Science Doesn't Trust Your Rationality

Followup toThe Dilemma: Science or Bayes?

Scott Aaronson suggests that Many-Worlds and libertarianism are similar in that they are both cases of bullet-swallowing, rather than bullet-dodging:

Libertarianism and MWI are both are grand philosophical theories that start from premises that almost all educated people accept (quantum mechanics in the one case, Econ 101 in the other), and claim to reach conclusions that most educated people reject, or are at least puzzled by (the existence of parallel universes / the desirability of eliminating fire departments).

Now there's an analogy that would never have occurred to me.

I've previously argued that Science rejects Many-Worlds but Bayes accepts it.  (Here, "Science" is capitalized because we are talking about the idealized form of Science, not just the actual social process of science.)

It furthermore seems to me that there is a deep analogy between (small-'l') libertarianism and Science:

  1. Both are based on a pragmatic distrust of reasonable-sounding arguments.
  2. Both try to build systems that are more trustworthy than the people in them.
  3. Both accept that people are flawed, and try to harness their flaws to power the system.

The core argument for libertarianism is historically motivated distrust of lovely theories of "How much better society would be, if we just made a rule that said XYZ."  If that sort of trick actually worked, then more regulations would correlate to higher economic growth as society moved from local to global optima.  But when some person or interest group gets enough power to start doing everything they think is a good idea, history says that what actually happens is Revolutionary France or Soviet Russia.

The plans that in lovely theory should have made everyone happy ever after, don't have the results predicted by reasonable-sounding arguments.  And power corrupts, and attracts the corrupt.

So you regulate as little as possible, because you can't trust the lovely theories and you can't trust the people who implement them.

You don't shake your finger at people for being selfish.  You try to build an efficient system of production out of selfish participants, by requiring transactions to be voluntary.  So people are forced to play positive-sum games, because that's how they get the other party to sign the contract.  With violence restrained and contracts enforced, individual selfishness can power a globally productive system.

Of course none of this works quite so well in practice as in theory, and I'm not going to go into market failures, commons problems, etc.  The core argument for libertarianism is not that libertarianism would work in a perfect world, but that it degrades gracefully into real life.  Or rather, degrades less awkwardly than any other known economic principle.  (People who see Libertarianism as the perfect solution for perfect people, strike me as kinda missing the point of the "pragmatic distrust" thing.)

Science first came to know itself as a rebellion against trusting the word of Aristotle. If the people of that revolution had merely said, "Let us trust ourselves, not Aristotle!" they would have flashed and faded like the French Revolution.

But the Scientific Revolution lasted because—like the American Revolution—the architects propounded a stranger philosophy:  "Let us trust no one!  Not even ourselves!"

In the beginning came the idea that we can't just toss out Aristotle's armchair reasoning and replace it with different armchair reasoning.  We need to talk to Nature, and actually listen to what It says in reply.  This, itself, was a stroke of genius.

But then came the challenge of implementation. People are stubborn, and may not want to accept the verdict of experiment.  Shall we shake a disapproving finger at them, and say "Naughty"?

No; we assume and accept that each individual scientist may be crazily attached to their personal theories.  Nor do we assume that anyone can be trained out of this tendency—we don't try to choose Eminent Judges who are supposed to be impartial.

Instead, we try to harness the individual scientist's stubborn desire to prove their personal theory, by saying:  "Make a new experimental prediction, and do the experiment.  If you're right, and the experiment is replicated, you win."  So long as scientists believe this is true, they have a motive to do experiments that can falsify their own theories.  Only by accepting the possibility of defeat is it possible to win.  And any great claim will require replication; this gives scientists a motive to be honest, on pain of great embarrassment.

And so the stubbornness of individual scientists is harnessed to produce a steady stream of knowledge at the group level.  The System is somewhat more trustworthy than its parts.

Libertarianism secretly relies on most individuals being prosocial enough to tip at a restaurant they won't ever visit again.  An economy of genuinely selfish human-level agents would implode.  Similarly, Science relies on most scientists not committing sins so egregious that they can't rationalize them away.

To the extent that scientists believe they can promote their theories by playing academic politics—or game the statistical methods to potentially win without a chance of losing—or to the extent that nobody bothers to replicate claims—science degrades in effectiveness.  But it degrades gracefully, as such things go.

The part where the successful predictions belong to the theory and theorists who originally made them, and cannot just be stolen by a theory that comes along later—without a novel experimental prediction—is an important feature of this social process.

The final upshot is that Science is not easily reconciled with probability theory.  If you do a probability-theoretic calculation correctly, you're going to get the rational answer.  Science doesn't trust your rationality, and it doesn't rely on your ability to use probability theory as the arbiter of truth.  It wants you to set up a definitive experiment.

Regarding Science as a mere approximation to some probability-theoretic ideal of rationality... would certainly seem to be rational.  There seems to be an extremely reasonable-sounding argument that Bayes's Theorem is the hidden structure that explains why Science works.  But to subordinate Science to the grand schema of Bayesianism, and let Bayesianism come in and override Science's verdict when that seems appropriate, is not a trivial step!

Science is built around the assumption that you're too stupid and self-deceiving to just use Solomonoff induction.  After all, if it was that simple, we wouldn't need a social process of science... right?

So, are you going to believe in faster-than-light quantum "collapse" fairies after all?  Or do you think you're smarter than that?

 

Part of The Quantum Physics Sequence

Next post: "When Science Can't Help"

Previous post: "The Dilemma: Science or Bayes?"

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Science first came to know itself as a rebellion against trusting the word of Aristotle.

Digressing, this is PC history.

Science first came to be as Roger Bacon writing up the scientific method. His approach was to not trust anyone, but to trust Aristotle more than most. Unsurprisingly, he was put in solitary confinement on bread and water. The Church then issued a list of forbidden thoughts, with Aristotle prominently on the list. That science started with a revolt against Aristotle is a whitewash of the conflict between the theocratic state and Science. Science, science in the sense of the scientific method, not science in the sense of a state anointed priesthood ceremonially wearing labcoats as white robes, is inherently revolutionary, a defiance of authority, but it was not the authority of Aristotle that they were revolting against. Rather, all beliefs were subject to empirical scrutiny, including the beliefs of the authorities of Roger Bacon's day, which was revolt against present authority, not Aristotle.

We do not know what the charges were against Roger Bacon (most likely the nominal charges were irrelevant, and the real charge was having a bad attitude), but it was more likely he was imprisoned for respecting Aristotle, than disrespecting him.

Indeed, Aristotle was in many ways the first Empricist, and fell into/ out of fashion several times in the history of the Church

Libertarianism secretly relies on most individuals being prosocial enough to tip at a restaurant they won't ever visit again. An economy of genuinely selfish human-level agents would implode.

In other words, libertarianism could only ever work with real people. It would never work with the fictional creatures that people both for and against libertarianism philosophize themselves into imagining.

Gray Area: Eliezer, why are you concerned with untestable questions?

Questions you can easily test experimentally are hard for Science to get wrong.

There are numerous questions that are hard to test experimentally right this minute but are extremely important because of their future consequences. I bet you can think of one or two.

I chose quantum physics as my point of departure because the case is mathematically clear-cut.

Incidentally, it looks to me like you should be able to test macroscopic decoherence. Eventually. You just need nanotechnological precision, very low temperatures, and perhaps a clear area of interstellar (intergalactic?) space.

Where are the witty critical posters? I'm surprised to be the first to observe that this post (favorably comparing Science with Libertarianism) reads kind of like a self-parody of the OvercomingBias blog. Is one libertarian if one holds up each claim of libertarianism and says "Well, that's an empirical question. Let's look at the data". Because that's the scientific, empirical approach, it seems to me. I think libertarianism starts to look sill when viewed in that light. To be fair, so do the claims of any political party that size or larger, of which I'm aware.

