In Defense of Politics

by ChristianKl6 min read10th Apr 202023 comments


PoliticsWorld Modeling
Personal Blog

I wrote most of the following post in 2013 and cleaned up the draft to publish it now. If the post feels a bit dated, that's why.

Politics is seen as the mindkiller. Alyssa Vance from argues:

Politics is suspicious as the best means to ends for other reasons. [...] It’s also zero-sum, and extremely competitive. So much human and social capital is going there already, yours probably won’t make a dent.

Is that true? Is it impossible for the very smart person without much resources to make a dent?

Years ago I was talking with someone from an East European country about how they demonstrate to get rid of their government. When asked for a detailed background on the reasons of why the particular government should go they said that the reasons aren't well described by any English source.

I suggested that instead of spending their time being the 10,001 person attending a demonstration they should write up the reasons why the government is bad in a detailed manner and publish it in the Guardian's Comment is free section.

In that case, knowledge of the politics of the country and good writing skills would have been enough to make a dent.

When it comes to whether their government steps down, obviously it matters how other countries see the situation in the country. For someone who thinks that the government should step down, it should be obvious that it's important that the best reasons why the government should step down should be available in English.

If you look at how Mubarak lost political power in Egypt, people in the West who thought their media informed them didn't really understand the situation.

They were unaware of the relevant politics. They didn't know that according to US embassy cables released by wikileaks:

Academics and civilian analysts painted a portrait of an Egyptian military in intellectual and social decline, whose officers have largely fallen out of society's elite ranks. They describe a disgruntled mid-level officer corps harshly critical of a defense minister they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinate

The Egyptian military runs part of the Egytian economy. The IMF pushed for typical Washington Consensus policies and as a result a lot of private business came into Egypt and made money. What happened to the military?

Lee Sustar wrote in February 2011 The roots of Egypt's uprising:

The top military brass, however, hasn't cashed in on Egypt's economic growth to the same extent as private businesses. Indeed, military officials see the privatization of state-owned enterprises as a threat to their economic standing and political clout.

If you look at that situations it much easier to understand why the Military didn't do something against the protesters that brought down Mubarak but now takes strong measures against the Muslim brotherhood. The West wanted to see the fall of Mubarak as a sign that democracy won instead of seeing it as a sign that the military got what they wanted.

Why does that matter to someone who wants to create political change? It shows that the general public is horribly informed about what goes on in the political sphere.

Before Bradley Manning submitted files to Wikileaks, Wikileaks dealt with information about corruption in Kenya. By leaking the Kroll report they contributed significantly to a different party winning the 2007 election.

Why do those examples from Egypt, Kenya and East Europe matter? You might say, of course people who spread information can change things in those countries but what about the USA?

If that sentiment resonates with you it should make you think about whether the USA is democratic in a meaningful way. Democracy is about citizens being able to affect the political process through free speech.

Why might you think such a thing? To be a politician in the US congress you need to gather a lot of money from donors. The Democratic party recommends that new US congressmen spend 4 hours of their day raising money. Fortunately, in practice the amount of time seems to be not that extreme. After all, fundraising isn't fun.

The problem is that it's not easy to reach politicians directly. A lot of people try it and it's going to be hard to get sufficient attention from a US congressman to explain to him in detail why a certain policy is wrong.

What options do we actually have to create political change? Julian Assange had arguably a large political impact given that he's a single person who's not that rich.

What's his self professed goal? Justice. Defining justice itself isn't an easy task. We can however observe that sometimes there are groups that do something that isn't in the interest of the broad public.

If one member of a group of 100 people thinks that the group is engaging in injustice that is a valuable data point. Groups where every member thinks the group is doing good should be able to outcompete groups where some members think the group engages in injustice.

That's where Assange comes into play. He wants to empower that single individual that thinks the group is injust. Assange also made the observation that if a group spends a large amount of resources on keeping certain information secret that corresponds to the harm that the group will suffer should the information become public.

He makes the further observation that if it's possible for a single individual who thinks that a group is unjust to bring down the whole group, members of the group won't share all information with each other anymore. When it becomes harder to share information inside the group the group has to effectively pay a secrecy tax. That means that the group is less effective in its battle against other groups in society that don't have to pay that tax because their members believe in their course.

Assange articulated that theory with using graph theory in a paper titled Conspiracy as Governance in 2006. From there he goes to accept every whistleblower that wants to contribute an internal document. He founded Wikileaks for that purpose. In some sense you could say that he took the idea that "everything that can be destroyed by truth, shall be" very seriously.

