Why is Mencius Moldbug so popular on Less Wrong? [Answer: He's not.]

I've seen several people on Less Wrong recommend Mencius Moldbug's writings, and I've been curious about how he became so popular here. He's certainly an interesting thinker, but he's rather obscure and doesn't have any obvious connection to Less Wrong, so I'm wondering where this overlap in readership came from.

[EDIT by E.Y.: The answer is that he's not popular here.  The 2012 LW annual survey showed 2.5% (30 of 1195 responses) identified as 'reactionary' or 'Moldbuggian'.  To the extent this is greater than population average, it seems sufficiently explained by Moldbug having commented on the early Overcoming Bias econblog before LW forked from it, bringing with some of his own pre-existing audience.  I cannot remember running across anyone talking about Moldbug on LW, at all, besides this post, in the last year or so.  Since this page has now risen to the first page of Google results for Mencius Moldbug due to LW's high pagerank, and on at least one occasion sloppy / agenda-promoting journalists such as Klint Finley have found it convenient to pretend to an alternate reality (where Moldbug is popular on LW and Hacker News due to speaking out for angry entitled Silicon Valley elites, or something), a correction in the post seems deserved.  See also the Anti-Reactionary FAQ by Scott Alexander (aka Yvain, LW's second-highest-karma user). --EY]

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He used to be a frequent commenter on Overcoming Bias before Hanson and Yudkowsky split blogs, and he clearly dazzled readers with his refined brand of contrarianism. I wasn't around to watch, but his comments are occasionally seen under 2007-2008 posts, and later on too. His handle there is/was simply Mencius, search for it.

(Might this belong in Open Thread?)

Thanks; that explains it. Is there a way for me to move this to Open Thread? (I'm new to posting/commenting here, and I haven't fully figured out the site mechanics.)

Is there a way for me to move this to Open Thread?

No, not really. Just post similar concerns there the next time and you'll be fine. :-)

His handle there is/was simply Mencius, search for it.

LW search has been giving me some headaches recently. Might you link to the account that LW probably generated for him when it imported stuff from OB?

To everyone:

Please accept my sincere and heartfelt apologies for my recent trolling, ideological aggression and disruptive behavior in here. I realize that I've been looking like a hopeless crank to many readers. I stand by my general ideas and value judgments (all or nearly all of them), but I am sorry for wording them in ways that violate LW standards and harm our discourse. I will not retract the offending comments, and have no objection to them being downvoted even further.

For at least a while, I shall refrain from public discussion of those matters. I realize that me trying to take a cold, clinical and unshrinking look at Universalism while simultaneously feeling deep moral + religious devotion to it has caused me severe cognitive dissonance, strained my critical facilities and made me lose awareness of social norms. I have since been recuperating psychologically. I hope that this incident will not leave a permanent stain on my image in the community.

Obviously the LessWrong demographic is self-selected for attraction to people who set out a Big Philosophical System in lengthy blog posts spanning several years. :D

More seriously, we do skew a bit non-mainstream and libertarian, if that's the word for Moldbug, around here. And if you hang around for long enough and your thoughts are sufficiently coherent and well explained, you become part of the public conversation; that seems to have happened to both Moldbug and EY. People don't necessarily come to agree with you, but at least they've heard of you; hence the phrase "public intellectual".

Moldbug is actively hostile to libertarian thought - he's more royalist / authoritarian.

Sometimes I think that Moldbug is an extrapolated libertarian. The world he describes seems to me as something that would naturally happen after a few iterations of the libertarian paradise.

The "unextrapolated" libertarians imagine a balanced market of power, forever. But in real life, local monopolies sometimes happen. Each such monopoly would create what Moldbug calls "sovereign" -- an entity with unlimited power over their resources (including people), but still acting as a participant in the outside market. For the outside market, cooperating with the sovereign, or even just ignoring them, could be a more profitable option than fighting them. (Evidence: What does an ordinary western citizen think about freedom in China? And what about buying cheap products from China?) Moldbug is a few steps ahead; he thinks about what makes sovereigns internally weak or strong.

I think this is a correct extrapolation of "anarcho-capitalism" (zero state) rather than "libertarianism" (minimal state). The minimal state approach could in principle keep a market balance by breaking up monopolies, and generally preserving basic human rights. It's the zero-state approach which is likely to lead to "firms" owning "territories" and exerting monopoly force within those territories (ie a return to a patchwork of states, though no longer called states).