Hi,

I've been reading LW sequences sine a few months, and I find them very interesting, but I think you made a mistake in mixing politics (libertarianism, french/american revolutions, ...) into this post.

I won't go into explaining why I think economical libertarianism is deeply flawed and not similar at all to the process of Science (for once, I don't think it degrades well at all), but above that, by calling into very complicated and very debated concepts, you're just making following your core reasoning harder to follow.

I also think you make some factual errors : saying the "american revolution" is a success but the french one a collapse is a great mistake. Most of the progress of the French Revolution lasted for very long and still last. The whole concept of "Human Rights", both the "first generation" rights, like the freedom of speech, and the "second generation" rights like universal access to education, come mostly from the French Revolution (the Declaration of Humans and Citizen Rights, to my knowledge, predates the 1st Amemendement). Most countries of Europe and South America use a civil code derived from it. The abolition of slavery by the French Revolution in 1793 was temporarily undone afterwards by Napoleon, but it was a firm stone on which the abolitionist have built afterwards.

And some very fundamental measures of the French Revolution, that were totally opposite to economical libertarianism, like the "taxation du prix du pain" (state-fixed price of bread to block speculation on breads and flour (the "Accapareurs")) lasted for almost two centuries, protecting France from famine, and making the "french baguette" a world-renewed food (because, to the contrary of what economical libertarianism predicts, the fixed price of bread leaded to a massive development of the bread industry in France, making bread the fundamental food, and forcing the bakery to compete on quality since they couldn't compete on price). That's just a few examples among many. Wiping the jump forward in humanism that represented the French Revolution and its continuing consequences nowadays in a few words as you did is, in my opinion, just not true.

Anyway, thanks for those very interesting posts.

I also think you make some factual errors : saying the "american revolution" is a success but the french one a collapse is a great mistake. Most of the progress of the French Revolution lasted for very long and still last.

With all due respect, your account of the French Revolution is just cartoonishly biased. The "progress of the French Revolution" included, among other things:

  • The introduction of total war fought with mass conscript armies, for which all the resources of the nation are requisitioned, in place of the 18th century limited and professional warfare regulated by strict codes and financed mostly from monarchs' private purses.

  • This invention leading to two decades of Europe-wide mass slaughter and destruction that left an unknown number of millions of people dead. It also left the recurring idea of spreading the national glory and ideology (as opposed to mere interests of rulers, which may be vicious but are at least limited and sane) by war and conquest.

  • Overall, the nationalist ideology born in the Revolution and the Revolutionary Wars, both in France and elsewhere as a reaction to it, had subsequent historical consequences for which "cataclysmic" would be an understatement. Subsequent European revolutions inspired by the French one, even if initially non-violent, would usually lead straight to bloody ethnic conflicts.

  • These "rights" introduced by the Revolution included the "right" to the imposition of a rigid centralized government and elimination of all local historical customs and institutions in the name of national homogenization. Those who resisted were dealt with by methods that Europe wouldn't see again until the Nazis. This is analogous to the bloody total wars between nations engendered by the nationalist ideology, only in this case the violence is directed towards those elements within the nation who refuse to fall in line.

The legacy and inspiration of all these innovations around the world has indeed lasted until the present day, but I don't think it's something to be happy and proud about -- certainly not a "jump forward in humanism" by any stretch of imagination.

As for the events specific to the Revolution itself, the picture is perhaps even more gruesome -- from mobs dismembering their victims and parading their heads on pikes (which revolutionary propagandists proudly bragged about) to the mechanized mass executions with the guillotines.

Even the abolition of slavery was done in a way that caused a race war of enormous brutality in Haiti (the main center of French slaveholding), which was concluded by an all-out extermination of the losing side down to the last man, woman, and child. And in any case, the effective abolition of worldwide slave trade (and subsequently slavery) was due to the ideological and political developments in Britain and America, and their subsequent political and military actions. The French Revolution had little or nothing to do with it.

Well, you are so far away from the historical truth than I hardly know where to start to answer, and I wondered for long before answering... or just granting you a Godwin point for comparing the Revolution with Hitler.

  • Your view of the medieval wars (and the massive famine, plunder, rape) as just a nice game is ridiculous. Revolutionary France didn't declare war to conquest others. It fought a war because it was assaulted by all its neighbors. In that respect, yes, it's the whole french people that fought. But unlike you claim, it was made of volunteer, not of conscripts, until Napoleon (which pursued some of the Revolution, like the civil code, which is indeed a huge progress towards the previous law of the first born).

  • Massive wars in Europe were in no way invented by the Revolution. Roman conquests, Germanic invasions, Hundred Years war, conquest of the americas, arabic invasions and crusades, ... Europe was waging wars, both internally and externally, in a very constant fashion way before the Revolution. To the contrary, the Revolution aimed to end war, stating in the Constitution of the First French Republic (at my knowledge, for the first time in history, but I may be wrong on that) :

« Article 118. - The French People is the friend and natural ally of free people.

Article 119. - It doesn't temper in the government of other people ; it doesn't tolerate that other nations would temper in its own. »

  • There is no ethnic conflict that was started inspired by the French Revolution. The French Revolution was the first to proclaim absolute equality of people, whatever their race, nationality, religion (or lack of religion) was. That's what it abolished slavery, for example.

  • The "rights" introduced by the Revolution are absolutely scandalous dictatorial things like rights to freedom, to safety, to receive a job or adequate conditions of living, to education.

  • Comparing the French Revolution to the nazis is nothing but a troll.

  • The abolition of slavery didn't lead to a race war. The race war in Haïti started when Napoleon reinstored slavery, undoing one of most important conquests of the Revolution.

Well, I could continue for long, I'll stop it here because it's not really the main topic of the article. But it just proves my initial point : the French Revolution (and the American one) are so heated and disputed topics (that reached Godwin level in a few posts) that Eliezer should have, for the sake of the comparison between Science and Bayes, chosen another example.

Edit : oh, I find it very... surprising that on LW someone can quote Philippe De Villiers, who is a representative of our extreme right, a fundamentalist Catholic and openly racist and homophobe. Sure, even Hitler is sometimes right, but quoting an extreme-right politician who viscerally oppose the French Revolution because the French Revolution broke the power the Catholic Church had on the government, and stripped the priests from the powers they had over daily life. What a reference on a community dedicated to refining the art of human rationality.

I was comparing the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars with the 18th century standard of warfare (basically, the standards that held from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia until the French Revolution). It is true that some previous wars in European history had been just as awful, like for example the Thirty Years' war. However, the innovations brought by the French Revolution destroyed a century and a half long tradition of reasonably limited and civilized warfare. To see this, it's enough to look at the casualty figures of 18th century European wars prior to 1789 and compare them with the death toll of those in the period 1792-1815. It's an order of magnitude difference.

Moreover, some of your claims are wildly inaccurate. In particular, the first mass conscription (levée en masse) was levied in the summer of 1793, six years before Napoleon's Brumaire coup. And it was by no means "the whole [F]rench people" that stood behind the revolutionary regime. A very large percentage was monarchist and saw the Revolution as an illegal and tyrannical usurpation -- for which they had at least some good reason, considering that it immediately abolished centuries old traditional institutions of local autonomy and submitted them straight to the dictate from Paris. You yourself said that "there were many people inside France trying to destroy the Revolution from inside" because they didn't like the change. Does this mean that, according to you, these people deserved the Terror to be unleashed against them?

In some places, like the Vendée, the monarchists had overwhelming support -- which was crushed by the revolutionary regime in a campaign of mass atrocities whose scale and brutality would truly not be repeated in Europe until the 20th century totalitarians took over. (If you think my assertion about the Nazis is incorrect, can you name some campaign of atrocities in Europe between the French Revolution and the Nazis that rose to the same level? Perhaps some things that happened in Eastern Europe in the post-WW1 chaos would qualify.)

