Why I am not a Quaker (even though it often seems as though I should be)


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In the past year, I have noticed that the Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers) has come to the right answer long before I or most people did, on a surprising number of things, in a surprising range of domains. And yet, I do not feel inclined to become one of them. Giving credit where credit is due is a basic part of good discourse, so I feel that I owe an explanation.

The virtues of the Society of Friends are the virtues of liberalism: they cultivate honest discourse and right action, by taking care not to engage in practices that destroy individual discernment. The failings of the Society of Friends are the failings of liberalism: they do not seem to have the organizational capacity to recognize predatory systems and construct alternatives.

Fundamentally, Quaker protocols seem like a good start, but more articulated structures are necessary, especially more closed systems of production.

This post reflects a lot of thought, but there's a lot of speculation which I hope I've managed to mark as such. I'm optimizing for clearly communicating my present state in the hopes of furthering dialogue, not saying things that are maximally defensible; I haven't worked out the relevant models in extreme detail. That said, I don't think I'm misreporting any facts, and corrections on any level are welcome.

Some reasons to respect the Society of Friends

  • Liberalism is nice, and the Quakers instilled it in America.

  • They pioneered the radical practice of personal integrity.

  • Their social technology is designed to avoid overriding individual conscience and judgment, thus preserving information that is typically destroyed by more common systems oriented around momentum or dominance.

  • They don’t advertise much.

Proto-liberals

The Quakers first came to my attention when Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex wrote about them. His review of Albion’s Seed describes them as proto-liberals with an outsized effect on the United States of America, basically winning over the culture to their ideals:

Fischer warns against the temptation to think of the Quakers as normal modern people, but he has to warn us precisely because it’s so tempting. Where the Puritans seem like a dystopian caricature of virtue and the Cavaliers like a dystopian caricature of vice, the Quakers just seem ordinary. […]

George Fox […] believed people were basically good and had an Inner Light that connected them directly to God without a need for priesthood, ritual, Bible study, or self-denial; mostly people just needed to listen to their consciences and be nice. Since everyone was equal before God, there was no point in holding up distinctions between lords and commoners: Quakers would just address everybody as “Friend”. And since the Quakers were among the most persecuted sects at the time, they developed an insistence on tolerance and freedom of religion which (unlike the Puritans) they stuck to even when shifting fortunes put them on top. They believed in pacificism, equality of the sexes, racial harmony, and a bunch of other things which seem pretty hippy-ish even today let alone in 1650.

[…] The Pennsylvanian leadership on abolitionism, penal reform, the death penalty, and so on all happened after the colony was officially no longer Quaker-dominated.

And it’s hard not to see Quaker influence on the ideas of the modern US – which was after all founded in Philadelphia. In the middle of the Puritans demanding strict obedience to their dystopian hive society and the Cavaliers demanding everybody bow down to a transplanted nobility, the Pennsylvanians – who became the thought leaders of the Mid-Atlantic region including to a limited degree New York City – were pretty normal […] the Quakers really stand out in terms of freedom of religion, freedom of thought, checks and balances, and the idea of universal equality.

I like a lot of the opportunities that modern liberal society affords me. Some large amount of this good is attributable to the Quakers. This suggests that if I want more good things in this vein, I should check out what the Quakers are up to.

Personal integrity as a radical practice

I’ve come around to the point of view that personal integrity is not something I can expect from my environment by default. There are many social forces that corrode it, and it is only sustainable if conceived of as a radical practice.

The Quakers got there first. The Quaker insistence on not lying was wide-ranging. It included apparently little but socially costly things, like refusing to sign letters with the traditional “I remain your most obedient servant” unless they in fact remained the person’s most obedient servant, which generally they did not. It included more clearly materially costly things, like refusing to quote unrealistically high opening prices for the sake of bargaining, even when this was the predominant custom, preferring to quote the price they expected to charge.

Society has moved substantially towards the Quaker way on both of those practices, though honest pricing is still not reliably supported by market forces - revealed preferences are for slot machines. To do better takes something like a religion - a shared understanding that you’re not doing the profit-maximizing thing but the virtuous thing, and don’t expect that the outside world will always give you local incentives to do it.