Intriguingly, on anarcho-capitalist principles, such a firm would be entitled to do whatever it likes with its territory including defining very one-sided contracts to make use of it. Contracts like "Anyone who enters or stays in the territory becomes the firm's property, as do any of their offspring; anyone who leaves any form of matter in the territory accepts that it becomes the firm's property". And if you don't accept that contract, the firm denies permission to use any matter in the territory, such as food, water or air. Alternatively, the firm could - if it chose - define other forms of contracts, for any sort of social organisation it preferred : liberal democratic, socialist, communist, Islamic republic, whatever really. So under anarcho-capitalist principles, a division of the world into state-like bodies, defining whatever laws they like within their territories, is perfectly legitimate and acceptable. Since that is the world as it stands, I don't see what the anarcho-capitalists are complaining about.

So under anarcho-capitalist principles, a division of the world into state-like bodies, defining whatever laws they like within their territories, is perfectly legitimate and acceptable. Since that is the world as it stands, I don't see what the anarcho-capitalists are complaining about.

I think you know that they are complaining about not getting their adolescent utopia of doing what they like, and not being beholden to The Man.

You say that like it's not worth complaining about.

If it's not possible to fix, is it worth complaining out?

Sometimes I think that Moldbug is an extrapolated libertarian.

Pieces like the formalist mainfesto seem to show obvious signs of this.

(Evidence: What does an ordinary western citizen think about freedom in China? And what about buying cheap products from China?)

Yet Moldbug somehow argues that external pressure would keep sovereigns from making their patches into slave labor camps (either with physical barriers or propaganda or mind control or something weirder)! So that the tyrants of slave patches sell their slaves' products to the complacent liberal patches, and import catgirls from there for themselves.

+Tyrants are known to enjoy domination and torture of subjects even at cost to themselves (e.g. Hitler, Mussolini, the Kims, Pinochet or the various post-soviet dictators).

I think that's an extremely likely, extremely dangerous failure mode that simply kicks the entire proposal back to the drawing board (and wipes the board clean for good measure). Unless strong further evidence for the defense is forthcoming, I proclaim the case on Patchwork closed.

Note that Moldbug spins some long, unlikely, hyper-Functionalist story somewhere on UR - as an attempt to juggle the Holocaust into a different reference class, maybe?

Moldbug somehow argues that external pressure would keep sovereigns from making their patches into slave labor camps

In my opinion this is very similar to the standard libertarian argument, except that instead of companies on the free market, MM speaks about sovereigns. And it didn't convince me, too.

I am not defending MM here, I am just trying to understand him and pick the parts of his theory that seem correct to me. This is not one of them.

But to be fair, and fight the status quo, imagine that we are both subjects of the Moldbuggian Kingdom in the alternative universe, and we are discussing pros and cons of democracy, as a hypothesis. In that case, Hitler and Pinochet would be actually arguments against democracy. Like: "Let's imagine that we try this democracy thing here. What makes you believe that people would not vote for an evil charismatic leader like Hitler? Also, even a democratic country needs a strong army, somehow isolated from the election process (otherwise a foreign attack during the election day would defeat the unprepared country). So what makes you believe that an army leader could not take over the power, like Pinochet?" And it would be your turn to convince me that it cannot happen, which would be rather difficult, because in reality, it happened.

To be clear, my point is that horrible evil things can happen in any political regime. Including democracy; including libertarian utopia; including MM's utopia. Therefore "it could happen in a regime X" is not a sufficient argument for democracy. At best, it could be made to a statistic argument about how likely do different horrible things happen in different regimes to an average person.

And we should include all the horrible things that happen, not just those caused by the government directly. To take everything that happens in a country as a result of the government action or inaction. If the tyrant executes one hundred people, that's one hundred people dead. If the small criminals independently murder one hundred people, that's also one hundred people dead. The government is equally responsible for both. Just like the tyrant could decide to not execute those hundred people, so could the government decide to spend a bit more money on police instead of something else. Sovereign government has total power over their territory; therefore also it has total responsibility. All crimes that happen in a democratic country are the crimes of the democratic government. And that is a lot of crimes. Again, no government can bring that crime to zero, but we can still discuss whether government X can bring the total crimes in the country to a lower level than government Y. According to MM, the democratic governments are pretty bad at this.

I proclaim the case on Patchwork closed.

The American patchwork resulted in civil war. The Italian patchwork was eventually invaded.

Both were still extremely productive and raised living standards dramatically and furthermore made innovations that changed the world for the better. I consider the evidence that patchworks are bad insufficient.

Recall that in Neocameralism/Patchwork CEOs are under plausibly tight control to ensure profit maximization. You are using loaded terminology. Your argument is much better if you talk about profit maximizations not necessarily being as benign as imagined in a transhuman world rather than importing connotations of alpha apes doing anything they want and this ending badly.

+Tyrants are known to enjoy domination and torture of subjects even at cost to themselves (e.g. Hitler, Mussolini, the Kims, Pinochet or the various post-soviet dictators).

Disappointed you would do this. Down voted.

Note that Moldbug spins some long, unlikely, hyper-Functionalist story somewhere on UR - as an attempt to juggle the Holocaust into a different reference class, maybe?