The assertion that "[t]here is no ethnic conflict that was started [or] inspired by the French Revolution" is also absurd. If anything, the German-French rivalry and revanchism that was to produce a series of cataclysmic wars in the next 150 years was a direct consequence of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Moreover, nothing like the European nationalist ideologies that would cause all the strife and wars in the subsequent 200 years existed before the French Revolution. The novel idea of a centralized and ethnically uniform nation-state that is the very essence of nationalism was at the center of the French revolutionary project. (This is especially obvious in the revolutionary government's policy of eliminating local languages and dialects and forcible imposition of linguistic uniformity.) Once such ideas start taking hold in ethnically diverse places, the consequences are terrible almost without exception.

In Haiti, the story is much more complicated than what you say, and altogether horrible -- certainly nothing like the idealistic story of successful abolition of slavery that you suggest. When the formal abolition came in 1794, the slave rebellion that would ultimately turn into all-out race war was already well underway. The bungling politics of the republican commissioners newly arrived from France, principally Sonthonax, certainly didn't help the situation. (It is true that the conclusive and most brutal events happened after Napoleon's unsuccessful invasion in 1801-02, but the situation had turned very nasty even before that.) And in any case, the worldwide slave trade was abolished by the Royal Navy prompted by British abolitionist politics. The French Revolution had nothing to do with that.

Your constant pointing out of all the nice and sweet things that the revolutionary regime was declaring on paper is rather absurd considering what this regime was doing in practice. (And a more in-depth analysis would in fact show that some of these nice-sounding ideas did in fact predictably lead to awful consequences when attempted in practice, while many of them weren't at all nice when one looks at what they really meant behind the lofty language.)

All in all, you seem to be repeating a very naive and cartoonish version of events. I suggest that you read more on this historical period if you'd like to discuss it seriously.


Correction: The first levée en masse was in February 1793, not the summer of 1793 as I wrote originally. This however goes even further towards the point I was making.

Since you are issuing a post, not a book, you had to leave out most of the crimes of the French revolution, such as the infamous red terror, which was the very essence of the French revolution and its most emblematic act, the prototype and original for all the many terrors and mass murders of the twentieth century, the inspiration for all our most evil intellectuals.

Among the many crimes you left out was two years of hyperinflation with price control between 1793 and 1795, which employed the most savage terror to control prices, and imposed widespread famine, which famine produced massive riots, which were in turn put down by measures of extraordinary brutality.

(If you think my assertion about the Nazis is incorrect, can you name some campaign of atrocities in Europe between the French Revolution and the Nazis that rose to the same level? Perhaps some things that happened in Eastern Europe in the post-WW1 chaos would qualify.)

Anti-Jewish pogroms killed somewhat more people than the tens of thousands in the Terror. According to Wikipedia, 70,000 to 250,000 during the civil war period in Russia.

You're right, of course -- the 1917 Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war involved atrocities on all sides that easily beat the French revolutionary terror.

For some interesting reason, when I make a query to my brain on what happened in Europe in some period X-Y, the answer usually excludes Russia unless I ponder it more carefully. Even when I wrote about post-WW1 Eastern Europe in my above comment, I was vaguely thinking of the Freikorps fighting it out with Poles and Czechs rather than the Russian Civil War.

It would certainly mean moving the goalposts if I insisted on excluding Russia from Europe, but it still says something that you have to go all the way to the rise of the hardcore 20th century totalitarians to find similar examples.

You're right, of course -- the 1917 Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war involved atrocities on all sides that easily beat the French revolutionary terror.

On the other hand, it's standard to the point of cliché to regard the events in France post-1789 as specifically foreshadowing those in Russia post-1917 (with Lenin "correcting" some of Robespierre's mistakes, for instance making sure all the heirs of the old regime were dead).

You compare the French revolution with the other totalitarian terror regimes it prefigured and inspired.

To be fair, white terror can be extremely nasty and non-selective too. This was true in the time of Sulla as much as in the 20th century, including the killings by the Russian Whites cited by Lessdazed.

Sulla then resigned the dictatorship, restored the Republic, and returned to private life, though the fact that such measures as Sulla's were necessary to protect and revive the Republic should have demonstrated it could not be revived.

In general, white terrors are response to red terrors, or to the dire and imminent threat of a red terror.

In war, both sides always do dreadful things, for to win, you have to be twice as bad as the bad guys. If one side is better than the other, they demonstrate moral superiority by how they behave after they have won, not by how they win. Compare what followed the white terror in Taiwan, with what followed the red terror on the Chinese mainland.

to win, you have to be twice as bad as the bad guys.

Granted being bad can be useful, being bad can also be useless or counterproductive. As it often is the latter two, the principle doesn't hold.

I find it very... surprising that on LW someone can quote Philippe De Villiers, who is a representative of our extreme right, a fundamentalist Catholic and openly racist and homophobe.

In this context, his value system isn't the issue. There's nothing that Vladimir is using that's a questionable claim. He linked to an article which quotes De Villiers and doesn't say something like "oh, and mainstream scholars think this is bullcrap"- because the events unquestionably occurred. In fact the article quotes mainstream historians as agreeing with De Villiers on the factual history. The only reason De Villiers is bringing it up is for his own political goals. But that doesn't impact the factual accuracy of the points.

In general, it is a hallmark of rationality to take facts where they come from even when they come from very distasteful sources. Thus, we've had in our rationality quotes threads quotes from people as diverse as Jack Chick, Ted Kaczynski, C. S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton.

Sure, in the case of De Villiers if he made a specific factual claim and was the primary source for that claim I'd be less inclined to trust it than if say Richard Dawkins made the same statement but that's completely distinct from someone happening to be willing to cite an article that De Villiers appears in.

Politics is the mind-killer.

To be fully precise, the exact extent of the revolutionary atrocities in Vendée and elsewhere is a matter of some controversy. Unfortunately, as it happens with all atrocities that become an issue in ideological battles, there has been both exaggeration and denial motivated by sympathies for one or another side. However, as far as I know, there is no serious disagreement among historians that the extent of atrocities was unparalleled by anything else in Europe that happened in the centuries between the end of the Thirty Years' War and the rise of the major 20th century totalitarians (i.e. Bolsheviks and Nazis).

(Again, if I'm missing some counterexample, I'd be really curious to hear it.)

To give another illustration, one way in which the French revolutionary regime clearly stands out is its really extreme bloodthirsty and exterminationist rhetoric, which is again unlike anything else seen in European history until the outbreak of extreme 20th century totalitarianism. (Some of this rhetoric is still reflected in the lyrics of the Marseillaise calling for the spilling of "impure blood.") When such rhetoric becomes mainstream, similar deeds usually also follow. (The advocates of "hate speech" restrictions actually have a point when they argue this, however much they tend to be confused or disingenuous otherwise.)

On the other hand, the fact about the European wars in the period 1648-1789 being limited, professional, disciplined, and reasonably considerate towards civilians is completely uncontroversial in mainstream history. The standard name for the type of war in this period is "cabinet wars" (German Kabinettskriege). The Wikipedia page gives a concise summary.

The advocates of "hate speech" restrictions actually have a point when they argue this

" are murderous thugs" is hate speech that is apt to result in race war even if it is true of a disproportionate minority of that group, indeed particularly if it is true of a small but disproportionate minority of that group.

" no-hablo-english with no job purchased million dollar houses no money down" is also categorized as hate speech, but is more likely to result in responsible lending policies than race war.

Thus, we've had quotes from people as diverse as Jack Chick, Ted Kaczynski, C. S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton.

We've had stupid quotes in the quotes thread from all sorts of smart, dumb, misguided, insane, and perceptive people. Do you mean to say that LW has collectively upvoted quotes from those people?