Nonviolent social technology

Quaker worship values reflective silence. Quaker decisionmaking also centers empowering individuals to discern the right for themselves. "Clearness committees" provide guidance to Friends making difficult decisions, not through advice or admonition, but by asking questions to help the decider know the right with their own conscience. Quaker groups tend to favor decisionmaking models in which if even one member continues to object, they either continue discussing the issue, or let it rest until later.

This stands in marked contrast to the predominant modes of group coordination, which focus on momentum or hierarchical control. Both those modes treat dissent as noise, to be eliminated. Quaker social technology treats it as signal, to be processed.

You might think that this would lead to total paralysis. But the question of racial slavery in the US is an instructive example. The Quakers did not all come to the right answer immediately. But they kept talking about it, and the argument “you wouldn’t like it if someone did that to you” was sufficiently persuasive that (according to Scott’s summary) during the 17th and 18th centuries slave ownership among the wealthy declined from 70% to 10%.

For a while I complained that our society’s default understanding of friendship - and informal social relations in general - was built around momentum, and that everything else is unfairly rounded off to adversarial control. I yearned for a conception of trust that was based on shared discernment of the good for each other. It seems too right to be mere chance that when the group promoting the key virtues I thought necessary for true friendship chose a name for itself, that name was the Society of Friends.

Humble marketing

I’ve written a lot lately about the epistemically corrosive effects of marketing culture, and the coordination advantages of keeping a low profile under those circumstances. Quakers don’t advertise much, they just seem to keep on doing sensible good things.

I am writing this from a cabin at a Quaker retreat. I wanted to take a couple weeks alone to reflect on my life and strategy, away from the pull and rhythm of any local social scene. It was surprisingly difficult to find a plain cabin that fit my needs.

One thing I tried was using modern search methods. AirBnB, Craigslist, Google, VRBO websites. Nearly every listing for a cabin or cottage was oriented towards vacationers’ enjoyment, and outfitted and priced for a luxurious consumer experience. The ones that were not luxury cabins were for people experienced at camping or otherwise roughing it (e.g. people who know what to do without running water, which I do not). Nearly every offer of a silent retreat was for something like a managed experience with meditation practice, which I have found valuable enough to recommend, but which is not what I needed at this time. What I needed was a quiet place to stand upright, at a high vantage point, and survey the territory. With just the material comforts that I would be distracted without. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the vast profit-seeking marketing apparatus people use to find information was very helpful in finding a place to recover from its effects.

The other thing I tried was the old-fashioned, local-scale method: asking friends. I asked on my blog. I talked to people about it and got suggestions. This worked somewhat better. One kind friend offered his family’s cabin, in New Hampshire. Another pointed me to a modern monastery that let out cabins, in Vermont, for a price comparable to the cheapest AirBnB options. Then, my mother mentioned my search to a friend, who told her about a Quaker retreat center in Massachusetts. I looked it up, and there were two similar retreat centers within driving distance of Berkeley (where I have been living), one of which had a cabin available. As far as I can tell, the Quakers operate these retreat centers more or less at cost, as a public service, because they believe that people ought to have a place to go - groups as well as individuals - to reflect and discern the right path for themselves.

It’s really remarkable how often, at how many different points in their history, they’ve been doing the exact most reasonable thing.

The best defense is strategy

So, if the Quakers are doing all these great things, why am I not one? A few years ago, my objection would have been that they are not focused on considerations of scope, and I’d have expected something like effective altruism to do much better. I no longer think that, because it seems to me like effective altruism in its current form is not epistemically sustainable. Local solutions, scaled organically at a rate compatible with human verification of results, have a significant advantage there.

My objections have more to do with the information-processing limitations of a totally nonhierarchical network that relies on peer-to-peer transfer of information. In particular, this on its own is not sufficient to avoid some systemic traps:

  • Quaker coordination methods are inadequately defended against arbitrage.

  • It takes a village to sustain life.

  • You cannot serve two masters.

Arbitrageur defeats Quaker

The emphasis on doing good according to personal discernment, as an expression of personal conscience, rather than building the most scalable goodness marketing machine possible in order to maximize your impact, provides some resistance to the temptation to distort the truth to something more appealing. But it leaves you vulnerable to two types of arbitrage:

  • If your environment does not have similarly good epistemic defenses, then you will still be the consumer of this kind of marketing, in the absence of a systemic plan to obtain accurate intelligence. I wrote about this in the humility argument for honesty, so I will not repeat myself here.

