Catalonia and the Overton Window

by Eliezer Yudkowsky2 min read2nd Oct 201719 comments

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The thing with Catalonia strikes me as a case of "Arguments sure get weird when the truth is not inside the Overton Window of either side."

Historically, populations have usually been the subjects of governments, owned by them and farmed by them. The Catalan population is the property of the government of Spain. To let subgroups defy this system of property and take possession of themselves and the land on which they reside would greatly destabilize the current world system. I'm not sure it would be a good thing for anyone if states and counties seceded into ever-smaller units and elected the usual run of even more nitwit governments, especially if it was only the democracies that started doing that.

But you can't say that Catalans are the property of the people of Spain, subject to the command of Spain's bureaucracy and control system including its votes of the larger population of Spain in which Catalans will never be a majority, and that Spain has enough force to keep them as that property and we'll pragmatically respect that. We can't just admit we think it's better for the international system if we do things that way in general, so that we have fewer, larger national governments which we think is a public good. That goes against the mythology of democratic self-determination, and governments deriving their power from the consent of the governed.

So instead of appealing to it being best for everyone if the international order stays stable instead of fragmenting into ten thousand pieces, and this making it wiser not to disturb the current tacit policy that governments are allowed to keep whatever population-properties they currently own whether those people consent to it or not...

...people be like, "But the secession referendum is ILLEGAL! According to the CONSTITUTION OF SPAIN!"

I don't think I really understand this, in the sense that I don't think I could pass the Ideological Turing Test of somebody who can think that while keeping a straight face. One government passes a law saying that a population is not allowed to have their own government--and people are capable of getting worked up and indignant about that population trying to get it anyway, because that means for Catalonia to have an independence referendum is ILLEGAL?

I mean, really? This might make sense if they were voting to independently legalize marijuana or something. But the whole point of this vote is exactly to withdraw their "consent of the governed" from the Spanish Constitution and be governed by a different constitution instead. How on Earth are we supposed to be morally indignant about the illegality of that according to the Spanish Constitution? Where on Earth do people suppose a higher legitimacy could come from, to say what constitution is illegal for someone to consent to be governed by? There's superior military force, sure, but to be indignant about the illegality of somebody defying that?

There's more people in the USA than in Spain. Can we, like, amend our Constitution to say that Spain is part of the US and doesn't get to hold separate independence referendums unless the whole population of the US-plus-Spain can participate? Should one then be terribly indignant if Spain tries to hold a separate independence vote when that is ILLEGAL under the CONSTITUTION OF THE US-PLUS-SPAIN which has, DEMOCRATICALLY by a MAJORITY vote of that whole population, determined that the US+S includes Spain?

My best guess as to what people could possibly be thinking is this:

For them, the Law is a reified thing.

The Law in Spain isn't, like, a thing that a bunch of politicians, elected by a Spanish majority of Spain-plus-Catalonia, got together and wrote to govern a bunch of Catalan people. It's not the word and opinion of one government, that thinks it owns a populace, which declares that populace is not allowed to vote to form a different government, backed up by superior military force. It's the Law, and the Law is above everything, even governments.

Also, the Law is whatever currently has police and a military backing it up. That's how we can tell what the Law is, the Law has police. It's not that the police make the Law, it's just a sign by which one's brain detects the Law.

And then that Law is this reified thing floating in the air above everyone, and it can make a Catalan independence vote every bit as wrong-because-it-is-ILLEGAL as jaywalking.

Whereas the USA doesn't have police in Spain right now, so obviously the US Constitution is not the Law in Spain, so it just feels silly to imagine the US claiming that it had some law or other that gave it ownership of Spain. That would just be one bunch of people saying that they're a majority of themselves plus a smaller bunch of people, and declaring they held a democratic majority vote determining that the smaller bunch of people aren't allowed to have their own government. The two cases are obviously completely different! The US+S isn't even an ontologically basic unit that incorporates Spain in an ontologically basic way!

I'm guessing that's what those people are thinking on that wordless level?

But I don't think I could write the internal dialogue of a character who thinks like that, and have them be a convincing human being.

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To let subgroups defy this system of property and take possession of themselves and the land on which they reside would greatly destabilize the current world system.

Even speaking historically, this is not clear. The pre-twentieth century transition of the various territories of the British Empire to Dominion status stabilised the system greatly.

Essentially peaceful transitions from centrally controlled colony -> self-government for Canada, Australia, South Africa, Rhodesia and New Zealand, and the resulting states remained tightly allied.

The two places where dominion status wasn't given freely by the Empire, America and Ireland, were the two where there was "destabilization". If those two had been given their own governments peacefully when they demanded it, we might today be part of one vast friendly Commonwealth, and a large amount of unpleasantness might have been avoided.

And that in a world where everyone quite reasonably expected their neighbours to attack at any time, and splitting a state was seen as a disaster from a defensive point of view.