That's a good point. But yes, we have collectively upvoted such quotes:

Jack Chick quote upvoted to +19.

G. K. Chesterton quote upvoted +14. (There is possible bias since the person who gave the quote was Eliezer.)

C.S Lewis quote upvoted to +18.

Ted Kaczynski quote upvoted to +8.

For that matter we've also had a quote from the Time Cube Guy voted up to +10.

Revolutionary France didn't declare war to conquest others...To the contrary, the Revolution aimed to end war

People excuse by citing intentions, and accuse by citing consequences.

To the contrary, the Revolution aimed to end war, stating in the Constitution of the First French Republic (at my knowledge, for the first time in history, but I may be wrong on that)

It seems like that's the implicit goal of nearly every ideology, for after it's universally adopted.

People excuse by citing intentions, and accuse by citing consequences.

It seems to be possible either way, excusing by citing consequences and accusing by citing intentions alike. Your commentary seems to lack explanatory power.

(On the other hand, the point about the evidence being filtered is well-taken.)

It seems to be possible either way

Intentions are usually actually good. It's true people defend and attack on both avenues simultaneously to see what sticks, but the reality is usually good intentions leading to bad effects (not net effects, this is assumed to be true of all individual outcomes through the halo effect), so rhetorical moves count on the audience to assume intentions and effects are correlated while citing true and incontrovertible things about intentions or effects, depending on the side.

...or just granting you a Godwin point for comparing the Revolution with Hitler.

...

Edit : oh, I find it very... surprising that on LW someone can quote Philippe De Villiers, who is a representative of our extreme right, a fundamentalist Catholic and openly racist and homophobe. Sure, even Hitler is sometimes right, but quoting an extreme-right politician who viscerally oppose the French Revolution because the French Revolution broke the power the Catholic Church had on the government, and stripped the priests from the powers they had over daily life. What a reference on a community dedicated to refining the art of human rationality.

I've edited my comment several times, yet I remain quite unsure as to what I should say.

I defend kilobug here; It's not as bad as it looks. Each unnecessary Hitler reference is fractionally as bad as the previous, as Godwin's law is about the subject arising in the first place.

What's more, Vladmir_M referenced Hitler in an argument that something bad wouldn't be repeated until Hitler. That's not hypothetical, that references a terrible thing in the technically true rhetorical construct of "X is/was the worst thing since/until Y" where Y is/was worse than X, possibly by orders of magnitude, but the brain associates X and Y as similar regardless, in a way that is inappropriate.

kilobug only mentioned Hitler as a most extreme example of bad character, but it was clearly hypothetical. It's a cheap rhetorical move, maybe, but I think it's worse to say something is the "worst thing since.until Hitler", even if true, if that thing is orders of magnitude less bad (for several reasons), since it's not taking a hypothetical extreme case.

I think Hitler's killing program was much worse than Revolutionary France's for several reasons. First, quantitatively, hundreds of times as many innocents were killed. Second, France's was a case of willingness to convict nine innocents lest a guilty person go free, while a significant part of Germany's was gratuitous - this is a qualitative difference.

The news media love to use the "since" construction to inflame things and exaggerate importance, i.e. "This is the worst economic slowdown since the Great Depression" may mean "This economic slowdown is slightly worse than the one in the 1970's that you remember and have in your mind as a close comparable and that by all rights we should be comparing it to, also we either forgot 1937 or include it as part of the 'Great Depression'".

That's a fair point. I shouldn't have used the Nazi comparison due to its rhetorical effects that always obscure and sidetrack the concrete issue at hand.

When I wrote that, I had in mind specifically the history of Western Europe, and what a typical inhabitant of a Western European country would have seen through the centuries. If you plot the severity of atrocities that a random Western European would have had the chance to witness in his local region of residence after the Peace of Westphalia (1648), using any reasonable measure of their severity, there would definitely be sharp peaks around the time of the revolutionary/Napoleonic wars and WW2, with other peaks such as the Franco-Prussian War and even WW1 significantly lower.

But yes, I do plead guilty to rhetoric that, even if not strictly inaccurate, goes too far into the Dark Arts territory.

But yes, I do plead guilty to rhetoric that, even if not strictly inaccurate, goes too far into the Dark Arts territory.

I don't find it rhetorical, I find it factual. If we avoid stating certain facts in order to avoid offending certain sensibilities, then we are committing an error of omission. As I see it, in this case you were not pulled from the brink of Dark Arts. Rather, you were pulled from the brink of political incorrectness. Which is not the same thing at all.

When any group is being sufficiently totalitarian in the name of lofty ideals, I support comparisons to other totalitarian groups, which may include the Nazis and the Soviets (among others). I believe that such comparisons can help us learn from history. Of course, the subject of such comparisons will always be both quantitatively and qualitatively different, but the Nazis and the Soviets provide intersubjective references points for certain political ideas gone wrong.

Of course, it could be more rhetorically pragmatic to swallow these analogies even when accurate depending on the audience.

Upvoted since I definitely agree that comparing anything to Hitler or Nazis causes fairly consistent and predictable problems in the rationality of responses.

I think kilobug goes too far in supporting the French Revolution--I think it's good that France no longer has even a symbolic monarch, but I agree with Vladimir that kilobug glosses over the loss of human life and freedoms that occurred during the revolution. Saying things like this without backing them up with a lot of evidence (which probably doesn't exist given the absolutes used to qualify the statement), sounds overly idealistic(emphasis mine):

There is no ethnic conflict that was started inspired by the French Revolution. The French Revolution was the first to proclaim absolute equality of people, whatever their race, nationality, religion (or lack of religion) was. That's what it abolished slavery, for example.

I think kilobug goes too far in supporting the French Revolution--I think it's good that France no longer has even a symbolic monarch,

I live in Canada, which still has a symbolic monarch. What precise advantage, in your opinion, does France enjoy over Canada because it no longer has one? Or do you think that there is some difference that makes the lack of a monarch beneficial only for the French?

What precise advantage, in your opinion, does France enjoy over Canada because it no longer has [a monarch]?

Obviously there are tons of confounding variables here that make the net benefit hard to measure, but clearly the main advantage is the ability of the population to elect the head of state.

(Also, Canada has the additional disadvantage of sharing its monarch with other countries; the reasons why this is problematic at least in theory should go without saying.)

I don't think this would be the right place to enter a general discussion of these issues, but I must note that your response reflects beliefs that are, in my opinion, far below the standards of intellectual scrutiny that are supposed to be observed on LW. In particular, you seem to be assuming that, by any reasonable standards, democratic election of the head of state is clearly a good thing, while personal unions between countries are clearly bad. You also treat these claims as obvious.

To me it seems that both these claims are easily falsified by real-world evidence, and even setting aside that stronger rebuttal that would take some effort to justify, there is certainly no rational reason to treat them as self-evident.

your response reflects beliefs that are, in my opinion, far below the standards of intelectual scrutiny that are supposed to be observed on LW.

I don't think that's fair. We all have a great many beliefs inherited from general culture, more than we have the opportunity to scrutinize (especially without specific prompting). Even if my standards of intellectual scrutiny are very high, some of my beliefs are bound to be false; if you want to judge whether I'm meeting the LW standards of intellectual scrutiny, you should observe how I update in the face of new evidence or contrary argument, not necessarily the content of my starting beliefs themselves.

In particular, you seem to be assuming that, by any reasonable standards, democratic election of the head of state is clearly a good thing,

Only ceteris paribus, however; and I was careful not to claim that democratic election is necessarily a good thing on net in any specific case (such as that of the countries mentioned), but only a desideratum to be weighed against whatever disadvantages it may involve in a particular context.

while personal unions between countries are clearly bad

"Clearly present certain problems" would be a better paraphrase.

