Explaining Capitalism Harder

by jefftkjefftk1 min read17th Oct 202112 comments

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EconomicsDisagreementWorld Modeling
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A friend recently shared a sharing of a screenshot of a reblogging of a reblogging of this tumblr post:

Pro-Capitalist's defense of capitalism is just explaining how it works, and then when you say "yes I know, I just think it shouldn't be like that" they explain it to you again but angrier this time
strawberry-crocodile

I really like this perspective, even as someone relatively pro-capitalism, because I think it captures something that often goes wrong in these discussions.

The strongest argument in favor of capitalism is that in practice it works for most things, better than the other systems we've tried. Not because it was designed to work, but because that's just how it falls together. When someone points at a piece of the system that seems unfair or wasteful and says "I just think it shouldn't be like that," stopping it's going to have effects elsewhere in the system, often negative ones. And so pro-capitalism folks often respond by trying to explain capitalism harder: what role is the thing you want to change filling? When people propose removing something without engaging with how it ties in to the rest of the system, it is natural to assume they don't know about its function and try to explain.

As in the opening quote, however, people don't want more explanation of the workings of the status quo. Instead, I think a better response is to think about what you expect would go wrong, and ask if they would expect that. Perhaps they don't, and you can try and figure out where specifically your expectations diverge. Perhaps they do, and they think it's worth it. Perhaps they have additional proposals which work together. Whichever way the conversation goes, I think it probably is more productive?

(Overall my perspective is that while things are much worse than they could be, they're also much better than they have ever been. I really don't want us to break the system that keeps improving our ability to turn time and stuff into what people need. At the same time, to the extent that we can do it without breaking this cycle of improvement, I'd like to see far more redistribution of wealth. In my own life this looks like giving.)

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Interesting near-simultaneous post with https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/gNodQGNoPDjztasbh/lies-damn-lies-and-fabricated-options .  In both cases, it's about discussion with someone who has a different model, and there's no real way to understand whether a semi-specified counterfactual world is "possible".

Finding the crux of a disagreement of this sort is non-trivial.  Starting with explaining your beliefs and understanding in a more detailed way is a pretty reasonable place to start, IMO.  Ideally, your conversational partner will stop you when they disagree, and expound on THEIR model in similar detail.

Don't have the capitalism vs. socialim discussion. I don't like the term capitalism. It's a certain kind of way to frame seeing the economic system with focuses on elements of ownership instead of focusing on elements like markets. 

The US being a capitalist democracy didn't stop Robert Moses from amassing a lot of power without owning any capital or being elected to any office.

In the capitalism vs. socialism debate there's the assumption that power structures are generally visible from the outside when that's not true in cases like the power that Robert Moses had. In our society the fact that the US military and the Federal Reserve are both too-powerful-to-audit. A case like Trafigura also looks like a lot of corporate power is very difficult to understand from the outside. 

Using the same intuition that worked for privately owned companies for stock companies also gets you problems for understanding how they operate. One of the biggest attempts at creating systemic change is Eric Ries's Long-Term Stock Exchange. Discussing capitalism vs. socialism does little to help you understand that project about changing how power gets wielded.

Instead about talking in the abstract about system it's worth talking more concretely about examples and how the interplay between different factors play itself out in them.

Holy shit, the Trafigura case is amazingly horrifying! Also scary: had never heard about this!! 

(NOTE: the first draft of this started as above, and I've left the line, which I wrote after reading the wikileaks link but before gather additional data.)

This was before Brexit... so... was this legal inside of Britain even despite Britain mostly not having sovereignty over itself back then? Couldn't at least the EU have intervened to insist on freedom of the press??

In 2009, the Guardian wrote:

The Guardian has been prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights.

Today's published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.

The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

The thing I think is so amazing is that this didn't trigger more of an uproar. 

Isn't this basically the sort of thing that should cause good people to like... gather arms and prepare for a revolution if a revolution is what's required to restore their own freedom?

ALSO: WTF, Guardian? How did that paper not just say "molon labe" about "their own freedom to publish whatever they like"?

KEY PREDICTION: It seems quite likely to me that "newspaper vs government" tends to end with a victory for the newspaper if the newspaper is standing on even minimally coherent political principles? (Like personally, the more common danger is often the other way, with papers winning even when maybe they shouldn't.)

It seems like a paper here could just report on the hypothetical badness of gag laws in general, then put a teaser on the frontpage "N days till we violate a gag law you're not allowed to even know the existence of", then (intentionally violating the law) report on the thing they're outlawed from reporting on, then report (illegally again?) on the legal attempts to suppress them, then report (illegally?) on the legal attempts to jail their reporters, and so on...

It seems like it would be a bonanza for their sales figures :-)

Maybe they would have to start paying salaries and so on in metal coins instead of using electronic banks where their accounts can be frozen by The Evil Powers That Be? 