  • If you reliably respond to local needs with outward-oriented service, you become an exploitable resource by more global strategies that may not share your values. I wrote about this in against neglectedness considerations, but feel that this needs more exposition.

Socially responsible investing vs vice funds

A simple example of the second kind of arbitrage is socially responsible investing. Some mutual funds avoid investing in harmful businesses businesses, such as arms dealers, tobacco companies, and casinos. The direct effect of this is to reduce demand for stock and debt in such companies, thus reducing the stock price and implicitly increasing their cost of capital. But if some businesses are systemically underpriced, this creates an arbitrage opportunity, to capture above-normal economic returns by investing in them. And in fact there are “vice” funds that tend to slightly outperform the market by doing exactly that.

This arbitrage does not appear to have completely negated the effects of socially responsible investing, but a substantial effect of this strategy is still to transfer money from people following a virtuous abstention policy, to those following an amoral one.

Volunteer work vs administrative efficiency

But what of something more local, like volunteer work? Suppose, for instance, that there is an epidemic. The legitimate authorities’ responders, funded by taxes and wealthy prestigious foundations, are stretched thin, and you confirm that volunteers are needed, or identify an underserved area. You volunteer to tend to the sick and quarantined, and talk openly about this with friends, who then decide whether this is a thing that they ought to do.

The nice thing about this strategy is that you can be fairly sure that you are doing some local good. You can see for yourself that people are ill and suffering, and if you take care of yourself well enough to avoid spreading the epidemic, you can be reasonably sure you are helping locally. Since you are not using content-neutral persuasion tactics to mobilize large groups with unknown opportunity cost, you avoid imposing hidden costs globally. So far, so good.

What will the authorities’ response be? The authorities initially understood that there was some chance of an epidemic, and made allowances for some systemic capacity to mitigate it. Their calculations took into account the costs of setting aside these resources, rather than doing something else with them.

If you are doing work that the authorities did not expect, then when they observe better than expected outcomes, they will factor this into their future plans, and reallocate resources away from epidemic preparedness, relative to the scenario where you did not participate.

If these authorities are benevolent - if they are optimizing for a metric that reflects your values well enough - then even if your net effect was mostly not to reduce death and suffering due to epidemics (because that was arbitraged away), you are still doing good, because you are freeing up resources to do other things, elsewhere, where you cannot personally verify opportunities to do good.

But it is far from guaranteed that the authorities are benevolent. If, on the other hand, their strategy is to spend as little as they can get away with on social services, in order to loot as much as possible from the system, then you have redistributed resources from yourself to them. This is one form of what economists call moral hazard.

Philanthropy vs moral hazard

Moral hazard is not limited to domains like business or government where the adversarial component is obvious; even in philanthropy, a field you might imagine characterized by an exceptionally high level of benevolence and value-alignment among donors, experts believe this problem exists. An instructive example is GiveWell, a charity evaluator which has consistently advised a foundation with more money than it knows what to do with to avoid fully funding GiveWell’s top-recommended charities, in order to avoid this sort of moral hazard.

Fair trade vs business

When you are relating to an open system, in which you are a price-taker, engaging in unembedded transactions involving unknown agents with unknown agendas and strategies, you should expect everything you do to be arbitraged against. This is fine when you are trying to get something for yourself; if you buy a coffee at a cafe, you can for the most part personally verify that you have received a satisfactory coffee, and the value you receive does not really depend much on the hidden ways the cafe might respond to the incentive. Arbitrage is good, because it means that you are not creating local coffee scarcity when you buy your coffee; instead, you are sending a price signal that causes the global financial system to reallocate production very slightly towards coffee.

But what if you are worried about the negative externalities of your actions? What if you are worried that the coffee industry is extractive, in a way that harms some group of people with little economic leverage? You might try buying fair trade coffee. In effect, the fair trade label is an implicit guarantee about the net effects of your actions on the global economy. The obvious arbitrage opportunity here is to sell specious guarantees. Starbucks cannot sustainably mislead you about whether the cup they sell you has any coffee in it, but your ability to verify the desirable effects of fair trade claims is much weaker.

In praise of closed systems

Arbitrage is an inherent vulnerability of the outward-oriented, service model of right action. If you are looking to create value, you should favor closed systems where you (or trusted processes) can validate the accounting, observing the inputs and outputs, so that you can be sure that you end up with something more valuable than you started with. Accounting, not arbitrage.