What is the problem with that political theory of change? It's not that it is ineffectual. It's that it is powerful enough that you get into problems. Assange made some powerful people really angry and as a result he spent years in the Ecudaorian embassy and is now imprisoned under conditions with are called torture in the Lancet.

I personally don't want to do that kind of politics. I don't want to attack other groups in a manner which endangers myself. That's my conscious choice. The founding fathers of the US payed the price of their victory in blood. But how do you do effective politics without harming yourself? To answer that question it's useful to look at the foundation of our current political orthodoxy.

Milton Friedman wrote in the 1982 preface of Capitalism and Freedom

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

Milton Friedman developed a lot of political policy ideas that had a big impact. He knew that you can't just go and demand the government to change. Usually the government changes when there some form of crisis. When in crisis mode politicians want to be seen as doing something about the crisis.

As I wrote above, politicians don't really want to engage in hard work. That means that someone else often needs to have done the intellectual legwork beforehand. Politicans seek experts and then take the policy ideas from those experts.

Friedman and a lot of think tanks specialised into developing detailed policy proposals. These days there are think tanks that provide ready made bills. A congressman can just take the bill and copy paste it without having to do any work.

Thinks tanks have the advantage that they can spend money on feasible developing model bills.

We however have seen that Wikipedia managed to outcompete the Encyclopedia Britanica. There in principle nothing that stops a smart programmer from building a platform that provides for model bills that change society for the better.

The hard part will be around getting contributors to focus on practical effects of policies and move beyond idealism.

Some demands just aren't realistic and have no chance of being implemented. On the other hand I think there a lot of room for smart policies that are simply superior to existing policies.

Once you talk about whether different policy tools work, you also have a discussion that's a lot less mind-killed.

In building such a tool you have to make certain choices. You can build it as a hosted website. You can also build it as a distributed platform that runs on home computers.

Given that you don't want outside interference from NSA, you want a distributed architecture.

Why do these thoughts matter, even if you don't want to invest a significant amount of time into politics? Many readers of LessWrong are software engineers or move in the startup space. As such they are in a position to make important architecture choices. When deciding whether or not a software that you design relies on a central US server that stores all user data you are making a political choice.

I don't want to say that cloud architecture is inherently politically wrong but if the only reason you decide for a cloud architecture is because it's a cool buzzword, you are doing political evil. If you then complain that congress doesn't implement your pet political idea, you should look at yourself and judge the extent to which you are part of the problem.

Whenever you make big architecture choices in software that affect society you should think in detail about how that will change the power balance in society. Commenting on random reddit posts about the evil of software patents isn't being politically active.

To the extent that LessWrong is full of intelligent 20-somethings I would predict that in 10 years people of this group will be in positions to make influential architecture choices. The only way to make those responsible is to understand the political effects.

But what about those things that aren't in your direct sphere of effect? Think about policies. Even if you don't have a ready-made bill that a congressman can copy and paste, ideas about policy are important.

Zeitgeist Addendum is for example a political movie that opposes the status quo. It has some popularity according to some people who hate the status quo. Even if you disagree that the status quo is bad the policy ideas that the movie pushes are dangerous.

One of them is that all economic decisions should be made by a "scientifically" designed central computer who knows what's best for everyone. What about the problem of people not wanting to do what the central computer tells them? People only would do that if they are selfish, and people who get the right education won't be selfish and thus work for the common good and recognize that it's the common good to do what the "scientifically" designed central computer tells them to do.

Here we know about the problems of FAIs, however many people on the internet don't. Because of lack of well argued alternatives to the status quo they might follow insane ideologies like the one articulated in Zeitgeist Addendum. Unfortunately I have seen smart people advocate Zeitgeist Addendum as a means of being contrarian.

Mencius Moldbug effective at changing political opinions despite not writing in a way that optimized for attracting a large audience. Moldbug is right when he argues that most people don't understand politics. Moldbug solution of rolling back all social progress is still bad. You can meaningfully say that ending slavery was good. The case goes for legalising homosexuality.

I don't have a good answer of what our political system should look like. But I do think that's an important question. Discussing it is worthwhile. If we find a design that nicely fits together there are a lot of people who hate the status quo and who gladly take your political philosophy if they don't have to do the leg work of thinking up the fundamentals themselves.