Maybe they are already the slaves of a system they didn't notice until it was too late, and then they needed to generate some "emotional cope" and so they became "petulant whiners about their own cowardly submission to a system of evil" rather than EITHER (1) fighting for freedom or (2) silently submitting?

These kind of things make me so confused.

Normally I find myself defending systems that seem "mostly good enough, because you don't even know how bad it COULD be without the systems we do have"...

...but then every so often I find a system doing something that seems totally perverted and monstrous, and if I don't see evidence then of a coherent principled reaction, of the sort that would cause me to believe that bad systems regularly are noticed and fixed, when they are actually bad, then... it makes me think the system could be enduringly bad, but secretly so.

In this case I refused to leave it at this. Confusion like this should not be tolerated in a soul if at all possible so...

<pause to search, discover some stuff... then re-edit the whole comment>

...so... I normally avoid the NYT like a plague, but after much googling I this NYT article was a happy thing to find and I have to give them props for it.

The practical upshot here seems to be that there was a ruckus, centered on good places like (1) twitter and (2) wikileaks, with then also some high prestige wielders of formal power participating in the tweet storm in relatively weak ways that were plausibly theoretically legal and eventually the government capitulated (as per my KEY PREDICTION above).  

Also, there was a government URL with the key data where the link to it could be spread by relatively easy word of mouth.

Something bad is that it doesn't seem that the government capitulated by denouncing the machinery that the relevant "evil law firm" used to try to get away with this. Maybe it was changed? But I'm not currently sure. If ensuring a good british governing system was my job, I might do another ply or three of root cause analysis.

But right now my "rabbithole detector" is tingling, and so I'm hereafter explicitly trying to close it down with at least some minimal sense of "resolution that at least gives hope".

In this case, I found a way to conclude that isn't perfectly clean, but at least suggests that all is not completely lose: the government URL above (that may have been a KEY part of "getting this right") is part of a system that has been re-engineered since 2009 without really maintaining the old links, but the new system still exists, so a similar kind of virtue is potentially feasible up to the present so far as I can tell.

Also, using this new system, I can find proceeds of debates that happened in the aftermath of all this. I did not read them all, but this transcript has a rip-roarer of a speech by someone named Paul Farrelly that I particularly admired (text not in bold in originals):

What this affair shows, too, is that aggressive lawyers such as Carter-Ruck are given too much freedom of manoeuvre by the courts. They draft the injunctions themselves, and that says almost all I need to say. They are out of control—in this case, so much so that they overreached themselves by trying to put themselves above freedoms that have been time-honoured since the 1688 Bill of Rights, and, indeed, above the law. They are unquestioned and unfettered, and in instances such as this we would have not the rule of law but the rule of lawyers, backed up by expensive legal threats that are as predictable as clockwork

Then a bit further down...

This case highlights one other important issue for the House. Parliamentary privilege cannot be seen to be something that just lies in textbooks and is taken for granted, and yet is eaten away at all the time by over-confident lawyers such as Carter-Ruck. Our time-honoured rights are only as strong as their assertion

Hearing about a total absence of people being appropriately assertive when true systemic outrage occurs bothers me a lot.

Hearing about a resolution that included assertive people setting things at least somewhat right (and knowing how and why it was critical to maintain certain lines in the sand) feels a lot better better.

ALSO: WTF, Guardian? How did that paper not just say "molon labe" about "their own freedom to publish whatever they like"?

You treat this like being subject to secret gag orders is something abnormal for the enviroment in which the Guardian operates. The UK does not have a first amendment the way the US has. 

From the article:

The Guardian has vowed urgently to go to court to overturn the gag on its reporting. The editor, Alan Rusbridger, said: "The media laws in this country increasingly place newspapers in a Kafkaesque world in which we cannot tell the public anything about information which is being suppressed, nor the proceedings which suppress it. It is doubly menacing when those restraints include the reporting of parliament itself."

It's an event that's part of a trend. 

The thing I think is so amazing is that this didn't trigger more of an uproar. 

It caused enough of an uproar that it's out in the public domain. For most stories involving secret gag orders you never hear about them because they aren't fought strongly enough for that. 

This was before Brexit... so... was this legal inside of Britain even despite Britain mostly not having sovereignty over itself back then? Couldn't at least the EU have intervened to insist on freedom of the press??

EU intervention would have needed someone to bring the legal case to the European Court of Justice. Those lawsuits are expensive and in this case it seemed easier to settle.

(Disclaimer, I mostly agree with your perspective on the world, though I do think ... public perception is pulling the fabric of (some) developed societies apart at an alarming rate. Part of the core cause: reforms to the system don't mean collapse into socialism or anarchy, nor are massive upheavals needed to address lots of present day complaints people have. But reformism is so unfashionable these days :/ )

I see 'debates' like this and they really trigger my solipsism. Every modern society is a mixed system of some capitalist competition with various social safety nets and regulations.