A sketch of an argument towards ITT-passing:

It's sometimes useful for agents to be able to make agreements which place some restrictions on their ability to later opt out of the agreement. And it's sometimes useful for a collection of agents to be able to act as if it was a single agent.

So, depending on how you apply those sometimeses, it might make sense for Catalonia to act as a single agent (even though it is a collection of 7.5 million agents) and for "Catalonia" to pay attention to the procedures within its existing agreements with the other parts of Spain (the Constitution of Spain) when deciding whether to opt out of those agreements.

And if, like most people, you implement many decision theoretic and game theoretic considerations by getting upset about rule violations, then you can throw in some all caps and exclamation points and be like, "But the secession referendum is ILLEGAL! According to the CONSTITUTION OF SPAIN!"

That leaves the question: how is Catalonia's position within Spain different from Spain's position within the hypothetical US+SPAIN?

Spain / the people of Spain never agreed to any US+SPAIN deal. But Catalonia / the people of Catalonia at least arguably did make an agreement with the rest of Spain - 95% of Catalan voters approved the referendum in favor of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, and Catalonia has acted as part of Spain for many years.

This is a reasonable argument that might be close to what some people are thinking (and as a "sketch" seems fine), but I think when you're trying to pass an ITT with the sort of person literally saying "But the secession referendum is ILLEGAL!", phrasings like this:

"It's sometimes useful for agents to be able to make agreements which place some restrictions on their ability to later opt out of the agreement."

Feel like they're fundamentally missing the mindset of the person. (i.e. they might be implementing the game theory as you describe, but are almost certainly doing so so subconsciously, and I doubt that describing their position in terms of game theory probably wouldn't lead them nodding and saying "yes, this guy gets it!"

(This is part of a general concern I have about steelmanning and ITTs that focus on translating the argument into "something that makes sense to you" instead of on actually presenting the argument the way the speaker really intended)

There is a broad set of practices involving is something like "understanding other people's reasons". We currently don't have good terminology for carving up that space. The two terms that have caught on, ITT and steelmanning, refer to pretty specific activities within that space and the thing-to-do often isn't either of those.

In this case, I read OP as saying that he didn't see any overlap between a) the set of relevant considerations for deciding whether to support or oppose Catalan secession and b) the set of things that might cause a person to emphasize that the referendum was illegal according to the Constitution of Spain. My comment was an attempt to gesture at something that seemed like it might be in the intersection of those two sets. It was intentionally left relatively vague - the point is to see if there's something there, not to flesh out precisely what it is or to capture what exactly is going on in the person's head.

This seemed like a useful move to make within "understanding other people's reasons" space, in this context. It is not an attempt at the ITT, and as far as I know doesn't have a concise label. The OP framed his post in the context of the ITT (saying something like: I don't even see how I could get started with constructing an ITT entry), so I did too (saying something like: well here's a sketch of an argument which you can use to get started on constructing an ITT entry).

Just a reminder that police haven't always been a part of 'government', and that 'law' has a history of existence independent of 'government'. During historic times, most of the population of the world has usually been owned and farmed, but most of the people who have ever lived have not lived that way. Also, most of the actual history of the world, as measured by what gets recorded, has not been the history of owned and farmed populations, but rather, the history of free populations, in frontier territories like the US, in city states and 'free cities', and of course, among aristocratic or international elites. In America and Europe, the modern state is fairly new. Passports arose during WWI. So did large amounts of the economy passing through federal bureaucracies. I think that one can plausibly argue that in America, proper law Ended at that time and was replaced by 'the interpretation of the Common Law' as articulated by Pragmatist philosopher Oliver Wendal Holmes.

Welcome back!

I've heard that one of the reasons why states don't have an option to leave the US is that if they did, every time there was a policy that a particular state really did not like, they could just threaten to leave. A lot of the time they wouldn't legitimately gain from leaving or actually want to leave, so this would arguably be a kind of blackmail. It would greatly complicate the legislative process and allow policy decisions to become even more distorted than politics.

I have missed your clarity of mind Eliezer, it is very good to hear your voice again.

I'm not sure it would be a good thing for anyone if states and counties seceded into ever-smaller units and elected the usual run of even more nitwit governments, especially if it was only the democracies that started doing that.

I'm not sure of this either, but democracies don't seem to fight much, or even want to, and it's not clear that small countries are more prone to electing nitwits, so what are we worried about?

I'd be just as worried by the thought of the world's democracies unifying.

It seems to me that democracy is even more appalling than usual as a form of government for states that have two distinct tribes. The majority tribe ends up imposing a one-party state on the minority, with all the injustice and corruption that that implies.

Consider e.g. Zimbabwe. But also England and Ireland. Unity was very bad for the Irish, and separation has been unambiguously good for both countries.

Suppose that in the recent referendum, Scotland had voted to leave the UK. Does anyone think that the situation would have been more stable if England had attempted to keep Scotland by force?

Surprised to find this post in the DemocracyPost.