To me it seems that both these claims are easily falsified by real-world evidence,

If you interpreted them in the unreasonably strong senses that I have disclaimed above, I can see why you might think so. However, when understood in the sense I intended, I think my claims are perfectly true and hardly worthy of controversy.

and even setting aside that stronger claim that would take some effort to justify, there is certainly no rational reason to treat your beliefs as self-evident.

Again, I would by no means claim it is self-evident that France's governmental structure is superior to Canada's on the whole; only that France's has at least some desirable features that Canada's lacks.

OK, pardon if I have interpreted your claims too uncharitably, or if I sounded too personally critical. I didn't mean to pick on you as having low intellectual standards or anything like that -- I merely wanted to point out that your reply sounded like a cached thought of a sort that, in a different context, would likely raise a red flag for many people here, possibly including you, thus potentially indicating some widespread biases reflected in failure to notice the cached thoughts in this particular case.

When you say that "clearly the main advantage is the ability of the population to elect the head of state," this can mean, to the best of my interpretation, either that this ability is somehow valuable in itself (so that this value should be counted as a positive term separately from its practical consequences), or that it self-evidently has advantageous implications. Do you think this interpretation is incorrect or uncharitable? I certainly find neither the former nor the latter possible meaning as "hardly worthy of controversy."

Your subsequent comments indicate that you had in mind the former meaning, i.e. that popular election of the head of state is somehow desirable and valuable in itself, which however may need to be weighted against its possible bad practical implications. But as I said, I definitely don't see how this claim is self-evident. How exactly would you justify it?

As for the issue of personal union (i.e. sharing the head of state with other countries), you characterized it as an "additional disadvantage," thus implying (again to the best of my interpretation) that it is indeed, on the net, a disadvantage. But I don't see how this could possibly be self-evident either -- off-hand, I can easily produce a bunch of reasons why it could plausibly have both disadvantages and advantages. (As an off-hand example of an advantage, as a Canadian, you can still get some degree of British consular protection.) Which of these prevail of course depends both on empirical questions and how we choose to weight individual concerns. But again, I really don't see how such an assertion could be "hardly worth of controversy."

I think I should emphasize that I don't think anything horrible should be done to any current symbolic monarch, and I do not approve of what happened to the full monarchs during the French Revolution. However, symbolic monarchs are very expensive politicians to maintain, and whether or not they gain their position is an accident of birth. They may not have absolute power like a full monarch would have, and therefore I disapprove of them less than I would a full monarch (since their role is quite different), but I still disapprove.

I should note that I disapprove of full monarchs because I disapprove of so few people holding such great power in society. I disapprove of symbolic monarchs because I don't feel any one politician should occupy a position where they are automatically made so important over others.

For those symbolic monarchs today who perform in their current roles admirably, I feel it would be better to simply drop the title and change it to something more reflective of their political duties, drop the inheritance of the role, and change the income from the state to something more in line with what other politicians receive. The lifelong nature of the role can be kept if this still better fulfills some function of the new, but similar, role.

To answer your two questions, there's not much of a practical advantage, but I simply prefer the lack of a symbolic monarch because I dislike monarchy. I don't think this would make the lack of a symbolic monarch only beneficial to the French. However, I do think this is mostly a cultural and/or individual preference a person may have.

Supporting Notes

Compare the price of an example symbolic monarchy vs an example president. While its true that a symbolic monarch probably isn't going to strain the finances of a relatively rich country, I must also consider the price of an example prime minister of the same country as for the symbolic monarch and I have to disagree that they should be worth so much less than the symbolic monarch (this is irrespective of who the monarch is or how many separate countries share the monarch between them, and more about how I rate the value of the respective positions, since the individuals come and go).

symbolic monarchs are very expensive politicians to maintain

You link to a web page that says: "Latest figures show the cost of supporting the Royal Family has gone up to nearly £37m a year." That's a drop in the bucket. The American Congress is much more expensive to maintain. I refer not to their salaries but to what they cost the US. For example, when Congress passes a law that requires that a hundred billion dollars be spent on something that does more harm than good, then the Congress has cost us a hundred billion dollars. In comparison to that, the damage done to the country's purse by the Royal Family is pocket money.

...I do not approve of...I disapprove of ...I disapprove of ...I disapprove of ...I disapprove of ... I feel it would be better...I simply prefer...

Much of your reply is devoted to stating your preferences, which tells us only about you (you are signaling your political allegiances). However, the question that was asked was not about your preferences. It was "what precise advantage, in your opinion, does France enjoy..." and "do you think that there is some difference that makes the lack of a monarch beneficial only for the French..." Your preferences and your political allegiances are not quite the same thing as what advantages and benefits a population enjoys.

I view a question about my opinion as a question about my preferences. In fact, I don't think there's any way a person can answer that question without referencing their preferences. Of course, I did try to go into more detail about what specific preferences were involved and reference facts when applicable, but I'm not really sure what benefits or advantages other people would enjoy, excepting those who agree with me. This is why I didn't reference that particular preference.

I'm not really sure why you think the comparison to the laws congress passes is applicable. As far as I understand, a symbolic monarchy doesn't pass laws. Are you saying that people who pass laws should be eliminated because they can make awful choices? The consequences of people's choices is entirely dependent on how much power they have. Also, I was only commenting about the inequality of their pay, not so much that it is a burden on their society (as I stated in my previous post). Once again, this is a personal preference.

What's more, Vladmir_M referenced Hitler in an argument that something bad wouldn't be repeated until Hitler. That's not hypothetical, that references a terrible thing in the technically true rhetorical construct of "X is/was the worst thing since/until Y" where Y is/was worse than X, possibly by orders of magnitude, but the brain associates X and Y as similar regardless, in a way that is inappropriate.

Every totalitarian terror state has been consciously inspired by the French Revolution and Red Terror - Marx invokes the red terror as a good idea, though perhaps not carried out with sufficient thoroughness.

While "X was the worst thing until Y" can inappropriately associate X and Y, there are in this case many connections and similarities between X and Y.

Critics of the French Revolution foresaw twentieth century totalitarianism in its actions and ideology:

Joseph de Maistre foretold:

The people are told by their masters:

You believe that you don't want this law, but we assure you that you do. If you dare reject it we shall shoot you down in order to punish you for not wanting what you do want.

and then they do so

Since reference to Hitler automatically provokes irrationality, I would have said, and come to think of it I did say, that the French revolution prefigured the totalitarian terror regimes of the twentieth century.

"Every totalitarian terror state has been consciously inspired by the French Revolution and Red Terror"

Every democratic and freedom-loving state has also been inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Also everything good and everything bad in the Western World since the Rise of the Roman Empire, has been influenced from the Roman Empire. This includes the czars of Russia being called "Czars" (from Caesar), and the Senate of the United States being called a "Senate".

Saying that a world-smashing thing helps inspire subsequent things, both bad and good, isn't a testament to its badness -- it's a testament to its importance.

the totalitarian terror regimes of the twentieth century.

That's the phrase you use to avoid provoking the irrationality that comes from referencing Hitler?

France's was a case of willingness to convict nine innocents lest a guilty person go free, while a significant part of Germany's was gratuitous - this is a qualitative difference.

While "X was the worst thing until Y" can inappropriately associate X and Y, there are in this case many connections and similarities between X and Y.

People are well trained to go instant frothing at the mouth crazy at such words as "Hitler", "Nazi", and "fascist". Four legs good, two legs bad.

But such words as "totalitarian" and "terror" instead provoke the anti anti communist reflex and the anti Islamophobia reflex, where with great sophistication, calmness, maturity and civility they assure us that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

Downvoted: If you know these words provoke irrational responses, then that's all the more reason that you shouldn't have used them. We're a forum that seeks to promote rationality, not irrationality.

