective set of laws. Where she goes astray, I think, is when she suggests that the only way for this to happen is for force to be monopolized. First, I don’t think force can ever be truly monopolized (given current technology). Exceedingly decentralized societies have existed and thrived in the past. If these kinds of societies include systems that would meet Rand’s criteria for being called “government,” then the problem may be a failure to address specific structural details in “The Nature of Government” or a disagreement on the definition of “monopoly.” Second, the effectiveness and competence of any given governmental system is somewhat dependent upon the society that it governs. If one could suddenly conjure a set of objective rules for government out of thin air and garner the will to implement it, I would be elated. But this is barely less idealistic than my desire to see a fully rational and moral society that has no need for government. There doesn’t seem to be enough justification to disregard one end as too idealistic without disregarding the other.

Nevertheless, there is a need for a government in many different societies, but the type of government should fit the circumstances of the society. Many individuals rely on the United States government today, and were it to cease abruptly, it would probably be catastrophic. But this isn’t to say that this reliance is a good thing in the first place. More on this in the future…