Intentional communities and local production are examples of this. Building local creative and reflective capacity in ways that the official system is not optimizing for is a plausible way to create lasting value that does not immediately get arbitraged away.

This implies that some parts of the Quaker strategy are good for long-term value creation. In particular, the Friends meetings themselves, and the cultivation of individual discernment, are direct capacity-building exercises. I am, after all, writing this from a cabin at a Quaker retreat. The retreat center is obviously a good thing to exist, especially since it’s not marketed as an arbitrage opportunity for vacationers looking to get a better deal. There is even a local intentional community here. I am not completely clear on the details, but it seems as though some people live on site to maintain the retreat center.

These are really obviously the “good guys”; they’re supporting the development of vitally needed steering capacity. But this development is not enough; more research is needed.

It takes a village to sustain life

If things go well, this will not be the last generation of humans. This means that for long-term good outcomes, we need to bring up future generations. Unfortunately, there are many systemic forces working to make this difficult.

People who participate more in the abusive Western educational system tend to have fewer children.

Suburbanization makes it costly to raise children humanely; parents are forced to choose between sending their kids off to a designated abuse facility, or designating at least one parent to be a full-time caretaker. This work cannot be shared among communities to realize economies of scale, because most adults are busy far away at work, and in any event you can’t let your kids run around freely because nearly every house abuts an active road with deadly automobile traffic.

[ETA: As Zvi points out, it is also effectively illegal in major US metropolitan areas to let your kids roam freely even when they are old enough that it is otherwise safe for them to do so.]

The net effect of all this is to make child-rearing an expensive consumption good, instead of an important part of the productive activities of life.

Intergenerational communities such as local religious groups often help mitigate this problem, but for the most part the Friends I have talked to did not seem to consider it an urgent priority, or be organizing their churches to fix this problem. Instead, they pay the costs if they can, and focus on helping the individuals most in need. This is probably related to the broader Christian orientation towards service rather than production.

I am happy to engage in further discourse about this with anyone who is interested, but this isn’t something that can in principle be solved, I think, by incremental individual progress like eschewing leverage and manumitting your slaves. It requires coordinated action, and therefore group structures that can take decisive action even against local incentive gradients, with some amount of centralized responsibility, oriented around group information-processing rather than oriented merely around not destroying individual information-processing.

We need to learn how to be free and build infrastructure, or we will live in infrastructure built by and for an unfree world.

You cannot serve two masters

Religious minorities - so, in the major cities of the US, basically any religion aside from cosmopolitan secular liberalism - tend have lots of experience having to stand up for their practice at the expense of exclusion from communal events, institutional approval, and sometimes even livelihood. I have personal experience with this; Jews who insist on not working on the Sabbath or Holidays, for instance, frequently find this to be a source of friction with employers. As a child, I had to miss communal school events for this reason. In the Rationalist community, the upcoming autumn equinox celebration was scheduled to coincide with Yom Kippur.

Some employers talk of work/life balance, but ultimately you can only serve one master, and the relation most people have with their employers is one of a servant in their household. To pick a recent example, in this Twitter thread, a prominent journalist takes it as too obvious to be worth stating as an explicit premise, that the CEO of a major corporation can move some huge number of people to an arbitrary place to influence political decisions via “democracy.” This looks very much not like people being free to me.

A moral community that doesn’t organize around in-community production will quickly run up against the problem that you can have only one central organizing force in your life. Either people will flake on their employers and be fired, or flake on community obligations and nothing will get done, or both.

A necessary part of any viable alternative to the world of marketing, is a community where people either own their own home & business, or depend for their livelihood on other community members who are committed to shared values.

I see some intentional communities at the extremes of Quaker life, but for the most part it looks like people are basically participating in the modern liberal world, with infrastructure unsuited to independence and human flourishing.

A very incomplete survey of other alternatives

I’m aware of a few other groups, in the West, that are doing, or used to be doing, parts of what is needed.

The Quakers are one of the four founding English cultures described in Albion’s Seed. Another are the Puritans. They seem promising in a bunch of ways. They managed to pull off an integrated culture of shared production and communal norms, organized around communities and familial households that worked small landholdings together. They managed to have commerce, but also managed the moral leadership to at least occasionally slap down profit-maximization wireheading. They don’t seem to have had much fun, which is unfortunate, but despite their heavy social control, they made sure to make room for private love and happiness.