Oh come on. Pot calling kettle black. You kind of do stuff like that all the time my friend. Without linking to the actual article related to this (which I don't recall) is from a consequentalist view of communication nothing but a boo light.

Recall that in Neocameralism/Patchwork CEOs are under plausibly tight control to ensure profit maximization.

And? So someone can quite legally buy/acquire all the shares of a patch and order the CEO to do fucking anything, not just "maximize cash flow". Doesn't even have to be a single shareholder. What if the shareholders desire control over their property, huh - who's gonna stop them then? The CEO? What if they promise the CEO a cushy deal?

What if the shareholders desire control over their property, huh - who's gonna stop them then?

No one. But then don't invoke Hitler or Kim or Stalin, invoke slave ownership.

Of course there would probably be more "rational" slave camps on average than "sadistic" ones. I'm going for the worst case scenarios here simply because... why shouldn't I? I see zero evidence that, among a million patches, the worst cases would never ever arise once.

Psychopaths/sadists have amassed capital before, they have amassed influence before, they have gained partners' trust before. Why wouldn't they be able to exchange those for total+secure sovereignity within a Patchwork model?

I see zero evidence that, among a million patches, the worst cases would never ever arise once.

Looking at the real world spending of people with power and wealth and the traits these people have it seems to me that you would see many many more Dubai's and Singapore's than summer camps for sadists.

Why is one in a million that terrible? Its a far better track record than democracy or monarchy have... Indeed why would one in a hundred or one in ten be that horrible? Your opinion if this is an acceptable utilitarian trade and even desirable compared to modern third world misery, depend strongly on where you stand on torture vs. dust specks.

Looking at the real world spending of people with power and wealth and the traits these people have it seems to me that you would see many many more Dubai's and Singapore's than summer camps for sadists.

In the 20th century, in a world where democracy and human rights are actively promoted, all factors that would be missing from Moldburgia. Look at the real world behaviour of autocrats in the past.

Sometimes I think that Moldbug is an extrapolated libertarian. The world he describes seems to me as something that would naturally happen after a few iterations of the libertarian paradise.

Oh LessWrong. Figuring out in 2012 what leftists have been saying for centuries.

I strongly disrecommend all variants of "I told you so".

If he's become actively hostile to libertarianism, then this is a reverse from his originial position put forth here:

That leaves libertarians. Now, I love libertarians to death. My CPU practically has a permanent open socket to the Mises Institute. In my opinion, anyone who has intentionally chosen to remain ignorant of libertarian (and, in particular, Misesian-Rothbardian) thought, in an era when a couple of mouse clicks will feed you enough high-test libertarianism to drown a moose, is not an intellectually serious person. Furthermore, I am a computer programmer who has read far too much science fiction - two major risk factors for libertarianism. So I could just say, "read Rothbard," and call it a day.

On the other hand, it is hard to avoid noticing two basic facts about the universe. One is that libertarianism is an extremely obvious idea. The other is that it has never been successfully implemented.

This does not prove anything. But what it suggests is that libertarianism is, as its detractors are always quick to claim, an essentially impractical ideology. I would love to live in a libertarian society. The question is: is there a path from here to there? And if we get there, will we stay there? If your answer to both questions is obviously "yes," perhaps your definition of "obvious" is not the same as mine.

I believe that this statement was not an endorsement of libertarianism, but rather a sop to libertarian readers, based on my knowledge of his style.

Moldbug draws a clear distinction between libertarian policies, which he believes meet straightforward criteria for effectiveness and sanity, and would (not ought to, but would) be implemented by a Responsible Government (see: neocameralism), and libertarianism as a political philosophy and movement.

He identifies the fundamentally Sisyphean nature of advocacy for libertarian politics within a democracy, and also the untenable assumptions of the Rothbardian non-aggression theory of natural rights, which, barring some bizarre change in the present technological-military d├ętente, makes the absence of a geographically-based state with a monopoly on violence equivalent to 'money on the table'.

Yes and no, he's mentioned that he 'loves libertarians to bits', and in general seems to think they have a better idea of the problem than most but don't go far enough with their solution.

Indeed, 'libertarian' is not the word I really want; it's hard to fit Moldbug into any of the usual categories, but libertarian is probably the closest. I observe that while the state he favours has in principle the right to hang you upside down by the Achilles heels, his predictions for what it will actually do, as a means of maximising its revenue, are all pretty libertarian-sounding, except for the Laffer-maximising tax rate.

I don't think a libertarian would predict that a government with near absolute power would behave anything like what Moldbug predicts. For example, public choice theory predicts increased corruption and self-dealing (like the monopolies that kings granted to friends and political insiders). Moldbug thinks this will be avoided via "vote with your feet," but doesn't explain why the government would allow this remedy when it doesn't allow any other remedy.