You claim to be critiquing "economical libertarianism", but in fact you are critiquing microeconomics. For instance, you critique the familiar critique of price-fixing by presenting a purported counterexample. But the idea that price-fixing has certain predictable perverse consequences comes, not from libertarians, but from standard microeconomics, since it's a simple deduction from basic theory of supply and demand.

Libertarians do, to be sure, make heavy use of microeconomic theory, but this does not warrant calling microeconomics "economical libertarianism", any more than the use of a bicycle by Mao to commute to work would warrant calling bicycles "transportational communism".

So, to reinterpret your post, taking you to be attacking microeconomics, you are saying that the science of microeconomics is not in fact a science, since it is immune to empirical refutation, such as by the purported success of price-fixing.

Well, I think my comment was misunderstood - I didn't want to start a full debate on economical libertarianism, economics or politics. To be done seriously, it would require much longer posts than a small comment on an article about science and rationality.

My point was mostly that the political issues about libertarianism and about the French and American Revolutions are highly debatable, and shouldn't be sorted out in a few bold sentences as Eliezer did on the post, and that by doing so, he's more making is core post about the differences between Science and Rationality harder to follow, because he's dragging into it a very heated and complicated debate.

For that, I pointed a few examples of things done by the French Revolution which were (in my opinion) very successful, but it was just an example to illustrate my core point which was : "don't drag politics in such a bold way in a post about rationality, you'll commit factual errors and antagonize people". A bit a variation over the "don't take QM as en example", that's all. Sorry for the noise ;)

I pointed a few examples of things done by the French Revolution which were (in my opinion) very successful

The worst policy has good consequences, the best policy has bad ones.

The successes you cited would only be relevant if one understood Eliezer to be claiming that every consequence was bad or ephemeral from the French Revolution. While that is how politicians speak and how others speak much of the time, it's not charitable to interpret arguments as if they were from politicians.

In the French Revolution, they were really, really confident that things would be best if they could decide more or less ad hoc to kill tens of thousands for interfering with it. In the American Revolution, they didn't trust themselves so, they tolerated more anti-revolutionary behavior, and things turned out better. That's all.

Even if the French do make fantastic bread, the Reign of Terror was still not a good idea.

Well, even like that I don't agree with your analysis of the Reign of Terror. It was a bad idea, but first you can't resume the French Revolution to it, and then, it was not that they "were really, really confident that things would be best if they could decide more or less ad hoc to kill tens of thousands". Robespierre, the head of state during the Terror, was against death penalty : http://www.marxists.org/history/france/revolution/robespierre/1791/death-penalty.htm . But he was against the death penalty in time of peace, not in time of war.

That's they key to understand it : the situation of French Republic was terrific. The League of Kings (that is, the rest of Europe) was in war against it, and there were many people inside France trying to destroy the Revolution from inside and go back to Old Regime. The Terror was a survival policy, much more than a policy of overconfidence.

If you look at the core texts of the French Revolution, like the Declaration of Human Rights of 1793 ( translation available at http://www.columbia.edu/~iw6/docs/dec1793.html ), which was inside the Constitution of the First Republic, they were really showing a huge distrust about themselves. Just a few quotes :

«
Art 9. The law ought to protect public and personal liberty against the oppression of those who govern.

At 12. Those who may incite, expedite, subscribe to, execute or cause to be executed arbitrary legal instruments are guilty and ought to be punished.

Art 28. A people has always the right to review, to reform, and to alter its constitution. One generation cannot subject to its law the future generations.

Art 31. The offenses of the representatives of the people and of its agents ought never to go unpunished. No one has the right to claim for himself more inviolability than other citizens.

Art 35. When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people and for each portion of the people the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties. »

Those clearly show a distrust into those who will wield power, including themselves. The French Revolution didn't fault by being overconfident in itself. The core difference was between the French Revolution and the American one was that the Americans weren't surrounded by hostile countries trying to crush them exactly at the same time in which they were facing civil war. The Montagnards applied the Terror because they were corned, not because they were arrogant.

In general, what is in a written Constitution doesn't matter much if institutions and attitudes don't support what is there. A fair number of authoritarian countries have strong free speech and similar rights enshrined in their Constitutions, See for example the Syrian constitution. Classically authoritarian regimes either ignore such provisions or in the case of Syria use a combination of ignoring the provisions, a favorable judiciary, and using potential loopholes to minimize the actual impact of those rights. On the other hand, some countries with little to no formally documented rights are quite democratic and functional. There isn't a great correlation between what people say in their Constitutions and what they do or intend to do.

In general, what is in a written Constitution doesn't matter much if institutions and attitudes don't support what is there.

For some grimly comic reading, see the declaration of rights in the 1936 constitution of the U.S.S.R., especially the articles 124-128.

This constitution was ratified a few months before the climax of the Great Terror.

This reminds me of the People's Republic of Tyranny Trope (TV Tropes warning).

All sorts of self-interest, repression, and tribalism gets justified by the ideals of freedom, justice, and equality. It seems that a large amount of aggression has been promoting by groups styling themselves as anti-oppression movements. I recently wrote an article about the modern notion of "social justice", which is beginning to show similar sorts of newspeak, in my view.

I'm unimpressed with claiming that one has higher ideals generally yet one's present situation is an exception in which they don't apply.

I want to avoid a false dichotomy: they didn't have to act like the American revolutionaries as they had a unique situation, however, they should have killed fewer people for treason, and with more rigorous trials, etc. They ought to have had a Constitution that was appropriate for reality and wasn't a suicide pact for the state if followed. To have such a thing seems like signalling to the world one's noble values and goodness, while its impracticality demands its violation and one is no longer bound by legality.

I'm unimpressed with claiming that one has higher ideals generally yet one's present situation is an exception in which they don't apply.

This is almost always true, but war usually is the exception in which they don't apply. Thus, terror against farmers and the revolution devouring its children is better evidence for the terroristic tendencies of the French Revolution than terror against aristocrats.

This account of the French Revolution fails to explain their alarmingly drastic price control measures, which measures prefigured the liquidation of the kulaks. They killed people frivolously, because they could, not because they were threatened.

Doubtless they were threatened by plots from aristocrats. Where they also threatened by farmers reluctant to sell their grain and young men reluctant to be conscripted?

The whole concept of "Human Rights", both the "first generation" rights, like the freedom of speech, and the "second generation" rights like universal access to education, come mostly from the French Revolution (the Declaration of Humans and Citizen Rights, to my knowledge, predates the 1st Amemendement).

If you think legal documents are important, this is backwards. Both were written in August 1789 and probably had little influence on each other. But both were largely based on George Mason's 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights. Mason went on to write the US list, after refusing to sign the Constitution in 1787 and demanding a national list. In particular, his 1776 document gave freedom of press. I don't know how they expanded from press to speech; maybe one of the 1789 documents copied the other in this expansion, but Milton bundled the two in the 1644 Areopagitica as did many later people. As to the Enlightenment concept of human rights, it is pretty clear in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. But it owes a lot to pre-Enlightenment English documents, particularly the Petition of Right of 1628.

But why should we trace these concepts to their endorsement by governments? The documents did not create the ideas, but adopted them from a long train of authors, particularly the French Enlightenment. The documents are important as signposts in the triumph of the Enlightenment, but they are very crude measures because talk is cheap.

How did France manage to have subsidized and/or price controlled bread without degrading the quality?

In a free market, price, weight, and quality would all fluctuate, so the system would be flexible at those points. Legislating two of those variables to be fixed would seem to leave the third responsible for reflecting economic changes, despite diminishing returns on changing it when the other two haven't been adjusted at all.

Avoiding degrading quality wouldn't be hard, one would set the price higher than the free market would have borne, so bakers have to compete for what inelastic demand there is by improving quality alone. The cost to society is the absence of cheaper, lower quality bread, which would be a reasonable policy choice.