The most obvious problem with the Puritans is that they don’t exist anymore, because they weren’t very good at making following generations enthusiastic Puritans. This is probably related to the ways in which they did not have much fun. The next most obvious problem, from my perspective, is that while they cared a lot about improving their land and lot, they wanted to do this in traditional ways; their resistance to innovations might have prevented them from advancing things like radical life extension and space travel, both things that are necessary if we want the good long-run future.

Jews fall into a few different interesting categories.

Liberal Jews, even Orthodox ones, primarily share community norms with each other, separating it from economic production and for the most part childrearing, which they do the conventional way. They face constant social and economic pressure to buckle, and often find themselves making awkward compromises. I’ve seen this work well for upper-middle-class Jews, but there’s a reason why people are drifting away from the practice. It’s expensive, in a world not designed to interface with it well. If your production is unrelated to your religion, then your religion becomes a consumption good, and the Sabbath is competing with Hollywood. Who’s gonna appeal more to your kids? Liberal Judaism fails to make childrearing easy, though community does at least a little to make it easier. Liberal Jewish schooling and intellectual culture does seem to have preserved some sort of intellectual capacity above baseline, which contributes to value-aligned steering power as well as the sort of thing that wins Nobel prizes. Some of this might be genetic rather than cultural, of course, and I don’t know how much.

Haredi Jews (the ones who wear lots of black) often work in community businesses, and have community infrastructure. Economic and child production and religion seem at least somewhat integrated. Why don’t I join them? Well, I’d have to agree to a bunch of things that I think are not true, and it doesn’t seem like they’re very fast at producing material progress, in part because they waste a lot of time pretending to be curious about things. They also seem to often have institutional child sexual abuse problems, like the Catholics, though it’s not clear to me whether this is actually above the base rate of child molestation by authority figures, whether we simply find out about it more when distinctive minority-culture institutions have that problem, or something else is going on. But I would want to do much, much better, on that and many other fronts.

I also don’t know whether there’s something substantially more interesting going on in the yeshiva communities organized around schools that are the intellectual heirs of the Vilna Ga’on, vs Chassidic communities organized around a charismatic Rebbe.

I expect many religions have similar tradeoffs. Amish seem like they’re in a similar position to Haredi Jews, with if anything much more local production, but less oriented towards scholarship, and they forgo many of the benefits of industrial technology. This might be fine for short-term quality of life (most Amish come back from Rumspringa, after all), but not a thing that can inherit the stars. Orson Scott Card’s writing about being a Mormon outside traditionally Mormon areas like Utah is recognizably similar to the way committed liberal Jewish parents write about Judaism.

Academic communities seem to take a different horn of the liberal trilemma. They focus on the integrity of their intellectual production - which if not quite an economic production relationship, is at least an economic service relationship with the universities - but child-raising and personal ethics are regarded for the most part as a private matter. Colleges have clearly gotten worse, but part of this is that they have to work with the students they get, who seem to be getting worse year after year. (See this retrospective on Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind for a decent argument that scholarship is doomed without communities that bring up children to be good potential scholars.) Academics are neither in control of their own livelihoods (as communities they depend on outside funders) nor their other necessary inputs (since they don’t regulate the upbringing of the students they teach, and are often even at the mercy of administrators for admissions).

My mostly-uninformed sense of hippie communes is that they seem to have the hang of living well, but don’t do engineering to make progress or trade much or compete with with the industrial economy. This makes them much like the Amish, though perhaps they have more fun.

Anarchists are stereotyped as oppositional rather than focusing on building new alternatives, but I don’t really know. My uninformed impression is that they are poor and unhappy, but again I really don’t know.

And then there’s Burning Man. Burning Man only lasts two weeks. That’s not enough time to raise a new generation. It also has a taboo against producing artifacts of lasting value - you leave no trace. The main nice thing about it - by reputation, I haven’t gone - is that it brings engineers and hippies together at all. See Kristina Miller’s piece on Burning Man for a more detailed treatment.

Basically all these groups seem worth learning more about, now that I have eyes to see them with.

Of course, I might be wrong about the Quakers. They might actually have a lot going on that I haven’t found out about yet, that answers all my objections. I could easily not have heard of this - they don’t advertise much, after all. If so, I’d be delighted to learn about that.

Cross-posted at my personal blog.