I don't think Moldbug is literally a monarchist. He just does not like the UK Whigs, and what he thinks the UK Whigs morphed into. The monarchism thing is for effect, it's not a serious proposition.

Based on my impression, Moldbug is more or less a monarchist. Also, talking as if his main point is that he "doesn't like UK Whigs" is extremely odd. He is an American who presents a wide-ranging set of political observations spanning hundreds of years, contemporary UK politics per se is hardly his concern.

Based on my impression, Moldbug is more or less a monarchist

One of the many elephants in the room is that monarchy is a system where it was completely normal for the monarch to impose their religion on their subjects. Moldbug makes a big thing about this tenuous, almost invisible Cathedral thingy, but if he gets his utopia he may well find hismelf dealing with the real thing.

I disagree. The use of the term "monarch" might be problematic, but Mencius' conception of useful hierarchical authority models puts CEO and Monarch in a similar space.

Mencius' conception of useful hierarchical authority models puts CEO and Monarch in a similar space.

In the sense that there is a single guy at the top, I suppose. But then by that logic you can argue Moldbug ought to have no problems with a parlamentary democracy with a prime minister. The point is not that there is a single guy in charge at the top, but the system of incentives that girds the society and gives it shape. There is a big difference between the British monarchy in the Stuart period ("bring back the Stuarts!"), and what Moldbug is actually advocating.

The system being the joint-stock model which Mencius claims effective monarchies approximated.

Back maybe 15 years ago, the libertarian techno smarty pants were often anarcho capitalists. I think someone expressed that Moldbug has roots in anarcho capitalism. Neocameralism seems a natural evolution of that. "To a neocameralist, a state is a business which owns a country." So, defense agencies are now tied to dirt (which I find a bow to the reality of defense economics and the practicalities of markets in force), but otherwise the intellectual assumptions (and mistake, IMO), are about the same.

Also, Moldbug's description of the progressive attitude toward conservatives largely matches the Moldbug attitude toward progressives - "They believe in a brain dead orthodoxy that props up an oppressive evil empire". Moldbuggers are the daring new tip of the spear.

One of the benefits of being way out on the fringe is that no one has bothered to make arguments against you yet, so you get to be right. You get to be a critic without being critiqued in turn. Good times.

UPDATE: For the influence of Anarcho Capitalism on Moldbug, and how he is basically an anarcho capitalist focused on the ownership of dirt, see his Formalist Manifesto:

http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2007/04/formalist-manifesto-originally-posted.html

Particularly on his apparent anarcho capitalist roots:

That leaves libertarians. Now, I love libertarians to death. My CPU practically has a permanent open socket to the Mises Institute. In my opinion, anyone who has intentionally chosen to remain ignorant of libertarian (and, in particular, Misesian-Rothbardian) thought, in an era when a couple of mouse clicks will feed you enough high-test libertarianism to drown a moose, is not an intellectually serious person. Furthermore, I am a computer programmer who has read far too much science fiction - two major risk factors for libertarianism. So I could just say, "read Rothbard," and call it a day.

One of the benefits of being way out on the fringe is that no one has bothered to make arguments against you yet, so you get to be right. You get to be a critic without being critiqued in turn. Good times.

I like this and I think I'm prone to forgetting this for a few months, then asking questions then realizing plenty of important bits haven't been thought through.

I would have thought that Moldbug's theory that the Cold War was an expression of bureaucratic conflict between the US State Department and the US military was sufficiently nonsensical that refutation was unnecessary.

Any point Moldbug might make about the liberal attitude towards conservatives seems more simply explained by "Politics is the mind-killer."

Any point Moldbug might make about the liberal attitude towards conservatives seems more simply explained by "Politics is the mind-killer."

This doesn't explain the asymmetries we observe. His model does.

Which asymmetries do you mean? Regardless of merit, conservatives think liberals are wrong and liberals think conservatives are wrong. That's the mindkiller - no further explanation appears to be necessary. The word each side uses to label "wrong" is an expression of local applause lights - basically no substantive content at all.

The article is interesting for how badly it misrepresents American history. Intellectual elitist dominance of US policy is a frequently debated topic throughout the history of the United States. Moldbug is right that certain views flowed from academia to public consciousness. But he ignores a lot of other causal factors.

Regarding US race relations, Moldbug ignores that (1) the trend towards pro-civil rights court rulings predates California's Proposition 14 by at least 40 years in cases like Buchanan v. Warley (1917) and Missouri exrel. Gaines (1938) and (2) the prime mover of US political opinion was probably public unwillingness to support the methods of Bull Connor.

Regarding the political tilt of academia, Moldbug ignores the conservative movement's recent success in creating an academic movement that lead to the appointment