If the legislated price were too low, bakers would compete on low manufacturing costs, and quality should spiral downward.

It seems controllable whether the cost of regulation is quality or affordability.

I hope someone shows up with knowledge of the actual history.

I'm assuming it wasn't a price floor-- that would make bread less affordable. I believe that subsidy to manufacturers + price controls leads to decline in quality because the incentives become doing just enough to meet the regulations and competing to get permissions and subsidies from the government.

It's possible that France exists to annoy libertarians. Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour (a book I've heard an interview about but not read) tells the story of Louis XIV making France into a world center of style. He picked winners, or created them. He promoted companies which continued to make high quality goods for centuries.

By libertarian standards, this should be just about impossible. Or maybe it's like winning the lottery-- you might succeed, but the odds are so low that it's a very bad strategy.... and, of course, the French aristocracy's spendthrift ways and insulation did lead to the French Revolution, and a utilitarian might say that any amount of delightful food and fashion just isn't worth it.

Still, picking winners on that scale is amazing. Does it take the unlikely combination of really smart person at the top chasing their own fascinations without those fascinations being too crazy rather than trying to guess what other people want?

It's telling that the Quatorze winner-picking you single out are in "high fashion, fine food, chic cafes, style, sophistication, and glamour." It's notoriously difficult to find objective measures of quality in those sectors.

17th century England was far more "libertarian" than 17th century France. And more prosperous too, right?

The Führerprinzip.

Committees will always produce crap.

It is entirely unsurprising that prerevolutionary France should be the leading market for high style, fashion, and luxury goods, and entirely unsurprising that it should be the leading producer. I am inclined to doubt that Louis XIV created winners, though doubtless he picked them, the latter being much less surprising.

I hope someone shows up with knowledge of the actual history.

Googling turns up some sources, so if you're really interested this sounds like the type of project to hone (y)our scholarship skills on, rather than passively wait for someone knowledgeable. The book linked to suggests that the rise in quality coincident with price controls (I don't know about subsidies but I can confirm the price controls) is a recent phenomenon, so data should be readily available.

This is a great "applied rationality" question IMO - you've noticed a clash between some doctrine that you hold and some external evidence. Suggestion: make a Discussion top-level post, making a little more precise where the clash lies, to coordinate the finding and reporting of relevant evidence.

I'm assuming it wasn't a price floor-- that would make bread less affordable.

You agree that the effect of a high floor would be higher quality, but doubt such a law wold be enacted because of the unpopularity of raising food proces?

I believe that subsidy to manufacturers + price controls leads to decline in quality

If a higher than free market price floor raises quality, and subsidies per unit lower it, and a high price floor is politically unpopular as it would raise food prices, a subsidy lowering the free market price and a floor above that new price would still raise quality, depending on the variables.

trying to guess what other people want?

Much better to be able to change what other people want. Guessing is so hard!

I'm assuming it wasn't a price floor-- that would make bread less affordable.

You agree that the effect of a high floor would be higher quality, but doubt such a law wold be enacted because of the unpopularity of raising food proces?

No, I'm not sure what the effect of a price floor would be on quality (it seems to me it could be positive, negative, or neutral), but I don't have to care because I don't think a price floor would be politically possible under the circumstances.


I'm not convinced it's possible to reliably change what people want.

I don't have to care because I don't think a price floor would be politically possible under the circumstances.

If you think subsidies politically possible, and subsidies would lower food prices, wouldn't subsidies and a price floor be politically possible together? Then, if the floor raised quality more than subsidies lowered it, couldn't there be a net increase in quality?

The point of not having a price floor is that the political pressure is to keep bread affordable.

I've ordered the book about the history of French bread, though I don't have tremendous faith that there will be enough about politics and economics to answer the question of how a controlled market maintained high quality.

I'm fantasizing that there were panels of bakers doing blind tests of the flour, but really I'm guessing.

Meanwhile, something to contemplate from a fine essay about samovars:

Even if you choose to buy it, pour it immediately into some airtight, resealable package (e.g. a metallic box). The second important factor is the granularity. Finely grained, dust-like tea is a by-product of tea production. Selling it as tea is a consequence of the typical capitalist rush for efficiency that sacrifices quality on the altar of productivity. Don't buy dust swept off the floor. The other extreme is the rough tea possibly containing parts of the tea plant other than the leaves. This is due to the careless treatment characteristic of planned economies. Underpaid slaves or irresponsible workers who get paid no matter how badly they work are prone to such crimes

I believe competence happens when there's enough pressure for accomplishment, but not too much.

An analogy:

The point of having a minimum wage is to help low wage earners. Would it be politically difficult to lower the minimum wage by 15 cents? I assume so, and resistance would be motivated by direct concern for the poor.

Would it be politically difficult to simultaneously, in a single bill, lower the minimum wage by 15 cents, slightly raise all taxes, and provide a transfer of hundreds of dollars per month to every person in your country? Also yes, but for different reasons entirely, having nothing proximately to do with direct concern for the poor. Combining the measures would eliminate the previous political objections, like a strong wave swamping weak one.

In practice, some laws have establish fixed prices. A fixed price law is the same as a bill with two laws establishing a floor and a ceiling. Such laws have not been politically impossible in history, and a compromise bill needn't satisfy various constituencies by containing laws of parallel structure (i.e. limits to a price range).

I don't think one can say a measure (especially one strongly supported by a minority) would not be politically feasible alone and consequently conclude it would not be the outcome of a compromise political process.

How much could one pick winners by simply throwing the force of your big monarchy behind them and then just relying on inertia? If a sufficiently powerful organization is set up as being culturally considered best at something that gives them a possible long-term advantage even if there's no objective standard by which theirs is better.

Good question. One way of testing it would be to see whether other monarchies have tried anything like it, and if so, whether they succeeded.

When the maximum was first applied, the price of bread was controlled down, there were food riots, so it would seem that they did degrade the quality.

However, when the price of bread was controlled up, rather than controlled down, that did not affect the quality, and arguably improved it.

It comes from two different main reasons to me.

The first one is asymmetry of information in economics : the information on price in much easier to have, and with more confidence, than the information on quality. So customer have a more complete information about pricing (when we speak of bread at least, it may not be the case with complex debt schemes) than on quality, which makes competing on the price more efficient (in term of dragging customer) than competing on the quality.

The second one is in economies of scale : by fixing the price of bread to a value low enough for people to afford it, but high enough for bakers to not go bankrupt, it'll increase the demand for bread, decreasing the production cost of each single bread. Economies of scale can often counterbalance the law of supply and demand (or more exactly, they violate the hypothesis on which the law of supply and demand is built, making it inapplicable), and are badly underestimated in the usual formulations of economical liberalism.

by fixing the price of bread to a value low enough for people to afford it, but high enough for bakers to not go bankrupt,

My understanding is that France at one point (Paris in charge) fixed the price of bread artificially low, to benefit Paris at the expense of the peasantry, with utterly disastrous consequences (famine, urban riots, and terror against the peasantry), and much later, after the Paris commune was overthrown and the leadership of the rural militias was in charge, fixed the price of bread artificially high, to benefit the farmers at the expense of the city folk.

I conjecture that it is this latter regime that produced competition on quality.

1) Welcome!

2) Libertarianism was being contrasted with Science, non-libertarianism was presented as analogous to it.

3) Policy debates should not appear one-sided

An economy of genuinely selfish human-level agents would implode.

Wouldn't the implosion leave all the selfish agents worse off? If they were even rudimentarily rational, wouldn't they then act in a way to prevent that inward collapse?