"Capitalism" isn't good or bad, it's a tool in the societal design kit. Every country on earth tweaks it to their needs, nobody's doing like anarcho-capitalism or any sort of purist implementation(at least not anymore, though I'd argue, not in the past either).

Yes, tweaking the innate game-theoretic flows of the capitalist economy has some amount of unintended, or at least surprising side-effects. But it's not like, oh we banned heroin and child labour and now everyone in our society is growing an extra head due to a hilarious Rube Goldberg series of events. Woe is us, Our Lord and Saviour Capitalism is such a fickle beast sometimes! Time to toss more children into the coal mine pyres to appease it.

Answering, for instance, "Let's ban gambling elements in video games!" with "But capitalism" makes no sense, when all sorts of other substances and activities are successfully regulated. The complexity is not actually infinite, and as various countries experiment with regulations, lessons can be learned about which slippery slopes are dangerous and which are not.

Government officials claiming "oh that's far beyond our ability to do" when asked to help with some societal ill also reeks of "x-party member believe the government is incompetent and then get elected and prove it". I don't understand why Americans put up with, "Government can't help with Y-thing-that-dozens-of-other-countries'-governments-do-without-much-fuss"-rhetoric from PEOPLE WHO ARE THE GOVERNMENT. Like, do your jobs, you jerks! 

On the other side absurdist anarchist thinking at the level of, "we can't get paid parental leave without violent overthrow of the capitalist economy" are also insane.

"Capitalism" isn't good or bad, it's a tool in the societal design kit.

I often think of markets in that way and think the broad concept of "Capitalism" (and many other isms) fit well.

I think this applies to the OP about explaining harder. While also very market and capital friendly in thought (and action) I do often find the advocates seem to hold (generally implicitly) that somehow capitalism/price markets must be universal and nothing else could displace them. I think that goes too far.

I think framing the subject in that social tool allows for some better discussion. Just as we can talk about building tools, or just carpentry tools, tools serve to resolve a specific type of problem and can be used properly and improperly.  Social level tools like markets or capitalism or law are much more complicated than hammers and saws, or even backhoes or cement trucks, or computer systems controlling a large assembly line but still fit into that model well I think.

So when having those interactions about "Yes, I get that but it shouldn't be that way." I think the tool framework can help get into the discussion about just what it means to "be that way". What shouldn't be that way -- the problem to be solved or the tool being used for the problem?

But it's not like, oh we banned heroin and child labour and now everyone in our society is growing an extra head due to a hilarious Rube Goldberg series of events.

 

It's interesting that you mention banned heroin, because it's clear today that drug prohibition has caused tens of thousands of casualties (but probably more). 

Part of the reluctance to implement new regulation is awareness that given society's complexities it's very dangerous, and it's effect might be unknown even ex-post! You seem to acknowledge that, and then just ignore it.

 

It is very reasonable to have a prior of "yeah let's better not interfere". If we had that prior for decades with regards to housing policies, we wouldn't have housing shortages today.

Pro-Gravity's defense of gravity is just explaining how it works, and then when you say "yes I know, I just think it shouldn't be like that" they explain it to you again but angrier this time 

I also see pro-capitalism as a bad frame compared to anti-X simply because capitalism is a lot more natural than other social structures (in my mind).

If you have large-scale society that needs ways to cooperate on how they use resources while having conflicting goals, common units of accounting and exchange emerging is very natural. It does not need a top-down design or designers or implementers to come into existence. Similarly the idea of a band of people coming together to share ownership of some activity is very natural too. Hence the notion of a corporation.

Democracy on the other hand is very consciously designed - a mechanism for governance doesn't spontaneously burst into three pillars of governance each with asymmetric but balanced checks against each other. Dictatorship feels a lot more natural to me.

Large portions of what count as capitalism today don't exist because they are good or better than other systems or that anybody reasoned it that way, they just exist because that's the path of least resistance. So a pro-capitalism stance is usually an anti-X stance where X is some consciously designed proposal to not go with this least resistance path. Onus on the person presenting X to weigh both benefits and harms, at all levels starting from the ideals to the practical implementation to the transition phase.

Eagerly awaiting the Massive LessWrong Post Explaining And Comparing Capitalism And Socialism With Lots Of Steelmanned Arguments, General Principles, And Consequentialism. It'd take a lot of work to write well, though...

Realistically, giving is insufficient for even a modest redistribution of wealth. Government intervention is and has been far more effective in this aspect.

I don't disagree? I'm strongly in favor of government redistribution, to the extent that we can do it without breaking this cycle of improvement.