A lot of people have a problem with Kolmogorov complexity and Solomonoff induction being "ideals". Sure, you can't build a working perfect compressor in order to compute the Kolmogorov complexity of a binary string. The best you can do is to approximate it. Furthermore, the ways in which your compressor fails to achieve the perfect compression of Kolmogorov complexity are weaknesses of your compressor that a more powerful compressor could overcome... and so on and so on. It's only in the limit that you get a completely general compressor that can't be beaten, but by that point your compressor is requiring infinite amounts of computation in order to work perfectly. The solution is not to redefine the "perfect compressor", indeed that wouldn't work because anything less than Kolmogorov complexity can be beaten by some computable compressor. Instead, accept that the ideal can only be approximated in reality and that the better we can approximate it the better we are doing. The same goes for Solomonoff induction.

Eli: In your previous post you write about Copenhagen vs. MWI as if we have to decide on one of them. However, that's a somewhat un-Bayesian thing to do! A strict Solomonoff-Bayesian would simply accept that there is a posterior distribution over a space of infinitely many theories and interpretations. When this strict Bayesian goes to make a prediction about the outcome of an experiment he will take all of these interpretations into account according to their posterior probabilities - including interpretations far more insane than anything you have described.

A lot of people have a problem with Kolmogorov complexity and Solomonoff induction being "ideals". [...] Instead, accept that the ideal can only be approximated in reality and that the better we can approximate it the better we are doing.

That doesn't sound like a very serious problem with these things being "ideals".

Ideals don't have to be attainable.

Has anyone tried to actually DO Solomonoff induction against the real world? If I understand, it's incomputable, and even the idea of encoding reality as a program... well, it would be a very big program. So except as a pointer to and clarification of Occam's razor, does it have a real world use?

Generalizing: is it actually possible to use pure Bayesianism in any non-contrived, non-trivial context? And if purity can't be attained, is there an optimal impure approximation?

is it actually possible to use pure Bayesianism in any non-contrived, non-trivial context?

Sure. The difficulty of actually doing Solomonoff induction is irrelevant, because SI isn't actually part of Bayesianism as everyone in the world except Eliezer Yudowsky defines it. Cox's Theorem gives us the basic laws of probability, but there is nothing comparable telling us that algorithmic probability is the correct prior we should be using. A prior is an encoding of one's prior knowledge / state of information before seeing the experimental data, and we have no a priori reason to expect simple explanations for everything.

Cox's Theorem gives us the basic laws of probability, but there is nothing comparable telling us that algorithmic probability is the correct prior we should be using. A prior is an encoding of one's prior knowledge / state of information before seeing the experimental data, and we have no a priori reason to expect simple explanations for everything.

I seem to recall Eliezer writing a post on this - and did not seem to disagree with the above passage.

Libertarianism secretly relies on most individuals being prosocial enough to tip at a restaurant they won't ever visit again.

I'm puzzled that you gave that specific example, given that it's obviously wrong. Most countries do not have a culture of tipping, and their economies don't implode. They just have less headaches at bill time. And in many cases (a long way from libertarianism) their wait staff get paid a living wage.

I'm also not sure what it means for libertarianism to rely on something, since libertarianism is not an actual functioning thing in existence. But if it did exist and function, it would not rely on tipping.

I think that was a metonym. Basically, don't prudently predate.

Fair enough, and taking it that way, I think the reasoning does hold up.

Echoing Hal Finney...

It seems like you (Robin Hanson) are arguing that Libertarianism (small or big L) is some kind of alternative to rule making, or as I would say it 'believing in your theory'. But my impression -- not extravagantly well informed theoretically, but fairly informed by looking at actual, self styled libertarians -- is that Libertarianism is precisely an anti-theory theory. Terrified of the failures of other rules/models/belief systems, they create a new rule which says that all rules are wrong. The obvious tail chasing is well, what about your rule? They don't like that game.

Unfortunately, in practice it turns out that trying to decide ahead of time what rules are going to be valid and what rules aren't, is just as hard a problem, if not harder, than just deciding rules on a case by case basis. So the decision to once and for all make up a minimal rule set, and then disallow all future data and all future questions of rule making, turns out to fail just as badly, if not worse, than making bad rules to begin with. Thus for example, we see free market fundamentalists trying to prove that what has really gone wrong in the american housing market is too much government intervention, even though anybody willing to allow new data (new relative to their decision about how the world works that is) recognizes that the last 7-20 years (depending on how hard core you are) have been all about 'letting the market decide'.

In other words, libertarianism is just as much a religion as communism, and appeals to exactly the same psychology -- the need for easy answers, and the urge to push others around when your easy answers don't work. One of it's biggest problems is that it does not handle incremental acceptance well -- you have to drink the kool aid, or stay out of the party, no two ways about it. In the real world this requirement effectively kills the theory.

the fact that I have a visceral agreement with Scott Aaronson's claim that there is something similar about science and libertarianism says something about how down on science I am these days. The fact that I agree for exactly opposite reasons, says something about the relationship between outputs (objects) and processes (rules). Less opaquely: I agree there is something similar about Libertarianism and Science (big S) -- and it is not good at all if you are a fan of science (little s)

On the other hand, I believe that the mortgage crisis was partly caused by the government failing to follow the minimum libertarian rule set-- it didn't punish fraud by the banks.

Incidentally, it looks to me like you should be able to test macroscopic decoherence. Eventually. You just need nanotechnological precision, very low temperatures, and perhaps a clear area of interstellar (intergalactic?) space.

Short of that, building a scalable quantum computer would be another (possibly easier!) way to experiment with macroscopic coherence. The difference is that with quantum computing, you wouldn't even try to isolate a quantum system perfectly from its environment. Instead you'd use really clever error-correction to encode quantum information in nonlocal degrees of freedom, in such a way that it can survive the decoherence of (say) any 1% of the qubits.

"Or do you think you're smarter than that?"

No?

The core argument for libertarianism is historically motivated distrust of lovely theories of "How much better society would be, if we just made a rule that said XYZ." If that sort of trick actually worked, then more regulations would correlate to higher economic growth as society moved from local to global optima.

Only if economic growth was the only indicator of "how good a society is."

But when some person or interest group gets enough power to start doing everything they think is a good idea, history says that what actually happens is Revolutionary France or Soviet Russia.

I invite you to Somalia or Western Sahara. That's what the real world says about libertarianism.

ZMD, is that the answer you think I'm looking for, your personal answer, or the correct answer?

I am not smarter than that. But you might (just might) be. "Eliezer says so" is strong evidence for anything. I'm too stupid to use the full power of Bayes, and I should defer to Science, but Eliezer is one of the few best Bayesian wannabes - he may be mistaken, but he isn't crazily refusing to let go of his pet theory. Still not enough to make me accept MWI, but a major change in my estimate nonetheless.

As a side note, what actually happens in a true libertarian system is Europe during the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, that is why we have governments in the first place (i.e. to get around those problems).

It doesn't get around those problems, DaveInNYC, it just changes the conditions under which the problems arise. Having one, really powerful actor that can dominate the Commons doesn't solve anything - if there aren't enough reasonable and enlightened people to maintain control of the government, it begins abusing the Commons itself, and anyone not completely controlled by the government lose any disincentives to act for their immediate short-term interests.

Who guards the guardians? Who watches the watchers? Ultimately integrity cannot be maintained by force. Governments only act as a solution to the problems of society as long as their integrity remains, and history shows us that it doesn't last very long.

I will further note that Libertarianism does not require a stable government, it simply requires that force is not used. That can be because force isn't a viable short-term strategy, or because an enlightened power has a monopoly on it. There is need of enforcement only when dealing with non-Libertarians.

Who guards the guardians? Who watches the watchers?

What guards institutions is other institutions, eg a free press. You are tacitly assuming there is just a Government and the People and that is that. But healthy systems have multiple institutions, and even split the government, eg into executive and legislature.

[-]LazyDave
2 points